Spring 2004, Vol. 7, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2004

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Journalistically Ignorant

God the Poppa

Gendering the Religion Gap

Hindus and Scholars

Godawful Numbers

Georgia Evolves

Bare Naked Christians



Breaking Up is Hard to Do by Frank Kirkpatrick

When Gene Robinson, a divorced gay priest living in a partnered relationship with another man, was consecrated an Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in January, schism was widely predicted, both within the national Episcopal Church and in the broader Anglican Communion.

Many of those opposed to Robinson’s election said that the Episcopal Church had abandoned not only its scriptural foundation which, they claim, condemns homosexuality, but also had betrayed the collective wisdom of the majority of its African, South American, and Asian bishops as expressed in the last Lambeth Conference of 1998.#1

As it turns out, however, the threat of schism has been, as Mark Twain said of obituaries announcing his death, greatly exaggerated.

Some bishops and clergy unhappy with the Episcopal Church’s decision to ordain Robinson have indeed taken steps to separate themselves from the majority by joining an organization called the American Anglican Council (AAC). But they soon discovered that elements of their own regional flocks don’t share their goal of leaving or replacing the Episcopal Church. And in recent months, all of the contending parties have been feeling their way forward cautiously.

Most of the attention has gone to the conservatives, and to organizations like the AAC, which was organized in 1996. In the words of its web site (, the group was established out of a concern that “the Church’s elected leadership continued to move further and further away from the historic biblical Christian faith, as if locked in a downward spiraling dance of death with the post-modern Western culture.”

But, evidently, it takes time to decide how to escape a spiraling dance of death, not least of all because the conservatives really are Episcopalians who, despite their negative views about the larger church, must still cope with a substantial range of opinions. As early as 1996, the AAC’s website allowed that the organization found that, “far from being a monolithic or even homogeneous faction of the Church, we were actually a group with a great deal of diversity to hold in tension, as Anglicans sometimes pride ourselves in doing.” It is precisely this sort of “holding in tension” that now characterizes the activity occurring in the Episcopal Church since last fall. There has been an extraordinary reluctance on the part of even the most vociferous of dissenters to move into open schism with the Church.

The opponents of Robinson’s election have based their appeal for unity on their continuing affiliation with the global Anglican Communion as a whole, and not with the leadership of the Episcopal Church USA, which they portray as a renegade church. Ideally, they’d like to see the global Anglican community recognize them as the legitimate Anglican church in America and break ties with the Episcopal Church. So, one of the first actions taken by the AAC in the wake of Robinson’s consecration was the creation of what the charter members call “The Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes.”

By pledging to commit themselves “to full membership in the Anglican Communion of Churches throughout the world…and in submission to the moral and teaching authority of the Lambeth Conference and Primates Meeting,” the Network hopes to open the road to bypassing the authority of the General Convention in the United States and of the Presiding Bishop of the national Episcopal Church.

Their language is redolent of oppressed peoples who have been displaced from their native lands under forced migration: namely, “We further commit ourselves to the ongoing re-union of the Anglican diaspora in North America.”  (The Quincy, Mass. Patriot Ledger reported on February 2 that the Network claimed to have signed up about 10 percent of all Episcopalians in the United States.)

One of the most important departures from Episcopal polity in the United States is the AAC and Network’s attempt to establish a non-geographical jurisdiction (dioceses are always geographical) for dissident parishes scattered as a small minority in liberal dioceses. This will, they hope, involve “the provision of adequate episcopal oversight as mandated by the Primates of the Communion for parishes and congregations requesting such ministry.”

The current Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, is already working to find ways to provide such ministry in the form of “visiting” bishops from outside a diocese, but so far his efforts have not been endorsed by most dissenting bishops.

The Network’s intention to use visiting bishops would, in effect, undercut Griswold’s authority and, should a Network bishop seek to provide such “episcopal oversight” in a diocese without the approval of the diocesan bishop, it would be in direct challenge to Episcopal polity and hierarchical authority. The Associated Press reported on March 15 that some dissenting bishops have declared an “emergency” and even spoken of a “new reformation” to justify their use of Network affiliated visiting bishops. Some priests have renounced their orders and left ECUSA, but the numbers seem insignificant, at least so far.

Some dissidents have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to authorize a separate Anglican province for them in North America. Julia Duin of the Washington Times reported on December 6 that it has even been rumored that one of the harshest critics of the American Convention’s action, Nigerian bishop Peter Akinola, is seeking to have himself be named as an alternative to the Archbishop of Canterbury if the English archbishop doesn’t take a hard line against the Episcopal Church.

A Religion News Service report by Kevin Eckstrom filed on January 17 claimed that a confidential memo to supporters of the AAC said “open defiance [of diocesan bishops opposed to their agenda in the US] will be inevitable if bishops do not agree to cede authority and church property to conservatives.” Undoubtedly the key reason for slow movement has been the probability that the Episcopal Church would be in a strong position to take legal action to seize the property and assets of dissident conservative parishes seeking to leave liberal dioceses.

So far, there have been no major court cases over the disposal of the property of dissenting churches, though one, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on November 6, ironically seeks to enjoin Pittsburgh Bishop Duncan, the archconservative head of the Network, from transferring church property in the event of a schism.

The Washington Times’ Duin, who has followed the story closely since the beginning, added on January 19 that the Rev. Martyn Minns, a Virginia priest strongly opposed to the Convention’s actions, had said that this defiance will consist of visiting bishops teaching and confirming “with or without the permission of the local diocesan bishops.” On December 12, for example, she quoted David Anderson, president of the AAC, as calling the bishop of Philadelphia, Charles Bennison, a tyrant—and adding that if he doesn’t agree to a visiting bishop, one “might have to be jammed down his throat.” 

But the liberal supermajority of diocesan bishops has not been waiting passively for the actions of the AAC and the Network to take effect. The bishops serving Philadelphia and New Hampshire have either removed or rebuked local priests who have defied them. Other bishops, such as J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, have spoken out strongly in favor of the Convention’s action on Robinson, using the same “hold in tension” argument.

“Our roots in the Church of England have always made Anglicanism a church in which all were invited to participate—a big tent, a roomy house,” Bruno told the Los Angeles Times on December 7.  (Only 4 out of 147 congregations in his diocese have aligned themselves with the AAC, the Times reported.)

The original list of 12 signers to the Network included the bishops of Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Florida, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, South Carolina, Springfield, and Western Kansas. Later, one or two of these bishops announced that they had not agreed to join and that the publication of the list was premature. There are 101 Episcopal dioceses in the United States.

National journalists have given less attention to the resistance that dissenting bishops have encountered in their dioceses. Opposition to the actions of the dissenting bishops started to form soon after the Convention among both laity and clergy, who began complaining that their bishops were moving too quickly, unilaterally, and with undue concern for maintaining the unity of the church despite radically divergent views among the people. In short, the desire to avoid schism seemed more important to many Episcopalians (despite their deep differences over homosexuality and the election of Gene Robinson) than where they stand on the gay issue.

Most of the protests have taken place within dioceses, and not through national networks. The Episcopal News Service, an organ of the national church, has taken pains to cover this counter-reaction. On December 18, Jan Nunley of the service reported on a number of groups, not yet formally organized but referred to by the term “Via Media” (“Middle Way”), who were pushing back against dissident bishops. (Anglicans are fond of describing themselves as the middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism.)

The first such groups sprang up in the dioceses of Pittsburgh—Albany. Their primary purpose was to keep their dioceses within ECUSA, not just in the Anglican Communion.

“This conservative effort to corral the support of foreign primates to censure the Episcopal church is a betrayal of our most treasured Anglican principles,” the Rev. John Sorenson of Trinity Episcopal Church in Plattsburg, N.Y., one of the key players in the Via Media network, told Nunley. “It’s religious terrorism of the worst kind, by a group of American bishops who lost a vote on sexual morality and would rather blow us all up than have to learn to live with the diversity of the church….I for one, find it no improvement to replace the tyranny of the Pontiff with the presumption of the Primates.”  

In the Diocese of Florida, Bishop John Howe, who had been associated with the AAC and the Network, was convinced not to break from the national church. One prominent lay person there, Donna Bott, told Nunley, “[W]e are mainstream Episcopalians who represent the middle ground—the place where everyone is welcome and we can find unity despite our differences.”

In Fort Worth, Nunley reported that a similar Via Media group had challenged the figures used by its conservative Bishop, Jack Leo Iker, in signing a petition supporting the Network. Iker is alleged to have signed up 18,000 persons from the diocese as supporters while it only has 19,000 members total. In Pittsburgh, a group calling itself Progressive Episcopalians charged that the AAC thinks “it is worth sacrificing ECUSA for money and power.”

On December 19, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported that Pittsburgh Bishop Duncan had given an incorrect number of dioceses supporting the Network. The dioceses of Southwest Florida and Central Florida have said they are not allied with the Network.

Groups under different names, similar to Via Media, can be found in the dioceses of South Carolina, New Mexico, Rio Grande, Central Florida, Springfield (IL), San Joaquin (CA), and Tennessee.

These groups have managed to keep resolutions condemning the actions of the General Convention from passing at diocesan conventions. On February 1 the Washington Post reported that the Diocese of Virginia, a hotbed of conservatism, voted instead to establish a “reconciliation commission” to explore ways to maintain unity despite disagreement over moral and theological differences.

In late February, a group of clergy and laity in South Carolina held a conference on “Seeking Unity in Diversity.” (South Carolina’s bishop, Edward Salmon, was one of the original members of the Network.) Both Mississippi and North Carolina have refused to pass resolutions condemning Robinson’s consecration.

Many other dioceses were also working to find ways to maintain unity, and generally seemed to be succeeding, according to reports from the various parts of the country.

“As people have come to understand” that what the AAC and the Network “very well may have in mind is the destruction of the Episcopal Church, more and more people are turning and walking away from them,” Robinson himself told the Chicago Sun-Times on February 9. “I don’t think that a church, or any part of a church, founded on anger and hatred is going to go very far.”

Financial issues have become more confused. Initial predictions were that the national church as well as dioceses would lose large sums of money from disaffected parishioners. But while some funds are being withheld or earmarked for things other than mission and outreach, the drop-off seems smaller than originally forecast.

Some people are leaving local parishes and reducing or eliminating their pledges. Others have restricted their pledges so that they do not go to the national church’s mission budget. At the end of September, Virginia’s projected 2004 income was down nearly $1 million—nearly 20 percent of its 2003 budget.

But spokespersons for the national church have said that they don’t see the threat of schism or serious decline in revenues. The Rev. Daniel England told the Albany Times Union on January 22 that only 10 percent of the bishops were in dissent and “that doesn’t sound like a split to me.” He also said the financial pressure from conservative dioceses was “insignificant” and would not lead to “any cutbacks, layoffs, or reductions” in the missionary work of the Church.

The AP quoted another national church official on February 10 arguing that revenues might drop by $3 million in 2004 but wouldn’t significantly hurt church operations. As of mid-February the Episcopal News Service was reporting that of the 84 dioceses making financial commitments to the national church, 40 pledged or exceeded the 21 percent of diocesan budget determined by a formula established by the General Convention.

The Episcopal News Service reported on February 17 that total income from diocesan apportionment was estimated to be down 6.8 percent. The figures, however, change rapidly as pledge amounts are reported and as follow-through on them is recorded. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on December 13 that an attempt to launch a local economic boycott against the Episcopal Church in the Atlanta area had “sputtered to a virtual halt.”

The New York Times’ Goodstein wrote on December 29 that while some Episcopal parishes are losing many members to Roman Catholicism because of the debate over Robinson’s ordination, Roman Catholics, driven by their anger at how their Church has handled the sexual abuse issue, were arriving from the other direction.

Perhaps the most significant feature story on to the fallout from the actions of the national Episcopal Church was a New York Times Magazine article by Michael Massing on January 4 that reported that some highly placed conservatives were not rushing to break up the Episcopal church. Massing focused on the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Peter Lee, who, although leader of one of the most conservative dioceses in the country and a bishop who would not ordain openly gay persons or sanction same-sex blessings, had voted for Robinson. Lee said he did so because he believed that if the people of New Hampshire wanted him, their wishes should be respected. (In so doing he was recognizing the polity of Episcopal church, which gives great latitude to diocesan autonomy).

Julia Duin of the Washington Times also quoted Lee on January 31, to the effect that heresy is preferable to schism, a view that probably summed up the issue as well as it could be for many Episcopalians. Quoting the Presbyterian theologian James McCord, Lee told Duin, “[A]s a heretic, you are only guilty of a wrong opinion. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided the body of Christ. Choose heresy every time.” •

 1Lambeth is a decennial gathering of the 38 primates (heads) of the national churches that constitute the Anglican Communion. It is hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.






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