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Breakaway Churches and the “Coach Norman Dale Approach to Confrontation”

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in favor of our Diocese in the case of the so-called “break-away” parishes who have attempted to claim Episcopal Church property as their own.

This is good news for our Diocese. In a complex world filled with nuances and shades of gray, it’s not often that a case comes along where things are fairly clear. This is one of them.

I have a lot of respect for conservative parish leaders like my colleagues Tom Simmons (St. Peter’s, Purcellville) and John Sheehan (Our Redeemer, Aldie) and others throughout the country who, despite strong differences of opinion, stay in the Episcopal Church and fight for change; I have a lot of respect for my liberal colleagues who are delighted with the overall direction of the Episcopal Church and say “full steam ahead.”

And worthy of even greater respect are those conservatives who decided they could no longer in good conscious remain in the Episcopal Church but who had the courage of their convictions and left Episcopal Church property behind when they left the Episcopal Church.

The people whose actions are undeserving of respect are the CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) leaders who decided to leave the Episcopal Church but tried (are trying) to take Episcopal Church property with them; that is why we are in court. Had they acknowledged -- as George Beavens (Christ our Lord, Lake Ridge) did in this Diocese and as did many others in other dioceses -- that when you leave a church, you leave its property behind, we would not be in court.

It grieves me that the Church is in court: the sight of one member of the Body of Christ suing another is bad evangelism, if nothing else. I suppose we could have been Biblical literalists, and when they stole our garment, to have given them our cloak, as well. I like to think that if someone stole all the computers at St. James’, or the Christmas or Easter offering, and that person knew he was stealing it -- knew he was doing wrong but doing it anyway -- that maybe we would find it in ourselves to give that person our fine silver and several thousand of our pledge dollars as well, in the hope that such actions would bring him to repentance and amendment of life, à la the Bishop of Digne and the thief Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

But we (the Diocese and the Episcopal Church) didn’t take that option, partly because CANA leaders do not think they are stealing anything: they believe they are entitled to what they are trying to take. Capitulating to that kind of entitlement behavior only rewards it. In the long run, it also encourages others to behave in the same way.

More to the point, Episcopal Church property is not “ours” to give to them anyway: the Bishop and the Diocese are stewards -- care-takers -- of property that previous generations of Episcopalians built for future generations of Episcopalians.

So for today at least (the case is remanded and will continue in lower court for some time) I’m grateful.

I’m also grateful for how Bishop Johnston (and Bishop Lee before him) have handled this case.

They’re taking what I’d call the “Coach Norman Dale approach to confrontation.”

Remember the confrontation scene in the movie Hoosiers, when Coach Norman Dale walks into the gym for his first practice only to find out that George, in an attempt to wrest control over the team, has already started practice?

When Coach Dale tells George that his coaching days are over, he mutters all kinds of threats:

George: I don't know why Cletus drug your tired old bones in here, he musta owed you somethin' fierce. Fact is, mister, you start screwin' up this team, I'll personally hide-strap your ass to a pine rail and send you up the Monon Line!

[George angrily turns and storms out of the gym]

Coach Norman Dale: Leave the ball, will you, George?

Our Bishops and the Episcopal Church have been handling this confrontation exactly the way Coach Dale did:

1) Calmly assert our rightful ownership of the space in question,
2) When threatened, do not return threat for threat or insult for insult,
3) If people want to storm out in anger, let them, but
4) Insist the ball is not theirs to take.

Again, this case is far from over.

But for today, the Diocese has prevailed.

That’s good news. Rejoice.

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