Friday, March 30, 2012

Petitio principii: a Master Shows Us How [UPDATED]

Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia gives us all a lesson in the fallacy known to the ancients as petitio principii:
May the members of a congregation leave a hierarchical denomination and take the church property with them?
You are begging the question, Bishop Johnston -- you have assumed the answer you want in the way you have chosen to phrase the query. In plainer words, you have asked: "May the members of a congregation leave a denomination which owns all that congregation's property and take the denomination's property with them?" By resorting to a rhetorical fallacy from the outset, you are off to a very bad start.
At great cost in time, effort, money and friendship — on both sides — the answer for the Episcopal Church in Virginia is no.
Well -- no, Bishop Johnston, not exactly. The answer given by one circuit court in Virginia is "no"; but the Circuit Court of Fairfax County does not speak for all the courts of Virginia.  Only the Virginia Supreme Court may do that, and it has not ruled on your "question." But I agree with you about the "great cost" involved to get to such a non-definitive point. And that may cause concern for some of your other contentions, below.
Many have followed this case and shared their opinions, both supporting and criticizing our effort to return Episcopal properties to the mission of the Episcopal Church. It’s tempting for this dispute to be about property, or politics, or just plain money. But the essence of the dispute is about theology itself.
You are not making sense, Bishop Johnston. You just touted one response of a secular civil court in Virginia to your initial question as definitive -- yet now you say that the actual question is a theological one? Courts don't decide theological questions, Bishop Johnston -- nor do litigants spend upwards of five million dollars to obtain an answer to a question that courts cannot decide.

It sounds to me very much as though the dispute was about "property, or politics, or just plain money," Bishop Johnston.  Why not be honest about it? Your Diocese needs the congregations' properties in order to be able to pay off the amounts you borrowed to finance your confiscations of those properties through the courts. That may not have been what the dispute was about at the outset, Bishop Johnston (when you were not there), but it is what the dispute has become now.
Many denominations have a governance (“polity”) that allows for congregational self-determination. For hierarchical bodies, such as the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches, it is quite a different matter. In these churches, local congregations represent and witness to the larger structure. 
It sounds as though you are assuming facts "not in evidence," Bishop Johnston. Your phrase "represent and witness to the larger structure" stands the initial principles of your distinguished predecessor in the House of Bishops, the Rt. Rev. William White, on their head. What he wrote in 1782 was that the larger structure would be subservient to and representative of the local congregations and dioceses, not the other way around:
The continental representative body may consist of a convenient number from each of the larger districts, formed equally of clergy and laity, and among the clergy, formed equally of presiding ministers and others; to meet statedly once in three years. The use of this and the preceding representative bodies is to make such regulations, and receive appeals in such matters only, as shall be judged necessary for their continuing one religious communion.
Do you see Bishop White's use -- twice -- of that word "representative", Bishop Johnston? The larger Church was to be representative of the individual congregations, and to function only as necessary to maintain "one religious communion." Indeed, since it was to meet only once every three years, the "larger structure" was not even a continuing presence in the life of that communion.

But let's return to your history lesson, Bishop Johnston:
Our polity has been established and codified for almost 2,000 years and is the result of a theological view of what the Church is and how it should be governed. 
In our tradition, it is the diocese, not the congregation, that is the basic unit of the Church. The bishop is its chief pastor. 
I trust you are aware, Bishop Johnston, that it is only in terms of the polity of a worldwide communion of churches that you can describe a diocese as a "basic unit."  When you speak of an individual church in that communion, however, you need to talk about "mission," and to remember that a diocese has to have parishes to fulfill that mission. A diocese can never amount to anything without parishes to do the work of mission on the ground; it might as well be a monastery. And please note your own words: you are supposed to be "the chief pastor" of the diocese -- not its chief litigator.
The Church’s clergy vow to serve under the authority of their bishop. The elected leaders of congregations do the same. 
In my Episcopal church here in California, the vestry members are sworn into their office by promising to perform their duties "well and faithfully."  They make no vow of submission to the Bishop, as the clergy do upon ordination (but only in the sense of obeying their Bishop "in all things lawful and honest"). I am not sure whether it is different in Virginia -- perhaps a commenter can enlighten us.
The congregations that separated from the Episcopal Church always existed within the authority of this tradition and polity. Without question, the members of these congregations were free to leave this authority, but according to the ancient polity to which they themselves subscribed, the diocese retains its right, and its generational responsibility, of oversight for the ministry of the local church.
"Oversight for the ministry of the local church" becomes rather moot once that local church votes to disaffiliate, does it not, Bishop Johnston? How can you oversee something which is no longer there -- which no longer invites you to visit, or to confirm their members?
We have a defining commitment to this ancient theology and tradition. 
I think a Great Rhetorical Leap must be coming.  I am not certain where this is going, but that sentence simply begs all sorts of questions: (a) "defining commitment" - what commitment, and who defined it? (b) "ancient theology and tradition" - they are by no means the same. In short, one can erect any number of conclusions on top of that sentence.
We have a fiduciary duty to ensure that properties given to the Episcopal Church are used for its mission.
Now you have jumped again from theology to law, Bishop Johnston. Moreover, there you go again, begging the question! Who said that they were "properties given to the Episcopal Church"?? And if they were, why wasn't that Church's name on any of the deeds?

And, oh, the irony in those words -- "used for its mission"! Can you not see their two meanings  -- depending on how one reads the "mission" of the Episcopal Church (USA) to be?

If its "mission" is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are ignorant of the Good News, then that is one thing. But in that case, it is very difficult, as already noted, to bring the Good News to those whom you have already driven out, and who hence want no longer to hear from you.  Hanging on to the properties does not accomplish that mission, if there is no one to worship in them. Moreover, please note, as stated above, that Dioceses cannot do "mission" on their own. They need congregations for that.

But if the "mission" of ECUSA is defined by the over sixty lawsuits it has brought against former congregations, former bishops and their diocesan structures, then do you see the irony in your claiming to have a duty to "ensure" that those properties "are used for its mission"? Do you see that irony, Bishop Johnston? I thought not.
That duty, however, is theologically based; we are called to be good stewards of property given to us by our forebears. Stewardship is a theological concept: we give thanks for the gifts God has given to us all. Stewards are bound to preserve gifts for future generations. The leaders of the departed congregations have asserted that this case was never about buildings or money but about larger principles. On that we agree.
Back to theology again, Bishop Johnston -- and my head is starting to spin. Biblical "stewardship" is a far broader concept than the legal one of "fiduciary duty." A fiduciary may indeed have to bring a lawsuit if the property placed in his care for others is stolen. But a Christian steward? Dealing with property that is not legally his, but ultimately God's? And watching that property remain in the service of God as it always has, and then deciding that he has a better use for it? Such as selling it to repay debts he has unwisely incurred?  Doesn't sound very "stewardly" to me, Bishop Johnston.
The matter of biblical interpretation is at the heart of the issues, and there are real differences. Differences over biblical interpretation, not authority, remain unsettled. Even so, the common, ancient tradition as to authority, polity and property stands with the diocese and its bishop.
Oh dear, oh dear. Look at what you just wrote, Bishop Johnston. "Differences over interpretation" remain "unsettled", but not "differences over authority"? Are you sure there are no differences over authority, Bishop Johnston? Then why did all of your larger congregations decide that they no longer wanted you to have any authority over them?

And in your next sentence, you just jumped the shark, Bishop Johnston. For you slipped that word "property" in, didn't you, hoping that no one would notice? So now "the common, ancient tradition as to  . . . property stands with the diocese and its bishop? Is that the way the Church fathers understood things?

While you look for some citations from the Church fathers to support your outlandish claim, Bishop Johnston, I have just one question for you. If the bishop's control over parish property was always such a fixed matter of authority and polity, then why did the Episcopal Church have to pass the Dennis Canon in 1979?

Still looking for that citation, Bishop Johnston? And no answer to my question? Well, let's continue:
To be absolutely clear, as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, I do not want merely an outcome from the court; I seek a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray blessings upon those congregations who have made the painful decision to leave the Episcopal Church. They have prayed for the diocese and for me. Despite our dispute, we are being as gracious as we possibly can by providing smooth transitions for those congregations. And we must find ways to minister where we have much in common, such as in South Sudan. We both work to help those who face the perils of daily life there, most notably from the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. There is no reason — and no excuse — why we cannot do so together. Both sides must seek ministries in which we can, in unity, serve a society and a world in desperate need. In doing so, we will find one another again as brothers and sisters in the one God and thus be better disciples of the Lord we all follow.
An absolutely fine and noble Christian sentiment, Bishop Johnston. You will find no Christian who disagrees with you in those aims. It is just too bad that their expression came after you had spent so much time rigging the rhetorical playing field.
What’s next? We begin anew, as we hope those who left the Episcopal Church will, too. Dayspring is the biblical term for a new dawn that speaks of God breaking through to do new things. Our Dayspring initiative is renewing and restarting Episcopal congregations and returning Episcopal congregations to their church homes. We will ensure that all recovered properties serve the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church and thus serve our Lord Jesus Christ.
"New things," Bishop Johnston? Where have I heard those words before?  Oh, yes -- another bishop in ECUSA said them (quoting Isaiah) just before embarking on the largest campaign of internecine warfare in the Chruch's history. "Returning Episcopal congregations to their church homes"? That very much remains to be seen, Bishop Johnston. And as for seeing that "all recovered properties serve the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church"? I've already pointed out the extreme irony in those words, Bishop Johnston, and you do not help matters when you add the non sequitur "and thus serve our Lord Jesus Christ."
I have every confidence that our congregations will thrive. The Episcopal Church is built upon and celebrates its ancient roots, but is a faith in and for the modern world. Join us in God’s ancient yet new work.
Begging the question again, Bishop Johnston. But that's where we came in.

[UPDATE 03/30/2012: If the Bishop's remarks in the Post were intended to be read as extending an olive branch, his diocese's post-trial conduct has been anything but. Indeed, it was such as to give the lie to the good Bishop, and in light of what has now occurred, to make his remarks appear as a calculated countermove on the PR front.

For today, Truro Church filed its appeal of Judge Bellows' judgment to the Virginia Supreme Court, and The Falls Church (joined by Truro) filed a motion with the trial court to stay the judgment and set a supersedeas bond. (H/T: Baby Blue. The Falls Church's notice of appeal is an exhibit to its motion.)

Once the court fixes the amount, the bond -- in the form of cash or an irrevocable letter of credit -- is posted by the appellants to allow the case to be heard and decided by the appellate court without having to first turn over all of their bank accounts and properties to the diocese. The amount is set by the court to compensate the latter for the "loss" the diocese would incur from not taking possession of the properties immediately, and from having to wait until the Virginia Supreme Court acts on the appeal. (As noted in an earlier post, the Court has complete discretion: it can take the appeal and set it for argument and decision, or it can decline to hear it altogether, in which case the judgment below would become final if not appealed further -- see below.)

This move is probably best understood not only as a consequence of the quasi-punitive post-judgment rulings by the Court, but also as a precautionary move to keep the judgment from becoming final while we wait to see whether or not the United States Supreme Court will grant review on the three cert petitions now before it from the Supreme Courts of Georgia and Connecticut. Whether or not the Virginia Supreme Court agrees to take the appeal, a petition for certiorari could be filed with the United States Supreme Court -- asking it to review either Judge Bellows' decision directly (if the Virginia Court declines to take the appeal), or any eventual decision by the Virginia Supreme Court (if it upholds Judge Bellows' decision).

Meanwhile, in a separate announcement, the Church of the Epiphany, in Herndon, announced jointly with the Episcopal Diocese that they had reached a settlement. (Thus Epiphany will not be filing an appeal.) The terms require the Church to pay $520,750 to the Diocese over a period of two years, without interest, and to vacate their buildings by April 30 (except for their day school, which will remain through the end of the school year).

A fuller post treating all these matters is up at Stand Firm.]


  1. An excellent post. Well said. However, I would quibble with one point in your piece -- where you agree with the statement from the bishop:

    "In our tradition, it is the diocese, not the congregation, that is the basic unit of the Church. The bishop is its chief pastor."

    This is a modern contention that is assumed by some, but is far from being a settled issue.

    Comments are not the place to advance arguments, but I would say the Articles of Religion (which I submit is the foundation of the Anglican tradition) do not support the bishop's argument.

    Article 19 states in part: the visible church of Christ is a congregation of believers in which the pure Word of God is preached and in which the sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ's command in all those matters that are necessary for proper administration."

    I would not agree with the contention that the church is found in the diocese and not in the congregation of believers.

  2. Agreed, Fr. Conger. I have added this qualification to my approval of Bishop Johnston's characterization of the diocese:

    " . . . except you also talk below about 'mission,' and you need to remember that a diocese has to have parishes to fulfill its mission -- a diocese may be a 'basic unit', but it cannot amount to anything without parishes to do the work on the ground. . .".

    And Art. 19 is a great counter to his way of casting his piece as though all flows from the diocese (sc. Bishop Johnston). Thanks for bringing it to the thread.

  3. Let me get this straight: Epiphany is going to give the rotten borough Diocese of Virginia $500,000 dollars over the next two years AND turn over all of their properties? Sounds like QUITE A DEAL! /:-( I got another deal here: why don't I let the bank take my house away from me once the mortgage is paid, and then pay them another $200,000 to do it!

    I hope Epiphany changes its mind and walk away from this 'deal' and joins the other two churches...if, that is, nothing has been signed yet.

    I can understand wanting to move on and stop the fruitless fighting. But at the same time, that settlement is NO is extortion.

    Also, the Dio of Virginia seems to be like so many other dioceses in ECUSA--a rotton borough that retains some power, and the General Convention is full of these boroughs which are usually controlled by revisionists...that's how they have for years outnumbered the more populated and more conservative congregations and dioceses (like Dallas, Fort Worth, and South Carolina, etc.). That's how the General Convention has never truly represented many Episcopalians in the pews.

    They should have fought.

    Also, I hope that now some of these churches are appealing, that this will create more lawsuit fatigue on the other side of the Episcopal divide. The more it goes on for years and years without a decisive result, the more restive I imagine that others will get under this policy. I hope so, anyway.

  4. TRR, the odd amount of money being paid tells me it is the sum which the parties agreed had to be paid under the terms of the final judgment -- essentially, the amount of cash Epiphany had on hand as of January 2007, when the Diocese filed suit against it. I argued the unfairness of that decision in this earlier post, but the good folk at Epiphany obviously decided it was better to get on with their principal mission than to put more money into a lengthy appeal

  5. I found it interesting that the bishop so affirms that the diocese is the basic unit of the Church.

    Perhaps he could be used as an expert witness by the departing dioceses in their cases to explain this "theological" point to the court as against people who assert that the national church is the basic unit.

  6. FWIW ... I totally disagree with the Bishop's characterization of any Presbyterian church as hierachical.

    Our General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in an Authoritative Interpretation said in 2002 that:

    A higher governing body’s “right of review and control over a lower one” … “must not be understood in hierarchical terms, but in light of the shared responsibility and power at the heart of Presbyterian order.”