By George Clifford
This is simply a reminder that what we are called to is not our stuff. This is a cleansing by fire. – Brother Joseph Brown, one of seven Benedictine Anglican monks who lived at Mount Calvary Monastery in Montecito, which was destroyed by fires that swept through southern California (New York Times, November 19)
I wonder how many Christians really understand Brother Joseph’s remark?
My recent essay at the Episcopal Café, “An Alternative Province? Why Not?” sparked a surprisingly large and disappointing response, leaving me pessimistic about the number who understood Brother Joseph’s comment. The response to my essay was surprising in that a couple of conservative websites republished the post suggesting their approval. I had not expected conservatives to find my perspective agreeable. Let me be clear. Those leaving the Episcopal Church (like those remaining) are equally wrong to pursue property issues in the courts. Indeed, departing dissidents should honor the branch of Christendom that heretofore has nurtured them in the faith and depart by respecting a polity that assigns moral (and arguably legal) ownership of property and other assets to the national church through its dioceses. Individuals are free to depart; Church canons provide no mechanism for a parish or diocese to depart, as these are integral elements of the national body. Attempting to secede violates the trust that binds us together as God’s family.
Those departing need to remember that even as their views about gender determining eligibility for ordination or the morality of same sex relationships do not put them outside the pale of the body of Christ, the converse is also true: those with whom they disagree remain part of the body of Christ. None of those issues, no matter how passionate or strong one’s views are, is a litmus test or definition of Christian identity.
Funds given to the Church are just that, given. That is, monies once donated become the Church’s property. Who contributed the money or other assets is irrelevant in Anglican polity. Once received, the resources belong to the Church for use in God’s work, a truth symbolized in terming donations received in worship “offerings” and the priest blessing them.
Frittering away precious resources in a physically and spiritually starving world is equally scandalous, whether the Church or dissidents pay the legal bills. My local newspaper’s front page this morning featured two stories that nearly brought me to tears: one on a teenaged Eagle Scout allegedly murdered by four friends and another on the Zimbabwean cholera outbreak. Court battles over who owns what Church property provides no hope in either situation. Nor will court battles, regardless of who prevails, change anyone’s views about the issues that divide us. Courts and lawyers are important instruments of social justice; however, the scriptures exhort Christians to resolve their disputes without litigation.
The Presiding Bishop has helpfully observed that departures number only about one hundred thousand in a Church of twenty-three hundred thousand. Those leaving are a small percentage of the whole Church and their exit in no way threatens the Episcopal Church’s existence or vitality. Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury has emphatically clarified that those who have left, should they wish to become an Anglican province, must comply with all established procedures for achieving that status, a process requiring years. In sum, the remarks of the Most Reverends Jefferts Schori and Williams suggest that the Episcopal Church should focus on its ministry and mission rather than devoting substantial and unwarranted time and energy to the sad but inevitable departure of the unhappy and bigoted few.
Normally, an author feels gratified when his or her writing attracts considerable attention. Yet the obvious depth of attachment, both among those departing and those remaining in the Episcopal Church, to property and other assets disappointed me. Material resources are important. However, my experience and observation is that human commitment and vision, not lack of material resources, are the real limits on Church ministry and mission. People, within and without the Church, respond enthusiastically and generously when afforded meaningful opportunities to engage in life-giving ministry and mission.
The relative handful of those leaving with their mutually incompatible theologies, to their dismay, has not caused the Episcopal Church’s numerical decline over the last fifty years. Part of the real explanation for that decline is that a Church caricatured as the party of the wealthy and powerful at prayer should expect inner conflict and pain when it strives to incarnate more fully God’s inclusive love that transcends wealth, race, gender orientation, ethnicity, etc. Part of the explanation is also that we Episcopalians have focused on internal issues and institutional maintenance (conventions trying to legislate theology and ethics; attempting to preserve an aging, poorly located physical plant; perpetuating once useful activities that no longer serve today’s needs; etc.) rather than ministry and mission.
Perhaps, God has a badly needed message for us in the sad departure of our more narrow-minded brothers and sisters, a poignant reminder to prioritize ministry and mission ahead of institutional maintenance. Like the monks of Mount St. Calvary whose hospitality and ministry I have enjoyed and cherished, all parties in the current controversies can benefit from a painful and costly lesson in keeping one’s priorities correctly ordered. The monks will continue to serve, moving in the direction they sense God leading. The Episcopal Church should do the same, declaring the truth about property ownership but prepared to exercise costly grace in our actions rather than to compromise our priorities. Now is the time, the season, for us in the Episcopal Church to respond to God’s vision for us, God’s calling, to incarnate Christ’s inclusive, life-giving love for all, at home and abroad. To do otherwise has intangible costs that far exceed the dollar value of any disputed assets.
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.