Southwest Florida diocese approves optional support of national church

Southwest Florida
November 18, 2003

In a little over two hours Saturday afternoon, nearly 300 clergy and lay delegates of the Diocese of Southwest Florida hammered out a plan that will allow congregations -- or even individual parishioners -- to decide if they wish to give financial support to the Episcopal Church USA in 2004.

That portion of funds collected from those congregations or parishioners will be redirected to support mission work in the Dominican Republic, Bishop John Lipscomb has said.

The plan will give Episcopalians in Southwest Florida who are disappointed over the national church's approval of the consecration of the denomination's first openly gay bishop in New Hampshire a way to protest those actions while still supporting their parish and the diocese.

Details on how the accounting process will work are still being finalized.

Episcopalians are moving into uncharted waters, says Lipscomb, and the length of the journey is as uncertain as the final destination.

"This is such a new moment" in the life of the church, he said as the diocese prepared for an extraordinary second session of convention on Nov. 15 to address concerns of those opposed to the Nov. 2 consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

The diocese's annual convention was ordered into recess Oct. 11, before voting on a resolution to allow congregations to withhold funding to the national church.

During a recent interview with The Southern Cross, Lipscomb urged that people use caution in making decisions about support for the national church. "We live in a world of microwaves and instant gratification," he observed. "We need to prepare that this may be a long conversation. It may be something that extends far beyond this generation before we come to any degree of clarity."

Waiting for Lambeth

Part of the reasoning behind delaying a vote Oct. 11 was to see results of an emergency meeting the following week of leaders of the Anglican Communion in London.

While the meetings were held behind closed doors, a statement issued afterward by the leaders, known as primates, warned that if the consecration of the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson took place in New Hampshire as scheduled, the Anglican Communion would be "put in jeopardy."

What that actually means in anyone's guess. "I have not a clue," Lipscomb confided. "We throw a lot of verbiage around, being in communion or out of communion. I'm not really sure anyone really knows what that ultimately means, in everyday practice and the day-to-day living we do within the faith community."

Mixed signals

The primates' statement did not mention the possibility of realigning provinces in North America, as some conservatives had hoped. However, they did reaffirm the resolutions made by that group in 1998 rejecting homosexual practice as "incompatible with Scripture." The primates also acknowledged a "legitimate diversity of interpretation that arises in the Church," and that "bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own."

Primates also requested the Archbishop of Canterbury establish a commission to study homosexuality issues for a year and asked provinces not to do anything drastic until the commission makes its report.

Adding to the uncertainty, Lipscomb says, is the lack of direction from the Archbishop of Canterbury. "A lot of this depends on how the See of Canterbury reacts to this crisis. We have had no public statement from the archbishop saying how he's going to respond [after Robinson's consecration] on Nov. 3."

That's why, Lipscomb says, he cautions people against making emotional decisions "in the dark" about supporting or leaving the church. "I think the concern will be people making rapid decisions, there's much greater chance of fracturing the church," he said.

He also says the "arrogance" of Robinson's supporters in North America has not helped the situation. "I think it's somewhat of an anomaly ... The very people who took President Bush to task about his policy in Iraq, which they saw as disregarding of the opinion of the world community, are at the same time, willing to take unilateral action in this situation, with little regard of the concerns of the rest of the Communion."

Giving people a voice

Lipscomb said he felt there has to be a way for congregations to send a message to the national church. "They feel right now that they have no voice in the process."

The bishop has spoken several times against using money "as a weapon," and points out that the target of any such protest is insulated, according to church law, from its effects. "Canonically, if there is a shortfall in the diocesan askings (pledges), it will not affect the canonical offices of the presiding bishop."

Nevertheless, at the bishop¹s request, the resolution approved by the convention Nov. 15 will allow congregations to request that no part of their 2004 apportionment to the diocese be forwarded to the national church. That would amount to about 1.8 cents for every dollar put into a collection plate.

Even if the resolution had been defeated Nov. 15, Lipscomb says he has the authority to divert funds as he sees fit. "The chancellor has said that if this is raised on spiritual grounds, he believes I have the option, as the person that has ultimate responsibility for the spiritual health of the diocese, to act on that basis."

Conversations to continue

Since this summer's national church convention, Lipscomb has convened several clergy meetings to begin the process of structured conversations on sexuality. The meetings will expand in 2004 to include deacons and lay people.

He also hopes to bring in scholars to lead conversations and to "see what Scripture really says about this issue," he added. He also wants to hear from experts in psychology, science and medicine. "This will give us a year to enter into some depth in the conversation.

"I hope now that the crisis has been brought to a head by the actions of General Convention, we'll start asking the significant questions that will lead us into a deeper understanding of the whole issue of homosexuality,"
the bishop said. "We are still struggling with how to respond appropriately to people of homosexual orientation. And we're just beginning to discover the depth of what that may mean in an individual's life."

"At one point there was a great deal of talk around the formation of a new province. I think that's off the table," he said, adding the question is now "How do we live within the structure that we currently have and continue to remain faithful to what we understand as the moral teachings of our church?"