Back in early July, right after the Episcopal Church USA finished its general convention, declining to “repent”—as requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury—of its confirmation of the openly gay, openly cohabitating V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times . The gist of my article was that the Episcopalians’ capitulation to secular liberal culture hadn’t simply catapulted their church into severe demographic decline”—a drop of nearly one million members since 1965, and a median number of eighty worshippers per church on any given Sunday—but its literal disintegration.
In the wake of the convention, which also included the election of a female presiding bishop in contravention of Anglican norms and a refusal to reaffirm the bedrock Christian principle that salvation comes from Jesus Christ, seven bishops of Episcopal dioceses announced they would seek oversight elsewhere in the worldwide Anglican Communion rather than from the new presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, a gay-union advocate who also prayed to a female Jesus during the conventions. The seven bishops’ decisions were precipitated by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ declaration that the Episcopal Church USA was no longer in full communion with its fellow Anglican churches, whose numbers of members dwarf those of the U.S. church by some seventy-four million.
Not long after my article appeared, an exceedingly miffed J. Jon Bruno, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, took out a full-page ad in the Times accusing me of being “simplistic,” “inaccurate,” and the usual yada yada. He seemed to be making the points that (1) Who cares that the numbers are down? and (2) Maybe we can make it up by recruiting more gays. As Bruno himself put it:
At our best we [Episcopalians] are open-hearted and open-minded followers of Jesus Christ. We democratically elect our bishops, priests, and lay leaders at all levels of the church.
When a California friend sent me a copy of the article, I chuckled at what I thought must be the money quote ( money as in money in the collection plate from the new gay members we hope to recruit):
We do not look for . . . authority in any handful of scattered, isolated [Biblical] passages selectively gathered to rationalize intolerance, cruelty, and unfairness.
Hmm, thought I—so I guess that when Jesus condemned “fornication” as “evil” in Mark 17:21, he meant that as a “isolated” passage.
But what I didn’t realize—and what came home to me only a few days later—was that at the very same time that Bishop Bruno was bloviating in his L.A. Times ad about “democratically” elected bishops and general open-mindedness and love all around, he was working behind the scenes with three of his fellow open-minded bishops to get rid of—and summarily at that, without a trial—the bishop of San Joaquin, California , John-David Schofield, one of the seven who opted for alternate oversight from Jefferts Schori’s.
Schofield’s diocese, headquartered in Fresno and experiencing a higher growth rate (as even Bruno admits) than Bruno’s own Los Angeles diocese, is one of the most conservative in the nation, and it has not taken kindly to the confirmation of Robinson in 2003. Indeed, starting in 2004, Schofield, who has been bishop since 1988, has declined to turn over any diocesan funds to the national church—and the diocese has also amended its constitution so as to make it harder for the national church to seize its property in the event of a secession. Delegates to a diocesan convention in 2005 affirmed a statement that San Joaquin’s constitution takes precedence over national church policies, and in March the diocese changed its rules so that the national church no longer has to approve its choice of bishop. I’d call that democracy.
Who gets to keep the beautiful old church building has always been the burning issue as scores of conservative Episcopalian congregations have broken off from their liberal dioceses over the past thirty years, usually over the issue of female priests and bishops, for which there seems to be no biblical authority. The dioceses usually win—but California judges ruling in these disputes have been increasingly inclined to rely on general principles of property law (such as who’s paying the bills) rather than what the bishop says (see this article in the Living Church ). Furthermore, this is the first time that entire dioceses have effectively split off from the national body—and there is no precedent for turning over diocesan property to the national church.
So the bishop of California, William T. Swing, working in concert with Bruno and the bishops of San Diego and northern California, has come up with a novel theory designed to oust Schofield fast: The four bishops are arguing that Schofield intends to “abandon the communion of this Church [that is, the Episcopal Church USA].” And hell, Swing told the Living Church, it’s “unfathomable” that anyone would even try to retain church property after leaving the church.
A claim of abandonment triggers a far quicker process than normal disciplinary procedures in the Episcopal Church, which require a full ecclesiastical trial. Furthermore, as the Living Church pointed out, “there is no presumption of innocence” in an abandonment process. All it requires is a majority vote by a review panel, followed by a unanimous decision by the three Episcopal bishops with the longest tenure, followed by a decision at the next House of Bishops meeting. If all goes well for Swing, Bruno, and the others, Schofield could be out of his diocese before Jefferts Schori is invested on November 4.
So much for the vaunted democracy and open-mindedness of the Episcopal Church USA. I hope that Schofield—along with his flock, which shows no sign of disaffection—sues someone’s miter off if the national church tries to take his diocese away from him.
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