January 14, 2009

Sacred Vows, Sacred Trust

a guest editorial

Fifty years ago, I was accepted as a postulant for Holy Orders. When I was ordained, our vows were referred to as “Sacred Vows” committing ourselves to a calling, a vocation and not just a job. The Vows were so significant that after we recited them, the service was stopped, while we went and signed a printed copy of the vows. I pasted my copy in my prayer book hymnal. I made those vows at ordination to the Diaconate and again at my ordination to the Priesthood. I was ordained by Bishops of a Diocese but for the Episcopal Church. In later years, when I was required to establish my identity by various secular authorities, I gave the page and edition number of the Episcopal Church Annual. My authority, my “license,” my legal standing as a priest, came from the Episcopal Church. When I moved to a Diocese, the first credential was to be in good standing as a Priest in the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church welcomed me as a steward, not an owner, but a steward of ministry resources. When I was called to a parish, I was given the use of Church buildings and grounds; vestments, chalices and other altar appointments; organs, pianos, office equipment; funds for mission & ministry, endowments and designated funds for scholarships and outreach. I was responsible for working with the congregation to maintain all of the above and (see parable of the Talents) to enhance and grow those resources to the best of our ability. When it was time to leave, I turned all of the above over to my successor. I was told from day one, you are a steward not an owner and the Episcopal Church is trusting you with these resources because of your ordination to the priesthood and license within the Episcopal Church.

Bishops have a third set of vows. They are approved by the whole Episcopal Church before they may be ordained and consecrated to the Episcopate. The Diocese elects and the Episcopal Church, through a vote of Bishops holding jurisdiction over Dioceses and a majority of Diocesan Standing Committees, consents and affirms the election. When the consents are required within three months of General Convention, the House of Deputies of General Convention acts in the role of the Standing Committees. Once Consecrated, the Bishops receive the use of the resources of a Diocese as stewards not owners. When they leave, they are to turn it all over to the succeeding Bishop.

There have always been times when a Deacon, Priest or Bishop, as a matter of conscience, deems it impossible to continue in the Church which has empowered them. There are appropriate ways to declare such. Two Bishops I greatly respect, John Lipscomb formerly Bishop of Southwest Florida and Jeffrey Steenson of Rio Grande (New Mexico and part of West Texas) each have been received into the Roman Catholic Church. As Paul reminds us in Romans, we are to outdo one another in honor. These men took honor seriously.

Some are arguing that the property belongs to the current members of a Church or Institution. That requires forgetting the great contributions of the hundreds and thousands of Saints who have preceded them in those places. Trinity Cathedral is the mother Church of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and has served Western Pennsylvania for 25 decades. I had the privilege of being responsible for Trinity for two of those decades. Bp. Duncan was responsible for one. Does that mean I am twice as worthy to “own” the Cathedral? That is absolute nonsense.

Someone wrote that since the Episcopal Church has a polity of participatory democracy that the majority of current members has the right to property. ... I love our polity. While I am quick to point out its flaws, I have found it to be more helpful for me in ministry and mission for Jesus than other polities. But simply stated, we in Pittsburgh watched as the checks and balances of our polity were dismantled over the last eight years or so. At the end, we were not even permitted to have a roll call vote at Convention. I did not speak at our Convention to the issues of controversy during my six years as President of the House of Deputies, since I would have to preside over them. In November of 2006, in the two minutes I was allotted (and then only if you were near enough to the front of the line to be called on before debate was ended) I decried the fact that as someone who had served the mother parish of the Diocese for more than twenty years; as someone who had an unusual, if not unique, view of the entire Episcopal Church, that I was allowed only 120 seconds to speak to the most difficult and complex question the Diocese of Pittsburgh had faced since its founding following the war between the states.

I do not question the sincerity or commitment to Jesus of those with whom I may disagree. Like the late Bp. Herb Thomson said to the wardens and rector of a parish which chose to leave the Episcopal Church, “How may we help you board another ship in the fleet of Christ?” For fifty years, I have never once considered claiming ownership of property and resources entrusted to me and my colleagues. I was surprised, even shocked, when a Pittsburgh priest started talking about this twenty or more years ago. I think, like Bp. Thompson, we may work to find ways to make this painful period gracious and to give the Body of Christ in our areas the best opportunities to do ministry in Christ’s name. I still believe my vows are sacred. I still thank God for the sacred trust given me by the Episcopal Church. How blessed I have been.

George Werner
31st President of the House of Deputies.

posted with his permission, and my thanks, by Tobias Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

There can be no doubt that the priest is stewart not owner of the ressources. But if I understand it right, that isn't the question.

The question those fighting to take the property with them is whether the parish has the right to take that property which, presumably, was paid for in good faith by members of that parish in the past before the church became "unorthodox"

The question as I understand it is two-fold:
Is the parish the owner or the Episcopal church? And does this ownership depend on whether the priests and congregation of a partish agree that a new theological slant agreed by the whole HOB is "orthodox"?

I have always found that the most bizzare aspect of this debate is that people seem to believe that ownership rests on a set of doctines and policies a church subscribes to, not on its canons.

But as a mere observer I could be very wrong here.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Part of this is about how one thinks of organizations who have a lifetime longer than that of the individuals who make it up, and which is also hierarchical -- that is, the organization has various subsections.

Part of it is about the nature of hierarchical decision-making: as in the US, the states cannot make laws in conflct with the Federal statutes or the Constitution.

Part of it is about property law, which in the US has long recognized that hierarchical organizations (not just churches) have the right to order the use of property dedicated to their operations, and that individuals have no right to that property.

To get away from the Church, for example; say a major donor gave money to the Red Cross to build a new office in a town. Then say, hears later, the Red Cross changes its policies in a way the donor's grandchildren don't like. Several of them sit on the board of the local branch. Well, I think it fair to say the law would prevent them taking the property from the Red Cross and starting their own Health Agency -- even if the whole board supported them.

The vestry of a parish do not "own" the parish property, even if the name on the title or deed says, "Rector, Wardens, and Vestry of St Swithun's Church." They hold title, but not ownership, as custodians and trustees. And that is how legal cases have been settled in the US for many, many years, long before the Dennis Canon. And not just in TEC, but other hierarchical churches as well.

Those who imply that TEC itself has broken a trust by changing its teachings has missed the fact that TEC has the right to change its teachings... as Mr. Hooker noted concerning the C of E. To echo George Werner's thoughts, when a priest makes vows to the church, it is not just to the present church but to the church to come. Just as when a man and woman make marriage vows it isn't on the condition "so long as you don't change!" In fact, the marriage vows are quite explicit that they hold in spite of change -- for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, etc...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting Werner's comments. There have been many tragedies in Pittsburgh and the very shabby way that Duncan and his cohorts treated Werner -- a faithful servant of the Church and one who is hardly a wild and crazy liberal -- is certainly one of them.

Davis said...

Very moving. Thanks for this

Anonymous said...

Dean Werner makes his case well, if winsomely. I believe it has its flaws. In the first instance, it assumes the Episcopal Church has no obligations in return to its dioceses and parishes; that it’s free to alter, in a wholesale manner, its identity and expect no repercussions. For Dean Werner, it seems, stewardship and sacred vows only cut one way. To blithely dismiss this as, “TEC has the right to change its teachings” (get over it), as Tobias does is pretty remarkable. That is, to admit the Faith is up for a vote every three years according to 50%+1 is an astonishing trump card to lay down from a church calling itself, “Apostolic.”

Second, the Dean thinks it’s silly to hold the view that, “the property belongs to the current members of a Church or Institution,” ostensibly because the dead hand of prior members precludes such a possibility. Leaving aside the very shaky assumption that any significant proportion of those earlier members would agree with what ECUSA has done, is doing and is likely to do, this is the real nonsense. The implication would be that a current business owner shouldn’t be able to dissolve, sell or merge his company because the no-longer-involved founder (alive or dead) would disagree. Or, that I can’t paint my house blue because the original owner wanted it green. Of course, the church being the church and not a restaurant, I have to agree he has something of a point. Yes, let’s consider our forebears before doing something drastic. See paragraph one.

Finally, his focus is conspicuously on the obligations of individual clergy, but the actions to which he objects have been taken by parishes and dioceses – by people assembled, engaging in the same participatory democracy which was credited as a virtue at the level of ECUSA. Why isn’t it a virtue here? I believe these entities retain the right to disaffiliate themselves with ECUSA, just as they affiliated at earlier times. Certainly, there isn’t anything that says otherwise.

There was a lot of talk on earlier threads about the Civil War as an analogy to ECUSA, but an earlier, more foundational analogy in the same tradition can be found in the Declaration of Independence:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…

“We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.”

And so they have.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Phil, the canons are quite clear about parishes not having the power to disaffiliate from a diocese. No such power is granted them; they can't even sell a square foot of land without diocesan approval. The same goes for dioceses and the national church -- only overseas missionary dioceses can become independent. There is no provision for domestic dioceses leaving the union of the church.

The importance of the "national church" is amply laid out in the Preface to the 1789 BCP and in the early canonical and constitutional history. It is in fact because of the strength of this notion that the PECCSA was created at the secession of the southern states -- not because the Southern Bishops wanted to divide, but because they felt they had to because a new nation had been created. The Union bishops and GC disagreed (since they held that the union could not be divided and no new nation had been created) and so they simply considered the bishops and deputies "absent" from the sessions. The one bishop consecrated in PECCSA during the War was received without additional ceremony into PECUSA --- PECCSA was held never to have really existed.

TEC has not "changed the Faith" by a 50% + 1 vote. It hasn't changed the Faith at all, apart from authorizing omission of "and the Son" from the Creed (in order to bring it into actual consonance with the real Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) I know of no other changes on credal matters; the Catechism is, if anything, more orthodox than that in the 1928 BCP, which, for example, said little about the Scriptures.

The "dead hand" issue is, I agree, moot. But I know you are mistaken concerning earlier generations. I know that my parish, in the late 19th century, was extremely progressive -- the clergy had studied in Heidelberg and picked up all the latest thinking in biblical scholarship. They would hav sided with Colenso at Lambeth. The point is, we don't know what the dead might think about any particular issue in the present. This is one reason, as a matter of fact, that such speculations are ruled out even for the living: even the present members of a parish can't walk away with the property, or alienate it from the larger church. They have no right to do this even if they are unanimous. Counting ballots for the dead, in the manner of Chicago, adds nothing to the argument.

Finally, no "unwarrantable jurisdiction" has been "extended" over parishes and dioceses. Rather, they have entered into a covenant union as members of a hierarchical church, from which they are not at a later time allowed to withdraw except as individuals. So say the laws of church and state. You are welcome to a contrary opinion, but appeals to revolution remain that: revolution.

June Butler said...

George Werner's words are fine, indeed, wise and from the heart.

Perhaps the final words on the subject of the property could be the words we've all heard over and over when a member of the church suggests a change , "But we've always done it that way."

Anonymous said...

Tobias, I don't know where the laws of the church say parishes and dioceses cannot withdraw. The practice or philosophy of the national bureaucracy, which has its own reasons for maintaining control over what it views as its subsidiaries, don't change the reality that the inability to disaffiliate is only presumed - so far as I know. I could be wrong.

I disagree with you on what TEC has done with regard to the Faith - I believe it has functionally departed from it in several areas (and it has done so by vote in the areas of sexual morality; it also infamously refused to endorse a resolution at GC03 restating a basic point of Christian belief). As I know my having that opinion won't surprise you, that's neither here nor there. However, what I read you as doing is appealing to what is formally written down as a defense against my charge. What I would suggest is that practice matters just as much as formally approved documents. My "for example" in this case is the national security conduct of the Bush administration, of which I'm going to assume you disapprove. Many claim the President has violated our civil rights or otherwise betrayed our Constitutional or national ideals. Those people would essentially be making the appeal I am making here: the conduct is widespread and wrong. My response analogous to yours would then be to say that there is no problem, because the administration hasn't changed the Constitution. Do you see? That doesn't work. What is done, not what is written down, is what matters. The Soviet Constitution, after all, guaranteed its citizens rights and freedoms equal to ours.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Phil, the Constitution and Canons have very explicit language concerning the relationship of parishes to dioceses, and dioceses to the national church. There is no provision anywhere for a parish to leave a diocese, or a diocese to leave the [domestic] church. There are very careful rules on how new parishes are to be created within the boundaries of other parishes; the limits on parishes being able to alienate property, and how dioceses are created. If, as you claim, parishes and dioceses are simply free to affiliate and/or disaffiliate unilaterally, don't you think that would have been mentioned as a proviso to all of these other regulations? As I've already noted, the US Constitution provides no procedure for states becoming independent once they enter the union. I do not think the inability to dissafiliate is "only presumed" -- though it is that at the very least. Perhaps it was an oversight not to include such specific language, both for TEC and the US; but I think you would have a hard case of it at law, as I note that the courts have decided the question both for the Federal Government and in the vast majority of parish cases -- we will see what happens with dioceses shortly.

As to our disagreeemnt on the Faith, well, that will have to remain. Issues of moral theology (marriage, birth control, etc.) are not traditionally held to be part of "The Faith" -- and there are very very few Christian traditions that have not made changes in such practices. As I noted in my earlier post on changes in morals, there are many changes in such teaching. This does not rise to the level of dogmatic or systematic theology.

As to the GC failing to adopt statements on traditional theology, there are two issues. First, sometimes the statements themselves are not really orthodox. I recall one in 2006 that had a problem with language did not in fact reflect the traditional teaching of the church, but rather very narrowly focused on one of the several theories of the Atonement, and made it the only acceptable one -- one not recognized in the Easter Orthodox Church, I might add! In addition, there was a strange turn of phrase (something about "substitutionary essence of the cross") and it wasn't clear exactly what that meant. I'm not sure what 03 resolution you refer to. But often such resolutions are voted down because they are seen as unnecessary -- it is not that GC disagrees with the content, but feel that such statements are already part of our formularies and teaching in the BCP -- and it begins to give precisely the impression you want to avoid, that is, we are simply taking votes on core doctrines. As I say, the core doctrine of this Church is in the BCP -- not in the comments of the PB or your bishop, or Robert Duncan, or you or me. As it stands, I don't agree with everything our PB says either. But she doesn't establish the doctrine of the church. Certainly neither does Jack Spong, with whom I disagree on many, many matters.

I take your point on Bush etc., but I merely note that this is nothing new. The property issue has been decided in this way literally for centuries. That doesn't mean it's right -- but it is the standing understanding of the law. The Dennis Canon was adopted with little controversy or debate, for example. There was no vote by orders or by roll call. People understood it to be doing exactly what the Supreme Court suggested in Jones v Wolf: amending the governing documents to clarify an already implicit trust realtionship.

I hope this helps clarify the nature of our disagreement. It does seem to me to lie at a basic philosophical level, and I'm not sure we can settle it. But I hope we understand one another better.

Peace of Christ be with you.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

What Grand'mère said.