Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Parishes Exit; Join Uganda

A news item from the Episcopal News Service regarding two Southern California parishes caught my eye today;

Representatives of All Saints Church in Long Beach [] and St. James' Church in Newport Beach [] delivered to Bruno's office letters stating their disassociation from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles, and their affiliation with the Diocese of Luweero [], under Bishop Evans Mukasa Kisekka. But Bruno, who said he was not notified of the actions in advance, was not present at the time. Each letter reads: "We have delivered this letter personally in order to honor you by having you learn of these actions from us instead of from any other source."
Since this is nothing new; parishes have been getting upset about something (slavery, churchmanship, new prayer books, women priests, gay ordinations, etc.)and leaving the Episcopal Church since its inception, why did these two parishes grab my interest?

I supplied at All Saints a couple of times a few years ago, so I know a little about the place. That perked my interest (UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me in comments that I have mistaken All Saints for St. Luke's, or one of the other two parishes in Long Beach; please forgive my poor memory). But what really got my attention was the mention of St. James, Newport Beach. That place has a history in regards to the current maneuvering of a small, ultra-conservative group within the Episcopal Church;

Signers of the letter from St. James' are its rector, the Rev. Praveen Bunyan, and senior warden Jim Dale. Bunyan was preceded as rector of St. James' Church by the Rev. David Anderson, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Anglican Council, which opposed the consecration last year of an openly gay priest as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Reportedly among funders for the opposition effort was Newport Beach financier Howard Ahmanson.
Does the name Ahmanson ring a bell? If not, let me refresh your memory with a couple of quotes from an article that appeared in The Guardian;

...What is known is that in the 1990s Ahmanson, whose family made a fortune in banking, subsidized a number of controversial right-wing causes. These include a magazine called the Chalcedon Report , which carried an article calling for gays to be stoned; a think-tank called the Claremont Institute which promoted a video in which Charlton Heston praises 'the God-fearing Caucasian middle class'; and a scientific body which rejects the theory of evolution.

Now Ahmanson has a new crusade, whose repercussions will be felt far beyond the United States. He is using his cash to stir up the most divisive row facing the Anglican Church, one that threatens to rip it apart when its leaders meet in London this week.

At its heart is the Church's stance on homosexuality, an issue that divides liberal and conservative. Somewhere in the middle is the Anglican Communion's spiritual leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams...

...Leading the backlash is the American Anglican Council (AAC) based in Washington. Until recently the AAC's chief executive officer, David C. Anderson, ran St James Church in Newport Beach, California, where Ahmanson is often to be found in the congregation. The AAC's vice-president, Bruce Chapman, is president of the Discovery Institute, on whose board Ahmanson sits and which publishes research insisting Darwin was wrong.

AAC stalwart James M. Stanton, Bishop of Dallas, admits that Ahmanson gives $200,000 a year, although many observers believe it is considerably more. An internal memo from the vice-president makes fascinating reading. 'Fundraising is a critical topic ... But that topic itself is going to be affected directly by whether we have a clear, compelling forward strategy. I know that the Ahmansons are only going to be available to us if we have such a strategy and I think it would be wise to involve them directly in setting it as the options clarify.'

The AAC's influence is bolstered by its close links to another right-wing religious organization, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which operates out of the same Washington office as the AAC, and on whose board Ahmanson's wife, Roberta, sits...
To go off on a slight tangent for a moment; this connection with the IRD is worth noting once again. Here is an excerpt from the description of the IRD offered by Andrew Weaver of the Martin Marty Institute at the University of Chicago;

The political right-wing, operating in the guise of a gaggle of so-called "renewal groups," particularly one named the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), has acquired the money and political will to target three mainline American denominations: The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church. The IRD was created and is sustained by money from right-wing foundations and has spent millions of dollars over 20 years attacking mainline denominations. The IRD's conservative social-policy goals include increasing military spending and foreign interventions, opposing environmental protection efforts, and eliminating social welfare programs.

In a document entitled "Reforming America's Churches Project 2001-2004," the IRD states that its aim is to change the "permanent governing structure" of mainline churches "so they can help renew the wider culture of our nation." In other words, its goal extends beyond the spiritual and includes a political takeover financed by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife, Adolph Coors, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee...

...Why are these secular right-wing foundations interested in gaining influence in the United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and other mainstream Protestant denominations?

The answer is that, although the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church total only about 14 million in membership, they have been and remain a powerful and influential voice for moderate and progressive social values in American society. Almost 30 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress belong to one of these three denominations as well as disproportionate numbers of well-educated and progressive leaders who advocate for the poor, civil and human rights, environmental protection, and a responsible foreign policy. The activities and leadership of mainline Protestant churches are linked to the social conscience of the nation and contribute to civil discourse.

The political right seeks to gain top leadership positions in the church by spreading misleading information and incendiary allegations against organizations and individuals. These groups employ the propaganda method of "wedge issues" like abortion and homosexuality to cause confusion, dissension, and division. Irving Kristol, father of William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the "godfathers" of the political right, summed up this strategy in the Wall Street Journal: "Attack the integrity, not the words, of those with whom you disagree." More recently, Grover Norquist, a conservative activist and long-time friend of top presidential aide Karl Rove, was even more blunt when he told the Denver Post that civility is out and nastiness is in among conservative activists. According to Mr. Norquist, "bipartisanship is another name for date rape."

By contrast, Methodists and other mainstream Protestants have held proudly to the "extreme middle" during most of their history, recognizing that self-righteousness is the bane of religion, be it the ideology of the left or right. Unless progressive and moderate members in the mainline churches muster the will to organize and battle for what they believe is fair and just, they are in danger of losing the historical values of these traditions to a determined cadre of ideological advocacy groups. It is time, in other words, for "fighting Methodists" to make a comeback lest their tolerance and Christian charity be turned against them and used to undermine their churches and further the social ends of the right wing's radical ideology.
I hope we all read that particular quote carefully, and then read it again. The Religious Right is well organized, and attacking on numerous fronts simultaneously.

In case anyone thinks the quotes I've offered are nothing more than hyperbole, here's just a sampling of what can be found within the internal documents of the IRD;

...IRD's Episcopal Action will conduct training to equip conservatives and moderates to counter the trend.

This fall, Diane Knippers (President of the IRD) agreed to serve as the part-time interim Executive Director of the America Anglican Council, the broadest-based conservative reform movement in the Episcopal Church. She has given significant leadership in launching this organization, illustrative of the IRD commitment to working in coalitions and building a large reform movement. Episcopal Action organizing will focus in three areas: working in regional diocesan councils by recruiting clergy and laity to run for deputy to the 2003 General Convention, supporting initiatives fostering international Anglican intervention in the US church, and assisting conservatives who serve on various Standing Commissions of the Episcopal Church as they prepare policy recommendations and legislation for the church's Executive Council and the 2003 General Convention. (Diane Knippers has herself been appointed to the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations)

Episcopal Action will expand our Episcopal Action Briefing to fill a serious reporting void in the Episcopal Church. Our current circulation is 6,000, we intend to increase that by 5,000 each year to reach a total of 26,000 in 2004.
Returning now to St. James, Newport Beach, whose previous rector now runs the AAC, and which is the home parish of Howard Ahmanson, this realignment with a Ugandan diocese is a trial balloon, taking the initial strategy of the AAC, according to the Chapman letter, a step further;

Our ultimate goal is a realignment of Anglicanism on North American soil...We will lead our congregations and partners in making the adjustment to adopt this strategy. We seek to retain ownership of our property as we move into this realignment...We will innovatively move around, beyond or within the canons to "'act like the church God is making us"...

...Stage 2 will launch at some yet to be determined moment, probably in 2004. During this phase, we will seek, under the guidance of the Primates, negotiated settlements in matters of property, jurisdiction, pastoral succession and communion, If adequate settlements are not within reach, a faithful disobedience of canon law on a widespread basis may be necessary.

Some congregations have already proceeded to "Stage 2" because of local circumstances. While we cannot offer AEO under an AAC diocesan Bishop at this time, we do have non-geographical oversight available from "offshore" Bishops, and retired Bishops.
St. James was offered Alternative Episcopal Oversight. They refused it. Clearly, their intention is to leave the Episcopal Church, with their property and endowments. Why are they the ideal trial balloon? Because of the deep pockets of Howard Ahmanson, and their close connection with the AAC, they can afford to litigate long and hard.

Sometime in October, the Anglican Consultative Council will meet to consider the final report of the Lambeth Comission on Communion. The AAC (or under their new name, The Network) and various Primates have threatened all kinds of repercussions if the Communion does not "discipline" The Episcopal Church. It's a no-win situation, as there is no doubt that whatever the Primates decide, it will not be enough for these ultra-conservatives. They already have their next victim in their sights; none other than Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Do we really think they will ever forget that he ordained gay priests? They're biding their time, as they need Rowan right now.

In the end, all this maneuvering will most likely come to nothing. The Episcopal Church is fine, and possibly healthier than ever, in spite of all the angst from the right; both membership and giving numbers are up, and the congregations I have visited continue to pack the pews and carry on the mission of the Church.

I suppose the point of all of this is to note that the self-interest fixation of the right is not limited to the political arena. It is alive and prowling among the religious communities as well. To borrow some of the words of Andrew Weaver; "It is time, in other words, for "fighting Methodists" (and all progressive and moderate members in the mainline churches) to make a comeback lest their tolerance and Christian charity be turned against them and used to undermine their churches and further the social ends of the right wing's radical ideology."


UPDATE: A Pastoral Letter from the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles;

...I called for an emergency meeting of the Standing Committee and, in accordance with the canons of this church, the Standing Committee has informed me in writing that there is sufficient evidence that these clergy have abandoned the communion and I have responded by inhibiting them from the exercise of the ordained ministry. Should they wish to return to the communion of this Church during this period, a process of restoration will take place. Should they not change their minds, they will be deposed...

...I have also written a letter of protest to the Bishop of the Diocese of Luwero with a copy to the Primate of the Province of Uganda. I have also asked the Presiding Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury to intervene in this breach of trust and authority...

...The Bishop’s ministry is based in our belief that in any given place, there is one Bishop, who continues the work of the holy apostles and is the chief priest, pastor and teacher in that diocese. Priests exercise their ministry on behalf of their Bishop and only under the Bishop’s authority. No bishop outside the diocese has the jurisdiction to oversee ministry within that geographical diocese. The fact that a bishop from another autonomous church within the Anglican Communion has chosen to exercise oversight in this diocese flies in the face of our ethos as Anglicans and of the catholic unity of the Church. It is a clear statement that the Diocese of Luwero and its Bishop and the Province of Uganda and its Primate have broken with the established historic authority of the Anglican Communion...

...It is both my pastoral and fiduciary responsibility as your Bishop, in concert with the Standing Committee, to protect and preserve the properties of these congregations as part of the Diocese of Los Angeles. The consecrated buildings of each of our congregations rightfully belong to the Episcopal Church in this Diocese and in the USA. I also have a pastoral responsibility to all those of Christ’s flock entrusted to my care and am developing plans for the pastoral care of those members of our Church in these congregations who seek to maintain their loyalty to this Church...

...Finally, apart from the issue of sexuality, these clergy have also framed their leaving in terms I find unfair and false. They have stated that this Church is not orthodox biblically or theologically. How wrong they are. I want you to know as your Bishop that I continue to uphold the vows I made on the day of my consecration “to guard the faith, unity and discipline of the Church.” I believe today as I did when I was first ordained that the Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation. Yet I will not let the Holy Scriptures be compromised by those who seek to make their literalist and simplistic interpretation the only legitimate one. Further, I uphold the orthodox faith given to us by the apostles in all the essentials laid down in the historic creeds of the Church. In these necessary things there must be unity of faith, but in other things there may be diversity within this roomy house we call the Anglican Communion...
Strong, but appropriate, words from the bishop, it seems to me. Go read the whole thing. Did I mention that prior to his ordination, Bishop Bruno was a police officer in the city of Burbank, California?

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