Via Media groups resist calls for realignment, redirection

December 17, 2003

In the past few months, as statements and meetings have proliferated for those objecting to the 2003 General Convention's two most controversial decisions and talk of "realignment" fills online weblogs (or "blogs"), lists and chat groups, another group of Episcopalians has quietly emerged, largely under the radar of the national news media.

Some members of the groups are happy about the consecration of an openly gay priest as bishop coadjutor in New Hampshire and the acknowledgement of same-gender blessings by General Convention. Others are not, and still others say they aren't sure how they feel. But they say they are united in one belief: no matter what, they want to stay in the Episcopal Church and keep sending a portion of their offering to its national missions and programs.

The grassroots movement doesn't have a name yet, but several of the groups have adopted a Latin phrase commonly used to describe the Anglican "middle way" between extremes-via media. "The Via Media as theological method ... incarnates a Godly way of treating those with whom each of us disagree. A Via Media method recognizes that the truth of one generation might be understood differently in the next. In humility, Anglicans give their theological opponents the respect that comes from reading history, knowing that one ideology's devil is another movement's martyr. In so doing we create room for each other, learning from each other, in communion around God's table," says one group's website.

The major Via Media groups are located in the dioceses of Albany and Pittsburgh, where special conventions were held following General Convention to consider resolutions disassociating those dioceses from the New Hampshire consecration and making contributions to the national mission programs of the Episcopal Church optional for parishes.

But other Via Media-type organizations are springing up in the dioceses of Central Florida, Fort Worth, Springfield, and San Joaquin, all of whose bishops are or have been associated with conservative groups such as Forward in Faith (FiF) and the American Anglican Council.

They join existing groups and independent church publications of long standing such as Network News: Voices of the Rio Grande, published by the Episcopal Information Network in Rio Grande; Covenant: A Commentary on the Church in Tennessee; and Nevertheless in the Diocese of Texas.

Here's a brief look at the main Via Media groups in existence today.

Albany Via Media/Concerned Episcopalians of the St. Lawrence Deanery

When Albany's Bishop Daniel Herzog came back from General Convention in Minneapolis, he called for a special diocesan convention to consider resolutions to "disavow" General Convention's consent to the election of Gene Robinson and the acknowledgement of the practice of blessing committed same-gender relationships.

"The day after we received notice of this, John Sorensen [rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Plattsburgh] called me and we shared our frustration," said the Rev. James Brooks-McDonald, rector of St. Stephen's in Schenectady, who had been one of Albany's deputies at the 2000 General Convention in Denver. "He asked me what we were going to do about it, and I suggested we organize a dissenting voice. It was in that phone call that John suggested we call it 'Albany Via Media.'"

Brooks-McDonald emailed other clergy and organized a meeting at St. James in Lake George prior to the special convention. More than a dozen attended. "John and I made it very clear that the issue was not Gene Robinson, but was whether the Diocese of Albany was going to stay in the Episcopal Church or not, " Brooks-McDonald explained. A response to the special convention resolutions was sent to every parish in the diocese, with an invitation to sign on.

"The response was greater than many of us had ever thought," Brooks-McDonald recalled. "By the time of the special convention we had over 350 names on the document."

Riffing off the American Anglican Council's statement "A Place to Stand, " the Albany group called theirs "A Place to Kneel." "We are loyal to the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ in the Episcopal Church USA and our Primate, the Presiding Bishop. We recognize the General Convention of the Episcopal Church USA as the highest authority in the church," the document said. "Since any realignment or impaired communion with other dioceses of the Episcopal Church affects our lives and our ministries, binds our consciences and violates the ordination vows of our clergy, Albany Via Media, a not-for-profit corporation in the State of New York, was created to keep the Diocese of Albany in communion with the Episcopal Church USA."

Though their attempts to amend some of the special convention's resolutions were defeated, Brooks-McDonald said he thinks their efforts "helped soften" the wording of the resolutions that eventually passed, and may have made an impression on some deputies: "We noticed that in the laity it was relatively close."

What motivated Hallett Luscombe, a Trinity parishioner, was "a sincere concern regarding the disturbing happenings" within the Episcopal Church in Albany. "Personally, in my own naiveté, I thought the core of the problem centered only about the gay bishop. There had been threats of schism if he were consecrated," Luscombe said. "Now that we have been involved in the whole picture, we know it isn't just the consecration."

Her rector, Sorensen, said he's involved because "every value and virtue essential to Anglicanism-the spiritual heart of our Anglo-Catholic diocese is being trampled. It tears me up."

"This conservative effort to corral the support of foreign primates to censure the Episcopal Church is a betrayal of our most treasured Anglican principles. It's religious terrorism of the worst kind, by a group of American bishops who lost a vote on sexual morality and would rather blow us all up than have to learn to live with the diversity of the church," Sorenson wrote with palpable anger in an email. "I'm particularly distressed, and I keep speaking out, because many church leaders seem to forget that we had an event called the English Reformation, whereby the church in England freed itself from the tyranny of the Pope. I, for one, find it no improvement to replace the tyranny of the Pontiff with the presumption of the Primates."

Another smaller Via Media group in the Albany diocese, still in its infancy, calls itself Concerned Episcopalians of St. Lawrence Deanery. The largely rural deanery is home territory for Bishop Herzog, and according to CESLD member Joseph Liotta, the clergy are virtually united behind his positions-but the laity are not. "Many people in our deanery were dismayed to learn that our bishop is a member of the board of the AAC," Liotta explained. "The special diocesan convention our bishop called was seen as a tool to implement the AAC agenda. We do not agree with the policies and programs the AAC stands for. We expect to contribute to all efforts to keep our Diocese in the Episcopal Church of the USA-in fact and in spirit."

Another St. Lawrence Deanery lay member, Suzanne Smith of Trinity Episcopal Church in Potsdam, said there is "a strong divide between the position of the bishop and clergy in our diocese and the laity in our church. Many Trinity members support [Gene] Robinson and do not support the bishop on this issue. People in our church who agree with the bishop's basic position are still unwilling to separate or realign in any way. They are comfortable agreeing to disagree with ECUSA's decision and letting it go at that."

"It is difficult to get information on where our diocese is going from our clergy who remain fairly silent on the issue," Smith added in an email. "It is politically imprudent for them to disagree with the bishop and they are weary from listening to angry church members."

Neither of the Albany bishops responded to an email request for comment on the group.

Episcopal Voices of Central Florida

Like Herzog and bishop suffragan David Bena in Albany, Bishop John Howe of Central Florida called a special September diocesan convention to consider resolutions of disassociation from the actions of General Convention.

"Our called special convention in September sent up alarm bells in that all of the resolutions, from my viewpoint, pointed toward what the 'Catholic Encyclopedia' calls passive schism: rebel against the authority, blame the other side, seek outside intervention, etc.," wrote moderator Donna Bott. "As the senior warden of my parish [Holy Trinity, Fruitland Park], I proposed a resolution to the vestry to request alternative episcopal oversight."

Howe responded and met with the vestry during his visitation October 5. "Because I perceived a sense of conciliation along with conversation that led me to believe he would be the bishop to all people of the diocese, I withdrew the resolution," Bott said, but in the meantime a group of "concerned" clergy and laity had convened and wanted to continue their conversations about the direction of the diocese. Four of the founding members of the group, now calling themselves Episcopal Voices of Central Florida, are also on the diocesan board.

Although group members are of differing opinions about sexuality issues, they say they are dedicated to "remaining in full support and union" with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

"We are mainstream Episcopalians who represent the middle ground-the place where everyone is welcome and we can find unity despite our differences," said Bott, a member of the diocesan board. "We oppose and will continue to oppose any attempts to take our churches, our property, our congregations, or our diocese of the national church. Our bishop, John Howe, has stated that he wishes to remain in the Episcopal Church and we are here to support him."

At present, Bott maintained, Howe is "welcoming and candid" and the Episcopal Voices group has been promised "comparable space" in the diocesan newspaper with the AAC. "Separation or schism, for us, is just not the Anglican way!" Bott wrote.

With the annual diocesan convention set for the end of January, Episcopal Voices is beginning a petition drive to assure that the diocese remains part of the national church.

In a personal reply to an email query, Howe wrote that in his opinion Episcopal Voices "is committed to preserving unity in the diocese and in the Episcopal Church. They have said of themselves that they hold a diversity of views of the sexuality issues that are so very divisive just now, but they share a desire remain in communion with each other and throughout the Church."

Fort Worth Via Media

Fort Worth Via Media's website describes it as "an organization of ordained and lay Episcopalians in the Diocese of Fort Worth who are going to remain within the Episcopal Church of the United States of America."

Acknowledging that some are "deeply troubled and grieved" by the actions of the 2003 General Convention while others "celebrate these actions," the Fort Worth group maintains that it is uniquely positioned to know that opposite views can remain in the same fellowship. "We know this is possible to do, because since our diocese was founded in 1983, it has been 'out of communion' or in 'impaired' communion with other parts of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion over the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate," the group said in a press release issued December 5. "We also have survived intense internal disputes over the use of the 'new' Book of Common Prayer. Through all this, we have remained together. We know from experience that there is a via media-a middle way-between complete agreement and schism.

"We are deeply concerned about steps taken by Fort Worth Bishop Jack Leo Iker and other diocesan leaders that appear to be leading toward schism," the statement said. "We believe that these actions do not warrant leaving the Episcopal Church of the United States of America."

Members of the group have voiced objections to Iker's signing the name of the diocese to a petition supporting a new "Network of Confessing Dioceses and Congregations" headed by Pittsburgh bishop Robert Duncan. "The problem we have is that he signed up 18,000," wrote Barbi Click, a spokesperson for the group, in an email. "The diocese, according to the main office, only has 19,000 in it. That means he signed up 94.7 percent of the diocese. However, only 82+% of the lay delegates and clergy voted for the resolution. Therefore the numbers are incorrect and misrepresentative of the entire diocese."

Asked about the group, Iker replied simply by email: "No comment."

Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh

Perhaps because Duncan, a vice president of the AAC, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of "realignment," the Via Media group in his diocese is one of the more vocal in opposition to it. Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) began organizing even before Duncan declared his determination to "stand against the actions of [General] Convention with everything I have and everything I am."

According to member Sue Boulden, the Pittsburgh group had its genesis in a regular meeting of the local Episcopal Women's Caucus in September 2002, held the same day deputies to the diocesan convention received their information packets. The first resolution under consideration, modeled on a South Carolina resolution, was touted as an attempt to build a 'firewall' between self-described 'orthodox Anglicans' and decisions of the General Convention.

"When we women came together that evening and realized what was going on, we immediately called for an ad hoc committee to be formed to deal with said resolution," recalled Boulden. The committee soon became known as Those Opposed to Resolution One (TORO), which lobbied unsuccessfully against the resolution.

"Following that diocesan convention, those of us who were the most involved felt we needed to come together on a regular basis to support each other," Boulden said, and out of that grew PEP and the PEPChat list, which convened online prior to the 2003 General Convention.

But it was their bishop's passionate statements in Minneapolis that galvanized PEP members to take action. "I became increasingly alarmed by the many statements of our bishop, Robert Duncan, and the actions of the AAC," said current PEP president Lionel Deimel. Following General Convention, he and a conservative friend, Celinda Scott, began circulating a petition for unity in the diocese, with the help of PEP members. Then PEP's focus shifted to opposing the six resolutions proposed for the September special convention called by Duncan.

The PEPChat list now has participants from all over the country, and has provided advice and resources to groups elsewhere. The group is increasingly taking on an educational role within the diocese, encouraging parishes to support national mission programs financially and resist the inclusion of their congregations "in any network established by Bishop Duncan and the AAC," said Deimel.

PEP vice president Joan R. Gundersen is an historian and "seventh generation cradle Episcopalian" who has been active in at least nine Episcopal dioceses over the years, and is on the board of editors of Anglican and Episcopal History. "What we agree on is that the Episcopal Church we know and love is a place open to multiple Biblical interpretations, united through the Creeds and worship," Gundersen wrote. "My worst nightmare is that the Episcopal Church will not be able to hold the center-to be broad enough to have room for both a liberal like me and my father and siblings who are conservative Rite I traditionalists."

Like Gundersen, Jennifer Sinclair is a cradle Episcopalian, born and raised in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. When she returned to Pittsburgh after several years as a student in London, she said, "I had no idea how far right the diocese had swung, or that my parish and beloved members of its clergy had gone along with it."

For Sinclair, "Resolution One was the final straw. I church shopped for a couple of weeks, and landed at Calvary [Episcopal Church] one morning," she recalled. People there "agree on the substantive issues-that the Gospel is about love, that the Creeds are sufficient statements of faith, that those things are more important than the details of the style in which one worships...Above all, we agree that the Scriptures must be read in the dual lights of Reason and Tradition."

PEP member Karen Kapsanis said she was "raised unchurched, spent my early adulthood church shopping, did a graduate degree in theology in the hope that it would help me in my search for God and for a church, and in the midst of all that happened on Calvary Episcopal Church, a haven for all who want to belong."

She joined PEP on the recommendation of a friend. "I don't think the real issue for the AAC is homosexuality. I think the real issues are money and power, and the AAC and groups like them seem to think it is worth sacrificing ECUSA for money and power," she wrote. "I feel that if there is anything I can do to make up for the damage that has been done, I need to do it.

Asked about PEP, Bishop Duncan's secretary responded, "He has no comment."

Remaining ECUSA, San Joaquin

A group of five priests in the Diocese of San Joaquin began the "Remaining ECUSA" " web page after the Diocese of San Joaquin voted in October to withhold budgeted funds from the national mission programs of the church. In a question-and-answer section authored by the Rev. Keith F. Axberg, rector of Fresno's Church of the Holy Family, the website states:

"Q. Some say the Episcopal Church has departed the faith and order of the Anglican Communion, and others say the diocese is maneuvering to leave. Who leaves whom in a schism?
"A. There are two kinds of schism: schism in the Church, and schism from the Church. ... The debate raging within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church is partially clouded by the use of the term 'schism' without the defining prepositions: in or from. The Episcopal Church is clearly experiencing schism in the Church over such issues as Prayer Book revision, the ordination of women, gay, and lesbian persons, human sexuality, etc. Those persons, parishes, or dioceses not able to abide such changes are, themselves, departing from the faith and order of the Church by choosing not to accede to the authority of the Constitution & Canons of the Episcopal Church (USA) and the actions of General Convention, and not the other way around."

One of the Remaining ECUSA priests is the Rev. Mark Hall, rector of St. Anne's in Stockton, California. "St. Anne's is one of the 'liberal' parishes in the diocese, but that is a very relative term," said Hall. "Our vestry put our money where our voices are by passing a resolution at the last regular vestry meeting." The resolution, passed unanimously, declares that St. Anne's will designate an amount equal to 10% of its Diocesan Assessment for the year 2004, or the sum of $2501, to be sent directly to the support of the General Convention Budget during the year 2004." Monthly payments begin in January, Hall said.

San Joaquin bishop John-David Schofield did not respond to an email request for comment.

Episcopal Forum of South Carolina

"I think that all of us have had long-standing concerns that the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina is much more concerned with being 'right' and 'pure' for the 'right' people than it is in what is addressed in the Beatitudes," said Thomas Myers Jr., a parishioner at St. Stephen's in Charleston, South Carolina and spokesperson for the fledgling Episcopal Forum of South Carolina. In the 1990s, Myers, the father of a gay teenager, founded We Are Family, a Charleston nonprofit devoted to helping gay and lesbian teens and their families. "For me, the resounding defeat of a proposed resolution committing us to continue to meet, study and pray was the final act that made me feel I had to do something."

"We are now in the process of establishing a steering committee and a plan for action, as well as holding a conference in February," said Myers. "We have a list of 33 people who have all responded to the Special Convention held here in early October and the letter I sent out the next day."

Asked for comment on the formation of the group, South Carolina bishop Ed Salmon replied, "I have never heard of it."

Episcopal Free Speech of Springfield

According to the introduction on its Yahoo!Group page, Episcopal Free Speech was created "in response to allegations that the Diocese of Springfield is censoring the news that goes into 'The Springfield Current' [the diocesan newspaper]."

Wrote list member Jestin Trahan:

"WE WANT OUR NEWSPAPER BACK.
WE WANT OUR VOICE TO BE HEARD AT THE DIOCESAN COUNCIL.
WE WANT OUR VOICE TO BE HEARD AT THE SYNOD.
WE WANT TO REMAIN IN ECUSA.
WE WANT OUR BISHOP TO GIVE US SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE.

"I think most Episcopalians in our Diocese are in agreement with this. We must not touch on issues that may divide us, for not all of us agree that the national church did the right thing when it allowed a gay person to become bishop. But I have not talked to anyone who is in disagreement with the above demands."

Trahan said that until recently he was a member of the diocesan council, and his wife LaVonne is still is a member. Both belong to Church of the Holy Trinity in Danville, Illinois. Trahan attended the last meeting of the diocesan council held before the annual Synod meeting, and confirmed that at that session the council "voted not to withhold funds from the national church."

By the October meeting, Trahan said, several council members had either resigned or their positions "were terminated" by Springfield bishop Peter Beckwith. When a withholding resolution was brought up again, the newly constituted council passed it. Some on the Springfield list are angry that no resolution regarding withholding was brought before parish representatives at the annual synod earlier in October, effectively depriving them of voice and vote on the matter. "This seems to be a first step in working toward delivering our diocese to the AAC," Trahan maintains.

Other concerns include the cancellation of a new mission effort, called Sacred Journey, "because the priest in charge apparently disagreed with the bishop," Trahan said.

Beckwith did not respond to an email request for comment.

Pushing back

To date, the Via Media groups have been active primarily within their own diocesan boundaries, but that may be changing rapidly. Just as widespread email networks energized opposition to General Convention's actions, the same kinds of links are enabling those who want to stay in ECUSA to do some "pushing back" of their own.

In a news release dated December 16, three of the groups-Albany Via Media, Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh and Fort Worth Via Media-united to blast an online petition effort by the conservative coalition Anglican Mainstream, saying it "uses a dubious signature counting method that does not meet any Christian ethical standard for honesty or truth-telling." They based their objections on the petition's acceptance of a signature by a single individual-a bishop, parish rector or organizational officer-as representing the signature of every individual in the diocese, congregation or organization. "It matters not whether a bishop has limited the numbers of 'signatures' to the proportion he believes support his position," the release said. "The count was made without asking the individuals where they stood on this statement. Such 'mass signatures' account for over 97% of the total signatures on this 'petition.'"

"We call on our Diocesan Bishops Herzog, Iker and Duncan, who belong to both the Anglican Mainstream and to petition co-sponsor the American Anglican Council, to uphold the Ten Commandments and not 'bear false witness' when seeking support for their network," the release concluded.

Some members have also criticized a December 17 New York Times report indicating that 13 US dioceses had joined the new Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. Within hours after the story broke, the communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida informed other diocesan communicators that neither the Diocese of Southwest Florida nor the Diocese of Central Florida were allied with the network.

News reporters confirmed that the incorrect number had been given to the media by the network's moderator, Duncan, and by an American Anglican Council news release. According to the Diocese of South Carolina's canon theologian, the Rev. Kendall Harmon, only the dioceses of Pittsburgh, South Carolina, and Fort Worth have formally agreed to be part of the network.

The Via Media lists contain some commentary and analysis of conservative proposals as well, some of them based on personal observation. One member of the St. Lawrence Deanery group, Andrew Grimmke, had attended a meeting of the Georgia chapter of the American Anglican Council in Atlanta. In a later essay posted on the list, Grimmke criticized what he had heard from Duncan and AAC executive director David Anderson about their concept of "adequate episcopal oversight, " in which a parish would be able to contract with a bishop other than their diocesan for oversight without the diocesan's consent or even knowledge.

"Sadly, the AAC proposal bears a remarkable resemblance to the process used to switch long distance phone companies," Grimmke wrote. Such a "free-market model" for episcopal oversight could lead nervous bishops to politicize parish search processes in order to "stack the deck with ideological cronies and yes men; to remove, over time, ideological diversity from the diocese and cast it in his own image, whether 'orthodox' or 'inclusive'. … the impulses which drive the markets can not be expected to push our churches on the path to Christ."

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