The Episcopal Church is getting tough with an openly schismatic bishop who has been one of the Akinola Anglicans cheered and supported by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. Similarly, local breakaway parishes are discovering that they can leave the church, but they can't take it with them. (For those who are not familiar, Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola is a rightwing, vehemently antigay prelate with whom a number of renegade American Episcopal churches are affiliating.)
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori warned Pittsburgh Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr. that he would face civil suits and possible expulsion as bishop if a proposed resolution enabling the diocese to leave the denomination passed during a diocesan convention the other day. But he and the Anglican confederates, voted to secede anyway:
Representatives from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly Friday to approve constitutional amendments that are the first step in leaving the national church in a widening rift over homosexuality and interpretation of Scripture.
Pittsburgh joined dioceses in San Joaquin, California, and Quincy, Illinois, in granting preliminary approval to separating from the national church, which the dioceses contend have wrongly abandoned Scriptural authority and traditional teachings on truth, salvation and the divinity of Jesus Christ.
"As a diocese we have come to a fork in the road," Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan said before lay delegates approved the measures 118 to 58 and clergy voted 109 to 24. "Indeed, it has become clear that our understandings are not only different, but mutually exclusive, even destructive to one another."
And in Connecticut, the national Episcopal Church joined a local lawsuit against an Episcopal parish that left the denomination to join the Anglican empire of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola. The Hartford Courant reports:
A bid by Connecticut Episcopal leaders to force members of a renegade Bristol parish to vacate their church building is getting some extra legal muscle.
The national church has filed papers in court seeking intervenor status in a lawsuit against Trinity Episcopal Church brought by the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. It accuses the Rev. Donald Helmandollar and church leaders of trespassing on church property.
Members of the Trinity parish voted to leave the Episcopal Church last May because of disagreement over the 2003 election of an openly gay New Hampshire bishop and the church's blessing of same-sex unions. Around the same time, Trinity members voted to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a self-described mission of the conservative Anglican Church of Nigeria.
According to the lawsuit against Trinity, the property in Bristol is held in trust for the diocese and does not belong to the parish.
Such legal battles are sprouting up all over the country, and are likely to continue for the forseeable future. As one conservative bishop, who does not want to leave the church and does not want to have to litigate told the Orlando Sentinel.
"Individuals who wish to leave the Diocese of Central Florida and form another congregation are to be honored as brothers and sisters in Christ. The Diocese will do everything in its power to make their departures from the Diocese of Central Florida and the Episcopal Church a peaceful one, without rancor or recrimination."
However, he added, "We have a solemn responsibility to protect the interests of the Diocese and the larger Church. We cannot and will not abandon those [parishioners] who wish to remain."
The IRD and its affiliates, notably the American Anglican Council have made signficant headway in their decade long march to foment internal factional fighting and secession from the Episcopal Church. So much so, that the IRD now describes its Episcopal program as "Anglican." Here is the first sentence of the IRD's Anglican Action program description.
Anglican Action seeks to promote orthodox teaching and practice within the Episcopal Church.
And there is the rub.
While the IRD trumpets the loss of church members and blames it on liberalism, it similtaneously organizes to pull members, whole congregations and even whole diocese out of the denomination. It is remarkable the double speak they have gotten away with. How can one pretend to be advocating for internal reform, when -- as the IRD has done -- advocate and organize for schism? Or collaborate with those who do? Reform and schism are just are not the same thing. Perhaps epitomizing the IRD approach -- even the staffer for the Anglican Action program is a member of a schismatic church in Virginia. Of course that would be consistent with what the IRD has always been about, as the board and advisory board have always had plurlalities of neo-conservative Catholics, as Andrew Weaver has detailed, as well as been fueled by outside, neoconservative financial interests with no actual interest in the life and health of these churches -- other than that the churches were obstacles to the agendas of their, conservative, neonconservative and religous right grantees.
Here is what Weaver wrote in 2006:
Father [Richard John] Neuhaus, 69, has been a leading culture warrior in the Neoconservative camp. Although his ideological positions have been challenged by fellow Catholics as inconsistent with church teachings, few mainline Protestants are aware of his activities or those of other influential Neocon Catholics such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Robert P. George. Fewer still realize that these Catholics direct a group of paid political operatives who work ceaselessly to discredit mainline Protestant leaders and their Christian communions. The Washington-based think tank that they lead is the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Six of the 17 current members of IRD's board of directors, a full 35 percent, are prominent conservative Catholics (Institute on Religion and Democracy, 2006). They include founders Father Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, along with George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University, Mary Ellen Bork (wife of Judge Robert Bork), and [then] board chair, Professor J. Budziszewski of the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, four other conservative Catholics sit on the IRD advisory board:
Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University School of Law; Opus Dei evangelist and Catholic priest, Rev. John McCloskey; Russell Hittinger, Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, as well as Jesuit priest and professor, Rev. James Schall at Georgetown University.
These prominent Catholics confer their prestige and considerable power to encourage right-wing donors to finance IRD. They are key links to the patrons of IRD which include Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Ahmanson and the Bradley, Coors, Smith-Richardson, Randolph, and Olin foundations with whom these Neoconservative Catholics have had a long working relationship.
All of these benefactors have a common political aim, which is to neutralize and overturn the social justice tradition of mainline Protestant churches because they are in tension with unfettered capitalism.
I wrote about the IRD and its Episcopal program in 2006:
The longtime director of IRD, the late Diane Knippers was, according to Salon.com’s Max Blumenthal, "the chief architect" of an initiative "to ‘restructure the permanent governing structure’ of ‘theologically flawed’ mainline churches... in order to ‘discredit and diminish the Religious Left’s influence.’
The "initiative" is called the "Reforming America's Churches Project" and "the Religious Left" is IRD-speak for the mainline protestant churches and collectively the National Council of Churches. The executive summary of IRD's funding proposal to conservative foundations surfaced and can be viewed here. I continued:
A...schism campaign targeting the Episcopal Church had its origins in 2000. Members of IRD’s American Anglican Council solicited funding for the effort from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson— who had already contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to IRD.
Bankrolled with more $1 million from the Ahmansons in 2000 and 2001, and with Roberta Ahmanson now on the IRD board, the group eventually targeted the appointment and consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal church’s first bishop to be openly gay when elected. "With its war chest full and its strongest pretext yet for a schism, the group cranked up a smear campaign against Robinson," Blumenthal wrote, "falsely accusing him of sexual harassment and administering a bisexual pornography Web site." This encouraged wealthy dioceses and congregations to split with the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Council’s renegade network.
In September of 2004, IRD quietly organized a campaign to divert funds away from the church and towards "orthodox" Anglican groups. Tom Donnelly, one of the principals of The Jefferson Group, a Washington, DC lobbying firm, personally handled funding solicitations for the "United Anglican Fund" which he and two others incorporated in response the consecration of Bishop Robinson. "Since the goal of the UAF," wrote IRD staffer Lauren Whitnah, "is to provide a safe mechanism for giving, there are no ties between it and any entity of the Episcopal Church." By "safe," she means ensuring that "the funds stay out of the control of hostile dioceses..." and to fund "orthodox" projects "in North America and the world."
Since Robinson’s consecration, a number of dioceses affiliated with the Anglican Council have threatened schism and have increasingly aligned themselves with conservative Anglican churches in Africa and Asia. Indeed, Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll, Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University, a keynote speaker at a recent conference in South Carolina ("dedicated to the memory of [former IRD head, and schismatic Episcopalian] Diane Knippers") declared, "Liberal Anglicanism is reaping the harvest of unbelief," and, "The gates of hell will not prevail against His Church...The present order is passing away."
Evidently, the present order does not accept the premises of the Akinola Anglicans and their patrons. Indeed, the assets that the religious right wantsto march out of the churches, may stay right where they are, even as individuals depart to place themselves under the authority of Archbishop Akinola. This is a relationship that Americans may come to regret, as one Episcopal lay minister who has has gained considerable knowledge of Akinola recently wrote:
By the time this schism is done there’s going to be hell to pay. Akinola’s American backers have hitched their wagon to a mafioso in a Mercedes; can blood be far behind?
Josh Thomas continues, commenting on a horrific report on human rights abuses in Nigeria and the state of Nigerian democracy:
The report does not detail the Anglican Church’s involvement, so let me add a few facts which, if more widely known, ought to embarrass American "Anglicans" who have been quick to pledge allegiance to Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola because of his assiduously publicized anti-Gay campaign:
• The Nigerian government donates the land on which many Anglican churches are built, including Akinola’s own cathedral in Abuja. There is no such thing as separation of Church and state in Nigeria.
This is a much bigger danger to the Church and the Gospel than it is to the government. When the Church gets co-opted, injustice invariably results.
• The Nigerian presidency, by common consent, rotates between Christians and Muslims. Christian presidential candidates choose Muslim VP’s and vice-versa. The previous president was an Anglican; the current president is Muslim, and his vice-president is an Anglican. Among all the Christian denominations in Nigeria, only Anglican politicians win the top slots.
• Government officials attend every important Anglican event—a school here, a bishop there—arriving in their Mercedes and BMWs and mixing with the "in" crowd. Indeed, belonging to the Anglican Church is seen as a way to get ahead financially and politically.
• The president of the Christian Association of Nigeria—Akinola until recently, when he was defeated for re-election by his fellow Christians for being too close to the government—is an automatic member of the government’s National Security Council. Akinola tried to stack the deck for his re-election by rescheduling the vote for a date when his main Catholic rival was out of the country attending a Vatican event. Akinola’s fellow Christians saw through his manipulation and denied him even the loser’s automatic vice-presidency. He’s losing prestige at home, even as he continues to attract homophobes in America.
Reporting on the state of the American Episcopal Church and its internal disagreements rarely shines a spotlight on the IRD and Archbishop Akinola, tending to treat the tiny minority conservative dissidents as somehow the victims of deviance from the true orthodoxy at the hands of diabolical liberals. But these matters are about much more than mudpies flung by the factions in an all too human institution. At stake is the generally progressive tradition of the Episcopal Church in America and its capacity to act on that tradition, not to mention billions of dollars in assets -- land, buildings, pension funds, and more. The Episcopal Church is making news today. But as we have frequently discussed at Talk to Action -- there are similar struggles in all of the major Protestant denominations.