IT’S THE PROPERTY, STUPID!

Note: I wrote this piece only days after Gene Robinson had been made bishop in late 2003. Hence it preceded the years of conflict that roiled the Anglican Communion and that led to the formation of Gafcon and the Anglican Church in North America. I recall distinctly a meeting shortly after GAFCON 2008 in which the conservatives from UK smiled at us rowdy Americans and said that “nothing like that will ever happen in the Church of England.”

The purpose in republishing this piece is not to say “I told you so,” but to look squarely at the stark choices facing conservative Anglicans in the UK. We in the ACNA lost a lot in our property battle with the establishment (witness the magnificent funeral services for George H.W. Bush in Episcopal edifices). I can hardly imagine what it might mean to walk away not only from the property but the heritage of a thousand-year-old parish church. And if there comes a genuine “win-win” solution, I would say, “take it in a moment.” But don’t hold your breath and pass out waiting for it.

Speaking of the late President Bush, my title was a spin-off from “It’s the economy, stupid!,” a slogan Bill Clinton used in 1992 to defeat Bush for the Presidency.

Because this essay is now ancient history (for more detail, see my book), I have added some explanatory notes for the uninstructed.

***

November 9, 2003

While there are many high principles of theology and ecclesiology worth discussing at this time of historic crisis, the bread-and-butter political issue facing most conservative leaders in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is how to keep the property.

Several years ago, I wrote that the key issues were twofold: international recognition and property. In my opinion, the first issue is now settled. Conservatives have already received adequate recognition by the Primates Who Count [in numbers] to consider themselves an ongoing part of the Anglican Communion. It strikes me that most conservatives are willing even to forego recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury if they can be partnered with one or more of the Global South Provinces. Is this not so?

So the main problem now is property. I begin with an anecdote from one of the first American Anglican Council Board meetings in 1996. [The AAC was the confessing group formed after it became clear that the revisionists had won the battle for control of TEC.] I posed to an AAC bishop the question: What if your liberal counterpart in the House of Bishops came to you with a proposal to stop the infighting in the Church by means of a property settlement, e.g., by allowing each congregation to decide whether it wanted to affiliate with “Church A” or “Church B.” I asked: “Would you take up the offer?” “In a moment!” was his reply. Needless to say, that offer has never come.

Seven years later, nothing much as changed. One of the truly great post-mortem remarks from GC 2003 [the Episcopal General Convention in Minneapolis where Gene Robinson was elected bishop] was Canon David Anderson’s comment that the AAC “was looking for as amicable a separation from the Episcopal Church as Gene Robinson had gotten from his wife.” The problem is, when it comes to church property, the Episcopal establishment is not interested in amicable settlements. Why? Because they wrote the divorce law (e.g., the Dennis canon) in such a way that “no-fault” divorce and equal division of the property is not an option. [The 1979 canon sponsored by Bishop Walter Dennis claimed that all parish and diocesan property ultimately belonged to the national church. This canon became the primary plank in TEC’s largely successful lawsuits in separating ACNA congregations from their property.]

One might think true liberals would say: “OK, we admit it. We have made a daring departure from 2000 years of Christian teaching on sexuality. We believe this decision is prophetic, but we acknowledge that many will see it as a deviation from Scripture and tradition on a matter of conscience. Therefore, in the spirit of Gamaliel, we are willing to let conservatives follow their conscience and take their property with them. When our cause is vindicated, we shall graciously welcome them back into our fold.”

But they don’t say that. Why the mean-spiritedness? Some (the ideologues) are governed by neo-Marxist convictions that all conflicts of right are veiled conflicts of might, in which case they think: “We’ve got the power, they want it; why should we give it up?” Others (the institutionalists) are fearful that if they let a few cattle out of the gate, it will be followed by a stampede of churches asking to leave with their property. The latter group is worldly-minded and no doubt give the final say to their lawyers’ advice, and lawyers are paid to help people hold on to every last farthing.

Whatever their motivation, the fact is, the “liberals” do have the upper hand in the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, which are the only governing documents recognized by the secular courts in matters of property ownership. Case after legal case has demonstrated this. Again, one may have a theoretical debate about whether the Dennis canon is the mother of all evils. The irony, of course, is that the same people who believe that the Bible – the fundamental constitution of the Christian church – can be twisted into pluriform knots become wooden literalists when it comes to the Episcopal Constitution and Canons. But that’s the way it is: we can’t change this fact.

In my opinion, this reality explains some of the fruitless proposals of the American Anglican Council. [One such fruitless proposal was to steal the corporate name of TEC.] To be sure, the AAC began with the hope that the Episcopal Church could be reformed from within. I think that in recent years, at least since GC 2000 and GC 2003, most of the AAC leaders and members have come to agree with the “First Promise/AMiA” position that the Episcopal Church is unreformable. [First Promise, named for the first ordination promise to uphold the Scriptures, was organized in 1999 by conservative clergy, who realized that AAC bishops would not take action. In 2000, two First Promise clergy were consecrated in Singapore to head up the Anglican Mission in America.]  The problem they are facing is: how do we get out of Egypt with our booty?

In one sense, the AMiA poses the alternative strategy: walk away from the property and start over. How many AMiA churches have reached settlements to take the property? Next to none. Indeed, the most notorious dispute over property has been scandalous because it has caused enmity within the conservative fellowship, both sides seeming to ignore 1 Cor 6. (Note: I am not taking sides in this long-running case, but I can say that it grieves many of us that it continues.) [One of the two AMiA bishops, Chuck Murphy, was Rector of All Saints Parish in Diocese of South Carolina, one of the most conservative dioceses in TEC. The parish ultimately won a lawsuit. Years later, the Diocese itself withdrew from TEC with its property and is still in litigation over the matter.]

The problem of property also explains why the most coherent and the best short-term reactions to the present crisis have been happening at a diocesan level – but only in dioceses with a strong bishop that have already been thoroughly infiltrated by conservatives (Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Florida, Central Florida, Fort Worth, Quincy, Albany, any others?). Constitutionally, the national church will find it hard to depose the bishops and recapture whole dioceses, although it may be able to prevent them from freeing themselves and their parishes from the tentacles of the Dennis canon. [From 2008 on, TEC did depose bishops who formed ACNA and sued for control of diocesan property.]

Parishes and clergy in hostile or lukewarm dioceses, however, seem extremely vulnerable. I assume this is one reason why some have kept a low profile over the last decade as the specter of Gene Robinson slouched toward Minneapolis to be born. I would assume this is why some clergy have sworn to live and die with their Episcopal boots on and have foolishly kept their congregations in the dark on the pending crisis. Honestly, how many of you clergy out there wouldn’t jump at the chance to join a parallel orthodox jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion if you could take your pension, your buildings, your budget – and oh yes, your people – with you?

The problem is, it looks like you can’t have it all, barring an act of God. Look at your options:

  1. Take the AMiA route and leave now.
  2. Wait and see if the Primates and the AAC leaders can carve out an alternative jurisdiction with at least quasi-rights of tenure and property ownership via alternative episcopal oversight.
  3. Muddle along congregationally and hope your bishop or the next GC don’t force you out.

Have I missed any other options? A long-shot might be a lawsuit claiming that the Episcopal Church has violated its Constitution, and thus its canons are of no effect. This option, it seems to me, will only work if the Primates, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and/or the Lambeth Conference, excommunicate TEC and name an alternative jurisdiction as the legitimate USA branch of the Communion. [They didn’t.] This will not happen immediately, and even if it does, I’m not sure we’d get the property from the secular courts.

Let me conclude with a brief spiritual reflection. By focusing on the property issue, I am not necessarily accusing conservatives of bowing the knee to Mammon. All property is God’s and we have an obligation to be stewards of it as best we can. We also have responsibilities to provide for our families – though not necessarily “in the manner to which we have been accustomed.” We also know that Jesus sometimes calls his disciples to “sell all that you have and follow me.” This is part of our Reformation Anglican heritage – “let goods and kindred go” – and has been experienced on the mission field and in the Global South churches.

I am sure there is room for us conservatives to think together about the ecclesiastical crisis we are in – both theologically and politically. But let’s be patient and charitable, aware that we are working within very constricted parameters, and let’s be attentive to God’s call in case at some point we may have to “get out of Sodom” now.

Postscript

Just after posting this piece, I read Rod Dreher’s post: Tale of Two Persecuted Pastors. On the one hand, God directed (irony alert!) Pastor John Gray of the “Relentless Church” in USA to reward his wife with a Lamborghini sports vehicle. On the other hand, Pastor Wang Yi has been jailed in China and left his congregation a testimony to Jesus that is about as close to the spirit of the Book of Revelation as I can imagine. I would commend it to those in the “establishment.” Who are you more like: Pastor Wang Yi or Pastor John Gray? I would commend it to my confessing colleagues in Gafcon and the ACNA. Who are we more like: Pastor Wang Yi or Pastor John Gray? Hebrews 12:4 says:   “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” I look forward to Archbishop Ben Kwashi challenging us all to the full measure of discipleship.

 

Cover Art: Heinrich Hoffmann, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (Flickr Commons)