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Pittsburgh Episcopal Diocese asks leaders to recognize conservative stance

Votes follow summer decision on gay bishop

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly yesterday to take steps that its bishop says are intended to renew the Episcopal Church but which critics claim could split the diocese from the national church and its 77 parishes from each other.

Bishop Robert Duncan talks to reporters during a break at yesterday's diocesan meeting in Monroeville. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The six resolutions stem from this summer's votes of the Episcopal General Convention to accept an actively gay bishop and to allow diocesan option on the liturgical blessing of same-sex relationships.

The major points of Pittsburgh's resolutions ask the primates of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion -- to which the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church belongs -- to recognize conservatives who uphold traditional biblical sexual morality as the true Anglican church in the United States; say that the Pittsburgh diocese will no longer send money to the national church; and give permission for parishes that wish to leave the diocese or denomination to keep their property.

At least 11 of 108 Episcopal dioceses are expected to vote on similar resolutions before the Oct. 15-16 emergency meeting of the Anglican primates, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Most Anglicans are evangelicals from Africa and Asia, and their primates have been sympathetic to the concerns of conservative U.S. Episcopalians in the past.

"We are trying to call the Episcopal Church back to its senses and asking the worldwide communion to help us," said Bishop Robert Duncan, who expects yesterday's vote to have a major impact on an emergency meeting of the Anglican primates next month in London.

"The majority in this diocese will never accept what the General Convention has done, nor will the whole Christian church throughout the world," Duncan said in his address to the special diocesan convention held yesterday at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Monroeville.

"I'm not leaving. Nor are those who vote for these resolutions. Nor is the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh ... We are engaged in the renewal and realignment of North American Anglicanism."

Representatives of the 20,000-member diocese voted:

239-69 to say that the General Convention had "exceeded its authority and departed from its constitution" and that its actions regarding the gay bishop and same-sex blessings were "null and void."

Diocese representatives attend yesterday's conference, including from left front, James MacLaren and the Revs. Rebecca Spanos, Larry Deihle and Ira Houck, all from Grace Episcopal Church on Mount Washington. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

227-86 for the global primates to intervene and recognize Pittsburgh and other theologically conservative dioceses, parishes and clergy as "the legitimate expression of the Episcopal Church in the United States."

230-81 for the Anglican primates to approve a system that would allow conservative bishops to care for conservative congregations inside the boundaries of liberal dioceses.

211-81 for the diocese to divert its $120,000 annual national assessment from the current Episcopal Church to other Anglican mission projects -- although Duncan said parishes who wished could still pay their assessment to the national church.

215-77 to allow parishes that disagree with yesterday's decisions to divert their money from the Pittsburgh diocese to other mission projects and to receive oversight from a more liberal bishop.

205-74 to declare that congregations own their buildings, and that neither the diocese nor the national church can claim them if the parish leaves the diocese or denomination.

Opponents argued that the last resolution violated both canon and civil law and would leave parishes mired in lawsuits. Supporters -- several of whom had recently held multi-million dollar capital campaigns -- said donors wouldn't pay their pledges if they thought their property could end up in the hands of the national church.

Afterward, Duncan said that the next two diocesan conventions could carry out the formal process of amending diocesan canons on church property.

Furthermore, he said, the diocese could prevent lawsuits through actions such as selling a building to its congregation for $1.

Strong opposition came from the Rev. Harold Lewis, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in East Liberty, and a longtime critic of Duncan's policies.

Although the provisions about church property and alternative bishops were presumably to help more liberal congregations such as Calvary, Lewis said they were an unwanted present.

The resolutions create a "legal fiction" and are worded "to create a rationale" for a split, Lewis said. Anyone who thinks the national church will acquiesce to actions that violate its constitution "is in for a rude awakening," he said.

Supporters said the resolutions offered liberal parishes a respect and freedom that conservative parishes in liberal dioceses were often denied. The Rev. Tom Finnie, rector of St. Peter's in Uniontown, spoke of a colleague and friend in Maryland whose bishop deemed him "mentally unstable" because of his public objections to the General Convention's acceptance of same-sex relationships.

"This resolution is for conscience and freedom," Finney said.

The Rev. Leslie Fairfield, professor of church history at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, said that the church had been working up these resolutions for 40 years, since "death of God theology" began to influence the Episcopal Church.

Joan Malley, of Ascension parish in Oakland and a deputy to the General Convention, spoke of coming home to the tears of a friend who was a sexual abuse survivor and "a former lesbian."

"What she heard the General Convention say is that her sexual transformation means nothing," Malley said.

Roger Westman, a deputy from Calvary, asked why homosexuality was distracting the church from missions such as caring for the poor.

"Can't we put this matter of love between people aside and work on the things that really need our efforts?" he asked.

Not all opposition came from the diocese's liberal minority. Representatives of St. Thomas in Canonsburg, known as an orthodox parish, were outspoken against the resolutions.

"We are a family. . . we don't throw one another out simply because we don't agree with each other," said Rachel Nicholson, a deputy from St. Thomas.

Furthermore, she said, it is "most destructive and most deceptive" to claim that the primates can recognize a new Anglican jurisdiction in the United States.

"This asks the primates to do something that they have absolutely no authority to do," she said.

In an interview, Duncan said that because the Episcopal Church is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, president of the 38 global primates, "he really does have the authority to determine whether the Episcopal Church in the United States is in communion with him or not," Duncan said.

Duncan believed disciplinary action may be taken against the primate of the United States, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, for his support of this summer's controversial votes.

"I think Frank Griswold is in real trouble over this. He voted for it. I think the primates are going to rebuke him as their fellow primate. I think it's quite likely that they will reduce him to observer status in the communion, right now," Duncan said.

Duncan, nevertheless, insisted that is it is premature to talk about a split.

"What we are doing is appealing to the primates, who are really the global supreme court in this, to tell us what to do. We are not telling them what to do," he said.

Lewis, rector of the bellwether church for Pittsburgh's liberal Episcopalians, said his parish was not leaving.

"Calvary will flourish and do just fine," he said, adding that smaller congregations might suffer.

"Although we have different opinions on human sexuality, we are absolutely united on the fact that this issue should not divide the church. The issue of whether to stay or leave has never come up. We will always be Episcopalians."

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at or 412-263-1416.

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