Friday, November 23, 2007

What would Gamaliel do?

I have had conversations this week with several TEC insiders who have objected to my post on A Church out of Control and even more strongly to my satirical piece Location, Location, Location, both of which address, one seriously, the other satirically, the litigious tendencies of the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, as seen in a spate of highly publicized lawsuits over the past year.

The expression that was repeatedly used to defend the Presiding Bishop's multiple lawsuits was "fiduciary responsibility"—that the PB had a "fiduciary responsibility" to protect assets (supposedly) belonging to the Episcopal Church. Therefore, so the logic goes, she was only doing her duty in insisting that bishops and dioceses sue departing congregation over the property.

But, does not a settlement for the property, negotiated between dioceses and departing congregations, constitute a means of diocesan officers fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility? It seems that Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia thought so when he engaged in a lengthy process of negotiation with 11 departing parishes.

It seems that other bishops thought so when they negotiated settlements with departing parishes in such places as Plano, Texas; El Paso, Texas; and Overland Park, Kansas—to mention just three examples among many. Did these bishops violate their "fiduciary responsibility" by settling out of court? No one seems to have thought so at the time; and no presiding bishop prior to the present one sued anyone for it.

But as the Washington Times reported,
According to prior testimony, Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee was ready to accept buyouts from the 11 departing churches, several of which sat on historic pieces of property in Fairfax and Falls Church. That changed after he met with the new presiding bishop soon after her Nov. 4, 2006, installation.

"I told Bishop Lee I could not support negotiations for sale if the congregations intended to set up as other parts of the Anglican Communion," Bishop Jefferts Schori said, referring to the 77 million-member worldwide body of which the Episcopal Church is a part.

What particularly angered her, she said, was the presence of the Nigerian-controlled Convocation of Anglicans in North America, then headquartered in Fairfax. An American bishop for CANA, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, had been consecrated that August.

CANA's presence "violates the ancient principle of the church that two bishops do not have jurisdiction in the same area," said the presiding bishop, whose face appeared on three screens positioned around the courtroom.

Under further questioning by attorneys for CANA, she said that had the property been sold to a Methodist or Baptist congregation, she would not have objected.

But, "the Episcopal Church, for matters of its own integrity, cannot encourage other parts of the Anglican Communion to set up shop within its jurisdiction," she said in her deposition.

It then fell to Bishop Lee to break the news to the dissenting congregations, Falls Church rector the Rev. John Yates said in prior testimony. His church was one of the 11 that was negotiating amicably with the diocese until Dec. 7. That is when, he said, Bishop Lee told them things had changed.

"[Bishop Lee] said, 'There's a new sheriff in town. The situation is different'" Mr. Yates said.

Since the PB is reported as saying that she wouldn't object if the property were sold to a Baptist or Methodist congregation, she obviously believes that a settlement to sell the property does not violate anyone's fiduciary responsibility. Her real objection is to seeing property sold to Anglicans who would rather come under an alternative Anglican jurisdiction than to stick around for the new improved version of Christianity that has become her stock and trade. Her objections to property settlements, then, are based on differences of religious opinion and her desire to act punitively toward those who disagree with her. How wonderfully tolerant these liberals are!

There just might be a precedent for all this in Christian history. In Acts, chapter 5, the disciples, while under arrest, have proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ to the Jewish Sanhedrin--there was obvously a division over matters of religious opinion then, too:
When [the Sanhedrin] heard this, they were furious and wanted to put [Peter and the other disciples] to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." (emphasis added) (Acts 5:33-39)

Bp. Schori has elsewhere expressed the view (also reported here) that, "if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could 'hold their truths more lightly,' they might yet find a way forward."

Well, okay, if you want to try holding your "truths more lightly," here's a place to start. Let's assume that Gamaliel is right (and he certainly has been proven right about the beginning of Christianity). These Anglicans are as much a division in the Episcopal Church over a difference in religious views as the early Christians were from the Jews. How about applying Gamaliel's test to our present situation? How about dispensing with all the lawsuits and, instead, start negotiating settlements with departing Anglican congregations? "For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

Or am I being too biblical?


Unknown said...

Well, your logic is unassailable and the grounding is unquestionably Biblical. The thing is ... you just haven't come up with the 'right' answer.

Look. And try to understand.

+Kate (with apologies to Johnny Cash, the Bishop named Sue) apprehends God is doing a 'new thing' that orthodox people just can't seem to understand. Once orthodox people come around to the fact that God was just kidding about all that sin and redemption stuff everything will be cool and neat. Most probably God meant things to be just as the Bishop named Sue asserts and one of those old time goof-off monks hosed a transcription at just the worst moment that has mislead us all these centuries. She just wants to get us back on the 'right' path.

Makes sense. Doesn't it?

Dean Munday, while your work on this Gamaliel angle is first rate, you need to go back to the drawing board and figure our how to get the 'right' answer out of it.

Then the Bishop named Sue will like you. And you can feel good about yourself.

Timothy said...

Well said!

Thanks for reminding us of Gamaliel. The current decline of the Episcopal and other mainline Protestant churchs may be Gamliel's test in action.

Thanks also for highlighting the truth of "fiducial responsibility". Funny thing truth. Truth is often inconvenient and at the most in-oportune times, like at trials.

God bless...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps not so biblical, Bob, but certainly putting to the test the argument set forth so many times by individuals and organizations regarding structural and doctrinal changes. It was always so very strange to hear someone, who on a different occasion would denounce "literalism" roundly, quote from the bible a text that was obviously not meant to be a source of divine leading (such as one might define the words of Jesus, or of Paul, or of a prophet, etc.) but only the minutes of a meeting, and one of unbelievers, at that.
If they are willing to make Gamaliel a divine source in every instance (fortunately only once in the bible), and yet not Paul in the entirety of his biblical legacy, then, yes, why not demand that those folks be consistent and apply Gamaliel to any actions of congregational or diocesan separation prior to any litigation!?

Frankly, though, I would prefer that folks stop quoting Gamliel, which should not be seen as a decision of finality, but a common legal strategy of non-response. For Gamaliel it was a method of ending harmful and useless debate. Tragically - and to good effect - in our time it has been used as a smokescreen to get objectors to be quiet, while the objectionable agenda gets continued.


mousestalker said...

Excellent advice. I just pray that you are a Jonah, rather than a Cassandra (obligatory secular reference).

Robert S. Munday said...

[Matthew said...
"Excellent advice. I just pray that you are a Jonah, rather than a Cassandra..."]

Or, worse yet, a John the Baptist!

For those who may not have the allusion to Cassandra in the forefront of their minds: In Greek mythology, Cassandra (Greek: Κασσάνδρα "she who entangles men") was a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy whose beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. However, when she did not return his love, Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. (You can read more at Wikipedia.)

The figure of Cassandra has been used numerous times in contemporary fiction. Of particular relevance to our current situation in TEC is the example of Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, where the character Cassandra is quoted as saying, "I see disaster. I see catastrophe. Worse, I see lawyers!"

Peter said...

Say, the Brits figured out how to have to bishops within one geographical region. The key to it is what the parish folk wanted, not visa versa. Here we seem more interested in WINING over opponents.

Might this be another case of the folks shooting down the dogmatic statements of fact that TEC and the PB pour out onto we mere mortals?

Is TEC's loss of souls may theologically satisfactory
if it's coffers gain dollars, none of which TEC/ECUSA expended in he building, maintaining, repairing, modifying, etc. the parish churches?
Certainly the gain is pure cash into the till . . . and
certainly not per the PB's thought that TEC was merely saving the structures for those members who stay behind when the majority of the parish leaves TEC for the Anglican life.