Monday, March 23, 2009

Fuzzy Logic and the Church We Know (II) - "Stealing" the Property

In January, Episcopal Life Online published a series of three opinion pieces on the subject of the lawsuits among Episcopalians over claims to church property. The first, by Church historian Joan Gundersen, argued the proposition that Episcopalians could not be faithful to their forbears if they allowed dissenters to leave and take Church assets with them, even when the dissenters constituted the majority of the parish. The second piece gave the views of the Rev. Timothy Safford, of Christ Church, Philadelphia: drawing lessons from Jesus' parables, he argued that the Church could accommodate the dissenters without alienating them, by allowing them to rent the property (or make the mortgage payments in lieu of rent), and should remain open to the possibility that they will one day return, like the prodigal son. The third piece, by the Rev. George Clifford of North Carolina, argued the Gospel view, and urged the Church to turn the other cheek. If the dissenters wanted to compensate the Church for the property, well and good, but if not, then the Church at least will have been witness to "a costly gift of love."

[UPDATE 03/23/2009: Great minds think alike. While I was composing this post from notes I had made earlier, Canon Kendall Harmon at Titus OneNine has started a lively discussion by posting excerpts from each of the three pieces: read them and the comments here, here, and here. And Baby Blue has chimed in as well, with her own unique, Virginia-based criticism of Dr. Gundersen's misuse of evidence from that State to support her argument from history.]

It is to the credit of Episcopal Life that they published such a wide spectrum of opinion. The ones in the pews who read the pieces and sent in their comments, however, tended on the whole to support Dr. Gundersen rather than the Rev. Clifford. Since the former's rationale is widely expressed (it has also been endorsed by the Presiding Bishop), and since it is a prime example of the fuzzy logic that currently dominates thinking among the Church's liberal leadership, I want to use it as the basis for another of my illustrations of how such thinking serves to widen the gap between liberals and conservatives in the Church today.

(I use the terms "liberals" and "conservatives" with a conscious reference to their counterparts in the political arena, since I have observed that there is a close correlation when it comes to discussing ownership issues. Moreover, the customary terms used on religious blogs, "reappraisers" and "reasserters", while helpful in discussing theological differences, leave out the political dimension that so often comes to the fore in church property disputes.)

Let me begin my illustration by positing a typical Episcopal congregation attending a hypothetical parish, St. Botolph's Church in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. (The name "Boston" is itself a contraction of "Botolph's Town", and there is an actual Church of St. Botolph's there---I do not mean to depict it, but only to borrow its colorful name.) They are made up, let us say for simplicity's sake, of eight members: Tom, Dick, Harry, Paul, Jane, Marge, Linda, and Joan. (Imagine that each name represents not just one person, but, say, an entire contingent of parishioners who think and act as each of those individuals does.) Say that each of them had been worshipping in the parish of St. Botolph's for at least a generation, until the events of General Convention 2003. And let's say, further, that following the confirmation of V. Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Church, three of the members (Dick, Paul and Marge) had decided to leave. Now since St. Botolph's is a church that follows the dictates of the Presiding Bishop and Dr. Gundersen, the dissenters do not try to take any of the property; moreover, they are in the minority. So they move elsewhere and start their own branch of a church that refuses to ordain people in an active same-sex relationship.

Time passes, and in 2006 the bishop of the diocese approves same-sex blessings, which are then performed in our hypothetical church of St. Botolph's. This peels off Linda, and so she leaves. The church carries on as before, but then in 2009 the Diocese elects, and the Church ratifies and ordains, a prominent Unitarian theologian (author of that well-known classic, God Just Is) to be its bishop. As a result of that vote, Harry decides to go elsewhere.

At General Convention 2009, full rites for same-sex marriage are approved on a trial basis. At the same time, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies vote to reject the draft Anglican Covenant from the Anglican Consultative Council, and vote to increase the requested diocesan assessments from 21% to 30% to cover increasing litigation expenses. The combined result of these measures on our hypothetical St. Botolph's is to drive off Jane. This leaves Tom and Joan as the sole parish contingents remaining from the original group.

Tom is a deputy to the General Conventions of 2012 and 2015, where he proudly supports changes to the Book of Common Prayer to define marriage as a sacrament between any two or more persons who commit themselves to a deep and loving relationship before God. At GC 2015, the deputies and bishops elect a priest who is also a Muslim imam as the new presiding bishop of the Church. He promptly authorizes, on a trial basis, a new liturgical cycle that includes passages personally selected by him from the Holy QurĂ¢n, and a new eucharistic service that offers only grape juice instead of wine. (His predecessor had succeeded in obtaining a number of court rulings declaring the Episcopal Church to be "hierarchical", with the Presiding Bishop at the top of the hierarchy.)

Tom enthusiastically supports both measures. However, Joan denounces them, and declares that she can no longer recognize the authority either of General Convention or its Presiding Bishop. Joan also hires a church attorney to assist her, since she believes that her obligation to the many generations of her family who contributed to the support and upkeep of St. Botolph's requires that her contingent retain title to the parish property.

Tom announces that he is the one remaining faithful to the Episcopal Church, not Joan, and asks the parish chancellor to obtain an injunction against Joan's continuing to occupy the parish property. The suit is joined by the Diocese and by ECUSA itself, who both cite the Dennis Canon against Joan; her contingent loses the lawsuit, and has to leave. Tom and his contingent draw up plans to add a minaret to the roof of St. Botolph's, and Tom studies to be a muezzin.

Now can you see the fault in Dr. Gundersen's (and the Presiding Bishop's) fuzzy logic? Under it, the ones who "remain in the Church" are the ones who get to keep the property, because it would be approving theft to let those who depart take it with them. But when there is no constraint on what those who remain in the Church can choose to do---all in the name of "greater inclusivity", to be sure---then there is no constraint on what the Church will become, either. This logic leads inevitably to what is known as a "last man standing" principle: since Tom is the last to remain an "Episcopalian", he gets all the property. (Long ago, Greg Griffith expressed this same idea in another way over at StandFirm.)

To the liberals, I say this: laugh, if you will, at how far-fetched my examples now seem to you. But I ask you then to try to put yourselves in the place of the Rt. Rev. Dr. William White, one of the first bishops and founding fathers of what today still calls itself the Episcopal Church. Listen to what he told a General Convention that assembled in Philadelphia 182 years ago. His prose is dense, in that obsolete fashion of the nineteenth century. I would ask that you read each sentence aloud slowly, as he himself did in addressing the Convention, and savor the depth of meaning that he conveys:

In commencing the business of the Convention, I beg leave to offer to you, my respected brethren, a few observations. I deem it proper, in the first place, to tender to you my acknowledgements for the renewed evidence of your good will afforded by my re-election as President of this honorable body. Permit me, also, to congratulate you on the favorable circumstances under which we are now assembled. The present number of our body, exceeding, perhaps, that of any preceding Convention, affords pleasing proof of the extending limits of our Zion, and of the increasing interest taken by her members in her concerns. The young scion, which was transplanted from the parent stern into this Western wilderness, has taken deep root; it is extending its branches over the land, and beginning to spread its leaves for the healing of the nations. Our ecclesiastical system, in the test which it has given by experiment, has more than realized the expectation of its friends. By its nice adjustment of the balance of liberty and power, and the wise distribution of both among the respective orders, it has accommodated itself, with happy effect, to the genius of our civil institutions, and the habits of a free people; at the same time that it has preserved, in their unbroken integrity, those great principles which are unchangeable, because of Divine origin; and, in all respects, has proved its high adaptation to the purposes of unity and peace, and to all the great ends of its institution.

Among the many causes of congratulation which present themselves, we may reckon not as the least, the harmony which has hitherto attended the deliberations of our General Councils. Amidst great diversity of sentiment on important and delicate topics, the unity of the Church has still been preserved in the bond of peace. Whilst we felicitate ourselves on this retrospect, as the pledge and earnest of the future, let us offer our prayers and efforts, that peace may still dwell within our walls. Difference of opinion, unavoidably incident to human nature, arising from education, association, prejudice and various uncontrolable circumstances, must be expected to keep pace with the increase of our numbers, and to bring, incorporated with them, elements fraught with danger to the best interests of the Church. It is the prerogative of Christian charity, guided by the wisdom that is pure, and peaceable, and easily entreated, to leaven this lump, and to transmute these elements, which, otherwise, by coming in contact with their kindred affinities, would put on the forms of combustion, into sound and wholesome agencies for the general good. Upon us, the members of this General Convention, standing upon a high eminence before the Church and before the world, does it especially devolve, to set an example of Christian politeness and charity; bearing in mind the sentiment of one of our most illustrious of human oracles, that 'the time will come when three words spoken with meekness of spirit, will meet with a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.' In endeavoring to fulfil the part assigned me in the duties before us, I shall rely upon your aid and advice in all matters of difficulty that may arise; appealing to you, also, with confidence for your co-operation in maintaining the rules of order and decorum, as necessary to the dispatch of business, to the dignity of our body, and the honour of religion. And may He, from whom all good counsels and all just works do proceed, direct and prosper all our consultations to the advancement of His glory, the good of His Church, and the salvation of those for whom we are put in trust!

I now ask that you imagine yourself trying to explain to Bishop White all the events that have occurred in the Episcopal Church in the last thirty-three years. He is patient, and will listen, but you will have to go to some lengths before he can comprehend the ordination of women and openly unrepentant, active homosexuals to the episcopate, the blessings of same-sex marriages, the Church's support for abortion, and its welcoming of every sort of faith as an equal, from Wiccans to Druids to Buddhists. He will remind you that the Episcopal Church is a scion of the Church of England, and in his day a reconciliation with the Church of Rome was not considered beyond the realm of discussion. What do these advances, as you call them (he might ask), do to bring such a reconciliation any closer today?

In trying to provide him with a suitable answer to his question, it is my prayer that you would search your heart long and carefully, and reflect upon the path down which the Church is currently headed.

I readily concede that those who are in charge of the Church today may see no great discrepancy between the beliefs that lie behind what Bishop White expressed in 1826 and those that are behind what they put forth as doctrine today. The very fact that they can do so, however, is the clang of the logical trap snapping shut, which serves to make my point. For the constraints --- which they today profess hold them back from any such drastic transformations of the kind I have sketched --- will in time be replaced by yet more lenient ones, and what is optional for the orthodox of today will eventually be prohibited by those who follow, as a new orthodoxy succeeds the previous one. Again, the contrast between what Bishop White believed then and what the Church leaders are practicing now is the only proof of this assertion that I need.

Not all of those in the vanguard of Church liberalism will live to see the day when it will be their turn to be branded as the obstinate ones, who are out of step with contemporary beliefs and "social justice". But for those who do, it will be fitting that then---and only then, when they find themselves at last ostracized by the headlong course of events---will they see the folly of accusing those who chose to remain loyal to an earlier version of orthodoxy, and who sought sincerely to keep for future generations what they had so long fought to uphold and maintain, as engaging in "theft".


  1. Mr. Haley,
    Given the length of your post and the tasks that lie before me today, I will only challenge one assertion in you post, i.e., that "there is no constraint on what those who remain in the Church can choose to do," including, in your scenario, adding a minaret to the building. There is constraint, which you know very well, although you may argue that it isn't strong enough. I would also suggest that your choice of a tradition from Islam is unfortunate given the prejudice against Muslims in this country.

  2. I would add another comment about provisionality. Jesus is the Truth, but even the Scriptures, the Creeds and the best theology are not the Truth. They only bear witness to the Truth and to see them, as some would, as the Truth is idolatry. In Mr. Haley's lists of innovations that Bishop White would have found incomprehensible, one might also have added the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, moral questions on which Episcopalians were far from having a common mind in Bishop White's day. Of course, Mr. Haley's assertion about how Bishop White would see these changes is unprovable. Were Bishop White to be a Bishop now he might well have supported all these changes as all of our decisions are made within a specific context. It is my belief that if Bishop White, now in God's nearer presence, has any concern for the things of this life, he is well pleased with the changes that Mr. Haley deplores. Of course, that assertion is made, as was Mr. Haley's, without any supporting evidence.

  3. A. S. Haley said...
    Father Weir, I thank you for your thoughts, but I do not agree that the choice of Islam reflects, or is intended to convey, any prejudice towards Muslims. We already have the example in our Church of the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, and she surfaced just a few years after the satirical Scrappleface blog predicted in 2003 that the Church would elect a Muslim bishop. My example, if it is far-fetched, asks you to consider as seemingly improbable Episcopalians who think they can be both Christians and Muslims at the same time, and says nothing against Muslims themselves, or their faith, other than implying that it is incompatible with my own. And if you think such an implication reflects prejudice on my part, then I freely confess: I am prejudiced in favor of my faith against all other faiths. If that be prejudice in your eyes, so be it.

    Given the fact that GC2009 is going to approve rites for the blessing of same-sex marriages despite how the Book of Common Prayer defines marriage, I would be very interested to hear more about what you consider the "constraints" on our Church to be.

    Your projection of your own present-day predilections onto Bishop White defeats the purpose of my exercise. You could summon up any founding father and turn him into a twenty-first- century liberal by doing what you do. The point of my exercise was to keep Bishop White as he was, and not to project what he might think had he been brought up in today's world. Just as you need to change him in order to be comfortable with him, so I suggest that those who come after us in the Church will not feel bound by anything we believe or hold dear, either.

  4. Mr. Haley,
    You missed the point of my statements about Bishop White. You are quite right to assert that Bishop White in his context would have found the changes in the Episcopal Church outlandish. My point is that such an assertion is of limited value because it wasn't in his context that these changes occured but in ours. One might well assert that his colleague, Bishop Seabury, on the day of his ordination to the Diaconate, would have found the Episcopal Church unthinkable, given his political loyalties during the War of Independence.

  5. Father Weir, you just made my point for me again in your last comment. No one is disputing that now is a "different context" from when Bishop White and the others started PECUSA. But to the extent that you consider Bishop White's context to be "of limited value" to us in deciding what the Church should be today, in our own context, then you have just conceded the right of future generations to regard your context today to be of equally limited value when they come to make their own future decisions, such as electing a presiding bishop who is also an imam. "That was then, this is now," they will say.

    And yet, at the same time that you devalue Bishop White and what he so strongly stood for in his day (such as the principles he expressed here), you want to assert the right to keep all the property! You feel that your "discontinuity" with the principles of Bishop White nevertheless entitles you to the property because you still say you are the Episcopal Church, and not those who decided to leave out of what they regard as a truer adherence to Bishop White and the things he stood for.

    The point of my post is to say that what you are fighting in court for is the right to pass Church property on to future generations who, like you today, will consider as "of limited value" the very principles that you now hold dear, and which cause you to support the current lawsuits.

    So who has a better right to the property? The majority of parishioners in a given church who decide they cannot abide today any more departures from the founders' principles, or the minority who claim the right to hand it on to future generations who will feel free to build on those departures to make still more departures of their own?

    The logic of the position that the majority is "stealing" something which is not rightfully theirs escapes me.

  6. Regarding your statement,

    "It is to the credit of Episcopal Life that they published such a wide spectrum of opinion. The ones in the pews who read the pieces and sent in their comments, however, tended on the whole to support Dr. Gundersen rather than the Rev. Clifford."

    Credit shreddit! It was a front so they could publish favorable responses to Dr. Gunderson. Disregard the cherry picked comments at Episcopal Pravda, A.K.A. Episcopal Life Online. Not all comments get published.

  7. I would love to hear from anyone who sent in a comment to Episcopal Life Online in support of the Rev. Clifford, or against the views of Dr. Gundersen, which they did not publish. If it is appropriate, I will publish it here.

    In the meantime, the fact that most of the comments published echoed Dr. Gundersen's views does not reflect well on ECUSA or those who bother to read Episcopal Life, for the reasons stated in the main post. Either the majority of ELO readers do feel that way, or ELO cherry-picked the opinions it liked---it comes to the same thing, as far as ECUSA's face to the public is concerned.

    In any event, UP, I think your argument may prove too much: if they wanted to publish just favorable replies in support of Dr. Gundersen, then there was no reason for them to publish the Rev. Clifford's piece (or the Rev. Safford's, for that matter) at all.

  8. Okay, I agree, just because they have never published any of my low quality comments does not prove my speculation that comments are cherry picked. Maybe they are just picking what they consider to be the best comments. Moderator's Choice!

  9. Mr. Haley,
    I think that we have come to the same place that we have been before, i.e., the realization that we see things very differently, and it is time for me to bow out. I do, however, thank you for bringing to my attention Bishop White's remarks. As one of my theological heroes, Douglas John Hall, asserts, we need to consider the words of past generations as, at the very least, a guard against our own narrowness of thought. Hall makes the same assertion about the value of considering the words of as many of our contemporaries as possible.