Friday, December 30, 2011

Episcopal Top Ten News Stories of 2011

Well, I know, I can't help it.  Everyone else is doing it - it's what you're supposed to do on New Year's Eve.  Here are my choices for the Top Ten Episcopal News Stories of 2011.

1.  The Occupy Movement that occupied so much of our nation’s psychic space in the last quarter of the year had major reverberations in the Anglican and Episcopal worlds too.  Occupy Wall Street got the whole thing going down the street from a flagship Episcopal church, Trinity Wall Street, which owns vast real estate holdings in Lower Manhattan (and engages in vast amounts of philanthropy based on its real estate income from those holdings).

Early on, Trinity was supportive of the movement in word and deed, offering meeting space and restroom facilities to the occupiers.  Late in the year, however, after protesters were removed from their original encampment, they asked permission to camp on a vacant lot owned by Trinity but leased to an arts organization.  Trinity refused the request, citing safety and health concerns, and occupiers, including retired Bishop George Packard (formerly Episcopal Bishop of Federal Ministries, including military chaplaincies), were arrested as they occupied the vacant lot, turning their protests against Trinity, which had previously been a supporter of the movement, instead of financiers.

Elsewhere in the Anglican world, a standoff also ensued at another iconic church, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where protesters were welcomed onto St. Paul’s grounds by the Rev. Canon Giles Fraser but later asked to leave by the cathedral chapter (its vestry or board).  The confrontation continued with the resignation of Fraser and the dean of St. Paul’s, The Rev. Graeme Knowles, and the year ended with protesters still encamped on St. Paul’s grounds.  In other cities, Episcopal clergy visited and provided pastoral care for the protesters. 

2.  Sauls Reorganization Proposal.  The new Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church Center, the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, former bishop of Lexington, proposed that the church consider a radical restructuring of Episcopal Church organizational structures in order to save money.  In a presentation to the House of Bishops, he pointed out a huge number of committees, commissions and boards, as well as the enormous expense of General Convention.  He proposed a special General Convention to take up the task of restructuring the church.  His proposal spurred a great deal of constructive discussion about the structures of the church.  It also sparked considerable controversy about the fact that a bishop, speaking to bishops, proposed to reduce the size and meeting frequency of the main church governing body that includes non-bishops (General Convention).  The matter will be considered in detail at the next General Convention in Summer 2012. 

3.  Bede Parry Scandal.   News came to light that a former Roman Catholic priest named Bede Parry, who was an admitted child molester, had been received as an Episcopal priest by the Episcopal Bishop of Nevada.  That former Nevada bishop is now the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori.  Although Parry has not been accused of molesting any children while an Episcopal priest, great controversy erupted over the fact that the Presiding Bishop had knowingly accepted an abuser as an Episcopal priest. 

4.  Natural Disasters.   From a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, to Hurricane Irene which devastated Vermont and affected much of the northeastern US, to an earthquake that damaged the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., natural disasters wrought great destruction in the Episcopal world.  In the international scene, Anglicans responded to the catastrophic tsunami in Japan.  And in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Anglican cathedral was condemned after earthquake damage.  A new “cardboard” cathedral will serve worshipers in Christchurch for the foreseeable future.  In Haiti, The Episcopal Church's largest diocese, recovery efforts continued after the devastating earthquake in 2010, with many volunteers and much funding from the rest of The Episcopal Church.  

5.  Same-Sex Marriage, Repeal of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.  American society appeared to move toward increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.  New York State legalized same-sex marriage, and Episcopal bishops in New York split over whether Episcopal clergy would be allowed to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.  Hawaii and Maryland also decided to allow same-sex marriages.  President Obama overturned the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that prohibited openly gay persons from serving in the military, and military chaplains were permitted but not required to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.  TEC’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music released educational materials related to its plan to ask General Convention 2012 to authorize a three-year trial rite for blessing same-sex unions.

6.  Anglican Covenant.  Yes, worldwide Anglicans continued to be distracted from mission by fussing over a strange animal called the Anglican Covenant.  This odd creature has been proposed as a solution to the “problem” of differing opinions among international Anglicans over issues such as, oh, let’s say, gay and lesbian Christians in the church.  Under the proposal, any church (let’s say Nigeria) that disagreed with any other church’s (let’s say, The Episcopal Church’s) action on any issue could raise a “question” with the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, a non-elected group whose membership is heavily weighted toward bishops.  If the complained-against church is judged to have violated standards which are not explained, there may be “relational consequences” which are not specified.

Each church of the Anglican Communion is asked separately to adopt the Covenant, ensuring that great attention will be paid to the matter before it is put to rest, one way or another.  As of the end of 2011, five churches have adopted the covenant (Burma/Myanmar, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Southern Cone and West Indies); two have adopted it with modified language (Ireland and Southeast Asia), and it is under consideration by others.  It has been rejected in the Philippines and effectively rejected in New Zealand.  The Episcopal Church's Executive Council has recommended rejection, but final action depends on General Convention in Summer 2012.  In the Church of England, the covenant has been referred to diocesan synods, of which to date four have accepted and four have rejected the covenant (which must be a blow to their Archbishop, Rowan Williams). The conservative “GAFCON” churches (including Nigeria) have indicated that the covenant is not strong enough and they do not intend to sign it. 

Despite the decidedly mixed reception of the Covenant, and the gathering strength among its opponents, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams continued to push for its adoption.  In his Advent letter, he declared somewhat plaintively, I continue to ask what alternatives there are if we want to agree on ways of limiting damage, managing conflict and facing with honesty the actual effects of greater disunity.  In the absence of such alternatives, I must continue to commend the Covenant as strongly as I can to all who are considering its future.”  One is led to suppose that even in the mind of its strongest supporters, the Covenant is the poor choice of last resort.

7.  Reduction in Attendance Numbers.  After a 3 percent decline in attendance in 2010, The Episcopal Church’s active membership dropped below 2 million people.  Churchwide over the last ten years, 2.5 churches have closed for every new church that has opened (that’s around 40 churches a year that have closed, or approximately the size of one small diocese).  Average Sunday attendance declined by 20% between 2001 and 2009.  The Episcopal Church is also significantly older than the general U.S. population, and our clergy are age 58 on average.  The decline in TEC mirrors a decline across all mainline denominations, but interestingly, evangelical and non-denominational churches are beginning to see decline, too, especially among younger members.  Correspondingly, the “nones” – those who profess no religious faith at all – are increasing in the U.S. population. 

8.  Property Conflicts & Wins.  Episcopal dioceses continued a good record of winning lawsuits against breakaway congregations that attempted to leave The Episcopal Church and take their buildings with them.  The church’s position has always been that people may leave the church as they choose, but the property is held in trust for the diocese, and the property cannot be alienated from the church.  During 2011, court judgments were issued against breakaway congregations in historic buildings, including Christ Church Savannah and Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, Connecticut.  A Pennsylvania court decided in favor of the loyalist Episcopal diocese and against the breakaway conservative “Anglican” diocese in Pittsburgh.  Litigation continues in many other states, but in general, Episcopal views have prevailed. 

9.  Royal Wedding.  Anglican tradition showed itself to the world in fine form at the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  All the pageantry and ritual that Anglicans are so good at was displayed with beauty and taste.  A nun in tennis shoes and a cartwheeling verger completed the joys of the day.     

10.  Election of Marian Edgar Budde.  The Episcopal Church has had women bishops for years, including our current Presiding Bishop, but it is hard for a woman to be elected a diocesan bishop (the #1 bishop in a diocese).  There are many more women suffragan (assistant) bishops than diocesans.  If I am correct, there were only three women diocesans at the beginning of 2011:  Geralyn Wolf (Rhode Island), Catherine Waynick (Indianapolis), and Mary Gray-Reeves (El Camino Real).  Most diocesan elections include one woman on the slate of candidates, but the female candidate is rarely elected. 

This was not true in the case of our nation’s capital, however.  In 2011, the Diocese of Washington elected Marian Edgar Budde as its diocesan bishop, making her the bishop of the most prominent diocese to date to be headed by a woman.  I recall one little side note of the tragic events of September 11, 2011: the National Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral was opened by Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, then acting as interim bishop of the Washington diocese.  In future years, prominent visitors at the National Cathedral will be welcomed by the female diocesan, and her presence will make a wonderful statement about the place of women in The Episcopal Church.