Friday, February 02, 2007

The Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia

The Diocese of Virginia concluded their Annual Council last weekend. They elected the Very Rev. Shannon S. Johnston as bishop coadjutor to succeed Bishop Lee upon his retirement. Paul Handley of the Church Times visited Virginia's Annual Council. Here is part of his description:

...Representatives applauded Bishop Lee’s pastoral address, in which he said of the departed congregations: “We respect their consciences, but also must respond when people who no longer share our mission seek to leave and take with them property that belongs to all of us and to our grandchildren in the faith.”

They applauded more loudly when it was announced that members of the remnant in four of the churches were present at the council.

But the occasion of the loudest applause indicated that other emotions lay under the surface. The Suffragan Bishop, the Rt Revd David C. Jones, has watched the efforts made by Bishop Lee to keep the diocese together. He has also seen the hate mail that the Bishop has received in response. As a consequence, he was not bothered about going off-message when addressing the council.

“I reject with all my might the notion that our theology has changed. It is outrageous to suggest that we have abandoned our faith.” He accused the secessionists of moving away from the notion of belonging to the Church through baptism in Christ “to an emphasis on adherence to one particular point of view — that development is not Anglican”. There were cheers when he read out a letter of support for Bishop Lee from neighbouring bishops.

Sarah Bartenstein, a member of the diocesan standing committee, spoke afterwards of “a collective sigh of relief” from those present, “not because our brothers and sisters are absent from us, but because we can finally say what needs to be said. It’s not vindictiveness; it’s just that, after trying and trying and being rebuffed, we are able to say that we have done all we could — and that we have other things to attend to.”
Here is a segment of Bp. Lee's Address:

...Episcopalians enter the fifth century as the oldest continuing Christian community in Virginia, as a diocese in communion with Canterbury, respectful of the breadth of our tradition, and centered in our Orthodox faith in the risen and ascended Christ. The theme of this 212th Annual Council is, "ONE Church : ONE Mission." The church in Virginia now and in the past has known divisions and stresses. As I travel around the diocese and read your newsletters, it is clear to me that the great majority of our churches, our clergy and our people share two emphases: the mission of reconciliation at the heart of our Christian faith and the unity we have with one another and the Anglican Communion across the world. We recognize that some people experience that unity and breadth as insufficient for the exercise of their faith. We respect their consciences but also must respond when people who no longer share our mission, seek to leave and take with them property that belongs to all of us and to our grandchildren in the faith. Our differences with the congregations that have departed the Diocese are not about property but about legacy. The church buildings of the Diocese of Virginia were given by generations past to be Episcopal Churches for generations to come and we are committed to protecting that legacy.

We have the strong support of the Presiding Bishop and the General Church in seeking to recover the properties now occupied by persons who are no longer loyal to the Episcopal Church and to the Diocese of Virginia.

My experience with the leadership of the departing members is that compromise and accommodation with difference among fellow Christians are especially difficult for them. When members of the churches informed me of their decision to leave in December, I wrote the rectors of each, asking them to assure me that provision would be made for faithful Episcopalians to have access to worship according to Episcopal discipline. The response was that such an accommodation might be possible as part of an eventual, overall settlement but clearly was rejected for now. That was, for me, the last straw in repeated experiences of hard line practice by people who do not welcome the breadth of the Episcopal Church.

There are at this council delegates of three congregations where majorities who voted chose to depart. These delegates were elected by vestries reconstituted in parish meetings in the last three weeks at St. Stephen=s, Heathsville; St. Margaret=s, Woodbridge; and The Falls Church. In addition, there are two members of the Church of the Epiphany, Herndon, who are present as guests while the loyalists in that congregation seek to reorganize. One of them is Mrs. Marilyn Reardon, whose late husband Bill was the founding vicar of the Church of the Epiphany. Please welcome these loyal and courageous Episcopalians who seek to protect the legacy of faith that we hold as one church with one mission...
Here is part of Bp Jones' Report:

...I am sad that some of our clergy have led their congregations out of the Episcopal Church. The matter is very personal to me. I have worked with a number of these clergy and their congregations in Church Planting and appreciate their passion for evangelism. But I reject with all my might the notion that our theology has changed. I find it outrageous to suggest that we have abandoned the historic faith. We continue to worship with the Book of Common Prayer and affirm that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation.

We share a common devotion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We share a common faith stated clearly in the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds and the Book of Common Prayer.

It is true that we are at a different place than some Christians in other parts of the world. It is also true that we have a wide breadth of opinion on current matters of faith and discipline. That has always been true. In fact, it would be difficult in the Episcopal Church to identify one common point of view on any contemporary social issue. How could we? We are the Church – the people of God assembled and serving in our own communities.

From my own perspective, little has changed in terms of our faith. What has changed is how rapid international communication has sharpened differences into divisions and divisions into schism.

In the departing congregations, I have witnessed a shift of emphasis from belonging to Christ through baptism to an emphasis on belonging through adherence to one exclusive point of view. That development is not Anglican!

What God establishes in baptism is indissoluble and cannot be compromised. All of us belong through baptism. We are God’s beloved children. The primary message of the Epiphany season is that the gospel is for all people, everywhere.

What is essentially Anglican is a common devotion to Jesus as Savior and Lord, the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and a common acceptance of the integrity of different cultures living out the Christian life. I celebrate that openness and rejoice in the freedom it affords all of us to grow into the full stature of Christ...
The Diocese of Virginia appears to have weathered this storm quite well, and is now ready to move on. Thanks be to God.


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