Friday, July 18, 2008

Pastoral Letter to the People of St. Michael's Ligonier

July 17, 2008

Dear Member of St. Michael's:

I am writing this pastoral letter to every member of the parish. I want to describe what is going on in the diocese and my response to it, as well as what I believe is best for St. Michael's. Ultimately we will need to make this decision together.

The Situation

The Anglican Communion is divided into 38 autonomous geographical provinces of which the Episcopal Church is the manifestation in the United States. In the spring of 2007, Bishop Duncan began to lay the groundwork for the diocese to realign with an overseas province because he believes that there is no future in the Episcopal Church. His view is that the Episcopal Church has moved so far from orthodoxy that it is no longer recognizable as Christian.
The mechanism for this realignment is a series of resolutions through the diocesan convention. Diocesan convention is an elected body comprised of every resident member of the clergy as well as laity elected by the parish vestry to represent the parish. Each parish has a certain number of deputies depending on its size. (St. Michael's will have three deputies this year: Nancy Rost, Ray Speicher, and Ellen Wathen.)
The Convention will need to pass a constitutional change which takes the diocese out from under the Episcopal Church. Our constitution requires that this pass at two successive conventions. In November of 2007 the first “reading” passed; the second is scheduled for October 4, 2008. If that change passes, then a canon will be proposed aligning the diocese with the Province of the Southern Cone. The proposed resolutions can be found at:

http://www.pghanglican.org/Conventions/2008%20Proposed%20Resolutions.pdf

The province of the Southern Cone is comprised of several countries in South America. Their web site is:

http://www.anglicancommunion.org/tour/province.cfm?ID=S5

The Bishop's plan is an unprecedented action and the Episcopal Church is claiming that the diocese does not have the right to leave for the Southern Cone.
The Bishop is claiming that, if the realignment passes, every congregation of the diocese is automatically realigned. Parishes wishing to remain in the Episcopal Church would have to declare such and those who wish to realign would need to change their parish by-laws to remove all references to the Episcopal Church. The polity of the Episcopal Church is that of a representative government. The parish has elected vestry members to make decisions regarding the life of the parish. Consequently, it will be the vestry who will make the decision about what we do as a parish. If we wish to remain in the Episcopal Church we would do so by a vestry vote. However, if the vestry should vote to realign, a subsequent parish meeting would be required to change the by-laws of the parish to reflect the realignment. In essence then, a vote to stay in the Episcopal Church can be made by the vestry but a vote to realign would have to be ratified by a majority of the congregation.

Where I Stand

Some in the congregation have asked me why I have changed my mind about my stance regarding the Episcopal Church. I have not changed my stance; the diocesan leadership has. For the twenty-three years of my ordained ministry I have worked diligently to bring a conservative witness to the Episcopal Church. I have been integral to the founding of several organizations that sought to do so and, as a deputy to six General Conventions, I have worked to retain orthodox values in the denomination. It is the diocesan leadership which has changed course and now seeks to leave the Church that nourished them in the faith.
I am aware that there is much that is wrong in the Episcopal Church, much that needs to be corrected. I believe that I, as an ordained member of the church, and we, as a congregation of the same church, have a responsibility to stand for the faith once received. My vision for my ministry and that of St. Michael's is to continue to be that witness.
At the same time I believe that there is much strength and health in the Episcopal Church. It is tempting to take the more extreme anecdotes about the church and universalize them, but that would not accurately describe the wider reality. It is my observation that the vast majority of people in the pews, and those who lead them, are creedal Christians who believe what the church has always believed.
Will such a witness lead to reform? I can't guarantee it. But I do know that if we leave the Episcopal Church without such a witness, it will be the poorer for it.

St. Michael’s

The days ahead will be challenging but I firmly believe that the best way forward is for us to remain in the Episcopal Church and to remain together. Dioceses operate as autonomous entities and the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention have very little power to dictate what we believe or practice. Only canonical changes on a national level or changes to the Book of Common Prayer would have an effect on the parish or diocese and as of now no changes have occurred (or been proposed) that would place my conscience or the conscience of the parish in a bind. We are free to preach and practice the gospel as we always have and will be able to continue to do so in the future.
Dioceses obviously operate under the authority of a bishop and there is some concern that the diocese which remains in the Episcopal Church would experience severe innovations under new leadership. I do not think that will happen. Many of us are meeting on a regular basis to plan for the future if the diocese should realign. It is clear that while the diocese will certainly look different, there will still be a conservative majority and I am confident that the next bishop will be reflective of that. Those who are seeking to remain in the Episcopal Church have met with representatives of the Presiding Bishop's office and I have been encouraged by the tone of those meetings. It is clear that they are seeking to aid us in the days ahead, not dictate some particular course of action.
I know that there are those among us who feel differently. Some think that realignment would be a good idea and want to follow the Bishop. There are others who do not want to follow the Bishop or the Episcopal Church but would rather take a third option and walk away from the property and start over again. As I stated above, I think the best course of action is for us to stay together at least for the short term. If the realignment passes, we will then see how a continuing diocese is reorganized and whether we can in good conscience remain in the Episcopal Church. I believe we can.
I know that there will be some for whom this is untenable, who feel that the Episcopal Church is no longer a place they want to be. I want you to know that I understand this and that my desire for everyone is that they be in a place where they can be nourished spiritually. If some are feeling called to another course of action it is my hope that they will do so in a way that honors the deep and abiding relationships that we have formed here over the decades.
This Sunday the Gospel lesson is Matthew 13:24-43. In that parable a man sows good seed in a field. When the wheat begins to mature, it is discovered that weeds are growing among it. The servants ask the master if they should remove the weeds. The master says no because doing so would uproot some of the wheat which then will be lost as well. He tells them to let the wheat and the weeds grow together. Jesus then goes on to say that the wheat represents the faithful and the weeds are the children of the evil one. The point of the parable is that it is God's responsibility, not ours, to separate wheat and weeds. We are to be faithful in our growth towards God and in maturing into the men and women he created us to be. God will deal with the unfaithful.
Are there weeds in the Episcopal Church? Most certainly, but there is also much wheat. Is it difficult to live in a weedy environment? Yes, but for decades St. Michael's has been, a place of healthy spiritual growth, a place where the wheat thrives, and a parish which bears witness to the rest of the Kingdom to what the Gospel can do.
I want that to continue, as I know you do. I ask you to continue to be in prayer about the days ahead. Pray for the vestry and for our bishop. Pray for wisdom about our course, courage to follow God's will, and grace to deal with each other during these days.

In Christ,

Jim

The Rev. Dr. James B. Simons

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

And, back to the letter....
Jim, this is very, very similar to the pastoral letter I wrote to our parish this past winter, about two weeks prior to our parish family coming together to vote on our bylaws re: accession.

Given that intro this may sound a bit self-serving, but I do believe you've done a nice job pulling together the things that will be important to your parishioners in the next months. And I would say especially in clearly identifying where you stand. That may be one of the most important statements because it will help folks gauge their own thoughts and prayers, and it will allow them MORE freedom, not less, to engage you in conversation simply because they can share their thoughts without getting tangled in trying to figure out yours. You get to be a sounding board; it won't always be pleasant, but I'm confident you will be able to handle it.
May I also suggest that there be a "complaint policy" in place for you, the vestry and the parish, in order to minimize triangulation.

The Lord bring his glory to bear, in order to help you and your parish continue at all times to keep you keep your eyes upon Jesus.

RGEaton

Anonymous said...

Whoops....the first line comes from me publishing and copying the same comment at Kendall's place after several commenters lost focus on the letter itself....disregard that line here.
RGEaton

type_writer said...

Dear Jim,

Let me reply to a few points in your pastoral letter, and I'm sure these are things most people at St. Michael's are aware of. Firstly, Bishop Duncan is not alone in his perception that TEC is no longer recognizably Christian. It would also seem to be the perception of a large number of bishops who attended GAFcon. It's also the position of a great number of the laity. Even N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in his comments on GAFcon, recognizes there are "dire" things happening in TEC even though he is less than happy with the outcome of GAFcon (considerably less, it seems, given the British understate everything).

Bishop Duncan's desire to take the diocese out of TEC is not quite so unprecendented as you suggest. During the 1870s, as I'm sure you are aware, a large number of parishes and at least one bishop left PECUSA (the old name for TEC) to form the Reformed Episcopal Church, although an entire diocese as such didn't, as far as I'm aware.

Of course, unprecendented acts as such are not wrong and I'm sure none of us now regret the decision of Henry VIII to take the English Church out of the Romish Communion even though at the time he did the right thing for the wrong reason.

The only other thing I would take issue with is your use of Scripture in the pastoral letter, the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13 (I know that in your sermon today, you mentioned you took a hit for that, but I have a different point). Now, I'm not sure just what GAFcon wants to do, but from my pew-level view, no one in the realignment camp wants to go heresy hunting to root people out of the church, i.e., root out the weeds, and that is what I think the parable speaks against. Rather, what I see realignment doing is separating ourselves from a hierarchy that accepts at least one clearly unbiblical practice and gives it God's blessing when it's condemned by God. No one wants to put these people on trial for heresy and excommunicate them (as far as I know). And in today's climate, I doubt TEC would do that. We only wish to depart in peace in accord with II Corinthians 6:11 ff. and that's very different from the point of the parable in Matt. 13. In fact, if there are people who want to marry others of their own sex in their own separate ecclesiastical polity, I'd say let them go and do it. Just don't force me to accept that action as blessed by the Church to which I belong. And that's what those who stay in TEC will have to do.

Yours,
Marty Rice

John Kaufmann said...

Dear Jim,

I join Marty Rice in finding your Scriptural reference inapt, and for the same reasons: no one is weeding heretics out of TEC, or proposing to do so. It is not quite so spectacularly inapt as the Lenten sermon at Calvary, in which you compared realigners with the genocidal murderers of Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, ... but it is somewhat in that same hyperbolic vein, and again I find myself wondering, Why? What prompts you to impute ill or arrogant motives?

Regarding the process, I am interested in your take that the default position for any parish, upon a vote of the diocese to realign, would be to leave the diocese and remain with TEC, but that with the consent of the full parish the vestry may vote to remain with a diocese that has aligned with a new Anglican province. Our own vestry at Saint Alban's has come to the opposite conclusion. What guides your thinking, in an episcopal structure, that the connection to diocese is peripheral to the connection to TEC? Did you have advice on your process outline? If so, from whom?

Peace,
John

BruceR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Bates said...

Jim — I understand why many might believe that the right thing to do is try to change TEC from the inside out, but the reason people are realigning is because the New Testament places limits on fellowship; it is TEC who has burned bridges by departing from the faith. After all, TEC has formally denied that Jesus makes exclusive claims over other religions for the salvation of people. Many godly people take seriously St. Paul's instruction to Timothy "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man's sins; keep yourself pure" (1Tim. 5:22).

For those who want to read more about the limits of fellowship as the New Testament teaches it, I recommend the Rev. David Short's article "Crisis in Koinonia" in which he argues that the three vital aspects to koinonia are "fellowship with God, active fellowship with other believers in the work of God, and the avoidance of fellowship with the works of darkness." Reverend Short is known world-wide for his careful and pointed exegesis of Scripture.

Taking up 1 Cor 10:16-21, Reverend Short says that "Paul uses koinonia four times along with the word ‘partake.’(v. 19) His point is plain. We can have communion with Christ, expressed in partaking of the bread and wine, and we can have communion with demons, but we cannot have both at the same time. It is not that it is merely against the apostle’s desire, it is something which ‘cannot’ take place."

Many would agree that it is not overstating the case to say that remaining in a church that denies the Gospel in word and deed is to have communion with demons.

Anyone interested can read the entire article here: http://acl.asn.au/resources/a-crisis-in-koinonia/

Richard Bates+