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An Episcopal Visitation: Part 1 (Therapy) [CT]
titusonenine ^ | 7/29/2005 | Dr. William Witt

Posted on 07/29/2005 12:15:42 PM PDT by sionnsar

“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first–verdict afterwards.”

How does one prepare for the illegal takeover and seizure of a church building by a squad of well-dressed interlopers who arrive one morning during the middle of the week and force themselves onto the premises when only the secretary and an AA meeting are present? These uninvited gatecrashers make outrageous demands of the secretary, forcing her to tears. They change the locks, they illegally hack the computers and take down the parish’s website, they break into private offices, they post guards at the doors.

When the Sr. Warden arrives—the person who has legal responsibility for the building, including the safety of those inside–he firmly demands that the invaders leave. The bishop falsely tells the warden that he “has no choice”–that he, the bishop, has deposed the parish’s priest and appointed a priest-in-charge, that she now has authority over the building, and she has given the bishop and his entourage permission to enter. Cute, but canonically and legally nonsense.

We at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bristol, CT, had expected that our bishop might well try to move against our rector and our parish ever since he had threatened our rector with inhibition for “abandoning the communion,” and that mid-summer was a likely possibility, a time when many people are on vacation and not around to make a fuss. We hadn’t expected something out of a B-Grade gangster movie, or the military coup of a tin pot dictatorship. We certainly weren’t prepared for that. And so a handful of us St. John’s parishioners stood in the parking lot that day as witnesses to an outrage that was already a done deal. We didn’t know what to do.

But a few days can make a tremendous difference. The day after his coup, the bishop sent a letter to St. John’s parishioners announcing a Question-and-Answer session with the bishop in the church building. Only the bishop and St. John’s parishioners were supposed to be present.

Those of us on the vestry were determined that we were not going to walk into that meeting unprepared. We were not going to let the bishop manipulate us, or impose his agenda at that meeting. The vestry met and prepared a statement we were going to deliver to the bishop. I myself got support from far and wide. I talked on the telephone to people who knew the canons. This time we would be ready. When we walked into that building, we knew the score. We knew the canons, and we knew that what the bishop had done was illegal.

I estimate that there were over one hundred people there that Sunday night, July 17. The bishop was there, again with his entire entourage. He had his chancellor, his canon lawyer, the “priest-in-charge,” his Money Man, and a person I’ll refer to as the “Therapist.” There were also the guards. All the rest really were St. John’s parishioners, except for two, Ellis Brust of the American Anglican Council and Fr. Bill Murdoch of the New England Anglican Communion Network.

The bishop stood up to announce that all of the people who were not St. John’s parishioners would have to leave. This was a private meeting. Someone spoke up. “Then, what about all the people with you? Are they going to leave? Are the guards going to leave?” “Well, no,” the bishop replied. “They’re here to support me.” “Then, they’re here to support us” came back the congregation’s reply. Brust and Murdoch stayed.

The bishop introduced the members of his junta, then laid down the rules. This was not going to be a time for debate or making statements. There were not going to be any tape recorders. Nothing was going to go on the Internet. Instead, we were going to have a conversation. The bishop was here to answer our questions. He realized that there were a lot of hurt feelings, but he wanted to talk with the people of St. John’s so that we could work together to find a way forward. The bishop and his crew had blitzkrieged our building, removed our priest, and locked us out. Now he was offering us therapy.

The Therapist stood up and explained the rules. She had one of those great big white newsprint pads on an easel, and a felt tip marker. (C’mon, bishop. If you were going to try to control the agenda, couldn’t you at least have given us a PowerPoint presentation?) Each person was going to be allowed to ask one question, and the question was going to be written down on the pad. When all the questions were asked, then we were going to answer them one by one. We were only going to use “I” statements.

This “group meeting as therapy session” is an established tool of manipulation in the church management industry. It’s designed to control the agenda and to shift the focus from objective realities–“Bishop, you changed the locks on our building without permission!”–to subjective feelings–“Bishop, I’m unhappy because I can’t get inside the building when I want to weed the garden.”

The people at St. John’s were not going to stand for it. There was loud and vigorous objection. “We’re not children! We’re going to speak.” The bishop was hoping for Oprah. As Ellis Brust summed up what happened, we gave him New England Town Meeting.

I stood up and insisted on giving my prepared statement on behalf of the vestry. The Therapist resisted. I could ask a question and she would put it down on the pad. St. John’s people erupted. “Let Bill speak!” Finally, the bishop relented, and I was allowed to make my statement.

We wanted to accomplish several things with our statement. We wanted to make it clear that we objected to the bishop’s actions, that we knew they were illegal and in violation of canon law, and that we were prepared if necessary to take action to set matters right.

At the same time, we wanted to allow the bishop an opportunity to step back and to return things to the point they had been before he had taken his rash action on Wednesday July 13. We offered what we saw as a way forward.

Barring his willingness to do that, we wanted to be clear as to what we perceived to be the consequences for our parish if he tried to impose on us his unworkable new plan of action.

Finally, we had specific questions to which we were entitled answers.

What we wanted were simply the things to which we were entitled by canon law.

I told the bishop that we at St. John’s wanted to be members in good standing in the Anglican Communion. The constitution of the Episcopal Church states that ECUSA is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion. By participating in the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, Bishop Smith has put the diocese of CT in danger of losing its place in the Anglican Communion.

Second, we wanted our building back. Even the legally untested Dennis canon, on which ECUSA bases its claim to property ownership of church buildings states clearly that it in “no way limit[s] the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property,” as long as the parish is subject to the Canons. In breaking into our church without the authority of the vestry, the bishop was in violation of the very canon by which ECUSA claims to own parish property. Showing up in the middle of the week, breaking into our building and changing our locks without permission was a betrayal of the trust between St. John’s and the bishop.

Third, the bishop had no right to impose a priest-in-charge on our congregation. Again, the canons are quite clear here. They state that in the absence of a rector the parish has thirty days to provide for public worship. Worship had been uninterrupted at St. John’s. The canons state that if there is no rector, the bishop may appoint a priest-in-charge after consultation with the vestry. We were not consulted. St. John’s had made arrangements for public worship by inviting in Fr. Clayton Knapp, who had graciously been presiding every Sunday morning. At the end of the 60 days permitted for a non-resident priest to celebrate under canon law, Fr. Knapp had approached Bishop Smith and had asked permission to continue in that relationship. The Bishop had given that permission. We asked that Drew honor the commitment he had made to Fr. Knapp and allow him to continue to function in his promised capacity. We had not asked Susan McCone to be our priest. Bishop Smith’s imposition of her was contrary to the canons, and we asked that she should leave.

Fourth, we asked that our parish be allowed to continue running its own affairs, as did every other parish in the diocese. Whatever Bishop Smith’s quarrel with Fr. Hansen, St. John’s parish was not under deposition. I had read the Standing Committee’s charges myself that day while standing in the parking lot. It mentioned several alleged offenses of Mark Hansen. It said nothing about offenses of the parish.

Bishop Smith’s responses to our requests were evasive. His demeanor was polite, restrained, and, I think, condescending. But he refused to be drawn in to answer our requests. After much pressing, both by myself, and the congregation, it became clear that his answer to all four of our requests was “No.”

Bishop Smith never addressed the question of where he stood on his own or the diocese’s relation to the Anglican Communion. His actions of the last couple of years certainly indicate that he has little use for the Communion. Certainly, his actions place into question the authenticity of his own claim to be a bishop in a church that claims to be part of the Anglican Communion, and of the words we recite at every Sunday eucharist, “We believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” But it also makes ludicrous his claim that Fr. Mark Hansen or St. John’s parish have abandoned the communion of “this Church.” The Anglican Communion stands with us, and it has made this clear. It has made clear numerous times since General Convention that ECUSA is out of line, and that those bishops like Andrew Smith, who participated in Gene Robinson’s consecration, are endangering the unity of that Communion. It is neither Fr. Hansen nor the people of St. John’s who are out of communion with “this Church.”

Several times Bishop Smith was asked to return the keys to the building. He finally offered that if we were willing to work with Susan McCone, we might be able to ask her for the keys at some time in the future. Meanwhile, the guards would not leave.

Drew was asked several times why he had broken into our building without permission. If he had concerns about the relation between St. John’s and the diocese, why didn’t he contact us? Why didn’t he attend a vestry meeting? They were open to the public. The bishop never answered these questions. Instead, once again, he offered us therapy. There were many hurt feelings right now. Trust needed to be reestablished. The Therapist was here to help us with that. We needed to take “baby steps” together. Bishop Smith used the “baby steps” analogy repeatedly. Maybe after enough “baby steps,” the bishop and priest-in-charge might reach a level where we could trust one another again. In other words, the people of St. John’s, whose worship space had been invaded illegally and without permission, needed to establish that we could be trusted by those who had invaded us and taken over our building before we could have permission to have access again to the building that we had literally built with our own hands.

I understand that since the takeover, the bishop’s people have made statements that we are not being denied access to our building. But what that access means can be illustrated by what happened when our grandmotherly deacon (not a young woman, and certainly posing no physical threat) came to the building and asked to have her vestments returned.

She had to be let into the building by a guard, who accompanied her every step of the way as she retrieved her vestments. When she asked if she could pray in the nave, the guard stood watch over her every minute until she left.

As for Susan McCone, Drew Smith said again and again that she was our priest. No further progress could be made apart from our recognition of Susan McCone as our priest-in-charge. If we wanted her replaced, the best way to do that was to work with her and the diocese to find a priest that was more to our liking. Ms. McCone herself asked to just be given a chance. When I read the bishop the specific canon that specifies a vestry must be consulted before, not after, a priest-in-charge can be put in place, he did not acknowledge that I had even read the statement.

Finally, it was clear that we were not going to be allowed to run our own affairs. The Money Man was there to straighten out the finances. Presumably he would make sure that the diocese got paid first. Or maybe the diocese thought that St. John’s actually had some secret stash somewhere, and that they were going to discover it. Wait until they find out that what St. John’s has is a lot of bills, that we’ve been spending money on such frivolous things as repairing the handicap-accessible restrooms so that visitors would not have to run to the trees behind the building before coffee hour. Every month during vestry meetings we’ve had to make hard choices between paying our building loan to the bank–which we’ve never missed–and keeping the lights on and the restrooms functioning. Or could it really be that the diocese suspects us of financial malfeasance, that the vestry and church were perhaps involved in a money laundering scheme, secretly funneling ill-gotten gains to Anglican capo bishops in Africa? What in the wide world of sports were they thinking?

As I was leaving the building, the Money Man asked me if I was going to attend the scheduled vestry meeting the next night. In light of all that had transpired, this was, of course, a ludicrous suggestion. We had no keys to enter the building, and, of course, we had no priest. To attend a meeting at which Susan McCone presided would be to acknowledge the lawfulness of an uncanonical action. But, more pragmatically, all of us on the vestry were simply exhausted. We had been going non-stop for four days. The last thing we needed was another meeting. “I don’t think that’s very likely,” I answered. The Money Man suggested I reconsider. “If you don’t attend a scheduled vestry meeting, it could be understand that you are abandoning your responsibility as a vestry.” Of course, we had scheduled the meeting. We could certainly cancel it. “Are you threatening me?,” I asked. “No,” he answered. “I just hope you understand what I’m trying to tell you.” “I think I understand very well what you’re trying to tell me,” I responded.

So this was the outcome of our requests, which were not so much requests as simple attempts to get the Bishop to acknowledge his obligations under canon law, and his responsibilities as Chief Pastor of his flock. When the bishop was asked later in the evening whether St. John’s Church had been reduced to mission status, he answered “No.” But, if it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck . . .

It seems clear that Andrew Smith has chosen to embrace what the Vestry has told him will be the likely consequences if he insists on imposing his brave new way on St. John’s. First, as we told him, his best possible outcome will mean he has an empty building, and the remaining parishioners will not be able to maintain it. Second, the vast majority of the church will not accept an illegally imposed priest-in-charge. And, third, as a congregation, we will refuse to cooperate with a hostile takeover.

Bishop Smith must never have read Dale Carnegie. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant

1 posted on 07/29/2005 12:15:43 PM PDT by sionnsar
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