29 February 2008

Church property: let go with love

The Rev. George Clifford is my new hero. With amazing grace, gentleness, care, and (IMHO) prophetic weight, he lays out in detail exactly what I think about the current property disputes between the Episcopal Church and those congregations and dioceses that are currently leaving it for other branched of the Anglican Communion. It's brilliant. If this stuff interests you at all, please read it. An excerpt:

Quite simply, Christianity is about grace and love. For we who seek to follow Jesus, grace should take precedence over law. TEC operates through democratic processes. When a majority of a parish (or a diocese) votes to leave TEC, those who leave should recognize that the property belongs to TEC and, if they wish to have the property, offer to purchase it at fair market value. However, if those who wish to leave insist on keeping the property, grace demands that we accept that selfish decision rather than holding to the letter of the law. Although TEC may likely prevail in the courts, it will have further alienated the disaffected, turned its focus away from the gospel imperative, and wasted precious resources on an issue that is ultimately of little importance for God's business.

This choice may seem unfair to the minority who wish to remain with TEC but is gracious towards the larger number that decided to leave as well as to those whom God's love will touch because of TEC’s focus and resources invested in mission rather than legal actions. For example, the Diocese of Virginia has probably expended more than $1 million in lawsuits to retain the property of a number of parishes that recently voted to leave. The Diocese recently obtained a $2 million line of credit to further finance those suits. Although $30 million to $40 million of property is at stake, for those $3 million, and the countless hours of time the suits will require from bishops, priests, and laity, the Diocese of Virginia could fund several new missions to meet the needs of those who wish to remain and others. Successfully retaining large buildings for small congregations by winning the suits will burden those congregations with excessive overhead and probably instill a maintenance rather than missionary orientation.

Love between consenting adults does not seek to manipulate by using incentives or disincentives. Love wants what is best for the other, a choice that only the other can make. In human relationships, the unrequited lover who genuinely loves will sadly but freely permit his/her beloved to choose another. The same standard should apply to the community of God's people known as TEC.

This is in stark contrast to a recent statement by TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, regarding congregations that leave TEC:

"In a sense it's related to the old ecclesiastical behavior toward child abuse [when priests looked the other way]. Bad behavior must be confronted."

I admire ++Katharine very much (honestly, I really do), and it take a lot to offend me, but this statement is manipulative bullshit, and it pisses me off very much. At the least, it betrays a deeply disturbing misplacement of priorities (which Rev. Clifford addresses much more gently and eloquently above than I usually do.) At worst, equating folks leaving a particular hierarchical authority structure for a different one within the Body of Christ (however unlovingly they choose to do so) with ecclesiastical child abuse cheapens the reality of the suffering countless children have experienced at the hands of church leaders. Get over yourself, and get over your institution's need to maintain and defend itself by controlling people, ++Katharine. Taking care of those who have been "left behind" when the congregations or other bodies they were a part of left TEC is a very important priority. Punishing those who left in order to maintain control is misguided and harmful to the gospel.

Which relates to the one statement in Rev. Clifford's excellent post which I would quibble with:

Individuals, parishes, and dioceses that choose to leave TEC further fracture the Church’s already badly broken unity. Departures spiritually weaken TEC, leaving us bereft of the unique gifts and contributions that those who depart bring to the Church. After all, people, not physical plants or financial funds, are the Church’s most important resource.

This is, of course, true - but I would stress that it's TEC that suffers from the bare fact of these departures, not the Church. The Church is still One, and does not become less so because some people have moved to a different community structure within the Body. The loss of love between Christians that results from these breakaways - that's what harms the unity of the Church. If the aim is to promote the unity of the Church, Christians should concentrate on preserving and encouraging love between them - not preserving and defending current institutional affiliations. Which is Rev. Clifford's whole point, of course. I've made this point

So thank you, Rev. Clifford, for speaking a vital message with infinitely more eloquence and grace that this rude armchair griper could ever hope to muster. It's a pity (and a tragedy for the mission of God in the US) that your gentle insider's eloquence will no doubt fall every bit as much on deaf ears as my rude outsider's bitching.

1 comment:

dave said...