Diocesan Decisions to leave Episcopal "Church": How the Newspapers Get it Wrong

david at virtueonline.org david at virtueonline.org
Wed Jan 14 22:22:39 EST 2009

Diocesan Decisions to leave the Episcopal "Church": How the Newspapers Get it Wrong

by John H. Rodgers Jr., 
January 8/2009

Perhaps you noted that I place the word "Church" in quotes when I refer to the Episcopal "Church". I do this because one of the errors we find in the Newspapers is found in statements like: "St. Swithens, a congregation of the Episcopal Church, has decided to leave the Church". 

If one takes the 19th Article of the 39 Articles seriously as Anglican doctrine, the Episcopal "Church" has forfeited its right to be called a visible Church. It no longer bears the essential marks listed therein; chiefly, it no longer preaches the Gospel or disciplines those in its ranks that publicly deny basic parts of the Gospel message.

Since the departing congregations, most often leaving at the cost of their endowments and property, are congregations wherein the Gospel is preached, it would be far more accurate to say that the Church in its local expression is leaving a religious institution that has forfeited its right to be called a Church. I try to signal that situation by putting the word "Church" in quotes when I speak of the Episcopal "Church".

However that theological matter is not the error in the newspapers that I want to address in this brief article. I do not want to speak of individual or of congregations leaving dioceses, but rather of dioceses separating themselves from the Episcopal "Church" and how the newspapers almost invariably get it wrong when they speak of what took place, and of the resulting situation and the subsequent area of dispute. 

First we must state the undisputed facts:

1.	The Dioceses (San Joachin, Pittsburgh, Quincy, and Fort Worth) in question have met in diocesan council and have twice voted to separate themselves from the Episcopal "Church". They have done this in meticulous compliance with the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal "Church". The proceedings are well documented for all to see. All of the congregations were represented or at least the required quorum, through their official representatives. This official act of the dioceses is a fact.

2.	This action involved the entire diocese, irrespective of how any set of congregational representatives voted or abstained. It was an official diocesan decision. The entire diocese separated, lock stock and barrel, from the Episcopal Church". Thereby all of the congregations, all of the property of the diocese and of the congregations of the diocese, including endowments etc., ware separated from the Episcopal "church". No exemptions were recorded regarding particular congregations or properties. 

3.	Some individuals, even the majority of a minority of congregations, did not agree with the decision and subsequently declared that they were no longer part of the historic diocese that had voted to separate. These individuals have continued to occupy the buildings and use the funds that belong to the diocese from which they have departed. 

They are no longer congregations of the diocese; in essence they are uncovenanted individuals, and have neither legal nor moral right to the buildings, funds or endowments they are using. 	(The fact that these dioceses do not wish to sue these individuals or groups in court and wish to deal with them in godly charity is good and in accord with Scripture, but that godliness on the part of the dioceses must not be understood by these individuals and groups as if the dioceses were abandoning their legal rights. 

Should these individuals drag the dioceses into court, they must expect the dioceses to claim their legal rights to the entire diocese. They would be better served to deal with the dioceses out of court. One is reminded of Jesus admonition to resolve such issues before they were brought before the judge. 	

This understanding of the relation of congregation to diocese is exactly what the constitution and canon of the Episcopal "Church" describes and is precisely the basis for how the Episcopal "Church" has dealt with and continuous to deal with congregations that seek to leave their dioceses. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.)

4.	There is nothing in the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal "Church" that prohibits a diocese from separating from the Episcopal "Church".   		

(If I am correct, dioceses did separate from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America at the time of the "Late Unpleasantness". When the Southern Dioceses returned there was no denial that they had left nor was there any amendment to the Constitution of the Canons to forbid such departing. If this is true, then there is legal precedent on the side of the dioceses who have voted to separate from the Episcopal "Church".)

5.	The leaders of the Episcopal "Church" have arbitrarily decided that it is impossible for a diocese to separate itself from the Episcopal "Church". They offer no Constitutional grounds or Canonical grounds for this claim. It is a matter of their sheer assertion. 

To bolster this arbitrary, dubious and scandalous assertion, they have formed new dioceses, standing committees and congregations and claim or threaten to claim the property and endowments of the dioceses that have voted to separate themselves fro the Episcopal "Church". 

In addition the leaders of the Episcopal "Church" make things even worse by continuing to claim that these new entities are really the historic diocese that voted to leave. 

To make everything even more difficult, the Episcopal "Church" uses the names of the historic dioceses for these new entities. (Lest I be misunderstood, I want to state that I do not hold that there is anything wrong with the Episcopal "Church" forming new dioceses, standing committees, etc. 

They can do what they want. I am not utterly opposed to overlapping jurisdictions, for that matter. What is wrong is the claim that these new entities which have rejected the decision of their historic diocese are continuing expressions of the historic dioceses that left, and the using of names that obscure the fact that these are in fact entirely new entities.)

These are the facts. Now what might we hope that the news reporters would write in the newspapers?

1.	We would hope and expect that the reporters would understand and write that for a diocese to separate from the Episcopal "Church" is quite a different matter than that of an individual or a congregation leaving a diocese of the Episcopal "Church". 

Different procedures are involved. One has no bar in the Constitution and Canons and the other has all sorts of restrictions stated. Whether these canonical restrictions in the case of congregations leaving dioceses are good or godly or scriptural is another matter. 

The point is they are very different actions and lead to very different consequences as we have tried to state above. To fail to make this clear misleads the reader. It is simply wrong to write: "In Diocese "X" 70% of the congregations remained in the Episcopal Church and that 30% of the congregations did not leave the Episcopal Church" When the Diocese institutionally and legally, separated itself, all of the congregations belonging to it were separated with it by that decision, like it or not.

2.	We hope and expect that the issues as to why the diocese voted to separate itself from the Episcopal Church would be clearly stated and the whole story covered with the views of all sides and groups stated.

3.	Finally, we would hope that the dispute over whether or not a diocese can leave the Episcopal "Church" would be clearly delineated. The usual way of stating things actually prejudices the case against the diocese that has voted to separate and assumes the language of the Episcopal "Church". Confusion reigns and the arbitrary nature of the claim of the Episcopal "Church" is obscured.

---Rt. Rev. John H. Rodgers Jr. ThD is the former President of Trinity School for Ministry. He is a Bishop in the AMIA (ret.) 

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