Conventional Wisdom

The Rev. Harold T. Lewis, Ph.D.
Rector, Calvary Episcopal Church

The upcoming  diocesan convention may be one of the most important ever. In the September 30, 2007, issue of the Calvary Church newsletter, Agape, Dr. Lewis offers a clear analysis of what is going on and what is at stake at this convention. His essay is reproduced here by permission.

In December 1904, when Calvary was still on Penn Avenue, the Rector and Vestry received a request from their counterparts at St. Andrew’s Church, then located on Ninth Street downtown. The bishop had given permission to St. Andrew’s to build a new church on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard, and its Vestry was checking with ours to see if their removal to the East End met with Calvary’s approval. According to our parish archives, “Calvary Vestry voiced its objection to this and the move was later abandoned.” Subsequently, St. Andrew’s selected a site in Highland Park, where that parish has flourished ever since. The vestries of the respective parishes were acting under the provisions of a diocesan canon which stated that the rectors and vestries of the three parishes nearest the proposed site of a new church must be contacted and that no building could be erected until the said vestries “had an opportunity to be heard thereon.”

At the 142nd Convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, slated to take place in Johnstown 2-3 November, delegates will consider a change to this venerable canon, which grows out of the concept that each parish has loosely defined boundaries, and should be able to weigh in if another parish chooses to set up shop in its neighborhood. The change, whose stated rationale is “to simplify,” does far more than that. It reads: “The site of any church or chapel shall not be changed without the consent of the bishop, who shall have consulted with the leadership of nearby parishes (as determined by the Bishop) and the standing committee.” The power to decide where new parishes shall be erected will now rest solely with the bishop, who, having determined which parishes are deemed to be “nearby,” may effectively inform them of his decision.

Given the fact that the diocesan leadership has made it clear that it wishes to remove the diocese from The Episcopal Church, which according to the bishop, is a different church with a different gospel than the one to which he claims allegiance, it may be that Calvary and other congregations in the diocese which remain in The Episcopal Church may have objections to the erection of new churches for reasons far more serious than mere proximity. But under the new canons our voices would not be heard. Indeed, the silencing of minority voices and a centralization of power in the office of the bishop and a concomitant disempowerment of clergy and laity seem to characterize most proposed constitutional and canonical changes. Even the Rules of Order will be changed to make it increasingly difficult to have roll call votes, a provision in Robert’s Rules of Order “used when a record of each person’s vote is required,” not unreasonable, many of us have believed, when the question before the Convention is, for example, whether to remain in the Episcopal Church.

Pruning and Grafting

The proposed constitutional and canonical revisions to come before the Convention are reflective of an overall intent to “prune,” on the one hand, parishes and individuals who do not conform to the stated standard of “upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer,” and on the other hand, to “graft” onto the diocesan tree those who allegedly do uphold such a standard. Accordingly, the diocese, under a new constitutional change, would consist not only of the counties of southwestern Pennsylvania, but parishes outside of that geographical area “found satisfactory to any Convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.” Thus, to use Bishop Duncan’s word, our diocese would become “porous,” determined less by geography than by ideology. Otherwise put, this means that diversity is eschewed, and that in order to be healthy, a diocese must be made up solely of people and parishes on exactly the same theological page.

I read with especial interest the proposed revision to Canon XV, Section 6, the canon speciously and shamelessly used at the Convention of 2004 to threaten Calvary Church and St. Stephen’s, Wilkinsburg, with expulsion from the Diocese. Whereas the canon currently requires that notice of the dissolution of the union between the diocese and the parish must be given

“at the preceding Annual Convention,” the revised version requires only that such notice be given “in a preceding Convention.” What this means is that if notice of dissolution is given, say, at the Annual Convention, it could be put into effect at a special convention called by the bishop at any subsequent date, at the bishop’s discretion. The stated rationale of the change is “to clarify the intent of the canon.” If that is correct, the intent seems to be to enable the diocese to rid itself of unwanted parishes with as much dispatch as is possible.

Ironies, Inconsistencies and Illogicalities

The constitutional and canonical overhaul which will dominate the Convention’s agenda must be seen as an ex post facto attempt to provide a justification and a rationale for the sea changes already in effect. It is as if the Commissioner of Baseball hurriedly issued new rules because the Pirates, on the field, arbitrarily decided that games should consist of six innings instead of nine, and played accordingly. Principal among these changes is the proposal to remove the accession clause from the Constitution, which states that the Diocese, being a constituent part of the Episcopal Church “accedes to, recognizes, and adopts the Constitution and Canons of that Church, and acknowledges its authority accordingly.” In the revised article, no mention of The Episcopal Church is made, and instead, the Diocese is described as “a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.”

Further, constitutional provision is made for the Diocese to “have membership in such Province of the Anglican Communion as is by Diocesan Canon specified, ”meaning that the Diocese may at any time become part of the Province of the Southern Cone or Southeast Asia or Rwanda, for example. But surprisingly, a yet-to-be-numbered canon provides that the Diocese (although it has purported “to end any claim of spiritual or canonical authority of the General Convention over the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh) “shall be a member of that Province of the Anglican Communion known as the (Protestant) Episcopal Church in the United States of America.”

This is more than having one’s cake and eating it. Since constitutional changes require concurrence by a second annual Convention, membership in another province would have to wait, theoretically, until November of 2008. The canon asserting membership in TEC requires no ratification. It appears to me, therefore, that the diocesan leadership believes that placing membership in The Episcopal Church in the form of a canon would ensure that they would enjoy all the benefits of membership in The Episcopal Church until such time as realignment with another province takes place. But the bishop’s pastoral letter suggests that the leadership envisions that its dual identity would be in effect in perpetuity. Since the bishop maintains that “It is the Episcopal Church that has moved,” he would seem to contend that those dioceses like Pittsburgh who realign with Anglican provinces elsewhere virtually supplant TEC as the bona fide expression of Anglicanism in North America. This, in my opinion, defies logic.

A final note. A careful look at the agenda for Convention reveals that the banquet speaker and the preacher at the Eucharist is the Rt. Rev. John Guernsey. Interestingly, he is not identified as bishop of X, or suffragan or coadjutor of Y. And perhaps for good reason. John Guernsey has no see. A deposed priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, he was consecrated earlier this month in Uganda, and like Martyn Minns and others, has been sent back to the United States to minister to former Episcopalians who now deem themselves to be under the spiritual care of an African archbishop. Indeed, Guernsey, dubbed by the Wall Street Journal an “offshore bishop,” is part of what Archbishop Orombi of Uganda (chaplain at Pittsburgh’s convention in 2004) describes as a “Biblically orthodox domestic ecclesial entity in the USA.” Its elaborate moniker notwithstanding, it is an illegal construct specifically forbidden by the Windsor Report and described by the House of Bishops as one of the “incursions by uninvited bishops.” The supreme irony, I think, is that at a Convention whose delegates will be asked to vote to realign itself with those who are in communion with the See of Canterbury, the guest speaker and preacher is one who is not recognized by the See of Canterbury.

Bishop Guernsey’s presence at Convention is an in-your-face affront to those of us in the Diocese who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church. By presenting him to the Diocese, is not our bishop telling us that they share a common theology and vision of the church? The only difference is that Guernsey, Minns and the other off-shore bishops have followed the dictates of their conscience and have left the church which they for so long have repudiated.

Faithfully, your rector and friend,