Yesterday the Diocese of Virginia was before the Virginia Supreme Court arguing that even if a majority of the members of an Episcopal Church vote to leave the Episcopal Church -- as is the case with nine so-called “breakaway” churches -- they cannot not claim the Episcopal Church property as their own.
Rather than try to summarize the conflict myself, here’s yesterday’s article from the Loudoun-Times Mirror:
On April 13, the Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a property case that pitted nine churches in Loudoun and Fairfax counties against the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The final decision will be made June 10 or June 11.
The Church of Our Saviour, on Oatlands Mill Road south of Leesburg, is one of the churches involved.
After the nine churches left the diocese in 2006 to join the Anglican District of Virginia, the diocese argued that the churches had forfeited the right to the properties upon which their church buildings are built. In 2008, the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the breakaway churches, citing section 57-9a of Virginia law.
This statute, known as the division statute, says if there is a split in a church or religious organization, a congregation may decide which branch of the church it will go to, and it may retain its property.
The diocese is appealing that decision, arguing both that the division statute is unconstitutional, and that even if it was constitutional, the churches have still not met the requirements of the statute, said Henry Burt, secretary of the diocese. According to the diocese, the Anglican District is not part of the Episcopal church, and since there was no split in the Episcopal church, the churches do not have the right to split off.
The churches, along with the Anglican District, argue that since they took a congregational vote to leave the Episcopal Church and subsequently registered the vote at the courthouse, they have the right to split off and retain their properties.
Both sides claim the spiritual high ground, with the churches saying that they had to leave the church to follow God’s commands, and the diocese citing centuries of Episcopal tradition that they say obligate the congregations to cooperate with the diocese.
Normally I let controversies in the wider church pass.
But this controversy hits close to home. And over the years, many of you have asked me, Rev. Kate, or Pastor Mary what is at stake, if this court case affects us, and whether we should be concerned about its outcome.
What’s at stake is not only tens of millions of dollars in church property, but -- as the article implies -- a principle of holding “spiritual high ground.” So -- if for no other reason than Paul’s claim that “when one part of the body suffers (or rejoices), the rest of the body suffers (or rejoices) with it,” yes, I do think this case affects us and yes, I do think we should be concerned.
Here’s why: remembering that the catalyst of this controversy was the Episcopal Church’s decision to agree to the Diocese of New Hampshire’s election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as their Bishop, this entire situation is controversy and turmoil over the issue of homosexuality...the role of gays and lesbians in our church…and how we use our reason in interpreting scripture and tradition.
In my opinion, the churches that are in turmoil over this issue are those who insist on making sexuality a central issue -- whether they are doing so from either the “liberal-left-full-inclusion-pro-gay-rights” stance or from the “conservative-right-Bible-believing-orthodox” stance.
The mission of St. James’ is “nourished by Word and Sacrament, we are sent out to do the work God has given us to do: to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So, while we address -- while we do not ignore, while do not bury our heads in the sand on this issue -- we absolutely refuse to make it what the Bible does not make it, which is central.
Why do churches on both the left and the right do that -- make sexuality a central issue?
I don’t know for sure, but I’ll go out on a limb here and venture two guesses:
One, some of them, from both the liberal and conservative side of the issue, make it central because they are sincerely, honestly, earnestly convinced that homosexuality/the role of gays and lesbians IS central to the Christian faith (although, again, I don’t know how any honest reading of any of the four Gospels, or any of the books of the Bible read in their entirety allows them to come to that conclusion).
Two -- and this is a less charitable guess -- is that this is a matter of leadership.
If a leader is going to rally the people (whether it’s a politician rallying his or her constituents, or a principal rallying a school staff, or a business leader rallying a company, or a minister rallying a congregation) the leader needs either a common vision or a common enemy.
Finding a common enemy is relatively easy. Politicians (from both the left and the right) are famous for doing this, but administrators do it; business leaders do it.
And unfortunately, those charged with leading people to Jesus Christ do it, too: those on the left point to the enemy of “social injustice wrought by homophobic conservatives” and those on the right point to the enemy of “moral relativism wrought by gay activists.”
Leaders on both sides of this issue are rallying the people behind a common enemy.
That is a leadership laziness.
Because the more responsible -- the more Christ-like -- thing to do is rally people behind a common vision.
But, unlike finding a common enemy, finding a common vision takes lots of work. That’s the work we at St. James’ have done every three to five years, and it is the work your Vestry and clergy are now engaged in. It involves gathering people…listening to people…trying to find out what a wide variety of people have in common.
Finding a common vision takes a lot of patience (waiting for the Holy Spirit to speak and act, for instance).
Finding a common vision takes what John Stott calls that “rarest and fairest of all Christian virtues, humility” because we (as leaders) have to admit that maybe -- just maybe! -- we don’t have all the answers -- that there are mysteries about human beings, the church, and God himself that God has not chosen to reveal at this time.
Which brings me full circle to St. James’ mission statement: what’s NOT a mystery is that Jesus nourished, and nourishes, us in Word and Sacrament.
What’s not a mystery is that he sent, and sends, us out to do the work that he’s given us to do.
What’s not a mystery is that we are called to be faithful witnesses -- the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Christ -- in the world in which we live and work.
Those things are central…they were central in the first two hundred years of Christianity, they have been central (in healthy churches) for the past 2,000 years, and they’ll remain central long after this particular issue has become a historical footnote.
Bottom line: I remain convinced that the actions of the wider Episcopal Church (and as of recently, the Lutheran Church) regarding the role of open gays and lesbians in our church need not impact the day-to-day ministries of local congregations…unless, of course, local congregational leaders insist on making those actions “central” to their mission and ministry (either from the left or right).
So, my main concern as your Rector is (borrowing Karl Barth’s phrase) to “lift our eyes beyond the hills of relevance” -- to lift your eyes beyond the hills of what is immediate, or possible, or practical under our own strength.
Rather, our mission is to be fed in Word and Sacrament, so that you and every other person God brings here (be they conservative, liberal, gay, straight, married, divorced, young, old, Asian, Latino, what-ever, who-ever) are nourished to go out into our day-to-day lives and be the hands and feet and eyes and ears of the Living Son of the Living God, Jesus Christ our Lord.