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DIVORCE?

The bishop-elect of South Carolina has compared the present strife in TEC to a messy divorce between two wealthy people. It’s a parish priest’s nightmare. In this case neither party has gone to a priest. The battle is fought out in public before the media. As usual there’s a property compartment.

To many people the couple don’t sound very attractive anyway. It’s one of those relationships in which one partner has dominated the other for at least thirty-six years. One can’t think of a thing the minority spouse has asked for which the dominant spouse has given. To make matters worse both are religious maniacs. Both parties are sure that they possess the truth and the dominant one even claims that God visits him/her and whispers the truth. The minority spouse is making arrangements to move in with an overseas lover while continuing to claim that he/she is still married to the dominant spouse.

Of course the cultures in which these public events occur, used to double standards about public scandal, fed daily on voyeurism wrapped up as objective journalism and entitled news, lap up this scandal and dip deeper into cynicism about organized religion.

This rather blunt parable -I apologize to Fr.Mark Lawrence for embroidering on his handkerchief -isn’t adequate and may be unjust, at least in parts. It is probably the fact that both “spousal models” together do not represent half of the parishioners and clergy of the Episcopal Church. The rest, like hungry sheep, “look up and are not fed.” In itself that is the scandal of contemporary American Anglicanism. But the parable is a reasonable assessment of what things look like from the outside and the self-perception of the two parties..

One of the elements of Colonial Anglicanism which PECUSA inherited was the concept that the vestry and or trustees of a local parish owned its own property. The second was the right of a vestry to call any priest in good standing as rector.The newly minted “Bishops by Ballot” in 1789 were give the right to object and to advise the vestry if they believed their candidate to be an unwise choice, but the vestry had the final say.

This system came home to bite the Continuing Churches when they emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s. Unscrupulous clergy or lay popes were able to withdraw their parishes and affiliate with rivals or, discovering a cleric with sometimes the most dubious claims to the episcopate, to set up a rector by empurpling the fellow. Thus followed years of division and factionalism and debilitating inter-church warfare which devalued all that might have been good. In a Darwinian survival of the fittest, only a few significant separated jurisdictions now survive, although paper or shadow sects continue. (Of course I exempt my former jurisdiction from these criticisms!)

Neither the established jurisdictions or those created by schism upon schism were unaffected by property disputes. I remember the great irony of a former Episcopal priest, made a bishop in one of the original separated churches, after seeking to wrest his parish and its property from the TEC diocese in which he ministered, unsuccessfully, then seeking to sue a congregation in his new diocese which was attempting successfully to pull out! How the press gobbled that story up.

Two things seem clear about what is to happen as the story unfolds between now and the next General Convention. Beginning with the Diocese of San Joachin, dioceses will attempt to divorce TEC and retain their own property. The Episcopal Church will then have to decide whether to institute proceedings in ecclesiastical and the civil courts to discipline the leadership and seize the assets. Given the recent history of ecclesiastical courts, particularly in the cases of Bishops Pike and Righter, given the lack of any adequate appellate jurisdiction or structure, finding Bishop Schofield guilty of schism would merely state that the only crimes TEC acknowledges are sexual or schismatic.

Claiming church property on a large scale would cost TEC a fortune, and surrender more and more to the power of the state, and diminish further the “wall of separation”between church and state. The Roman Catholic Church has already done much to surrender to the power of the secular authorities. This at a time when the IRS is claiming the right to censor sermons. I do hope they have gray looking individuals forced to listen to typical Anglican preaching Sunday after Sunday. Serves them right.

In any case the right of the national church to seize the property entrusted to a diocese is by no means clear. The “Dennis” Canons, adopted in reaction to attempts by continuing churches to retain their parish property, utterly abolished a right entrusted to vestries since the Colonial days. It was a major revolution on TEC polity on a similar scale to that which seems to give a bishop veto powers in the election of a rector, not to speak of the establishment of search committees, interim ministries and sets of regulations of doubtful canonical veracity. Yet the Dennis Canon nowhere specifically entrusts the National Church with diocesan property. No doubt that will be tested in the courts.

Of course there’s that trivial matter of a scriptural ban against Christians going to secular courts!

Why on earth does this couple not seek an outside counsellor? No one is going to hear words about Millennium Developments or the mission of the Gospel. What will be seen is an object lesson in just how much Christians don’t love one another particularly when the family property is involved.

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