Today is Palm Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an entry which turned sour very quickly for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, then back to the supreme triumph of the Resurrection. For those who experienced it the first time, it was at least an emotional roller-coaster; our attempts to recreate the experience with the liturgical year, especially with repetitive celebration, can only be described as inadequate.
But my old home church tried, from the organ blast of this hymn to a custom which I’ve never seen anywhere else. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that Palm Sunday is the Palm Beach liturgical day par excellence, and in a place like South Florida the requisite palms are readily available. Rather than just arming the parish with unwieldy palm fronds, one of the ladies’ guilds fashioned them into crosses which were duly blessed with holy water before we wore them on our lapels. For those returned to the church, they were solemnly burnt and the ashes “recycled” the following Ash Wednesday.
Like so many other things in the church world, if you’ve done it the Bethesda way what follows falls flat. Every time I see palm fronds appear on the Sunday before Easter, I think of what we used to do “back home.” It’s one of those things that makes one feel good about oneself but doesn’t do much to make the present reality better.
That last point is one way of looking at the recent piece written by Episcopal Bishop of Virginia Shannon Johnston (which appeared in, of all places, the Washington Post.) The Diocese is coming off of a recent victory in court (which isn’t final in any sense of the word) concerning those parishes which sought an exit from TEC. If the Diocese comes out ahead in the end, the victory will by Pyrrhic: they have spent just about as much in legal fees as they will get when they end up selling the properties they get back. This could have been avoided if the Diocese had done what Johnston’s predecessor had recommended, but that was overruled by the higher powers that be in TEC.
In any case Johnston attempts to put a noble face on the whole sorry episode:
Many have followed this case and shared their opinions, both supporting and criticizing our effort to return Episcopal properties to the mission of the Episcopal Church. It’s tempting for this dispute to be about property, or politics, or just plain money. But the essence of the dispute is about theology itself.
Many denominations have a governance (“polity”) that allows for congregational self-determination. For hierarchical bodies, such as the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches, it is quite a different matter. In these churches, local congregations represent and witness to the larger structure. Our polity has been established and codified for almost 2,000 years and is the result of a theological view of what the Church is and how it should be governed.
In our tradition, it is the diocese, not the congregation, that is the basic unit of the Church. The bishop is its chief pastor. The Church’s clergy vow to serve under the authority of their bishop. The elected leaders of congregations do the same. The congregations that separated from the Episcopal Church always existed within the authority of this tradition and polity. Without question, the members of these congregations were free to leave this authority, but according to the ancient polity to which they themselves subscribed, the diocese retains its right, and its generational responsibility, of oversight for the ministry of the local church.
To put it bluntly, this is one of the most duplicitous things I have ever seen a man of the cloth put out. I’ve griped about the Anglican Fudge and how Episcopal ministers and bishops can talk mellifluously at length and yet say nothing, but this time it’s what he says that rankles.
To begin with, his sweeping generalisations about church property and diocesan governance are just that. Both the Roman Empire church and the Episcopal Church in this country evolved in a desultory way, not starting out as perfectly centralised bodies but moving in that direction for various reasons. Johnston’s bold assertion about the joys of centralisation and continuity beg the obvious question: if it’s so great, why is TEC not working to rejoin the RCC? (Or are they really thinking it’s going to be the other way around?)
I don’t think we are well informed about the ownership of church property before the Edict of Milan. Christianity’s legal status was dicey; the ownership of property of a religion which was basically illegal was problematic. In the Episcopal Church’s case, one thing that the extensive litigation has revealed was that, without the levelling effect of the Dennis Canon, the way Episcopal parishes were titled varied wildly from parish to parish and place to place, especially when the parishes antedated the dioceses, which was certainly the case for many of the historical parishes in Virginia and the other original colonies.
Johnston’s statements regarding diocesan control of property are belied by the whole process which landed the Diocese and several of its most prominent parishes in court all of these years. Had it been left to the Diocese, much of this would probably have been avoided, but at the insistence of the then new Presiding Bishop all compromise was quashed. That illustrates a trend in the Episcopal Church that Johnston probably doesn’t want to discuss: the centralisation of power and authority not in the dioceses but in the central church itself, something which is being accelerated by ongoing changes in canon law.
Beyond all of this, however, his statement about “the essence of the dispute is about theology itself” is simply false.
If the Episcopal Church were as solicitous about the continuity of its theology with the last 2,000 years of church history and practice as it claims to be about its property ownership, it wouldn’t have led its parishioners on the fifty year wild goose chase that it has. It would have stuck with some form of the faith once delivered to the saints. But it didn’t. If we can justify the changes in theology that have taken place, why not open up the property issue? But that’s gone the other way.
And it’s ironic that it’s done so, because one of the theological leitmotifs of those in the driver’s seat in TEC these days has been social justice. So who ever heard of people really keen on social justice be so fanatical about defending the holding of expensive property? It’s the same business I lamented in Sell All or Shut Up: if you’re serious about “sharing the wealth,” start with your own. But that’s not the way it works with liberals, either in the Episcopal Church or anywhere else.
One can only conclude, as Frank Zappa used to say, that Johnston and those of his idea, contrary to their vehement protestations to the contrary, are only in it for the money. That seems to be a putting it too baldly, but remember that, like the Middle East, for the liberal the money is a vehicle to exert power, which is what they’re really after.
I’ve said many nasty things about Episcopalians and their church, but I’d never have believed that I would come to that conclusion about this church. The Episcopal Church was supposed to be the place where this kind of thing didn’t happen, but happened it did. In the past Episcopalians, lay and cleric alike, could comfort themselves in the conceit that, while rude “Bible-thumpers” went on television to enrich themselves at the expense of the impecunious, the Episcopal church was basically above such tasteless social climbing. One can only conclude that the church is currently held captive by a bunch of left-wing arrivistes who, while attempting to maintain the appearances of the past, are at best no better than those they ridicule.
Perhaps, snobs, all of this could have been avoided if we had not regarded the clergy as just another form of underpaid hired help, an attitude that was more common in the old PECUSA than we’d like to admit. Perhaps the whole liberal revolt of the 1960’s and the 1970’s wasn’t a cry for social justice for the poor but one for the clergy itself, which chafed in genteel poverty while the membership coordinated their service times with their tee times at the club. Perhaps, while subjecting “fundie” preachers to withering ridicule, they secretly admired the fact that the fundies were looked up to as authority figures by their congregations in a way they were not. Such “what-ifs” would make for a fascinating study, but at this point it would be an academic exercise.
The Episcopal Church today is a betrayal of its past in so many ways that the church that brought us the palm crosses has brought us the double cross. Having haunted the Anglican/Episcopal blogosphere and seen the pain expressed at all this, I understand it, but given the church’s recent history, it’s like the flea market fortune teller who was busted by the cops: they should have seen it coming. But TEC’s current situation, especially with declining ASA, is proof that any church that strays from fidelity to its Founder will inevitably get it in the end.