It’s unsurprising but monumental all the same: the Diocese of San Joaquin in central California finally votes to leave the Episcopal Church (also covered here.) Although both sides (especially the orthodox) have had a lot to say, a few observations are in order.
First, it’s not quite a done deal yet. TEC will surely fight this. The fact that a California diocese is the first bodes well for the orthodox; California courts have favoured the "neutral legal principles" approach to property disputes, which has blunted the effect of the Dennis Canon as ex post facto. With a diocese new legal issues are raised, and there’s always an uncertainty associated with litigation. The question of whether the Diocese will make good its escape will remain an open one for some time to come.
Second, in the general scheme of things the number of dioceses that have seceded or who are considering secession is relatively small. Even if all of these opted out and either made it stick or came to some kind of exit pact with 815, it wouldn’t change the map of TEC very much. One thing one learns very fast is that TEC has many dioceses, too many in fact. The loss of a few would trim episcopal maintenance costs and streamline administration. If the central church was able to retain the parishes who wanted to stay with it, the neighbouring diocese boundaries could be readily redrawn, an assistant bishop or two could be added to cover the extra territory, and life could go on.
The fact that TEC has vociferously fought any exiting parishes and will doubtless extend this pugnacious attitude to entire dioceses speaks more for the desperation the central church feels than anything else. To start with, the loss of some dioceses for any reason would probably lead to others asking for the same thing, a "domino effect," if you please. With a small diocese, this isn’t a big deal, but if a Texas or South Carolina were to demand this, TEC would have a real problem on its hands.
Beyond that, the constant characterisation by the left of their opponents as a small group of renegades is belied by their tenacious blocking of the exits. The fact is that many of the parishes that want out are vibrant, prosperous parishes with a younger demographic that TEC needs badly. There’s also the element of the property itself; much of TEC’s pastiche in society is connected with the historical nature of its parishes and properties (Christ Church in Savannah is a good example of this.) The governing left in TEC knows that, to finance its vision of the future, it needs the properties of the past and a conservative constituency that doesn’t mind reproducing itself in the present. It reminds me of my father’s caustic comment about the Palm Beach County Sheriff Department being full of rednecks; knowing too well the nature of the beat, my response was simply, "So who else wants the job?" In our society "traditional" people end up doing the job for an effete elite that is incapable or unwilling to do what has to be done.
In the end, TEC does not have the resources to litigate all of the parishes and dioceses that want out, irrespective of the small proportion of either to the total. As things stand TEC’s best hope is to win some key legal victories in states with laws that give an opening to departure (such as the current litigation in California and Virginia) and hope that everyone else gets the message. Failing that, it’s going to be a long road to a cashless church.
The most sensible thing for TEC to do would be to offer those entities that did want out a cash deal that would be a) reflective of the value of the property and b) cheaper than litigation. Setting a time limit would force the orthodox into a "fish or cut bait" position that would actually limit the number of the exiters. This would also raise cash to both finance the fight with those who wake up and smell the coffee too late and to offset the fact that liberals do not give as generously as conservatives.
But sensible solutions are out of fashion in the U.S. these days; we’re probably looking at many years of "nine yards and a cloud of dust." Even if TEC were to get an administration in the White House that would try to make life difficult for churches that didn’t embrace homosexuals, that in itself would detonate a morass of litigation and political activity that would dwarf anything TEC is contemplating.
San Joaquin’s action is more like Winston Churchill’s description of the Battle of el-Alamein; not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We look back on World War II and see the outcome as obvious, but that wasn’t the case for the participants. It isn’t for us, either outside TEC, inside the church, or those who are in transition from one to the other.