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The Implosion of a Small Parish - by Bob Seitz

THE IMPLOSION OF A SMALL PARISH: A CASE STUDY

By Robert Seitz

To witness the descent of the ECUSA mindset to the parish level is a painful experience. The divisiveness that at first was distantly abstract quickly became up close and personal. Suddenly one finds that the parish is composed of the "them" and the "us", and one of the two is no longer welcome.

This has occurred recently at Grace Episcopal Church in Tampa, Florida. Here was a relatively small parish (300 communicants, more or less), proud of its family atmosphere, proud of its friendliness, and proud to have recently attained parish status.

It became subtly obvious not long after the General Convention that there are two sides to this debate, and they are emotionally incompatible. (The exception, of course, is the larger group of the apathetic and purely parochial in outlook -- the "what's a presiding bishop?" crowd.)

We initially engaged in a series of "conversations", largely focused on homosexuality, the symptom, rather than the real question of orthodoxy and its spiritual foundation. Our bishop (John Lipscomb, Southwest Florida) was of the mind that "it is a time for conversation, not action". After a half dozen essentially worthless sessions it had become clear that divisiveness had crept in on us, however quietly, yet palpable.

Life moved along comfortably as the elephant in the room was largely ignored until it came time for pledges to be gathered. A serious number of former pledgers abstained or cut their pledge to a reluctant pittance. The budget for 2004, as a result, is short many thousands. The elephant in the sanctuary was beginning to take form, though still transparent.

In December a small group of conservatives met to discuss the possibility of moving the parish toward becoming a Confessing Parish of the AAC, thus defining it as a scriptural, orthodox, traditional parish. The rector was present as we formulated the idea of bringing such a recommendation to the vestry, and it was decided that during the February vestry meeting a presentation would be made to that effect.

Meanwhile, in January, a number of pre-service (9:00 am) meetings were held to openly discuss the future of Grace relative to the current dilemma. All were invited but the few who attended were largely pro-AAC. It is during this period that the liberal contingent began to become quietly active, and the elephant began to take on visible mass. A couple weeks after the sessions began, for example, an edict was published by the parish leadership and read from the pulpit one Sunday. Included therein was the prohibition of any discussion of the AAC question on church grounds and at any official church function. The backlash was bitter and vocal, and the prohibition was lifted the next Sunday by the rector.

The February vestry presentation was made by two members of the pro-AAC group who are both articulate and of strong conviction. From what I gather, it was received in a neutral fashion, and the vestry agreed to study the idea and possibly vote on the matter, in the form of a binding motion, yea or nay, at the March meeting.

Much was made during this time that the congregation (much less the vestry) remained uninformed of the true nature of such a move. In an attempt to remedy that shortcoming a series of three evening meetings, open to all, was scheduled to present the facts and to discuss at length the ramifications of a move to Confessing Parish status with the AAC. It is here that the liberal, anti-AAC contingent became publicly visible and vocal. The movement was met with suspicion, assertions of misguided activities, and some serious acrimony The elephant's presence was now unmistakable, and who it would trample was, to some, becoming predictable.

The March vestry meeting, Tuesday the 16th, was organized with great care. Individuals wishing to address the vestry (presumably in favor of AAC) were allowed three minutes each to present their thoughts. Eleven persons did so, including three opposed. No questions or comments from the 30 or 40 other persons in attendance were allowed. No statement from the opposition had ever been made formally to the vestry. In remedy a fifteen minute presentation from a spokeswoman for the opposition was forthcoming. She reduced Martin Luther to amateur status as she forcefully nailed the vestry with her theses. The AAC supporters were dividing the formerly happy church, forcing unwanted alliances down the congregation's throat, and attempting an unbearable takeover. Joining the AAC would accomplish nothing, change nothing, but create a schism within Grace. It must be stopped. (She fell short of proposing we be burned at the stake, but we got the message.)

It had been decided that the vote that evening was either to support or defeat the AAC motion that was on the table -- no putting it off. The rector announced that the vote of the vestry would be by secret ballot. The previously well-behaved audience erupted in protest, and a vestryman moved to vote by a show of hands instead. That motion was defeated, and the vote proceeded by secret ballot. The rector abstained (for reasons explained below) and the vote was tied at 6-6. Before one could take a breath it was announced that the tie defeated the motion. No AAC.

Then the senior warden whipped out a motion prepared for this situation that was designed to patronize the AAC supporters. Within the motion was the idea that a list of all persons who are personally members of AAC be sent to the diocese each year to indicate their unhappiness with the ECUSA position. Once again we were labeled as outsiders and separatists -- just the thing to enhance unity! This Schindler's List in reverse was the last straw, and most of the AAC group walked out, never to return. During the next few days numerous letters of resignation were received by the rector.

The parish that evening lost a considerable number of faithful, longtime members (at least 15 families). The quantity is not as important as the fact that those who left were large contributors of time, talent, and treasure. This may have been a factor contributing to the ease with which the AAC group was characterized as a dire threat, in that the group largely was comprised of the active, the highly visible, the doers, the movers and shakers. Many of these true-believers are now attending a local AMiA parish.

This case study, if nothing else, points out the perils of a failure of leadership, yet in some ways it is understandable. The rector himself is a member of AAC, and is soon to retire. Thus he abstained from the vote, and thus there existed a newly appointed search committee.
Two vestry members have resigned, and two members of the search committee did likewise. Whether Grace will survive as a parish, and whether it will be permitted to proceed with the calling may be in question. All this could not have happened at a worse time.

A priest who had hoped to retire in a blaze of glory has, instead, gone down in flames. It is easy for a priest (or a bishop) to intimidate; it is very difficult to repair the resulting damage.

Bob Seitz has been a member of the Diocese of SWFLA since 1962, serving on numerous vestries, and a longtime member of Grace as a lay reader. He recently left Grace Episcopal Church in Tampa, FL.

END

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