Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tunics, cloaks, and church buildings

"And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well" (Matthew 5:40, ESV).

Last week I happened to be in Savannah, Georgia; and, as I try to do whenever I am in town on a Sunday evening, I attended the beautiful sung Compline at historic Christ Church. Christ Church is the oldest Anglican church in Georgia—older than the State of Georgia, older than the Diocese of Georgia, and older than the Episcopal Church. It is the only church where both John Wesley and George Whitefield served as rectors. Christ Church, whose vestry voted unanimously to separate from the Episcopal Church in 2007 (a vote that was sustained by 87% of the membership) recently had its building taken away by the courts and given to the Episcopal diocese.

So, this time, Compline was different. It was the same beautiful service, marvelously sung by the same very able choristers. The homily by the Rev. Marcus Robertson was inspiring, as always. In every respect it was the same, except that the whole service had been transported several hundred yards away to Independent Presbyterian Church, which has offered sanctuary to the recently evicted Christ Church.

Although my spirit was lifted, as it always is, by that service, it is just as well that it took place in a darkened church, lighted only by candles. Because I have to confess that my eyes teared up more than once during that service at the thought of this very faithful and vibrant congregation being displaced from their historic home.

Shortly after Christmas I was with family in Southern Illinois. One morning at the breakfast table, my brother-in-law was reading the newspaper and noticed in the real estate ads that a very prominent church building in town was for sale—for $144,000—an ironically biblical number, but also a surprisingly paltry sum, far less than many houses in town. But so it goes in many places.

For instance, in the city of Quincy, Illinois (from which the Diocese takes its name), the last time I checked there were three former Roman Catholic churches for sale. All of them had been on the market for at least three years, and the most expensive one was listed for $275,000. (not to mention several other church buildings in town that are either listed as for sale, or that have been taken off the market for lack of any buyers).

This means that, as painful as it might be, if St. John's Church eventually loses its beautiful and historic building in the current lawsuit from TEC and the Episcopal Diocese, the congregation can go a few blocks in any direction and pick up a ready-to-use church building for a relatively small sum. The Roman Catholic diocese will have disposed of one disused building, and the Episcopal diocese will have gained one.

It amazes me that a denomination that speaks rather freely in some circles about restorative justice and the redistribution of wealth (and which has been both a spiritual and even physical home to the Occupy movement) isn't willing to redistribute a little of its own wealth to brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced significant differences and feel a spiritual need to walk apart.

Instead we have stories like this one from Ohio:
Carla Long is overcome with sadness every time she sees the unoccupied church building in her East Buchtel Avenue neighborhood [in Akron].

"It's heartbreaking. That church has been a beacon of light in this neighborhood," said Long, 46. "We always called it a hospital because it was a place where you could go for comfort and healing."

Long is a recovering addict who found support at Holy Spirit Church when it was located at 825 E. Buchtel Ave. The congregation moved out of the building in July, after losing it in a court battle.

The Holy Spirit congregation is among five Northeast Ohio parishes that were displaced after a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge ruled that the church properties they occupied belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

The five congregations — Holy Spirit; St. Luke's, Fairlawn; St. Barnabas, Bay Village; St. Anne in the Fields, Madison; and Church of the Transfiguration, Cleveland — left the Episcopal Church in 2003 and realigned with the Anglican Communion.

The split grew from disagreements over biblical teaching on salvation and other issues, including homosexuality. After the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003, some of the more theologically conservative parishes, including the five in Northeast Ohio, disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church and realigned themselves with Anglican organizations that share their views on issues like homosexuality.

In March 2008, the diocese sued, asking the county court to declare that the property associated with the five parishes belongs to the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Last April, the court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the diocese. Several months later, the Anglican congregations began vacating the buildings.

All five congregations have been taken in by other churches — Church of the Transfiguration worships at a former Methodist building on Martin Luther King Drive in Cleveland; St. Anne's worships in the youth center at Cornerstone Friends Church in Madison and St. Barnabas, now Christ Church Westshore, has weekday services at Bay Presbyterian Church Westshore and a 10 a.m. Sunday service at Bay High School in Bay Village.

Locally, Holy Spirit's congregation worships at 10 a.m. Sundays in the fellowship hall at Bethel Church, 734 Grant St. in Akron. There also is a lunchtime ministry that begins at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays. The ministry is supported by several other congregations, including those at Bethel and St. Luke's.

St. Luke's, whose corporate name is now St. Luke's Ministries, worships at 10 a.m. Sunday in the fellowship hall at St. Thomas Eastern Orthodox Church, 555 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road in Fairlawn, and has a 4:30 p.m. Saturday service at its ministry center, 3810 Ridgewood Road in Copley Township.

"One of the great things that has come from this is that we don't just have a renter's relationship with St. Thomas. It's a genuine friendship," said the Rev. Michael Kraynak, pastor at St. Luke’s. "All of the five churches have been instrumental in unifying the Christian community because each is involved in a relationship where one Christian community is helping another."

St. Luke's moved its services to St. Thomas in late November. In the last two months, the two congregations have grown closer. Although they each have their own services, the congregations have come together on several occasions.

"Even though we were at a place where we didn't know where we were going to go, after the court ruling, God was doing much more in the midst," Kraynak said. "The Lord has done something in our vision and our heart to help us see that we can do much more to serve others when we are in relationship with others. Mission, for us, is more important than a building."

The properties that were once home to St. Luke's at 565 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road in Fairlawn and Holy Spirit at 825 E. Buchtel Ave. are for sale with Grubb and Ellis Co. The Cleveland real-estate company also is selling the properties in Madison and Cleveland. The Bay Village property has been restarted as an Episcopal Church by the diocese.

"The Bay Village location was one that we really wanted to keep. Most of the others have Episcopal churches nearby," said Martha Wright, spokeswoman for the diocese. "Until the other buildings are sold, the diocese is still responsible for them."

The former St. Luke’s property is listed as a 26,186-square-foot single-story structure, with 425 parking spaces, located on 20.27 acres that can be adapted for office or medical use. The listing suggests that the property is "ideal for congregate care, continued religious use, public/private schooling, hospitals and cultural institutions." It is priced at $1.9 million.

The former Holy Spirit property consists of a 1,880-square-foot house and a 5,682-square-foot church, with 45 parking spaces on .65 acre. It is listed for $159,000.

David Hollister, of Grubb and Ellis, said that in the two months that he has had the listings, both properties have had two showings and one offer. He said that while the Fairlawn property could serve a different use, the Buchtel property is likely to be sold to another religious community.

The Rev. Scott Souders, pastor of Holy Spirit, said he hopes that the Buchtel property will go to a ministry dedicated to outreach in the neighborhood.

"We were doing some really effective ministry there and it would be nice to have the presence of another ministry there to continue meeting the needs of the people,” Souders said. “We still go back to the neighborhood and do ministry but our presence is missing. Still, we are committed to touching lives and bringing other ministries together to help us minister to people where they are."

Long, who still considers Holy Spirit her church home, said she is not always able to travel to the new location. So, she regularly attends a church that is closer to her home.

"It’s just a shame that a church that has done so much to lift up the people in this neighborhood is no longer here," Long said. "It was a place that everyone knew they could go to and find comfort without judgment. People had respect for the building because of what the people inside were doing."

"Since it closed, my husband and I have chased people who were drinking from the front porch. We've found drug paraphernalia near the church house and mattresses behind the church. Lord only knows what they were being used for. This neighborhood needs a safe place for people to go, not a closed church building."

Then there are stories like the one from Central New York, written just after the diocese sued St. Andrew's, Syracuse, and St. Andrew's, Vestal and before it moved against Good Shepherd, Binghampton, whose building was later sold to a mosque!

The point I am trying to make here is the same one made by Fr. Tony Seel, when he writes regarding the situation in Central New York:
I can't help wondering what went so horribly wrong in the episcopate of Skip Adams. Fr. Kennedy at Stand Firm linked to Adams' convention address and some of the statements in that address are astounding. How can the bishop tell the story that he tells about two of the desert fathers and not see his own acts of ungenerosity toward those who have left the DCNY? I'm sure that he would respond that he has a fiduciary responsibility to the DCNY and that's why he sued St. Andrew's in Syracuse and is now suing Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton. You would think that someone who told a story about generosity like that might reflect on their own lack of generosity.

The point is that this isn't about fiduciary responsibility, because in some of these cases the Episcopal Church has obviously been willing to spend more than it stands to recover in the prosecution of these lawsuits. It isn't about recovering the buildings for the use of future generations of Episcopalians, because the dioceses have abandoned them to become crack houses and have sold them for purposes such as a mosque. And, although the Episcopal Church leadership may not see it, it isn't about protecting their brand from competition from another Anglican jurisdiction, because that jurisdiction is already up and running—and growing—with or without the buildings, while the Episcopal Church is shrinking and dying.

No, the point becomes plain. This is about being punitive. It is about using every weapon at your disposal to hurt those who disagree with you. It is about taking everything you have ever said about generosity, humility, self-sacrifice, loving your neighbor, and sharing what you have with those who need it—and doing exactly the opposite.

The history lessons from this era won't be written by Episcopal Church historians, because when the Episcopal Church dies, its institutions of higher learning will die with it--in fact they may even precede it. The only hope denominational leaders must have is that the history of this present period will be written by secular historians who are sympathetic to their liberal agenda. But that won't be the final word.

Christianity has entered the age of post-Christendom. It is quickly becoming an age like that before Constantine, when authentic Christianity is often misunderstood and persecuted. And so the Church is faced with a time of great division. On the one hand there are those who cooperate with the new Imperial establishment of secularists and post-modern pagans, and who attempt to make Christianity acceptable to its "cultured despisers." This effort will ultimately fail because secularism and post-modernism are self-authenticating and don't have any enduring need for what liberal Christianity has to offer. Liberal religion will simply dissolve into the culture whose values it mirrors and cease to exist.

On the other hand, there will be those who respond to the challenges of the post-Christendom period the way Christians did in the pre-Constantinian era, by upholding and proclaiming the apostolic faith and message, even at great cost. To whatever extent there will be Christian Church histories written 200 years from now, it will be these new Apostolic Fathers and Mothers who write them--unless, of course, our Lord comes again (as every creedal Christian stands and confesses every Sunday morning, but which only a portion actually believe will happen). In either event, the verdict on the religious establishments of this age will not be pretty.

Finally, let me close with a commentary on the verse with which I began this piece, from Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary:
Matthew 5:38-42 - The plain instruction is, Suffer any injury that can be borne, for the sake of peace, committing your concerns to the Lord's keeping. And the sum of all is, that Christians must avoid disputing and striving. If any say, Flesh and blood cannot pass by such an affront, let them remember, that flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God; and those who act upon right principles will have most peace and comfort.
And, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, see also I Corinthians 6.



The Rev Canon Dr David Wilson said...

Thanks Robert. Your posts always edify and encourage. I learn much from you ---- and the Curmudgeon.

BTW, pray for your friends in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh as we face the same issues with TEC and "their" buildings which we are occupying.

Mark said...

Remember, liberal "churches" confess other people's sins.