Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pittsburgh Conservatives Disagree on Tactics

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette is reporting that twelve rectors and priests, including the diocese's most tenured rector, have written Bp. Bob Duncan to tell him that they "disapprove of his effort to remove the diocese from the Episcopal Church and will, instead, remain with the denomination."

[You can read the Episcopal News Service story on the twelve priests here.]

They sent a "signed, one-paragraph letter yesterday to the diocese's 66 churches saying that while they supported the 'reformation of the Episcopal Church ... we have determined to remain within, and not realign out of' it."

Everyone is making much of this disagreement among conservatives, but I think it is important to note this key quote:

"We are unified [with Bishop Duncan] on a vision,' said Father Geisler, president of the diocese's clergy association. 'We are not unified on a tactic."

The Post Gazette reports that "The group does not support ordination of openly gay clergy or conducting same-sex blessings, the so-called 'innovations' at the forefront of denominational disputes since 2003. However, members said they do not believe it is necessary to leave the Episcopal Church, the American arm of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to make that point.

"'The bishop has made a mistake,' said Father Quinn, with 25 years of service the longest-tenured priest in the diocese. 'He seems to be going in a different direction than we are.'"

The paper reminded its readers that the presiding bishop had warned Duncan earlier this month that he could be removed from office for his efforts to leave The Episcopal Church and take its property.

"The uncertainty of the diocese's future -- and its own parishes' property, congregations, pensions and missions -- had led the group of priests to begin meeting monthly last fall.

"Some members of the group said the prospect of protracted court cases evolving from the diocese's realignment effort played a role in their decision to disagree with Bishop Duncan. In this year's budget, the diocese set aside several hundred thousand dollars for legal issues.

"Father Geisler's 123-year-old church has an endowment of more than $500,000; balance that, he said, against spending it all in a single year on legal fees.

The newspaper pointed out that the letter's impact will be much bigger than the number of priests who signed it, because of Duncan's position as moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, and because of the widespread perception that conservative Pittsburgh Episcopalians are in lockstep with the bishop.

"Father Geisler acknowledged that the group's public repudiation could create a backlash.

"'Some will think of us as traitors," he said. "But each priest is saying that for the good of our parish this doesn't seem to be where we should be going.'

"The Rev. James Simons, rector of St. Michael's of the Valley in Ligonier, said his decision to sign the letter was a 'stewardship issue.'

"His church's outreach programs include a pension for a Ugandan bishop and support for a school in Guatemala City and a medical missionary in Bombay, India.

"'I don't think it's good stewardship to use that money for legal fees,' he said.

"'When all the dust is settled, the real issues are how we're going to live beside each other once this is settled. The big picture is there's an irretrievable breakdown in the Episcopal Church," said the Rev. Jonathan Millard, rector of the Church of the Ascension in Oakland. 'Some sort of split is inevitable.'"

While I applaud the priests' decision to remain at the table in The Episcopal Church, one hopes they will discard other of Duncan's tactics, such as the use of rhetoric that describes The Episcopal Church as a pagan church, as a church that has abandoned scripture, and its faithful members as people who "do not love Jesus."

As the Rev. Scott Hankins has pointed out, "If reconciliation among very diverse groups means sweeping the dirt under the carpet so that we can 'just get along' - well, that's a step back. But if we can keep speaking our most profound convictions and remain at the same table - well, that's a mutual step into a new place."

I hope this is a step into a new place for these priests in Pittsburgh.


Signees of the open letter to the Pittsburgh Episcopal Diocese are:
• The Rev. Nancy Chalfant-Walker, priest in charge of St. Stephen's, Wilkinsburg
• The Rev. Jay Geisler, rector of St. Stephen's, McKeesport
• The Rev. Daniel Hall, priest associate, assigned to First Lutheran Church
• The Rev. Norman Koehler, priest, chaplain at Presbyterian Senior Care, Oakmont
• The Rev. Jeffrey Murph, rector of St. Thomas', Oakmont
• The Rev. Scott Quinn, rector of Church of the Nativity, Crafton
• The Rev. Bruce Robison, rector of St. Andrews', Highland Park
• The Rev. James Shoucair, rector of Christ Church, North Hills
• The Rev. James Simons, St. Michael's of the Valley, Ligonier
• The Rev. Stephen Smalley, rector of St. Barnabas', Brackenridge
• The Rev. Philip Wainwright, rector of St. Peter's, Brentwood
• The Rev. Don Youse, priest in charge, Emmanuel, North Side

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