Sunday, August 07, 2005

love as self-gift: being a theological analysis of doctrinal and property disputes in ecusa -- part 1

Because it might be helpful, and because I am a shameless self-promoter.....

It is difficult to ascertain the facts of a given situation. Indeed the history of continental philosophy since Kant might well lead one to question whether there are any such things as “facts”. Such concerns notwithstanding, it is not an especially controversial contention – indeed it approaches something like popular wisdom – that in a situation involving x number of people, there will be x number of perspectives regarding the facts of that situation.
The question of church property issues in the contemporary Episcopal Church is no different. It is nearly impossible to abstract a discussion of property issues beyond the theologico-political domain, for whenever such issues arise in the life of the Church, their material cause seems perennially to be doctrinal disputes anterior to the actual property issues. In this essay, I will attempt to follow what I know of the ethnographical approach of anthropologists. I will use a particular church property dispute – that between the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and Bishop Charles Bennison, the Diocesan Bishop of Pennsylvania – as a foil for understanding church property issues in the Episcopal Church at large. [1]
I will attempt in what follows to give a brief history of the conflict, from the perspectives of both the Church of the Good Shepherd and Bp. Bennison. I will offer a theological reflection on a possible basis for constructive progress. I will attempt to discern the best practices for those involved in doctrinal disputes with legal / property outworkings. Lastly, I will attempt to identify the beginnings of a practical basis for an approach to resolution in such situations.

I. The “Facts”: Two Histories of a Conflict

a. Good Shepherd

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, is an historic Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Over the years, as two streams of Anglo-Catholicism became discernible, [2] the Church of the Good Shepherd came to identify itself more with the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic party with the Episcopal Church. Unquestionably, the Episcopal Church for the last thirty years has moved in a theological direction counter to that of traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism. The theological differences between traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and the wider Episcopal Church (and to a lesser extent between Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and the wider Anglican Communion) is more than anything else, over the question of authority, and as such is ecclesiological. In terms of the famous “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism, [3] the Traditionalists tend to place the legs of the stool in the following order: scripture, tradition, reason. We are bound, they would argue, by scripture above all else, then by tradition, and lastly by reason. [4] The more progressive (i.e. mainstream) Episcopalians most often cite the three elements as though they are coequal, but in essence contemporary Episcopalian apologetics has recourse more to a four legged stool (a chair?), in order: Reason, Experience, Tradition, Scripture.
The conflict between the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Bishop of Pennsylvania arose, according to the Church of the Good Shepherd, because of the heterodox views of Bishop Bennison, the Bishop of Pennsylvania, under whose authority they found themselves. In a letter from August 17, 2002, Fr. David Moyer, the rector of Good Shepherd, explained his church’s reasoning as follows:

…I and my people could not in good conscience welcome him [Bp. Bennison] in his pastoral and sacramental capacity because of his failure to publicly affirm orthodox, biblical, catholic, and apostolic Christianity as expressed within the Anglican Communion. Bishops are called to be teachers of the Truth as revealed in Holy Scripture and set forth in the catholic creeds. Failure to do so deems one a false teacher, and Scripture is clear about one’s moral duty in that regard. I should also add that my second ordination vow, twenty-five years ago, was to "with all faithful diligence, banish and drive away from the Church all strange and erroneous doctrines contrary to God’s Word written…"

It is, unquestionably, in part, a conscience issue. On the other hand, immediately after making the vow Fr. Moyer cites above, he vowed as follows:

Bishop: Will you reverently obey your Bishop, and other chief Ministers, who, according to the Canons of the Church, may have the charge and government over you; following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourselves to their godly judgments?

Answer: I will so do, the Lord being my helper. (From the Book of Common Prayer, 1928)

One can begin to see the layers of issues at play in conflicts such as that between the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Bishop of Pennsylvania. I imagine Fr. Moyer denies that Bp. Bennison’s admonitions and judgments are in fact “godly”, and probably denies, in consequence, that he is bound by his ordination vow.

b. Bishop Bennison

The issue at hand is whether Fr. Moyer has left the communion of the Episcopal Church, a charge that diocesan authorities have made against him. Bp. Bennison has felt that he has not been permitted to visit the Church of the Good Shepherd, which by Canon Law is his duty and prerogative:

(a) Each Diocesan Bishop shall visit the Congregations within the
Diocese at least once in three years. Interim visits may be delegated to
another Bishop of this Church.
(b) At every visitation the visiting Bishop shall preside at the Holy Eucharist and at the Initiatory Rites, as required, preach the Word, examine
the records of the Congregation required by Canon III.9.5(c), and examine
the life and ministry of the Clergy and Congregation according to Canon
III.9.5(b)(5). (Canon III.18.4)

It is noteworthy that Fr. Moyer has denied that Bp. Bennison has not been permitted to visit the Church of the Good Shepherd. From the aforementioned letter from Fr. Moyer, August 17, 2002, “I have never barred the Bishop of Pennsylvania from my parish.” The question becomes what it means “to bar”, for presumably not barring a bishop from visiting is consistent, in Fr. Moyer’s view, with being “unable in good conscience to welcome” Bp. Bennison. Though it is clearly not just an issue of semantics, it is nonetheless an issue of semantics.
Because Fr. Moyer would not (or “could not”) welcome Bp. Bennison in a pastoral or sacramental role at Good Shepherd, Bp. Bennison deposed Fr. Moyer after a six-month inhibition, beginning in March 2002. In September of that year, Bp. Bennison wrote:

The Revd Dr David L Moyer did not deny the accuracy of the Findings of the Standing Committee, did not submit any statement to the Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania purporting to retract any of the actions underlying the Finding and Determination, and did not take any other action that would permit the Bishop to withdraw the notice and allow the Inhibition to expire as provided by Section 2 of the said Canon of Title IV. Therefore in accordance with the provisions of the said Section 2 of Canon 10, of Title IV and Section 3 of Canon 12 of Title IV of the Canons of General Convention of the Episcopal Church, in the presence of two priests, I do hereby adjudge and pronounce a Sentence of Deposition within the meaning of Section 1 (d) of Canon 12 of Title IV of the said Canons upon DAVID LLOYD MOYER, who is accordingly, deposed from the ordained ministry.

The situation was further complicated by Fr. Moyer, after his deposition by Bp. Bennison, being granted license to minister as a priest by the Bishop of Pittsburgh, and the Archbishop of Central Africa. As many as twenty-two other bishops of the Episcopal Church subsequently offered Fr. Moyer licenses, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend George Carey, and the then-Archbishop of Wales, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams both stated publicly that should the need arise, they would license Fr. Moyer within their respective jurisdictions. [5]
The whole affair thereby became quite politicized. The situation was also, in retrospect a premonition of things to come, following the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. The Archbishop of Central Africa, for example, questioned whether he was “in communion” with the Bishop of Pennsylvania. In the wake of General Convention, 2003 (when Gene Robinson’s election was confirmed by the Episcopal Church’s national governing bodies), the Windsor Report began the process of an explicit consideration of issues of communion: whether it is transitive, what its basis might be, etc. etc.
The upshot of Fr. Moyer’s deposition, in terms of the physical property of Good Shepherd, is an issue that has not yet been resolved. Conservatives, somewhat conspiratorially, sometimes saw Bp. Bennison’s actions as an attempt to “seize” Good Shepherd. Doing so would possibly have been his legitimate prerogative. [6] He has not made an effort to seize Good Shepherd property, and Fr. Moyer continues to minister there. Part of the reason could be that suits were filed on Fr. Moyer’s behalf against Bp. Bennison, alleging that Bp. Bennison had promised toward the beginning of the controversy, to bring Fr. Moyer up for presentment and trial, that Bp. Bennison failed to do so, and that had such a trial occurred, Fr. Moyer would have been vindicated.
The Canonical authority for Fr. Moyer’s deposition was Canon 10 of Title 4 of the Canons of the Episcopal Church, “Of Abandonment of the Communion of this Church by a Priest or Deacon”:

Sec. 1. If it is reported to the Standing Committee of the Diocese in which
a Priest or Deacon is canonically resident that the Priest or Deacon, with-
out using the provisions of Canon IV.8 or III.13, has abandoned the Com-
munion of this Church, then the Standing Committee shall ascertain and
consider the facts, and if it shall determine by a vote of three-fourths of All
the Members that the Priest or Deacon has abandoned the Communion of
this Church by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or
Worship of this Church, or by a formal admission into any religious body
not in communion with this Church, or in any other way, it shall be the
duty of the Standing Committee of the Diocese to transmit in writing to the
Bishop of such Diocese…If the Bishop affirms the determination, the Bishop shall
then inhibit the Priest or Deacon from officiating in the Diocese for six

The question is therefore whether Fr. Moyer openly renounced “the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church” or was formally admitted into a religious body “not in communion with this Church.” The latter was certainly not the case, as he repeatedly insisted. His offense was in not welcoming Bp. Bennison to visit, to preach, or to celebrate the sacraments at Good Shepherd, so the question is whether this constitutes Fr. Moyer’s having renounced the doctrine, discipline or worship of the Episcopal Church.
In terms of property issues, the question of whether Fr. Moyer was rightfully deposed is precisely the question, according to Fr. Moyer’s lawyer:

David Moyer was illegally and fraudulently deprived of his status as an Episcopal priest of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. That issue is now before the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County. Any bid to “`seize the property’ would have to rest on the validity of the `deposition’–but that is the subject of the lawsuit now pending. (From the website of the Prayer Book Society)

That a church’s property is not actually the church’s property is unambiguously stated in Title I Canon 7. Section 3 prohibits anyone who holds, manages, or administers any church property to “encumber or alienate” it without the permission of the Diocesan Bishop, and Section 4 states that “all real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located.” [7] Because the Supreme Court has determined that in civil disputations over Church property arising from doctrinal issues, the matter is decided solely be reference to the Church’s own Constitution, the question remains whether Fr. Moyer was regularly and validly deposed. [8]

1. My reasons for this are analogous to what I know of the reasons of anthropological ethnographers for taking the approach that they take, namely that pretenses to objectivity are doomed at the outset. A more honest approach is therefore simply to throw oneself into the discursive fray, allowing, so far as is possible, each voice to be heard.

2. Beginning (roughly) in 1976, with the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church, various dissenting groups have become visible, some are entire dioceses (Fort Worth, San Joaquin, and Quincy), and some formal or informal organizations and associations.

3. In many ways the so-called “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism is a gross oversimplification. It is not as if Anglicanism is the only ecclesial community who claims recourse to reason, scripture and tradition. Moreover, when the “three-legged stool” is cited as a principle of Anglican polity, its application usually runs counter to what Richard Hooker (the inventor of the “stool”) meant when he spoke of the authority of scripture, reason, and the “voice of the Church” (in that order) in his famous Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

4. It is noteworthy that the ordering of the stool by Traditionalists is the inverse of the cognitive closeness of each of the legs, at least intuitively. I mean, whereas the traditionalists list them in order of authority, scripture, tradition, reason, we have recourse as humans first to our reason (we cannot escape it), and by virtue of our being a part of the Church we are immediate parts of the Christian Tradition, and only through the lens of these two can we approach scripture.

5. In a letter from the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. George Carey to the Rt. Rev. John Broadhurst, dated August 27, 2002; and in a letter from the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Rowan Williams to the Rev. Geoffrey Kirk from early September 2002.

6. A much stronger case could be made now for Fr. Moyer’s deposition and the seizure of Good Shepherd’s property, for he has since been made a Bishop in an ecclesial body not in communion with the Episcopal Church or the See of Canterbury, the “Traditional Anglican Communion.”

7. Civil courts are very hesitant to become involved in property disputes involving church doctrine, though civil courts have reviewed ecclesiastical trials, examining pretty exclusively the consistency of a church’s application of its own rules. Cf. Smith vs. Nelson, 406 U.S. 971 (1972).

8. Cf. Watson vs. Jones 80 U.S. 679 (1872).


Johnny Awesomo said...

I am confused about your methodology, especially in regards to footnote 1.
Are you asking us to navigate a supposedly objective conclusion from supposedly subjective sources? Or are you merely writing a post to let all voices be heard and let that be that. If the former, then I fail to understand the leap in logic. If the latter, I fail to grasp your purpose in putting together the post.
I do hope you are aware that your choice of source material is as biased as the material itself.

Perhaps You should let J-tron be a contributor to the blog and write an essay from his own, opposite point of view. He also could try to see both sides of the issue, helping us to join in his narrative.


father wb said...

Don't panic, JA. There's no such thing as objectivity -- except sub specie aeternitatis. Read Wittgenstein.