Monday, September 8, 2008

Bruce Robison Reflects on the Differences Between San Joaquin and Pittsburgh

A Reflection on San Joaquin and Pittsburgh

--The Rev. Bruce Robison, Rector, St. Andrew’s, Highland Park

At Diocesan Convention in Fresno, California, in December, 2007, the clergy and lay deputies of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin voted by substantial majorities to approve the second reading of an amendment to their diocesan constitution, asserting the decision to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church. A few minutes later they adopted a new canon associating themselves instead, “realigning,” with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay).

Months later, in March of 2008, a group of clergy and laity from the “former” Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin met in a special convention called by local leadership, with the oversight of the Presiding Bishop, to reorganize as the “continuing” Diocese of San Joaquin of the Episcopal Church. With the approval of the Presiding Bishop they elected the Rt. Rev. Jerry Lamb, retired Bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Northern California, as their Provisional Bishop.

As summer turns to fall, congregations of both of these “dioceses” continue ministry in the cities, towns, and rural areas of the agricultural Central Valley of California. Both “dioceses” as well are engaged in a number of different contests of canon and civil law, as they have asserted conflicting claims about the ecclesial status of their governing structures and, in civil courts, about the corporate identity and assets of the former Episcopal diocese. In several places as well parish groups are challenging one another in court over the continued ownership and use of parish properties and financial assets. There are soap opera elements, day by day, deep feelings, much hurt--and any final settlement of all the conflicting concerns seems some distance down the road.

Now, MapQuest tells me that some 2,562.78 miles separate the offices of our Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, downtown in the Oliver Building on Smithfield Street, from the headquarters of what is now known as the Diocese of San Joaquin of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, , on E. Dakota Avenue in Fresno, California. From those offices, in turn, it is a relatively short hop, 137.31 miles, to Inglewood Avenue, in Stockton, California, where one may find the offices of the Diocese of San Joaquin of the Episcopal Church, . Why do these two places, so far from the headwaters of the Ohio, interest me so much? For a couple of reasons, I guess.

First of all, I have a personal interest. I’m a native Californian. I attended seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley. I began my ordained ministry in the Diocese of Northern California—the diocese directly to the north of San Joaquin. Many of the places and people in this story are well known to me. I have several seminary classmates, friends and former colleagues, now serving in the Southern Cone diocese, and several as well who serve in the diocese of the Episcopal Church. Although Bishop Jerry Lamb began his ministry in Northern California some years after Susy and I had moved to Pennsylvania, Bishop John-David Schofield, long-time Bishop of San Joaquin, now of the “Southern Cone” diocese, was an acquaintance and briefly a colleague in Northern California, when I was a seminarian and a new ordinand in Auburn and he was rector of Inverness. In any case—the San Joaquin story is for me at least a little bit like “home town news,” and I continue to be interested in following the story--and of course I continue to keep all the cast of characters in my best thoughts and prayers.

More pertinently, though, I have continued to follow the San Joaquin situation, and I’m writing this commentary, because I and many others have wondered if there might be a few clues there about what might lie ahead for us here, in Pittsburgh, with our “realignment vote” at diocesan convention now only a bit more than a month away. After all, of the four dioceses of the Episcopal Church that seem on the course for “realignment” (San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Quincy, and Fort Worth), San Joaquin went first.

As we might look to San Joaquin as a kind of forerunner, I would note that there are indeed a number of similarities between our two dioceses—Pittsburgh and the “former” San Joaquin. San Joaquin, pre-December, 2007, was a small diocese—perhaps 2/3rds the size of Pittsburgh in terms of membership and number of congregations—but like Pittsburgh it encompassed a region of several larger metropolitan areas (especially Bakersfield and Fresno) and many smaller towns and rural communities. Like Pittsburgh, San Joaquin was a diocese of small churches, though with a few larger places. Like Pittsburgh, San Joaquin has been for many years along the spectrum of church politics a mostly conservative diocese, with leadership expressing a sense of increasing estrangement from the Episcopal Church. Like Pittsburgh, “conservative” San Joaquin has also included clergy and congregations of a more moderate and “progressive” orientation—more aligned with the culture of the wider Episcopal Church and in a conflicted relationship with their own diocesan leadership. Like Pittsburgh, San Joaquin had a bishop in +John-David Schofield who was engaged actively in the “political” battles of the wider Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

But there are differences as well between the two dioceses. As I noted above, in numbers of congregations and in membership San Joaquin was a significantly smaller diocese than Pittsburgh—although, unlike Pittsburgh, it is situated in a region with some rapidly growing urban areas and higher property values. San Joaquin had fewer large parishes, and neither parishes nor the diocese held the kinds of endowments, trusts, and other financial reserves that we would find in Pittsburgh. Another notable difference would be that until the recent fracture there had been no women ordained to the priesthood or functioning as priests in San Joaquin, while the past three Bishops of Pittsburgh have all supported the ordination of women, with women serving as rectors of parishes and on the diocesan leadership team.

Both Pittsburgh and San Joaquin, as noted above, have had substantially conservative majorities of clergy and laity for many years. However, there has been a difference in terms of proportionality and distribution. In San Joaquin the diocese seems to have been polarized, with a very large majority of very conservative clergy and congregations, and with a small number of more progressive clergy and congregations. (Of course, congregations themselves were somewhat diverse, and many with very conservative majorities also had more moderate and progressive minorities among the membership.) At the time of the realignment vote, fewer than a half dozen parishes of the diocese were committed “as parishes” to remaining in the Episcopal Church.

In Pittsburgh, though with an overall conservative majority, seven of the sixteen largest parishes of the diocese (Rankings I and II), eight of the twelve congregations within the city of Pittsburgh itself (District VII), and, across the wider diocese, parishes representing together something like 35%-40% of the diocesan average Sunday attendance, have indicated an intention not to be a part of the “realigned” diocese, but instead to remain within the Episcopal Church.

Unlike San Joaquin, where most remaining-Episcopal clergy and congregations appear to have been of a more-progressive orientation, in Pittsburgh the remaining-Episcopal clergy and congregations are very diverse, with a substantial proportion and perhaps even a majority theologically oriented in more moderate and conservative directions. Among those remaining in the Episcopal Church will be officers of the diocese as well—present and former members of the Standing Committee, Board of Trustees, Diocesan Council, Growth Fund, and Commission on Ministry, several former members of the diocesan administrative staff, and a majority of the Board of the diocesan Clergy Association.

Although San Joaquin had an organized “Remain Episcopal” group in the years prior to the final vote on realignment, it was a relatively small group, and without the depth of resources of experienced diocesan leadership and congregational participation that exists in Pittsburgh. While in the end some San Joaquin Standing Committee members and others in diocesan leadership did not become a part of the realigned diocese, there was not any significant planning for a canonical transition. Thus, when “realignment” happened, those in the diocese wishing to remain within the Episcopal Church and the leadership of the Episcopal Church itself were put into a situation where some improvisation seemed necessary to call a reorganizational convention and to begin to create anew canonical structures and institutions within the diocese. It has been suggested that a more deliberate and cautious approach to this reorganization could have minimized this improvisational initiative, and I think that is probably true, but also a matter of 20/20 hindsight. At the time, people of good-will felt that this was an appropriate way forward.

In Pittsburgh, in any case, the situation is markedly different. For many months “remaining Episcopal” diocesan officers, clergy, and lay leaders from across the spectrum of diocesan theological diversity and representing all the regions of the diocese, have been working together in the context of “Across the Aisle” conversations to establish plans for an orderly and canonical reorganization of the Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church, should the constitutional amendment concerning realignment be approved at the October 4 convention. These preparations have been taking place transparently, not secretly. Importantly, the leadership of the Episcopal Church has been apprised of these preparations and has indicated a commitment to support the local initiatives for canonical transition.

Despite rumors and anxieties that have moved through the diocese in the past few months, the Presiding Bishop and other leadership of the Episcopal Church have clearly indicated that they do not wish to improvise extra-canonical solutions when canonical solutions are possible, as they most certainly are here. This is an important point, as our clergy, vestries, and congregations seek to discern the best way forward. Ecclesiastical “martial law” is not going to be declared in Pittsburgh, armies of occupation will not descend upon us, and decisions about episcopal leadership and other matters of governance will be made by the clergy and laity of the remaining diocese ourselves, in an orderly, canonical process.

For us in Pittsburgh, as for our brothers and sisters in San Joaquin, remaining-Episcopal or realigning, the future is in many ways a mystery. We have problems to address on both sides of that dividing line, and among the members on both sides, that are going to be challenging. My sense is that in San Joaquin what began as sometimes unsettling and experimental improvisation is now gradually settling into a more orderly pattern of life and ministry, the California courts gradually sorting out the various legal concerns involved--and that as both we in Pittsburgh and the leadership of the Episcopal Church have learned from the experience of the San Joaquin transition, the prospects for a successful transition here have significantly improved.


Anonymous said...

If 815 is going to let the Diocese of Pittsburgh work out its future locally, then why is our great high priestess determined to remove Bishop Duncan? We will see exactly the same thing happen to Pittsburgh as happened to San Joaquin--a kangaroo court, an illegal diocesan convention and a Vichy-style diocese claiming all the property and all the assets. If you think that 815 is going to let you work things out for yourselves, you're only kidding yourselves. In the meantime, your proper place is supporting your orthodox bishop, not on the fence--theoretically orthodox, but wishing to remain with the apostates.

Rick D said...

Thank you for this well-considered and considerate post. If Episcopal leadership is as thoughtful throughout the Pittsburgh diocese then you are blessed indeed.

Robert Christian said...

Very nice comparison Bruce. Thank you for the reassure. I often wonder if the PB was a male if we'd so all the rather crass references ++KJS seems to garner?
Just as a side, I don't support my orthodox bishop, I follow my savior, Jesus Christ. It is my hope that whatever ails TEC, Jesus will see it right. One has to let God be God and trust.

Pierre Wheaton said...

My proper place??? I hate when people tell me what my proper place is.

Statements like that make me want to run far away from what constitutes my "proper place"

Penn Hackney said...

Nice description and comparison, full of provoking nuances. Thank you. I wish those most opposed to each other could understand or gain (such) a sense of nuance.

My reading of Jesus (in Paul and the Gospels) has convinced me that he was extreme in his insistence on love as the guiding principle for all relationships, and otherwise his teachings and his life were very nuanced indeed.