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CENTRAL GULF COAST: The Deconstruction of a Diocese


How defensive responses and controlling personal agendas lay the groundwork for a schism, in the church

By David W. Virtue

What made five parishes and seven clergy leave the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and affiliate with the Anglican Mission in America in the year 2000?

Was it simply a matter of bad theology, a mediocre bishop, a morally and theologically bankrupt Episcopal leadership? Or was it something more than that?

The Rev. Dr. David McDowell-Fleming thinks he knows what the problems are and he may be right. The priest is no arm-chair systems management wonk. He's an active priest in the diocese and holds a Ph.D. on the whole subject of institutional management. He's also a deeply committed orthodox and Evangelical Catholic priest, a graduate of Duke University Divinity School and General Theological Seminary and he has been in the thick of things in that diocese for more than 17 years.

He has written a book on the crisis that hit the Diocese of Central Gulf Coast and he offers this as his central thesis.

"When members and leaders of a denomination react defensively and respond with controlling management styles to enthusiastic expressions of piety and worship styles, consistently over a periods of time, they lay the groundwork for significant schismatic outbreaks in the life of that denomination."

The priest cited three areas of concern:

Firstly, leadership in the church fails the gospel if it is dominated by the norms of management.

Secondly, the spiritual experiences of the people of God are a life force to be nourished and guided, not suppressed. That is, the spiritual life must be led, not managed.

Thirdly, when the predominant theme is that of suppression and control, schism may be the most natural outcome and indeed, a forerunner of a form of reformation.

For 20 years, he writes, the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fueled by the inflammatory capacity for disharmony in the church community which led finally to the parishes and priests leaving.

He cites four areas where the community added to the fuel of schism.

The use of derogatory generalizations of Christian brothers and sisters; by controlling the information and presenting only that which compliments a corporate image; by manipulating data, events and people with public relations strategies and by allowing individuals to work their personal agendas for significant social change in ways that were
not open to public discussion and challenge.

"What is significant is that for 20 years in the Diocese there was a residue of animosity towards a large group of congregations and priests who were charismatic," writes McDowell-Fleming who cited the actions of General Convention on voting for resolution D039 and the accusation of 'Neo-Fundamentalist' aimed at the AMIA as fueling the problems.

The priest noted that Bishop Charles Duvall's predecessor, the Rt. Rev. George Murray urged the various diocesan factions to keep communications open. "We won't always agree, but we surely can try to understand one another. And we need one another's ideas and opinions," he wrote at the time.

In the new Episcopal Diocese of the early 70s, a parallel dynamic took place. The bishop had a radical reputation for being a very active civil rights activist, trying to forge a diocesan identity amongst strong rectors who refused to relinquish theirs. Part of this power struggle involved opposition to renewal movements.

The newly formed Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast saw a convergence of the Anglo-Catholic and Charismatic traditions, which became the story of one church, the Episcopal Church in Destin, Florida.

But many of the rectors demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise their independence. "Structurally Anglican comprehensiveness became nothing more than obvious congregationalism. A significant Episcopal parish in Mobile had the nickname as the largest Presbyterian Church in Mobile."

Labels like "fundamentalist"; "charismatic" thrown about along with the "authority of Holy Scripture" only polarized the diocese. The word "historical" became an insult conveying intolerance, rigidity and an unwillingness to buy into the "political correct."

In time the notion of, "In things essential, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things charity," began to fade. There was, writes McDowell-Fleming, "little liberty in accepting either debate or difference and worst of all there was a major failure of charity."

At the end, the cycle of renewal/consolidation/stagnation/deterioration became the norm. Bishop Duval tried to be a consolidator but he lacked an understanding or even an appreciation of the Charismatic Movement.

Instead of a renewal cycle beginning in the diocese, five congregations pulled away. Thus began the long painful cycle of charismatic and anti-charismatic fighting, but the emphasis in time moved to the role Cursillo would now play in the diocese.

Bishop Murray was not to be in office as the history of Cursillo evolved. He retired and it was Duvall who took up the cause. The diocesan office produced a form document that outlined the movement and how it was to be implemented.

The new bishop Charles Duvall came in on the old style Evangelical tradition representing the Low Church party who saw themselves as safeguarding the causes of the Reformation. Yet he was not closed to ritual when it would compliment the cause of the gospel. Duvall's main opposition was to a sacerdotal understanding of ministry in which bishop and priest over valued their self-importance.

But Duvall inherited the whirlwind, and it was left to him to initiate the major structural shift in the power structure of the diocese.

In his involvement with Cursillo the new Bishop chose to participate only at the level of being the celebrant and preacher at the Closing if each and every Cursillo weekend. Duval attempted to move the participants away from Roman Catholic and Charismatic extremes.

The truth is Duvall was straight Low Church, mild evangelical emphasis, of the Virginian Seminary and South Carolina school. He become less and less interested in the charismatic movement in his clergy and expressed over time, a certain repulsion towards it.

What happened to these clergy? Because of the climate of control, their presence and passion was no longer acceptable to the Diocese. Staff was appointed who were compliant but also added the bishop's negative reactions to individuals who were in any shape or form extreme in their desire for renewal or were public in their conservative orthodox expression of the faith.

These clergy who thus were marginalized in the process became the nucleus of the later movement that led to the deconstruction of the Diocese.

A bishop who had come in as a moderate now began to display tendencies towards a more liberal line, which would, in time manifest itself in very illiberal forms.

But what gave the orthodox clergy initial heart was the revelation that Bishop Duvall had signed onto the Irenaeus Fellowship. A group was formed and began discussing the issues and spending time praying for each other's ministries.

Then a surprise came when Duvall withdrew from this Fellowship saying they were "mean-spirited". Because of a personal set back, from that point on he no longer wanted to be identified with the conservative fellowship of bishops. Duvall went a stage further.

He made sure that any priest associated with the Irenaeus Fellowship would never get a
diocesan appointment to offices of leadership.

He had turned.

The diocese's finances proved the point. The diocese and the bishop maintained the status quo even as the Florida Panhandle was busting at the seams economically as people were discovering it as a plum retirement area.

Visionary leadership complete disappeared. The Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast that was highly resistant to the Bishop Murray, under Bishop Duvall proved no more successful than his predecessor. At the end of Duvall's reign the constituency was ready to elect a maintainer without any conscious reflection as to the disaster that had resulted from similar decisions more than 20 years prior. He made sure that no resolutions were ever put forward that involved dissenting points of view. Stick with issues about HIV/AIDS where no one would dissent and all would be well. It was a foolish mistake.

The diocese which should have embraced leadership through constructive or adaptive change had chosen instead, management.

Duvall had chosen to live with "ambiguity", but seven of his priests and large parts of five congregations decided they could not. The bishops, who once had the confidence of conservative clergy, now publicly took a position that seemed to be in compromise with culture.

By the time a new bishop was to be chosen, any effort to choose a person of orthodox persuasion was not even on the playing field.

A case in point was the deconstruction of Canon Bill Atwood, EKKELSIA president and an out and out Evangelical who said he would, if elected bishop, immediately lift the sentences of deposition pronounced upon those who had departed. Atwood was classified by one diocesan liberal as one of "those fundamentalist schismatics" who had left the church (it was a lie), adding of the departing AMIA clergy, "these !#&*@# should be

The national church got in on the act when Bishop Clayton Matthews, the Presiding Bishop's man for pastoral development charged that Atwood had considerable credit card debt. Atwood said he had four times the amount to pay for it (he buys plane tickets on the points), but the damage was done. Atwood never had a prayer. The job went to the moderate The Rt. Rev. Philip M. Duncan II.

But the history of "moderate" bishops is always the same. Without a clear fix on the gospel and the authority of Scripture, such moderate men become liberals and quickly turn into revisionists. It has never been otherwise. Never.

McDowell-Fleming concludes his book by saying that "history only will confirm if the AMIA in any way turns out to be a Coast Guard Cutter!"

Can American Anglicanism as expressed in the Episcopal Church, rediscover a true sense of comprehensiveness? The old analogies of churchmanship of High, Low and Broad are now blurred and belong to an earlier age. Yet there seems to be a dividing line between those who are comfortable with an effective engagement of their faith and those who
would prefer to keep it at an intellectual level. Both are needed says the priest.

The question at this 11th hour of the Episcopal Church is whether the two will still be together after February 2005.

The Rev. Dr. David H. McDowell-Fleming is rector of St. Monica's Episcopal Church in Cantonment, Florida in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. His book may be purchased by going to www.iUniverse.com 122pp. $13.95.

NOTE: If you are not receiving this from VIRTUOSITY, the Anglican Communion's largest biblically orthodox Episcopal/Anglican Online News Service, then you may subscribe FREE by going to: www.virtuosityonline.org. Virtuosity's website has been accessed by more than one million readers in 45 countries on six continents. This story is copyrighted but may be forwarded electronically with reference to VIRTUOSITY and the author. No changes are permitted in the text.


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