Leave door open

Look to Luke in resolving disputes
January 14, 2009

When I read about the dioceses of San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Quincy and Fort Worth jockeying to transfer their diocesan properties to the Province of the Southern Cone, my mind immediately jumps to Luke 15:11: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to the father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them."


Through their conventions, Episcopalians in these dioceses declared clearly and democratically that they wanted to leave and take their share of the property with them. Following the lead of the abundantly loving father who understands that his younger child needs to leave so that he one day may come home again, maybe we shouldn't hinder them.

The father desires to be at one with his son but, ironically, must let him go, for reconciliation is in the future, yet unseen. By dividing the property, he makes it possible for his son to leave with the delusion that his future is somehow dependent on earthly property, not on the unconditional love and grace that is the only possession that will matter when he returns home.

I don't put the Episcopal Church in the role of the father; I fear we'll be typecast in the role of the older brother, waving our well-worn canons and shouting upon the secessionist dioceses' eventual return, "All these years we've been working like a slave, and never disobeyed!"

While the canons are clear that the Episcopal Church keeps the properties (who could imagine canons that would not support the institution that created them?), I think we should listen to the clear message of Scripture and pass over the older brother's outrage and prepare for the reconciliation that trumps all worldly concern.

Could the Episcopal Church allow a renegade diocese to gather all that it has and travel to a distant country? It would be risky and scary, like the gospel itself. In the parable, the younger son squanders all of the property.

We rightly are concerned about the saints entrusted to our burial grounds and the memorial silver in the safes. We have a responsibility to the legacies entrusted and the promises made.

Still, I remain surprised that the Episcopal Church's dedication to the reconciliation model so abundant in the Gospel of Luke grows scarce when the fight is over property. In the blink of an eye, brothers and sisters morph into litigants, and the battle lands in the secular courts. Watch out for I Corinthians 6:5ff: "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that?"

At times like these, I can barely look at Luke 12:13ff: "Someone said to Jesus, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.' Jesus said, 'Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you? Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.'"

The parable of the rich fool that follows warns that we should take no comfort in the security of goods laid up for many years. Are not our properties to be used now? Does it really matter who uses them, in the economy of heaven?

I pray that the Episcopal Church adopts a reconciling temper that allows the secessionist congregation to continue to use the real property that was entrusted to them, while the fleeing congregation and its new diocesan authority acknowledge legally and canonically that the Episcopal Church continues to own the property. Mortgage agreements can be drafted that let the Episcopal Church make a permanent claim on the property and the conditions that would result in retaking possession. If the congregation and its new diocese agree to the mortgage and conditions, then two branches of the Anglican Communion will indeed be divergent, and awkwardly arranged, members of the one body of Christ.

In Luke 20:9ff, a landowner trusts his vineyard to tenants, and it is clear that he still owns the vineyard and can evict the tenants if they do not conform to the mission of the vineyards.

Ask, but don't demand, that the leaving congregations pay rent to help replace assessments and diocesan giving. And insist in the mortgage agreement that the Church Insurance Company, or equivalent, continue to underwrite the property. If payments lapse, there is a legal basis for eviction.

I can hear the shouts of "naïve." But, I remain a fool -- I hope a fool for Christ -- and hope that, if one sheep wanders off, we develop a strategy to keep looking for it, even if that sheep doesn't want to be found.

I think the secessionist churches in the breakaway dioceses will come to themselves, like the younger son does in Luke's parable, and return home.

If we could let them go in a way that serves their immediate need for independence while protecting our assets, I think we'll be able to welcome them back, better than the older brother welcomed back his brother. Let us not forget that in some way, one day, we all will be eating at the same welcome table.



-- The Rev. Timothy B. Safford is rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia.

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