Missouri bishop takes action to keep parish in diocese

March 3, 2004

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, the Rt. Rev. Dr. George Wayne Smith, is holding out an olive branch to members of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Town & Country, telling them they are welcome to remain members of the diocese and the Episcopal Church following an announcement by the rector and former vestry of the parish that they were leaving the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Mission in America.

At the same time, Smith has taken ecclesiastical action against the rector and initiated legal action to preserve the Episcopal Church's interest in assets of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

On February 24, Smith issued an inhibition against the Rev. Paul R. Walter, the rector of Good Shepherd. An inhibition is a form of ecclesiastical discipline that temporarily prohibits a priest from performing any duties as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Smith cited canon law calling for the inhibition of a priest who "abandons the communion" of the Episcopal Church.

The inhibition is for a period of six months, after which, if Walter has not retracted his actions, he will be deposed as a priest. Walter has been a priest since 1991 and rector at Good Shepherd since 1996.

The Standing Committee voted unanimously at its February 24 meeting in support of Smith's inhibition of Walter. The Standing Committee also authorized Smith to take appropriate ecclesiastical action against the wardens and vestry of Good Shepherd in light of Good Shepherd's schismatic actions. On February 27, Smith sent a letter to Good Shepherd's wardens and vestry advising them that their actions had disqualified them from service in such offices and that they no longer constituted the wardens or vestry of Good Shepherd.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the diocese went into St. Louis County Circuit Court last week to take actions to protect the Episcopal Church's interest in the property and assets of the Church of the Good Shepherd. In response to the petition filed on behalf of the diocese, the court entered, with the consent of the parties, a temporary restraining order. Among other things, the order prohibits Walter or the vestry or any other member of the congregation from exercising any ownership rights over Good Shepherd's assets, including any attempted divestiture of any of the parish's real estate or personal property, and permits the diocese to conduct an audit of the parish property and records.

That action came only after the diocese learned last week that the rector and wardens at Good Shepherd, without any notice to the diocese, had petitioned the St. Louis County Circuit Court early last month in an unauthorized attempt to amend Good Shepherd's articles of association. After the petition had been on file in the court clerk's office for the statutory minimum of three days, the court entered its order granting the petition.

Courts typically enter such orders without a hearing and without making any findings as to the compliance of such actions with third party agreements. Accordingly, the court's order in this instance did not include any findings as to the propriety of Good Shepherd's unauthorized actions in the context of canon law or the trust relationship by which Good Shepherd holds its property for the benefit of the Episcopal Church.

Nor did such court order constitute any finding by the court that the rector's and warden's actions had been within the scope of their corporate authority. Ostensibly, the attempted changes to the articles were to include a name change to the "Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd" and other changes that purported to delete canonically required language by which Good Shepherd acceded to the doctrine, discipline, and form of worship of the Episcopal Church.

The attempted changes to Good Shepherd's articles of association were well beyond any authority granted to the rector, wardens, or vestry of Good Shepherd and were initiated in violation of the Constitutions and Canons of both the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Missouri. Among other things, the Constitutions and Canons require that the Standing Committee, the chancellor, and the bishop must first review any changes in a church's name or in its articles or bylaws.

In initiating these ecclesiastical and judicial actions, the bishop acknowledged the many years of support afforded Good Shepherd by Episcopalians in the past: "I am acting not just to protect the unity of the Episcopal Church, but to insure that we are faithful to and protect the wishes and desires of two generations of parishioners, living and dead, those who made the sacrifices to found the parish as well as those who sacrificed to sustain it all of these years - adherents to our faith who dedicated this property to Episcopalians and, as far as I am concerned, intended it to remain so dedicated notwithstanding the rash actions of a few.

When Smith contacted Walter to discuss these matters, Walter informed the bishop that he had left the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) and its overseeing Province of Rwanda and that his parish would do likewise.

The AMiA was started in 2000 by former Episcopalians who no longer wanted to be part of the Episcopal Church but wished to remain linked to the Anglican Communion. The AMiA claims ties to the Anglican Communion through pastoral oversight by two Anglican bishops, including the bishop of the Diocese of Rwanda in Africa, but has not been recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Without recognition by the archbishop, the AMiA cannot be a part of the Anglican Communion.

None of the six bishops ordained for the AMiA has been recognized by the Anglican Communion. The AMiA Web site lists 61 congregations, none of them in Missouri.

Members of Good Shepherd met February 29 to vote on the actions of Walter and the vestry. A spokesperson for the congregation said that 84 of the 98 members present voted in favor of leaving the Episcopal Church and joining the AMiA.

In a February 26 letter to the congregation at Good Shepherd, Smith wrote that the actions of the leadership at Good Shepherd left him "in grief, since I believe now as I always have, that the life of the Episcopal Church is spacious enough to encompass vastly divergent opinions."

The bishop wrote that he "practiced forbearance and patience in communicating with" Walter and chose "not to act provocatively," even postponing his scheduled visitation in January. He added that he had offered Walter the option of pastoral oversight by another bishop, but Walter rejected the offer.

Walter and the vestry at Good Shepherd have publicly voiced their dissent with the actions of the General Convention last summer, including votes to consent to the election of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Bishop Robinson is an openly gay man in a committed relationship with another man. Deputies from the Diocese of Missouri -- five priests and five lay persons -- and Bishop Smith all voted in favor of Robinson's election.

In his letter to the congregation at Good Shepherd, Smith said he understood the tensions and anger caused by the votes at General Convention, but that he remained willing to work with the congregation, "believing that your best future is with the Episcopal Church."

He went on to write, "the life of our Diocese would be diminished without the Church of the Good Shepherd. The rest of us need you, as do you need the rest of us, more than either of us may be able to state or comprehend at present. Communion, I believe, lies not so much in assent to exactly the same theologies as it does in sharing Christ's life, together, a solidarity not of our own choosing."

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