One of the compelling debates of our time surrounds the question of just how far the church may legitimately adjust itself to secular cultural norms. The argument goes that as moderns have no concept of, and don’t want anything to do with, shall we say a theology of the corporate, then it’s best to provide programs which speak to a thirst for personal religion or personal development. Again it is suggested that in this post 9/11 world, Americans live in a climate of fear and distrust and suffer the usual medical and psychological trauma associated with being frightened to death of the surrounding world. Given such a scenario, the church is better off providing therapeutic solutions and counselling. And then there is the question: “Which American culture shall we address?”

There’s a legitimate scriptural basis for this approach. St Paul used it in Athens and when he met the crowd which decided that he and Barnabas were gods. Start where people are. Starting and the intended destination are two different things.

As we keep observing, our church, in the 1979 Prayer, committed itself to stress the corporate nature of the Christian community, anchored in baptism, furthered in the Eucharist and authenticated by ministry. Indeed this ecclesiology is of the stuff of Anglicanism as it emerged from the trauma of the Reformation and confronted Roman Catholic claims, and the Puritan blue print for the elect.

The vision is there. Then there’s California! The Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin has grasped the robe of Savonarola, and decided to defy the Episcopal Church by getting his Convention, if the proposed legislation is received, to adopt legislation reading themselves out of TEC. The response from HQ has been clear. If the bishop persists he will be suspended. If the diocese tries to bolt, all property will be claimed by TEC. It is argued, using a version of GK Chesterton’s”Democracy if the Dead” that those members of the diocese and its parishes who are now “dead” wouldn’t approve of schism. The fact that most of them used the 1928 BCP or earlier editions, and lived in a rather conservative Episcopal Church isn’t considered. No one can ask them. It’s a legal matter.

Many of us have been at vestry meetings when someone has said, “Let’s get practical.” The translation of this deadly sentence is, “Let’s do something which is at odds with our mission and even our faith.” Jesus leaves the room.

During the row over the ordination of women thirty years ago, a number of parishes attempted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. I was then a bishop in one of the “Continuing Churches” and was involved in this process. The Diocese of Long Island eventually surrendered a property in East New York, rather than face racist allegations. Bishop Lee of Virginia leased a building to one of our congregations for a $1 a year. The humble Bishop of Lexington leased a building to a dissenting congregation, and instituted periodic reviews.

General Convention adopted what became known as the Dennis Canon. It was revolutionary. The ancient right of a vestry, going back to colonial times, to own and control parish property was clouded by a new claim that the diocese in fact owned the property and the vestry held the property in trust for the diocese. Similar reactive legislation clouded the rights of vestries to freely call rectors. Bishops were forbidden to allow other bishops to conduct triennial parochial visitations in their stead. Diocesan authorities began the process of creating a multitude of rules and regulations concerning vacancies, interims, and even the use of liturgical texts, few of which had an have any authority in Canon Law.

Someone had said, “Let’s get practical.” Family quarrels about wills can be utterly destructive. “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.” It is certainly much easier, if a good deal more expensive, to go after property than it is to enter into patient, long term, untidy, prayerful dialog. But what of the watching world? When the world we seek to reach and save sees us in court, spending huge sums of money contributed to the mission of the church in seeking to retain an empty mock-Gothic pile in dubious condition, or a rather frightful Victorian chalice, the reaction is the kind of cynicism which, in a growing fashion, clouds the minds of those to whom we offer Christ.

Don’t get me wrong. I am against schism for theological, ecclesiological and personal reasons and experience. I am utterly against the use of the secular courts -it is forbidden in scripture- to lay hands on bricks and mortar just to be able to say that we’ve peed on this area and it is ours.