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Region funds Episcopalians' move to divide

Financial roots of conservatives are here

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The current canonical battles being fought for the future of the Episcopal Church USA have deep financial roots in Western Pennsylvania and ties to some of the country's most conservative Christians.

At stake is the continued unity of the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church, which at its triennial convention in August became the first mainline Protestant denomination to confirm an openly gay bishop.

The nexus includes conservative think tanks, philanthropists and advocacy groups. Playing a key role is the Rev. Robert W. Duncan Jr., bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese, who led 19 conservative bishops at the convention in calling the confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire "a pastoral emergency." Duncan urged emergency intervention by the leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church.

That call to action, an outward manifestation of a deeper, more fundamental split in church theology, will be considered during the next several weeks as many dioceses, including Pittsburgh on Saturday, hold special diocesan gatherings in response to Robinson's confirmation and the convention's tacit approval of the liturgical blessing of same-sex unions.

Next month in Dallas, conservative Episcopal bishops, priests and laity will formulate a petition that probably will seek the creation of a parallel Episcopal church. That request will be presented in mid-October in London to a special meeting of the primates, or archbishops, who represent the 77 million members of the Anglican Communion.

Leading the conservative charge within the Episcopal Church is the American Anglican Council, of which Duncan is first vice president and chairman of its bishops network.

The 7-year-old council's stated mission is to "affirm biblical authority and Anglican orthodoxy within the Episcopal Church of the United States," and it used more than $3 million in donations between 1997 and 2002 toward that purpose.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it is the primary Anglican network within the Episcopal Church, and its board members maintain ties to a host of Anglican groups. In addition to Duncan, other local members of its current board of rectors include R. Wick Stephens II and the Rev. Leslie P. Fairfield, both of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, and the Rev. James B. Simons, of St. Michael's of the Valley church in Ligonier.

The Pittsburgh diocese lists 15 of its 77 parishes -- about one-fifth -- as affiliated with the American Anglican Council, second only to the 16 in the Diocese of Central Florida. The Pittsburgh diocese is considered among the most conservative in the Episcopal Church.

"Many of our clergy and lay people are members of the American Anglican Council," Duncan said. "It's been an umbrella [group] for many of the missionary organizations that are headquartered in Pittsburgh."

Among those organizations are the Ambridge-based Episcopal Church Missionary Community, Rock the World Youth Alliance Mission, South American Missionary Society and Solar Light for Africa along with the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life in Sewickley.

The American Anglican Council is supported primarily by donations, but because the council receives more than one-third of its funding from contributions related to its charitable functions, the Internal Revenue Service does not require it to list its sources of income for public review.

One major source of its funding is Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., of California, a $10-million-a-year patron of conservative causes through the Fieldstead Foundation. An Episcopalian, Ahmanson is heir to a savings and loan fortune accumulated by his father. Ahmanson attended St. James Church in Newport Beach, Calif., which, until recently, was run by the Rev. David C. Anderson, now president of the American Anglican Council.

For many years, Ahmanson was associated with the late Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, considered the father of Christian Reconstructionism, which advocates basing American society on biblical laws. For 10 years ending in 1995, Ahmanson contributed a total of $700,000 to Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation and served on its board of directors.

Since then, both Ahmanson and his wife, Roberta, have repudiated Christian Reconstructionist philosophy.

Roberta Ahmanson was recently named to the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, which works closely with the American Anglican Council.

"The theonomist or [Christian] Reconstructionist philosophy is antithetical to our idea of religion and democracy," said Diane L. Knippers, a new member of the council board and president of the institute. "Roberta wouldn't have come on our board if she didn't agree with us."

According to the Rev. James M. Stanton, bishop of the Dallas Diocese, Howard Ahmanson's agreement with the American Anglican Council was to annually provide $200,000 to match money raised by the council.

"We worked with Howard Ahmanson in terms of that agreement," said Stanton, who served for several years as chairman of the council. "There are people who have given all along who are interested in the work that the group has done."

Duncan confirmed the arrangement and said it was renewed annually with Ahmanson.

"The AAC has really risen to the role as the primary agency for the reform of the Episcopal Church," Duncan said, explaining Ahmanson's connection with the council. "Various folks invest their money where they think it's going to have the best impact."

Roberta Ahmanson's inclusion on the board of the Institute on Religion and Democracy further cements that group's connection with the council.

The institute's Web site characterizes it as "fighting for the reform of American churches." It shares a Washington, D.C., address with the council.

The two groups also share philosophies that mainline Protestant churches have strayed from their central tenets.

To swing the pendulum to the right and fund its work, the institute has turned to a dozen well-known conservative foundations, including several run by Richard Scaife, the conservative Pittsburgh philanthropist and heir of the Mellon family banking and oil fortune.

Of the $3.8 million the institute received from those foundations between 1985 and 2002, nearly half -- $1.7 million -- came from the Sarah Scaife, Scaife Family and Carthage foundations, all of which are run by Richard Scaife.

The funds help support three "action programs" that promote reform in the Episcopal, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Between 1997 and 2002, the institute spent more than $2.5 million to monitor those churches' activities and work for scripture-based reform. About $541,000 of that was spent specifically on Episcopal Church-related programs.

Although those three denominations -- about 14.1 million members -- account for less than 10 percent of the country's total church membership, they make up a disproportionate number of national leaders in political, business and cultural discussions.

In a 2000 paper called "Reforming America's Churches Project 2001-2004," the institute set its goal to "redirect these [mainline] churches away from their reflexive alliance with the political left and back towards classical Christianity."

The Episcopal Action program, the report continued, "places a key role in the American Anglican Council, an alliance of nearly all the conservative Episcopal renewal groups."

"We work together," Knippers said. "We're proud of the affiliation."


Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 22, 2003) A story yesterday on the financial backing of the conservative movement within the Episcopal Church gave an incorrect date for a special diocesan gathering for the Pittsburgh Diocese. That meeting will be Saturday.

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