Letter from America by David Mills January 1998
Incorporated, Unincorporated Disincorporated
ABOUT two years ago, one of the Episcopal Synod of America bishop, William Wantland, found that the Episcopal Church had never incorporated itself by that name - the Church's legal name is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, at this point a serious case of false advertising - and, with others, began to incorporate it in each state. They finished the legal procedures incorporating "PECUSA Inc." in forty-four states.
Last week, Presiding Bishop Browning found out and came unglued. He ordered Bp Wantland to disband the corporation immediately or face a lawsuit, though for what is not clear. The national Church would look foolish suing PECUSA Inc. for doing something that is by definition legal, but in American people sue, or threaten to sue, to intimidate and coerce, even when they do not have a case.
Bp Wantland noted that the trustees would have to meet to consider any such action, and asked for a week, which Bp Browning granted, not that he had much choice. I am writing to a deadline, in the midst of the uproar and do not know what will happen. The trustees of PECUSA Inc. are meeting later in the week. About forty bishops are also meeting this week to discuss their strategy for the future, and the subject will surely come up.
What the plan might do
The more optimistic of PECUSA Inc.'s supporters think its existence might solve all problems, particularly the legal control of parish property and the status of the clergy when a parish leaves the Episcopal Church. They believe that you can't be sued or defrocked for leaving the Episcopal Church if you are in fact legally the Episcopal Church.
I don't think this will work. Though not a lawyer (God is merciful), it seems to me that a Court will reject the subterfuge and rule that the body that had been the Episcopal Church and that everyone had considered the Episcopal Church is the Episcopal Church, even if its lawyers forgot to register the name.
But it is still a useful manoeuvre. Almost three decades ago the General Convention passed a canon transferring ownership of church property from the parish to the diocese, which is to hold it in trust for the national Church, the purpose being to keep the property should the parish ever leave. To keep ownership of its property the parish would have had to leave the Episcopal Church very shortly thereafter, which no one was going to do, over what seemed to all but the very pessimistic an abstract law of no relevance to their lives.
In this situation, PECUSA Inc. might retard the national Church's legal efforts to take the buildings and endowments from parishes leaving the Episcopal Church. Those of you who have seen Marx Brothers movies may remember scenes in which Harpo, being chased by someone he'd offended, would drop marbles behind him and watch his pursuers slip and fall. This, at least, PECUSA Inc. will do. I hope it will do what the optimists predict, but I am not an optimist.
Our other friends
Last month I described the open letter of ninety ordained women, who graciously and bravely asked the General Convention not to make the ordination of women a mandatory belief. I should mention that we also found some of our friends not quite so clear or steady in their friendship as we expected.
In the newsletter of the American branch of the Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion, the editor decided, after some hesitation, against the measure. "It would appear to be wrong to force a bishop to approve any ordination in which he personally does not believe," he wrote.
Yet he went on to approve the part of the measure requiring bishops to license ordained women in their parishes. "We got rid of the 'Prince Bishop' idea in the Reformation," he writes, "and bishops should not be allowed the power to prevent a parish calling any priest in good standing as its rector."
It would take more space than I have to respond to this peculiar kind of congregationalism, but I would note that this priest would be quite peeved did his vestry invite the Bishop of Newark in to preach while he was on vacation, and would not accept their doing so as an expression of the freedom given the laity - the priesthood of believers and all that - at the Reformation.
"There are Evangelicals," he wrote, "fully committed to the authority of Scripture on the subject, on both sides of this issue, which suggests that Scripture is ambiguous on the matter." I don't think he can have thought through the implications of thinking Scripture "ambiguous." That it is ambiguous is the last thing an Evangelical can believe of Scripture, since he has not the Church to interpret it.
Evangelicals and Catholics
That example aside, a real alliance of Evangelicals and Anglican Catholics continues to grow.
Evangelicals, such as those who signed the "First Promise" statement, used to think Catholics were wrongly concerned with order and communion - that they were "majoring on the minors" or confusing form and substance. They ignored such things "to get on with the work of the Gospel." Partly because they have now seen the products of disorder, they have come to realize that right order is part of getting on with the work of the Gospel, and that Catholic form is part of Evangelical substance.
Catholics, who used to dismiss Evangelicals as "Protestants" or even "biblicists," have rediscovered serious biblical study and the need to reconceive their work as a missionary enterprise, and not as a chaplaincy to people who like formal worship. They have also realized that the intellectual firepower needed to fight the biblical and moral battles of the day come primarily from the Evangelicals, and, if I may say so, in particular my colleagues at Trinity.
The renewal and thus the reconciliation of these two movements is, I think, one of the reasons the orthodox resistance is today more serious, and more willing to confront those whose moral and doctrinal innovations hinder the work of the Gospel.
David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where he edits the magazine Mission & Ministry, and also the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America.
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