Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Case of Christ Church, Savannah

I know a bit of Christ Church from having attended a Eucharist there a couple years back while fleeing to Savannah with my then very pregnant wife from a formidible swarm of hurricanes that had left our little central Florida city bruised and without power for some time.

What struck me, aside from the general beauty of Savannah and the considerable beauty of the church building itself, was how vibrant and broad-based the congregation seemed. Even then, however, it was clear the congregation was devoted to separation; we recall how the entire sermon we heard--a Sunday sermon--was devoted to getting ready and getting the courage up to separate. We were taken aback by the commitment of their clergy to the separatist cause; their situation, from what little we could tell, seemed to be pretty well homogenized behind the cause. Of course, that did not keep us from going back around there if only to be in the vicinity of such a marvelous building where we could wonder what if?

What if they really do actually secede? Well, it seems that they have, or have at lest committed themselves to secession even if some formalities remain. A shame, everyone might agree. But those performing the very act itself would no doubt claim they were obligated to take action; not to do so would have been a grave sin of some sort. Is that right?

Why did they do this again? What's the argument exactly?

I. The Argument
Surely there must be a very good argument giving Christ Church secure warrant, such that there are--at least--no outstanding publicly accessible defeaters. It's just the very defeasibility of reasons here that makes secession in general a thing of such awful gravity. This sort of thing can after all be reversed in instances, but it is really quite tough to pull off, and in this case I would say it's very unlikely. People have become disposed to this type of action there; if they have become disposed and the action itself is wrong--or this type of action in this type of situation--that's pretty much just too bad.

Here's Gavin Dunbar on the recent HoB reply to Tanzania; I think the key bit is here:

The House has not renounced the imagined right of the Episcopal Church to do as it pleases, unconstrained by the teaching of the Bible, the historic Faith, or the Communion’s “bonds of affection”.

This seems to be at least a key premise in any justification the rector would give for making the break now rather than later or even earlier. What would make now so special, after all? Well, the HoB's reply is what is special. It should have renounced the "right" to do as it pleases, etc. by now and has not. Presumably he would say something like Tanzania gave the HoB one last opportunity to make the required renunciation; i.e. in spite of Archbishop Williams' declaration to the contrary, Tanzania really was an ultimatum; Tanzania created a kairos moment for the Epipscopal Church in a very strong sense. I can't make sense of the rector's comments in any other way--am I wrong about how he must have seen Tanzania? Their senior warden stated

We have witnessed how The Episcopal Church (TEC) has separated itself from the historic Christian faith over the last few decades. In February 2007 TEC received a final call from the Anglican Communion to return to the central tenets of Christianity, and TEC failed to comply with the request by the September 30 deadline. Therefore, TEC has abandoned the communion previously existing between TEC (including the Diocese of Georgia) and Christ Church.

They likely thought something like this:

A line in the case of the Episcopal Church has to be drawn somewhere, and the obligation to draw the line cannot be deferred again and again--such deferrals are irresponsible, even reprehensible given how much--the very health or even final destiny of souls--is at stake.

That's what he seems to have in mind as part of the background of this statement (same doc):

But the obligations of “constituent” membership in the “larger church” run both ways. The constitutional obligations of the Episcopal Church - to uphold the Bible’s teaching, the Church’s historic Faith and Order, and membership in the Communion – are the covenantal basis of its canonical claims to parochial real property. If it cannot fulfil the former, then the moral basis for the latter disappears.

I give the Dunbar credit for giving clear reasons; not much problem there at all. He seems to have in mind something at least this strong:

If Christ Church is morally obliged to remain in the Episcopal Church, then the Episcopal Church must remain able to
(1)uphold the Bible's teaching, and
(2) uphold the Church's faith and order, and
(3) retain its membership in the Anglican Communion.

And a Savannah editorial seems to have backed up the idea that this is a large part of the motivation here; the editorial notes

they focus on the greater Episcopal Church's unwillingness to unequivocally back such basic tenets as the authority of scripture, the divinity of Christ and the availability of salvation through Christ's sacrifice.

The way Dunbar speaks, failing on any one of (1)-(3) negates Christ Church's obligation to remain part of TEC. That would--if (P) is indeed true--give Christ Church permission to leave TEC, but that alone would not obligate them to leave. That's not much of a problem prima facie; maybe he'd rewrite (P) as (Q), changing it to read "If Christ Church is morally permitted to remain...." or he'd add to (P) the considerations about the health of souls and so on I mentioned above. Either way he might have argued to completion for an obligation to leave TEC.

II. An Episcopal Service
The Bishop responded:

It is important to clarify the ecclesiastical structure of our denomination. Parishes in our church are not separate congregations but are integral and constituent parts of a diocese and of the larger church. Should some individuals in a parish decide they can no longer be Episcopalians, that in no way changes the fact that Christ Church is and will remain a parish of the Episcopal Church in this diocese and will continue to occupy its present facilities.

Oh my--I bet that didn't persuade anyone. In fact, the Bishop's response was framed by the media and many others as a question merely about who gets the building, i.e. a legal question:

But now that they've left, the only question remaining is: Who gets the property?
According to attorneys with experience in church property laws, the odds are stacked against Christ Church.
However, church leaders say historical and current documents clearly list the wardens and vestry as its owners.
The Episcopal Church claims ownership to all church properties. The denomination considers individual parishes to be held in trust by the congregation.

And I bet the secular arm of the law will decide for one side or another. That may leave partisans of both parties thinking that indeed, the question comes down to property.

Wingers will think the Bishop only cares about the building, and lefties will think the secessionists are cynically interested in getting away like brigands with as much as they possibly can. Indeed, the congregation is not the building it meets in, and the argument over who gets the building is not going to be settled by anything the rector or vestry have said up to this point; the property issue is separate from the theological issue. And one might wonder at the chasm between an obligation to leave, and permission to take property--the latter going with permission to leave it be (I'd really like to see an argument that the congregation is obligated to take its property).

Anyhow, however fascinating the property thing might be, I think both sides would have missed the Bishop's point--which has something more to it. In fact, the Bishop is doing us a service by bringing up the issue: ecclesiology.

The Bishop is NOT saying, in effect, the congregation cannot leave the Episcopal Church, but rather that the congregation cannot leave the Episcopal Church on its own. The congregation might have left with the Bishop's OK. But the congregation alone is not omnicompetent--as all sides would agree--and in particular, it is not competent to leave one communion for another. The congregation does not have that kind of authority; that is analytic to belonging to an episcopal church. However early the congregation of Christ Church claims to be, it was always episocopal, and never properly anyway had the power to make such a decision on its own.

Why is that? The real reason, I think, is that to be an episcopal church--something written into their identity one would have thought--they need a bishop. This is non-negotiable; it is a matter of being, not a matter of election or something to be settled by votes. When they voted without a bishop and against their bishop, they did not vote as a congregation; their action was not an action of the church. It was not merely irregular, but invalid. If they vote were they to vote without a bishop, but with their priest, he could not validly act to preside over such an occasion--a priest by definition presides only at the behest of a bishop.

Private persons on their own cannot just constitute a church by fiat, much less an episcopal one. Being a church is a matter of grace, and is not simply within our power as creatures.

Let us hope they acknowledge the gravity of such an error. That would be the beginning of a better and safer path for them to travel. Communion cuts right to the being of persons as such.

On the other hand, it seems to me in contrast, the Bishop led properly by making his statement. He did not uselessly raise temperatures by arguing the Bible or deeper matters of theology with them on that occasion. They would not have credited any other contrary interpretation different from their own--that would have constituted an outstanding defeater, and such contrary interpretations have long been public. And having made such an elementary error about ecclesiology, how could he have expected them to listen to theology?

But he could have reasonably expected them to heed the call to be the kind of church they ever had professed to truly being--an episcopal church. For whatever else they contended against, they had never contended against the episcopacy, and could have been expected to retain a principled consistency. I suppose it is only the modesty of their Bishop that kept him from being explicit about the frightening gravity of their error.

III. Deconstructing Rector Dunbar
Once the ecclesial problem emerges, it becomes clear, I think, that the entire case for Christ Church collapses. For their case is inconsistent on its own grounds.

When the Dunbar judged the Episcopal Church, he claimed it lost legitimate authority once it failed any one of these:

(1)upholding the Bible's teaching;
(2)upholding the church's faith and order;
(3)retaining membership in the Anglican Communion.

See the problem?

It is very difficult to see how secession, and in particular the very act of secession that the congregation attempted, upholds the faith and order of the church. In fact, it seems pretty clear it does not--and that is hardly a matter of breaking the polity of the Episocpal Church alone, but it is a matter of breaking episocopal polity, period. They have assumed powers as a congregation that imply in practice they are congregational, and that their identity as episcopal is just pretend-- a matter Aesthetic and not Religious, to use Kierkegaard's categories. By that failure alone, the rector would have lost his legitimacy as rector and shepherd of this congregation--going by his own principles. Judge him as he judges--and you shall see.

But then you might wonder: how is this priest competent to make the argument he has made? Is a priest competent to decide as an individual priest what the necessary conditions of his allegiance to his bishop are? Is an individual congregation? Shouldn't these have been decided at a higher level, like GC or at the level of the Anglican Communion (to whom I suppose this rector would say, risibly, his congregation owes its being as church)?

Indeed, note how he implies he has a unilateral competence to decide the nature of the Tanzania communique, even over against the decision of Archbishop Williams who
claimed it was not an ultimatum. Well, this rector says it is--and that settles it? What? At the very least, even if he disagreed with Williams, he should have respected the episcopacy enough to let the Bishops or primates decide. Again--overreaching his competence. Again--making a mockery of the very faith and order of the church whose respect he claims is necessary for legitimate claims of authority. Again--a failure of reason, an embrace of sheer irrationality: it is because I say it is; I am because I will it to be. Sound like anyone?

It reminds me of this passage:

13You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;I will raise my throne above the stars of God;
I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon;*
14I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,
I will make myself like the Most High.’

This ugly bit of the secession sounds to me like the same type of thing first Isaiah was talking about--though I suppose I might be wrong.

Some odds and ends: If the episcopacy is part of Biblical teaching--and there is a good case for it--then he has broken (1) in the very act of attempting to secede without a bishop. And if honoring the authority of the elders of the church, which here and in every episcopal church happen to be bishops, is part of Biblical teaching--the rector et al lose legitimacy on that point as well.

Even (3) is dicey considering how the Lambeth invitations turned out so far. If the rector really were so concerned about (3), wouldn't he have waited at least until he and the others could be sure that in leaving TEC they would still be in the Communion? Is his fiat enough even to make his group a member of the AC? Or even the fiat of his Primate? The issue seems up in the air, a matter still in contention, still being discerned and worked out. At the very least this kind of precipitous leadership looks risky, given the rector's professed values; indeed, it looks reprehensible given his values. How can he claim to uphold any of them while criticizing the Episocpal Church? He should have had his eyes examined--and so should others.

One might be forgiven for thinking something else must be at stake, that he and the others were not really serious about (3)--or about (1) and especially about (2). That is, one might be forgiven--I hope--for wondering if this bunch really has any respect at all for anything more than a selective, convenient, private reading of Scripture, a selective, convenient, private allegiance to the faith and order of the church, and a selective, convenient, and private understanding of what makes for membership in the Communion. What's really going on here?


At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Rector you quote, while sympathetic, to Christ Church, is NOT Christ Church's Rector but the Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Savannah. Their vestry, as is stated in the letter, have not voted on any such action.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks--you are right, so I've made corrections to the piece above in light of your info.

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Based on a posting at Stand Firm entitled "Diocese of GA Bishop takes Action," etc, two of the clergy serving at Christ Church Savannah are canonically resident in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

I'm just sayin ...

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As in the DioFW, if preached to about seperation on a regular basis the congregation will eventually follow along the same lines. I watched it happen over a 4 year period and the "atmosphere" did a 180, from an inclusive,loving parish to a parish where thinking was controlled and discent not tolerated.

At 1:08 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Could you expand a bit on competence? I've seen similar statements made about TEC's consenting to Bishop Robinson's consecration, and I'm curious. How can one determine the range of competence for an individual or a group?


At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, the one major issue is, of course, that they are realigning in their view. Thus, all the careful work that you did by way of analysis--and thank your fo that--would look different, I am guessing, if you included in your perspective the fact that they are not, in fact, forsaking the very strucuture of the church which you and the Bishop in Georgia are holding up to them as a mirror to their face. What they are doing is realigning, under a bishop who, in their minds, has not foraken the faith.

In posting this I am not trying to score any points at all. Just to say that if we want to tryly describe things in the best possible way, with a hope to greater understaning, we should probably use the language of realignment. We can argue that it is not possible, that the issue of boundaries comes into play, or any number of other things about autonomy and interdependence. But more and more I see the conservatives as trying to honestly realign FWIW and not trying to be schismatic, which is a heavy-handed fear mongering word and just not fair IMHO or really helful anymore.

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for all the ridiculous typos above. I can spell, I just can't type!

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Strider said...


Kimel, Jr., Alvin F. and Donald D. Hook. "Calling God 'Father': A Theolinguistic Analysis. Faith and Philosophy (1995, 12:2) 207-222.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Alright, here goes.

Where are we on the episcopacy here? My whole argument rests on the presumption that communion normally requires the Eucharist, and the Eucharist normally requires a Bishop.

"Normally" leaves open the possibility of a dispensation in extreme cases, when teh being of the church would be at stake.

I suppose Christ Church might respond simply by saying that this is just such an extreme case, where their being church is in jeopardy.

But that cannot be the case if their Bishop is able to celebrate the Eucharist--and nobody has questioned his efficacy as celebrant. Rowan, for instance, said as much when he asserted grace flows from our sacraments.

I take these considerations to be primary in our debate.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Thanks for your comments.

At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the holy catholic street, after growing up next door as a C of S American Presbyterian and hearing the kinds of things that have made it into, for example, George Will's column..."'the Episcopal Church is still the finishing school of American Christianity'" and then the more recent John Spong "primitive animist" remark (not out of context) in reference to virile leaders in African Anglicanism, my sore-throated not-oft-enough repeated appeal to the Lord God is for Him to judge the Christless arrogance and hypocrisy of an ethno-religious group of people who have distinguished themselves of late via raw, untreated snobbery.

I would merely stare if arterial, blue-blooded, varicose TEC needed a Psalm 3 housecall from the dentist by the time the Lord God's foot finishes northward up your south end.

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