It’s the Property, Stupid!
Stephen Noll on the rapacity of ECUSA liberals
While there are many high principles of theology and ecclesiology worth discussing at this time of historic crisis, the bread-and-butter political issue facing most conservative leaders in ECUSA is how to keep the property.
Several years ago, I wrote that the key issues were twofold: international recognition and property. In my opinion, the first issue is now settled. Conservatives have already received adequate recognition by the Primates-Who-Count to consider themselves an ongoing part of the Anglican Communion. It strikes me that most conservatives are willing even to forego recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury if they can be partnered with the Province of Nigeria. Is this not so?
So the main problem now is property. I begin with an anecdote from one of the first AAC Board meetings in 1996. I posed to an AAC bishop the question: ‘What if your liberal counterpart in the House of Bishops came to you with a proposal to stop the infighting in the Church by means of a property settlement, for example, by allowing each congregation to decide whether it wanted to affiliate with "Church A" or "Church B."’ I asked: ‘Would you take up the offer?’ ‘In a moment!’ was his reply.
Again, one of the truly great post-mortem remarks from GC 2003 was Canon David Anderson’s comment that the AAC was looking for as amicable a separation as Gene Robinson had gotten from his wife.
The problem is, when it comes to church property, the Episcopal establishment is not interested in amicable settlements. Why? Because they wrote the divorce law in such a way that ‘no-fault’ divorce and equal division of the property is not an option. And they are either mean-spirited and power-hungry or self-deluded enough to make it stick.
One might think true liberals would say: ‘OK, we admit it. We have made a daring departure from 2,000 years of Christian teaching on sexuality. We believe this decision is prophetic, but we acknowledge that many will see it as a deviation from Scripture and tradition on a matter of conscience. Therefore, in the spirit of Gamaliel, we are willing to let conservatives follow their conscience and take their property with them. When our cause is vindicated, we shall graciously welcome them back into our fold.’
But they don’t say that, because they are mean-spirited and power-hungry, governed by neo-Marxist convictions that all conflicts of right are veiled conflicts of might, in which case they think: ‘We’ve got the power, they want it; why should we give it up?’ Or they are self-deluded, believing their own theo-propaganda that homosexuality is unarguably the work of the Holy Spirit which conservatives are resisting.
The fact is, they do hold the power in the constitutions and canons of the Episcopal Church USA, which are the only governing documents recognized by the secular courts in matters of property ownership. Case after legal case has demonstrated this. Again, one may have a theoretical debate about whether the Dennis canon is the mother of all evils. The irony, of course, is that the same people who believe the Bible – the fundamental constitution of the Christian Church – can be twisted into pluriform knots become wooden literalists when it comes to the Episcopal C&C. But that’s the way it is: we can’t change this fact.
In my opinion, this reality explains much of the apparent machinations and ‘win-win’ statements of the American Anglican Council. To be sure, the AAC began with the hope that the Episcopal Church could be reformed from within. I think that in recent years, at least since GC 2000 and GC 2003, most of the AAC leaders and members have come to agree that the Episcopal Church is unreformable. The problem they are facing is: how do we get out of Egypt with the booty?
The problem of property also explains why the most coherent and the best short-term reactions to the present crisis have been happening at a diocesan level – but only in dioceses with a strong bishop that have already been thoroughly infiltrated by conservatives (Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Florida, Central Florida, Fort Worth, Quincy, Albany, any others?). Constitutionally, the national church will find it hard to depose the bishops and recapture whole dioceses, although it may be able to prevent them from freeing their parishes (for example, if the lawsuit against the Diocese of Pittsburgh succeeds, which it may).
Parishes and clergy in hostile or lukewarm dioceses, however, seem extremely vulnerable. I assume this is one reason why some have kept a low profile over the last decade as the spectre of Gene Robinson slouched toward Minneapolis to be born. I would assume that this is because some clergy have sworn to live and die with their episcopal boots on and have foolishly kept their congregations in the dark on the pending crisis. Honestly, how many of you clergy out there wouldn’t jump at the chance to join a parallel orthodox jurisdiction within the Anglican Communion if you could take your pension, your buildings, and your budget with you?
The problem is, it looks like you can’t have it all, barring an act of God. Look at your options:
1. Take the Anglican Mission in America route and leave now.
2. Wait and see if the Primates and the AAC leaders can carve out an alternative jurisdiction with at least quasi-rights of tenure and property ownership via alternative episcopal oversight.
3. Muddle along congregationally and hope your bishop or the next GC don’t force you out.
Have I missed any other options? A long-shot might be a lawsuit claiming that the Episcopal Church has violated its Constitution and thus its canons are of no effect. This option, it seems to me, would only work if the Primates, including the ABC and/or the Lambeth Conference, excommunicated ECUSA and named an alternative jurisdiction as the legitimate USA branch of the Communion. This will not happen immediately, and even if it does, I'm not sure we'd get the property from the secular courts.
Let me conclude with a brief spiritual reflection. By focusing on the property issue I am not necessarily accusing conservatives of bowing the knee to Mammon. As someone recently noted, all property is God’s and we have an obligation to be stewards of it as best we can. We also have responsibilities to provide for our families – though not necessarily ‘in the manner to which we have been accustomed’. We also know that Jesus sometimes calls his disciples to ‘sell all that you have and follow me’. This is part of our Reformation Anglican heritage – ‘let goods and kindred go’ – and has been experienced on the mission field and in the Global South churches.
I am sure that there is room for us conservatives to think together about the ecclesiastical crisis we are in – both theologically and politically. But let’s be patient and charitable, aware that we are working within very constricted parameters, and let’s be attentive to God’s call in case at some point we may have to get out now.
Stephen Noll is an American priest now working in the Diocese of Rwanda.
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