Sauce for the goose

By Andrew Gerns

Do you know the old saying: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander? The ruling handed down by a South Carolina judge in the cases of a breakaway parish versus the Diocese of South Carolina is most certainly sauce for somebody.

Episcopal News Service presents the facts of the matter. But the “takeaway” as editors like to say, is that if you want the Episcopal Church to violate its constitution and canons to advance your agenda, don’t be offended when the offer is refused, and don’t expect civil authorities to back you up.

The significant parts of the South Carolina ruling are these:

  • In a hierarchical church such as ours, Diocesan and Episcopal Church canons concerning of membership supersede parochial by-laws.
  • A judge may determine if a congregation is departing from the “doctrine, discipline and worship” of this church by how the congregation adheres to the constitution and canons of the church. Judge Thomas W. Cooper, Jr., wrote that a “quintessentially religious question is left up to the church authorities” and defined that authority in terms of the constitution and canons of the church.
  • He said it “constitute(s) a fraud” to take a parish into a new denomination when all of the current members freely chose to enter the existing Church.

The judge may have tried to avoid knotty theological questions, but his ruling reiterates a fundamental element of what it means to be the Church. Entering the Church means not only enjoying the style of worship and teaching, but entering into the common life of the whole Church, a life that includes adherence to the Church’s constitution and canons.

If the ruling in South Carolina is embraced by other states, the strategy of those trying to break up the Episcopal Church will collapse under its own weight.

The Anglican Mission in America (an initiative of the Church of Rwanda) and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (an initiative of the Church of Nigeria) could have built brand new facilities. Had they moved in that direction, they would face only ecclesiastical discipline that could not have been enforced from a church they no longer recognized. They could have left their former dioceses with empty churches, and demonstrated the vitality of their ministry by comparison. Loyal Episcopalians could have complained about invading, interfering Bishops, but not done much about it.

Instead they chose to build on the material resources of the Church they want to leave, and then affected surprise when that Church (and the members who did not vote their way) opposed their efforts.

Why is gaining control of Episcopal Church property so important to the Rwandan and Nigerian initiatives? If simply forming a new denomination were their goal, the task would be relatively simple: incorporate, write up ones own constitution and canons, set out into the free-market of religious ideas and see what develops.

The problem is that it has been tried before with less than stellar results. While it does offer refuge and shelter from the offending mother church, it has serious drawbacks. For one thing, the new church steps outside the Anglican sphere. It may contain many of the outward trappings of prayer book, bishops, and liturgy but the new group has cut itself loose. The other drawback is that striking out alone means that one can do a lot less mission because without shared resources a much greater proportion of what one has is spent just to stay open. A third liability is that groups that define themselves by what they are against, and deal with that by leaving what offends them, have a hard time working with other groups because the troublesome details of right doctrine tend to matter more than the details of common life.

The Rwandan and Nigerian strategies address one of those issues. Instead of going it alone, the former Episcopal parishes that joined the AMiA and CANA become part of an already standing, already legitimatized Anglican Province. While these initiatives have never been explicitly endorsed by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Anglican Consultative Council, they haven’t been denounced either. Hence, they can’t be conclusively refuted when they claim to be an Anglican presence in the United States.

Still, without property, the breakaway parishes would lose visibility, and perhaps some legitimacy in the minds of potential new members. They’d also have far fewer assets, and run the risk of fading from the scene.

I believe that CANA chose Virginia as the place to gain a foothold because it had a significant number of sympathetic congregations which were already acting apart from the Episcopal Church with the size, the money and the people who would support them. I think they also believed that south of the Potomac they were in a legal environment that favored them. Now that is uncertain.

The CANA strategy depends on proving that they are the rightful heirs of the tradition of the denomination, in other words that the Episcopal Church left the parishes not the other way round. It also hangs on the idea that a parish in a structure like ours can unilaterally change the public record of its incorporation, title, deed, etc., and finally that the fiduciary responsibilities of the clergy and lay leaders take second place to their notions of maintaining doctrine and practice. The South Carolina ruling rejects all three of these contentions.

It has not gone unnoticed that these particular suits were initiated by an “orthodox,” “reasserting” congregation against Bishop Edward Salmon, who is also considered also to be an “orthodox” “reasserter.” The difference is that Bishop Salmon was willing to fulfill his canonical and fiduciary responsibilities and the clergy and lay leaders of the departing church were not.

Theological dissent, in other words, does not entitle you to take what is not yours.

The Rev. Andrew Gerns is the rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Pa. and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog Andrew Plus.

Past Posts