Representatives of 12 independent Episcopal groups opposed to efforts to “realign” the Episcopal Church along more conservative lines met together for the first time at a retreat in Atlanta March 25-27, and emerged as an alliance called Via Media USA.
They represent laypeople and clergy from the grassroots organizations who say they hold diverse opinions about controversial issues in the church, but desire to remain in communion both with the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Via Media groups include Albany Via Media and Concerned Episcopalians of the St. Lawrence Deanery (both in the Diocese of Albany); Episcopal Voices of Central Florida; The Gathering (Dallas); Fort Worth Via Media; Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP); Via Media Rio Grande (VMRG); E-Way (San Diego); Remain Episcopal (San Joaquin); Episcopal Forum of South Carolina (EFSC); Southwest Florida Via Media Episcopalians; and Springfield Via Media (SVM).
Leaders of the groups said they did not discuss the controversy over the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire or the issue of same-sex blessings during their meeting, and preferred not to reveal their individual stances.
“We have acknowledged different perspectives,” said the Rev. Michael Russell, rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in San Diego and a member of Episcopal Way of San Diego, at the group’s closing news conference. “We haven’t criticized or judged any of those perspectives, and that’s the kind of mindset we try to promote here and in our local communities.”
“We believe that our position represents the vast majority of the church, even if it is not perceived that way in our particular dioceses,” said Dr. Joan Gundersen of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh.
Organizers said all of the groups would consult with their own members in coming weeks about how to move forward as a group.
Fear is not the word
Most of the groups are located in dioceses that have joined or are considering membership in the newly formed Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, which is seeking to provide “alternative episcopal oversight” for dissenting congregations in moderate-to-liberal dioceses. Via Media leaders said they think the Network’s ultimate goal is to replace the Episcopal Church entirely within the Anglican Communion, and that, if not opposed, its actions may result in schism.
“Fear is not the word, but we pray that will not happen,” said Gundersen.
Members of some of the groups reported that the level of anger and even “hatred” in their dioceses has increased in recent months. Some told of clergy and bishops refusing to be seen with those who did not agree with them on joining the Network, and of a rector who refused to wear vestments made by a woman who opposed his position. “It’s Donatism in a modern form,” said Dixie Hutchinson of The Gathering in Dallas, referring to a North African heresy of the 4th-7th centuries.
Others, such as the Central Florida group, said their bishop has worked for tolerance of all opinions while standing firm on remaining within the Episcopal Church. “Bishop Howe has had lots of pressure,” said John Townsend. “He has pressure from churches that want to leave, but he has stood very firmly about property and he is not going to let it go away.”
Another member, Donna Bott, said a moderate clergyman told her he didn’t feel at all intimidated by Howe, but did feel pressured by other priests, particularly on the diocesan email list for clergy. In fact, several leaders cited the Internet as a two-edged sword: a wonderful organizing tool, but at the same time, a frequent source of misinformation and ill feeling.
Unity ‘not at all costs, but at all risks’
At the group’s closing Eucharist, Atlanta Bishop Neil Alexander quoted missionary bishop Charles Henry Brent, saying, “Unity is not a luxury, but a necessity. We must work for the unity of the church, ‘not at all costs, but at all risks.’”
“My sense of the House of Bishops meeting is that the Episcopal Church is alive and well and vigorous and committed to the mission and gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and let us have no doubt about that,” said Alexander. “However, it was interesting to listen to person after person talk about the fact that, in their judgment, the church is broken.
“Friends, I don’t believe the church is broken…Virtually all of those who want the church to be different absented themselves from the table, and I think that Bishop Brent would have said, no matter what, you’ve got to take the risk of what it means to be in unity and fellowship—not in agreement, but in reconciliation.”
Two observers from the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council attended the meeting, and Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold sent a letter of greeting to the group. “These are challenging days for our church, and yet they contain within themselves an invitation to be the many membered body of the risen Christ in a deeper and fuller way,” Griswold wrote. “Rooted and grounded in common prayer, our divergent points of view find their place of meeting and reconciliation in word and sacrament and a life shared in the service of the Gospel. The diverse center is the overwhelming reality of our church and its voice is urgently needed, both within the church and in our fractured and polarized world.”