The parting of friends

Even as I regret this separation of parish and diocese, I would have voted for it
June 1, 2005

On April 17, Christ Episcopal Church of Overland Park, Kan., completed a three-week vote on whether to separate itself from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Kansas. Parishioners voted 873 to 211, or 81 percent to 19 percent, in favor of the proposal.

That’s how I would begin a news story about Christ Church’s vote, but what follows from here is more personal and, of necessity, subjective. If I were still living in Kansas City’s suburbs, I would be reflecting mostly on why I voted with Christ Church’s majority. As a member of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va., I don’t have to face that vote. Both churches make a valid claim on my heart.

My wife and I lived in Kansas from 1996 to 1999, and Christ Church soon became our spiritual home. It was the largest Episcopal congregation either of us ever had attended, but we found our niche at a new service that met at 5:30 p.m. Sundays. At that service, we heard a more authentic fusion of hymns and rock music than either of us had thought was possible.

We immersed ourselves in small groups, we had our first taste of the Alpha Course, and we were beginning to form the deeply satisfying friendships that seem possible only after living in a place for three to five years. Had we stayed in Kansas longer, we probably would have gone on Christ Church’s frequent short-term mission trips to Uganda or Mexico.

I visited Christ Church again in late October, for the first time since moving away in 1999, to observe a regional conference of the Anglican Communion Network. Ron McCrary, Christ Church’s rector since 1990, spoke openly about the parish’s strained relations with the Diocese of Kansas. He also presented Christ Church as an example of how a conservative parish can live in creative tension with a more liberal diocesan leadership. He spoke warmly of how both the parish and diocese were trying to live with integrity amid their clear theological differences, and he expressed no interest in breaking ties with the diocese.

Under the agreement now approved by both the diocese and Christ Church, the church will pay the diocese $1 million between now and December 2015. Christ Church also will continue paying off an existing bank note of $1.8 million. Christ Church’s clergy, who are canonically resident in Kansas, will face deposition for “abandonment of the communion,” and none of its clergy will claim to represent the Episcopal Church.

Some aspects of the agreement strike me as draconian. Is it really necessary to depose clergy who have agreed to break their affiliation with the Episcopal Church?

Nevertheless, I believe this agreement between one diocese and one large, fast-growing parish offers these lessons for congregations and dioceses facing similar conflicts:

  • If a bishop wants to find a solution more grace-filled than absolute control of a parish’s property, prayer books, hymnals and vestments, that solution is possible. Bishops’ claims that their hands are tied by the Dennis Canon are, quite simply, no longer credible. Willing hearts can break those bonds.
  • Whatever the Diocese of Kansas claims about “abandonment of the communion,” Christ Church remains Anglican, and not in some disingenuous “Anglican but without the archbishop of Canterbury” arrangement. The clergy and laity of Christ Church have a longstanding relationship with Henry Orombi, the primate of the Church of Uganda. The clergy of Christ Church will have their people confirmed by a bishop in communion with the archbishop of Canterbury, whether that bishop is from Uganda or another nation. They will be just as accountable to apostolic authority as they’ve ever been.
  • No separation of a parish and its diocese is painless. It’s easy for my fellow conservatives, amid the plenary talks and chest-thumping of a conference, to speak of separation as pure liberation, a chance to concentrate all our energies on evangelism and mission rather than fighting our parent denomination about sex or theology.

When conservatives talk this way, I think we’re forgetting that we joined this theological debate because we love the Episcopal Church and want the best for it. I think we’re also forgetting that any broken relationship will require grief, forgiveness and healing.

I was reminded of this reality when I saw a letter from Christ Episcopal Church Parishioners for Unity, a group that opposed the proposal. At first I recognized only a few names on the letterhead, but as I compared it to a parish photo directory from 1995, I began remembering faces: She spoke at Alpha. He was an outstanding piano player. She was a voice of compassion. I saw friendly faces of people who have attended Christ Church for most of their lives, and I imagined the sorrow that will come to many of those faces as this separation becomes official.

  • It doesn’t have to come to this. If reconciliation is something Episcopalians truly desire and work for, it is scandalous when a congregation and diocese reach a point of clear separation. I think the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Kansas will be poorer in spirit without Christ Church. And I think Christ Church will be poorer in spirit — not in every way, but in a way that matters — without the creative tension it experienced in the diocese and the broader church.

I’m left with this paradox: I would have voted for this proposal, but so long as I’m an Episcopalian, I wouldn’t wish it on any parish.

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