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News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

From North to South and from East to West the great Episcopal shake-up is underway.

Weekly, but increasingly several times a week a parish and/or its priest announces that they are leaving The Episcopal Church. They have had enough.

Forty years of theological and moral erosion has finally caught up with the mostly revisionist but not a few orthodox bishops in the ECUSA, and a priest stands up in his or her pulpit and says something like this:

"Dear friends, I as your shepherd can no longer abide by the new fangled theology of the church that we are in. We are a flock that has gone astray, we have erred and strayed like lost sheep and there is no health in the body known as The Episcopal Church. Forty years of theological and moral compromise finally culminating in the consecration of an avowed sodomite to the episcopacy, and we must now decide what we shall do. I, as your priest can no longer stay in the ECUSA and I must ask you to decide what you will do."

There is a variation on this in which the vestry and congregation may tell the priest that they have had enough and want out.

Whichever way it is, that parish has reached a crossroads and a decision will now have to be made as to where they will go.

Several options present themselves.

If it is merely the act of a priest and not his congregation, then he will announce that he is going to The Russian Orthodox Church, Antiochean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed Episcopal Church, the TAC, the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, The Charismatic Episcopal Church, and others. Smaller alternatives include one of the continuing vagante catholic groups like the Anglican Province of Christ the King. The priest voluntary renounces his or her orders and is out the door. The congregation stays put in the Episcopal Church.

The second situation is if the priest and the congregation decide together to leave the ECUSA. Usually they will tell the bishop they are going, and after some back and forth, often with threats, the vast majority of the church walks away from the property leaving a small number behind with the keys, property and endowment intact.

When a whole or partial group leaves the ECUSA they have, to date, gone as a group to the Anglican Mission in America. They have done this for three reasons. The first is that they still want to remain Anglican and the AMIA is recognized officially by two primates of the Anglican Communion (though not the Archbishop of Canterbury) and unofficially by several more. Secondly, the AMIA is strongly evaneglical with a clear mission statement to grow the church, and thirdly they do not accept women to the priesthood though they can become Deacons. (This does not mean women do not have a place in the life of the church. Bishop Thad Barnum's wife has a vibrant mission among women called Ariel, that has had considerable influence in bringing women to Christ and strengthening families and marriages.)

When an entire congregation departs suddenly, the local ECUSA bishop will almost immediately inhibit then depose the priest in question and the congregation goes off to the Anglican Mission in America or, as in a recent new development, come under the direct authority of an Anglican Primate in Africa or the Southern Cone.

Note: the American Anglican Council (ACC) is not another Episcopal denomination to which one flees. This is a group that an orthodox parish may choose to affiliate or align themselves with as a statement about that they believe, but they are staying within the Episcopal church, not leaving it.

The same can also be said for the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (NACDP). They are offering a "safe place" for estranged Episcopalians.

For those fleeing, more often than not they are invited by a Baptist, Lutheran or local school to hold services there, then when enough capital has been accumulated they break ground, build a new property and announce that they are free at last to preach the gospel unhindered by the revisionism of ECUSA's bishops. They are still Anglicans, and have no intention of relinquishing that heritage.

There are, of course, heartaches along the way, but once the deed has been done, recovery is fairly quick and they get on with job of doing mission and making the church grow. In some cases this proves so threatening that the ECUSAN Diocesan bishop will often send out a letter to his remaining flocks to steer clear of THAT group.

But the new ship is under full sail and nothing seems to stop them. It is an ECUSA bishop's worst nightmare. He is usually left with a small congregation that now needs a priest he can't afford, because his budget doesn't have enough operating expenses to run yet another parish. He may already have 20 or 30 mission churches that need money. And he has just lost the highest assessment paying Episcopal parish in history, and all he can do is scream and shout into the wind while publicly whining about inclusion.

The one thing an ECUSA bishop cannot do is depose a congregation. He will do it to a priest, but in the end he loses not only people he desperately needs to grow a church, but their continued offerings as well.

On the surface he looks like a winner keeping the property and endowment, but it is an illusion. It is people that make a church and without them, a liberal priest appointee has no ability to make the parish grow, as he has no gospel to proclaim. Words like "inclusion," "diversity" and "comprehensiveness" falls on deaf ears.

The largest Episcopal churches in ECUSA are solidly orthodox. They have millions of dollars invested in properties, endowments and usually raise anywhere from $1 to $4 million annually to operate the church, a significant portion of which goes to the local bishop. That is happening less nowadays, many of these large parishes are withholding hundreds of thousands of dollars much to the annoyance of the bishop.

And here is where it gets nasty.

Revisionist bishops are increasingly making threatening sounds that go along the lines, "we are not leaving the Episcopal church and if you are thinking of doing so I will depose you and sue you for your properties all the way to the Supreme Court with a little help from Frank Griswold's legal pit bull David Booth Beers and the Denis Canon." This effectively cowers the evangelical parish priest and he usually decides that to stay is politically wiser as not all his parish is necessarily behind him, and several congregants have dead relatives in the church graveyard…a compelling reason to stay apparently.

Of course it is a lot easier for a wealthy parish like Christ Church, Plano to stay in the ECUSA when you have a biblically orthodox Bishop like James Stanton, than it is say for a parish like St. John the Divine in Houston, Texas with a more liberal bishop like Don Wimberly. The ante is raised along with the tension. The same can also be said for an orthodox congregation like the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA, by far the biggest parish in the Diocese of PA with a generous budget. It is a nightmare situation having Charles E. Bennison as a bishop.

Perhaps the worst case scenario is the Diocese of Virginia where there are three very large, very successful Evangelical parishes in the northern part of the diocese who now stand in opposition to their bishop Peter James Lee over sexuality issues. They are cutting their giving to the diocese and while Lee has remained calm on the surface, it will only be a matter of time before he erupts with threats and more, when he sees he can't pay all the bills.

Then there are the anomalous cases like the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, PA and All Saints', Wynnewood in PA that have successfully stayed in the ECUSA while coming under the ecclesiastical authority of an African Primate and have managed to keep their churches, their priesthood intact (so far) from the marauding hands of Charles E. Bennison.

The situation will undoubtedly grow more complicated with the passage of time. One can only hope that with a clear-cut word from the Eames Commission by September, that the last lines in the sand will be drawn and the Anglican Communion will redraw the lines to everyone's satisfaction. One can only hope and prayer.


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