Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Another Report From St. Nicholas, Atwater

I recieved the following email yesterday.



The personal observations of
the Rev’d Michael A. Backlund, PhD
on the occasion of a visitation of
Bishop John-David Schofield of La Iglesia Anglicana Del Cono Sur De America
to St. Nicholas Church (Mission) of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin
on December 23, 2007,
the fourth Sunday of Advent.

1. I am a priest of The Episcopal Church, canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of California and licensed to officiate in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California. My home residence is in Angels Camp, California – within the borders of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. I am not licensed to officiate in the latter diocese, nor have I ever sought to be licensed during the tenure of former Episcopal Bishop John-David Schofield. The outcome of such a request on my part being so predictable as to deter me from ever even approaching the subject with him. I am a non-stipendiary priest, working as a licensed psychologist (clinical specialty) within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

2. Following the release of Vicar Fred Risard’s letter to former Episcopal Bishop Schofield requesting clarification of what the purpose was for the former bishop to visit the mission, I decided I would go and see for myself what would transpire, and offer whatever support I could. Truth requires that I say I did express my dismay at what appeared to be occurring at St. Nicholas Church to both my bishop, Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus of California, to the bishop in whose diocese I regularly officiate (St. Paul Episcopal Church, Sacramento, California), Episcopal Bishop Barry Beisner of Northern California, and to the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. I spoke by phone to Bishop Beisner on December 22, the day before. This was a private, confidential conversation between the bishop and me. He encouraged me, however, to convey to anyone I should speak with in the Diocese of San Joaquin who asked about him that he sent them his prayers, his concerns, and his love. This applied to everyone, no matter their stance on any particular matter or conflict.

3. I arrived at St. Nicholas Church roughly 10-15 minutes prior to the beginning of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, Rite II. I observed Bishop Schofield dressed in white cope, white miter, and holding a diocesan’s crosier. He was occupied, and we did not greet each other, but that was entirely understandable. In the parish hall I met Fr. Fred Risard for the first time. He greeted me warmly, asked my name, and asked if I was there to support the church. I replied that I was indeed. His father, Fr. Martin Risard, retired Vicar of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (Mission) near Sonora, California (I believe), was scheduled to be the preacher that Sunday, and we talked together briefly as well.

4. Fred Risard told me that John-David had arrived and had insisted that he be the celebrant and preacher. John-David had not replied to Fred’s earlier public letter requesting clarification as to the reason for John-David’s visit or in what capacity John-David considered himself to be acting. I did not witness any of that conversation between Fred and John-David and/or any others present. Fred told me that John-David was very insistent, and that Fred felt disinclined to make a scene or make an unseemly “fight over the altar.” Fred told me that John-David did allow that Fred should co-celebrate.

5. The appearance of Bishop Schofield in cope and miter carrying the crosier of the diocesan bishop processing at the end of the ministers clearly indicated in what capacity John-David considered himself to be acting. That is, he represented himself liturgically as the present Bishop of the Church of St. Nicholas, and it being a mission, its rector.

6. According to my admittedly incomplete understanding of the canons of The Episcopal Church, Bishop Schofield, as a bishop in a “foreign church” (IACSA) in communion with The Episcopal Church (and the Archbishop of Canterbury), is allowed to act in the capacity of a bishop in an Episcopal Church diocese only with the permission of the proper authorities and according to the canons of The Episcopal Church. Whether or not he obtained such permission or was allowed to so function according to the canons is unclear and unknown to me. In any case he clearly understood himself to be the bishop of that church on that Sunday, and by implication understood St. Nicholas to be a mission church under the authority of himself, La Iglesia Anglicana Del Cono Sur De America, and its Archbishop, Gregory Venables.

7. John-David had said publicly in the press question-and-answer session on the occasion of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin’s Convention (at which the Diocesan Convention whether rightly or not by canon law determined itself to be no longer a constituent member of The Episcopal Church, but of the Anglican Communion in the Province of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of America) under the authority of Archbishop Venables, who as an Archbishop, was “a bishop of bishops.” John-David said he was happy to submit to the Archbishop’s authority.

8. I observed that St. Nicholas was nicely attended for that Sunday’s service. I imagine there were about 90 people or so in attendance, though I did not count the number specifically. St. Nicholas Church has a surprisingly well-appointed facility considering the numbers of congregants. There is a beautiful little gem of a pipe organ (freestanding in the west end of the church – I’ll go out on a limb and say I think it is a tracker organ). Congregational singing and responsiveness was hearty and inspiring. In attendance were people of a wide diversity in ages and ethnicity from outward appearance. There were some wearing red shirts on which “Remain Episcopal” was printed. There was Canon Robert Moore, representing the pastoral care of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Michael Glass, attorney-at-law was present. Sitting next to me in the last pew was Canon William Gandenberger, canon to Bishop Schofield (and presumably now a Canon in the IACSA). Canon Gandenberger has a nice singing voice, was pleasant to sit next to, prayed sincerely, greeted me warmly during the Peace and was in every way I could discern a perfect gentleman.

9. John-David’s celebrational style was notable for including many, many minor prayers (I remember them being called something like sub-voce prayers from my early Roman Catholic days). Other small prayers for washing his hands, the “I am not worthy to come under thy roof” prayer, various conglomerations of offertory prayers, were all said with the same volume and intensity as the Eucharistic Prayer. He did not chant. John-David celebrated using a very sincere sounding voice, though a tad on the breathy side – and to my ears, a bit syrupy sweet, with elongation of the word “God” into something sounding like “Gaaaaawd,” reminiscent of fervent televangelists.

10. John-David celebrated from behind the altar facing the congregation, and preached standing at the open altar rail gate. He preached without notes for at least 20 minutes, though I admit I forgot to notice the time. He went on longer than a well-trained preacher would have, not because of time constraints, but because of repetition and over elaboration of minor points. There were a few – maybe four? – people who left at various times during the sermon, but did so quietly (often after genuflecting). I thought nothing of it, actually, since it appeared to me just the usual goings and comings of people doing chores in preparation for the coffee hour, or attending to personal business. I didn’t see myself any expressions that I would have construed as anger, or disgust, or something like, “I can’t listen to any more of this.” Perhaps (as I have read from others) there were people who had those feelings and did leave on account of them. At least I, as one not knowing the people personally, did not witness anything obvious.

11. I took notes of what seemed like his main sermon points. Obviously that’s subjective, but here’s what I took from it:

a. The nativity scene portrays the warm fatherly presence of Joseph, who quietly watches over his wife and son.
b. St. Francis of Assisi designed the Crèche in order that there be a concrete and visual means to convey to the people of his time the wonder of God’s coming into particular circumstances (The Incarnation).
c. God stands with all of us. Christ comes to all of us out of the very heart of the Father.
d. God grieves with all of us and is saddened by all that tears us apart. Jesus is coming into the world as Healer.
e. God knows what we’re going through in all our lives. And, God is there with us, and with his coming he brings a blessing.
f. There are so many conflicts and upsets in the world: Conflicts in our families with upsets and scenes at homes during the holidays; conflicts of large import such as the gassings of World War I and the bombings of World War II. [He illustrates an example of a break in hostilities by recounting the event of the suspension of fighting between opposing soldiers in the trenches of World War I to celebrate all together (Germans, French, etc.) Christmas. John-David unfortunately took away from that heartwarming story, by noting that at the stroke of midnight “they started killing one another again.”]
g. Bottom-line: “The world is always in a mess.” “But God is with always with us.”
h. Conclusion: “So be open to God. Be open so that he can bring you his blessing.”

12. Worship continued, and I at least felt a sigh of relief escape me that it looked like we were actually going to have a rather unexpected, but most welcome, warm, friendly, and most Episcopal-like fellowship, and that perhaps no unpleasantness at all would occur. I really felt a good bit of tension leave me. I thought to myself, “This is all going to be okay. He’s just given an okay sermon; nothing controversial, nothing overly inspiring, but certainly well within normal limits for preaching at this time of year.” I actually smiled!

13. The Prayers of the People were Form III, so we avoided any possible unpleasantness about what bishops to pray for. What an absurd situation, when one thinks about it. I heard no spontaneous prayers that could have been understood as prayer-bashing. All was well. Confession, absolution, and an enthusiastic and prolonged passing of the Peace.

14. Birthdays, anniversaries, and thanksgiving period followed.

15. Then Fred gave the announcements followed by a commentary on the particular events of this day. In this regard, Fred told us that the service today was not following the service leaflet as printed because John-David insisted he be celebrant and preacher. Fred said that it wasn’t his or the lay leadership’s desire that John-David pre-empt worship like that, but that there was no will to make an issue of it particularly, and most particularly, there was a desire to avoid “fighting over the altar.” Furthermore, Fred said St. Nicholas was welcoming to ALL “spelled capital A. L. L.” who wanted to come to worship there. He noted that on this Sunday, during this worship, in this holy season and just prior to Christmas, there appears to be a desire on everyone’s part that there be a “recess” in the conflicts existing between John-David, the now newly named Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin in the IACSA, and St. Nicholas Church and its vicar.

16. The Holy Eucharist continued (Rite II, Prayer A). Communion was distributed by Fred and ministers of St. Nicholas. John-David sat in the bishop’s chair.

17. At the usual time, John-David put on his miter, carried his crosier, and came to the gate of the altar rail to give his blessing. The congregation was standing, having just finished the “collect for mission.”

18. Prior to the blessing, John-David began what started the explosive ending to what appeared to have been up to that point a rather reconciling and healing Eucharist.

19. John-David spoke for several minutes, and oddly never asked people to be seated. So, at least I, and a short time later, Canon Gandenberger sat down. Others stood, and as time went on, some few others sat down. During the presentation, a few people got up, seemed agitated, and left the church proper. Fred was in the sanctuary, standing, and was from all appearances sincerely astonished at what was happening.

20. John-David, holding his crosier in both hands in front of him, began by saying he had received a letter from their Vicar, Fr. Fred. He said that there were lots of rumors flying about, and he wanted everyone to hear the truth from “the horse’s mouth” (some chuckles). First, he said, there was a rumor that he was closing St. Nicholas. He said that was absolutely not true. Second, he said there was a rumor that he had or was going to “fire Fr. Fred.” Again, he said that was simply not true at all. He said that he had no intention of closing this church or firing their Vicar.

BUT…and there it was, that fateful pause.

John-David said he could not understand how anyone could think that this church could continue because of its failing finances. He said that the membership numbers and pledges had been sinking and now only “20 people” remain as members. “No congregation can be financially viable with only 20 members.” “I told this to Fr. Fred on at least six previous occasions in talking with him about this congregation.” “I said, Fr. Fred, Fr. Fred you only have 20 people. What are you going to do?” “I told him that there just wasn’t a financial basis here capable of supporting a full-time priest.” John-David used a tone of voice that clearly was designed to sound resigned and saddened by the unfortunate realities he was forced to speak of, and the sad and unfortunate truth of the matter. He said that it was simply a financial decision and he would wish it to be otherwise. It certainly had nothing whatsoever to do with Fred’s position or the congregation’s position vis-à-vis the “realignment.” It was completely, totally, and only a financial decision. So, sadly, “I have to say that this church does not have the financial means to continue as it is.” We will do all we can to make sure this congregation continues somehow and in some fashion. We will send “a priest on occasion, as we are able.” “The blessing of …..” John-David stepped back toward his chair in preparation for Fred or another of the ministers to come forward (as they had done during the rest of the service) to announce the hymn number.

21. Instead, Fred came forward. He was clearly shocked. He had no prepared notes, and as a psychologist I would say he looked emotionally stunned with anger and grief alternating amidst genuine stress-induced psychological trauma. Fred began speaking with quaking voice, almost choked with emotion. He voice firmed up in a few seconds as he went along, and his remarks reflected increasing thought coherence despite his clear emotional shock.

22. I admit that I too felt shocked. I had to get up out of my pew and go stand in the back of the church. I just couldn’t sit there any longer with the emotional whipsaw of first feeling like all was going to be okay, then to hear such incredible things said by a bishop to a congregation, and then the intensity of anguish from that congregation’s vicar.

23. Fred said that he had hoped that the “recess” in tensions he had spoken of earlier had lasted at least a little longer than obviously it had. He pointed at John-David and said to him that his statements reflected a kind of spiritual violence – and Fred referenced there John-David’s numerous examples during his sermon of “fighting,” of “bombing,” of “war.” The war language, the violence language, was repellent to Fred. He went on to say that John-David knew very well that the congregation had been growing and prospering right up to the time that the Diocesan Convention began the process of separating itself from the Episcopal Church. He remarked that John-David knew very well why the congregation had grown smaller lately, precisely because of the divisive language and behavior of John-David himself. Fred noted the string of actions taken by John-David in the recent past that were clearly designed to intimidate if not force into resignation other more moderate or outright dissenting clergy. With what to all of us Episcopalians who are far more comfortable with quiet and gentle discourse in the church, at least, Fred let loose all his passion for the ministry of St. Nicholas and for his and their rock solid commitment to the mission of the Church in promoting justice for the poor and the outcast and everyone that God calls his people. Sure, it was uncomfortable – and many people walked out (Some other observers said these persons were John-David’s “bodyguard,” though I myself naturally had no knowledge whatsoever of any bodyguards and did not know who the people were who walked out while Fred was speaking.) Fred was passionate and emotional, but logical, in control of himself, and clearly speaking from a highly uncomfortable position of a priest who never thought he’d ever be in such a situation to have to respond in such a manner to a bishop – even if that bishop were no longer his own.

When Fred began speaking, I myself thought, “Oh, Fred, don’t go there. John-David has set this whole thing up to ambush you; don’t give him the satisfaction.” But quickly I realized this is not a time to be demure. Some times in one’s life demand one rise to a point of personal proclamation of faith regardless of how un-nice it would seem. Fred was at such a point, a point pushed on him by John-David.

I was emotionally shaken by the poisonous remarks of John-David and by the intensity, but rightness, of the response by Fred.

John-David sat with what appeared to me to be a good deal of serenity during Fred’s remarks. He made no verbal response, and made no sign that he was going to say anything more about the situation.

Fred’s remarks came to an end with a ringing pledge that no matter what John-David did or said, or what Canon Gandenberger did or said either, he at least would remain faithful to his call to serve as a priest in the in the Episcopal Church and to his ministry at St. Nicholas so long as God gave him life. A loud, standing ovation with many tears ensued for several minutes.

24. Fred then asked Nancy Key, president of Remain Episcopal, to say a few words. She came forward and, like Bonnie Anderson had when in the Diocese last February, introduced herself as “I am an Episcopalian.” There was light applause. She offered her support and prayers and those of Remain Episcopal, other parishes and missions, and clergy and people from all over the world. Her comments were short, non-confrontational, but firm in the assertion that St Nicholas and other congregations like it were not going to be left on their own and would continue to be congregations of The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of San Joaquin.

25. The closing hymn was announced. Singing commenced, though less robust than I’m sure it would otherwise have been. John-David did not process out of the church. I at least did not see him or William Gandenberger speak with Fred before leaving. I did not see them come out through the main door of the church.

26. A very few after Eucharist, in the “coffee hour,” observations on my part: The congregation had wonderful coffee-hour hospitality for such a small congregation. Since I had not known their membership had fallen so low in numbers, I was truly astonished at the outpouring of help others came to give them in this situation.

I spoke at length with Fred, Fred’s father (who would have preached that day), Fred’s mother, and also with members of Remain Episcopal. I was happy to have the opportunity to speak with Canon Moore informally – always in a group surrounding him, never privately. I told those who asked who I was and where I was from, and that I was a priest canonically resident in California, but living in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin who served as an associate priest liturgically at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Sacramento. I told anyone who asked that support and prayers and love came their way from the congregation at St. Paul’s and from Bishop Beisner. I suspect that is how it was misrepresented that I somehow was “representing” Bishop Beisner. (Many Episcopal self-lashes to be delivered as I bow my head humbly and beg his forgiveness should I have involved him in such a way that he clearly is not involved.)

--Finally, thank you all for your indulgence in reading all this. Any errors or omissions or misconstructions, in short anything here that is found amiss, is entirely my own fault.

I will be eager to discuss, clarify, retract, or edit anything I’ve written here as appropriate.

My bottom line:

Fred, you were magnificent, and I ache to imagine how anguished you have been during this Christmas when joy should abound. John-David, you were a disgrace, but go in peace where “[you will] be happy to be with like-minded people under a Man of God [Archbishop Venables].” God bless us all, even when we don’t deserve it.

- The Rev’d Michael A. Backlund

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