Should I Stay or Should I Go?

david at david at
Wed Jan 14 22:21:39 EST 2009

Should I Stay or Should I Go?


By Cary McMullen
The Ledger 
January 9, 2009 

In the immortal words of The Clash, "Should I stay or should I go?"

A number of Episcopal parishes - not many, percentage-wise - are upset about what they see as their denomination drifting away from biblical orthodoxy, particularly with regard to sexual ethics. They've said, we're going, and split. I'm interested in the ones in The Episcopal Church who don't like what's going on but decided they're staying, and I'll get to them in a moment.

But first, a news item. Earlier this week, the California Supreme Court ruled that 11 parishes in that state which have broken away from The Episcopal Church are not entitled to keep their property. The parishes had sued for the right to keep their sanctuaries and land, which in many cases are quite valuable.

The hitch is that all Episcopal parishes subscribe to a constitution that unequivocally declares parishes hold their property in trust for the denomination as a whole. That means even if the parish paid for every blade of grass and stick of furniture, it doesn't really belong to them. Other Protestant churches that have strong connectional structures - the United Methodists and the Presbyterian Church (USA), for example - have similar policies.

The California court ruling was not a surprise. Relying on an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a precedent, the courts have pretty consistently upheld these "hold in trust" rules. (A recent ruling in a Virginia state court in favor of several breakaway Episcopal parishes is an aberration, relying on an old state law that specifically addressed churches in the midst of a schism. Courts nowadays are usually not interested in stepping into internal church disputes.)

Many of the disaffected parishes are attempting to form their own Anglican "province," called the Anglican Church in North America. The California ruling will tend to discourage any parishes that are tempted to join it from doing so. But it's interesting that a number of conservative bishops, rectors and parishes have decided not to leave, even though they are in agreement with those who have.

For example, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, now the largest parish in the denomination, told Christianity Today magazine in an e-mail interview this week, "I am keenly aware that some feel that their only choice is to leave a very sick, in some places dying, in other places errant, Episcopal Church. But I do not think leaving is the answer."

Levenson in effect says that the burden is on those who want to leave to justify their actions, and he doesn't think they've met the test.

"I think we are seeing both (heresy and schism) actively at work in virtually every mainline denomination today. We have an obligation to stand against both and work instead for a faithful, orthodox witness and a body of believers bound by their common love of the Lord Jesus and one another," he said.

One who shares that view is Bishop John Howe of the Diocese of Central Florida, which includes the parishes here in Polk County. At one time, Howe and his diocese were members of a network that has now become the breakaway Anglican Church in North America. But Howe backed away from that network, and his firm leadership was key in preventing his diocese from joining four other dioceses that have voted to "disaffiliate" from The Episcopal Church.

Howe has told me that he would not be part of any group that is cut off from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the main symbol of unity in the Anglican Communion. In an interview with his diocese's newspaper recently, Howe said, "I share many if not most of (the dissenters') theological commitments and concerns. ... But God has called me to be a bishop in The Episcopal Church ... and I have no intention of leaving it."

All this may seem like a lot of to-do about technicalities, but there is an important principle at stake in these disputes, and that is the nature of the church. The dissidents - those who are going - believe they are upholding its purity. The ones who are staying believe they are upholding its unity. Which is the more important?

Levenson quotes from a conversation he had with British Anglican theologian John Stott, who told him, "Remember what Max Warren said, 'the church is evidence of God's patience.'"

---Cary McMullen, religion editor for The Ledger

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