What on earth is going on in Pennsylvania?
Bishop who wouldn’t leave
Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.
So it is that liberal Pennsylvania Episcopal Bishop Charles Bennison is still refusing the diocesan Standing Committee’s call for him to step down over financial and trust issues, even after national church representatives concluded that the bishop himself has shown why a conciliation process will not work.
Bennison even insisted initially that the mid-March report issued by representatives of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development recommended mediation efforts, which is what Bennison has been urging since the Standing Committee unanimously asked him by January 24 to resign or retire by March 31.
But in the report of their consultations with various key parties in the diocese, Episcopal Church (ECUSA) representatives, Bp F. Clayton Matthews and Ms Woodriff Sprinkel (sic), expressly advise against a long-term conciliation process, citing the ‘unanimous opinion that the bishop is incapable of entering into any process without being in control of it.’
They added that if the Standing Committee and Bp Bennison ‘still insist that some process be devised for them to address the issues that have been raised and/or to work on terms of separation through formal mediation, then the Presiding Bishop’s Office will assist as long as the ground rules are defined by outside persons, to insure that neither party tries to control the process. The expense of this work would be solely that of the diocese, and the choice of the mediation firm would be that of the Presiding Bishop’s Office.’ The Standing Committee, however, agreed with the ECUSA representatives that a reconciliation process would not be ‘beneficial.’
Bennison, who holds revisionist views on Jesus, Scripture, sexuality and women’s ordination, is best known for his singular efforts to break up a multi-congregational traditionalist stronghold in his diocese. But the report by Matthews and Sprinkel confirms that Bennison’s leadership style since becoming bishop in 1998 has now caused disaffection across the theological spectrum in Pennsylvania.
Cited among the many complaints that have developed against Bennison are an ‘authoritarian and controlling style of leadership’ and lack of collaboration; the ‘withholding of financial information’ and ‘manipulation of finances;’ the creation of mistrust and fear of retribution; and ‘breaches of confidentiality.’ Standing Committee President, the Revd William Wood, publicly accused the bishop of being ‘economical’ with the truth.
Angst over finances stems mainly from a decline in parish giving, and alleged improper dipping into diocesan trust funds and principal assets to keep the diocese afloat and to fund the bishop’s pet projects, such as the purchase of a diocesan camp, or the (largely unacclaimed) renovation of a cathedral that reportedly draws less than 100 people weekly.
Furthermore, as the Matthews/Sprinkel report noted, Bennison faces still-pending civil suits filed by David Moyer, which arose from the bishop’s widely condemned move to depose the orthodox priest-turned-continuing church bishop a few years ago (despite which Moyer still leads Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Rosemont). Hundreds of thousands of dollars are said to have been spent so far on Bennison’s defence in the cases.
Bennison seems to have done an especially effective job of antagonizing black members of his flock, who apparently see the bishop as putting projects that will assure his legacy before the aiding and strengthening of congregations in the diocese, to the particular detriment of ministries in African-American and poor communities. Jane R. Cosby, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, scored the bishop for appointing a black cleric who is new to the diocese to play a key role in deciding the future of the ministries in question. She urged Bennison, ‘Don’t punish people who have little because they have little.’
Matthews and Sprinkel said that, given the ‘depth of divisions that have been created over many years, the repeated leadership-style preference of the bishop, and the unanimous opinion that the bishop is incapable of entering into any process without being in control of it, we cannot recommend any…rigorous long-term process for addressing problems.’ Moreover, Matthews and Sprinkel said they told Bennison that ‘if he persisted in this pattern of behaviour, the issues before him and the diocese would deteriorate into any ugly and unfortunate battle, in which he would ultimately have to leave.’
An ugly battle
Bennison rejected this notion, contending that the Matthews/Sprinkel report ‘contains a significant number of errors and inaccuracies of fact and interpretation’ and that a more positive view of the diocese would have emerged had the representatives consulted with a ‘broader spectrum of people.’
In other words, he appears to have opted for the ‘ugly and unfortunate battle,’ though at this writing both the President and Vice President of the Standing Committee were showing signs of wavering in the face of Bennison’s rebuff of the committee’s call for him to go.
According to e-journalist Mr Virtue, Tom Allen, the rector’s warden of St Christopher’s – the parish led by Standing Committee President Fr Wood, and Vice President the Revd Mary Laney – asked Bennison to send another bishop in his place to confirm at St Christopher’s on April 23, but then backed down when Bennison refused the request.
Virtue maintained that leaders of the parish, which is withholding part of its pledge to the diocese, had the option of telling the bishop not to come, or of telling congregants what they and others told Matthews about ‘Bennison’s fraud and evil treatment of others,’ and recommending that they stay away. Instead, Allen wrote to parishioners March 30 that: ‘Surely we should welcome the bishop…and support his message to the confirmands.’
‘The Standing Committee has asked Bennison to step down and then its leaders turn around and accept him coming to their parish? What sort of spiritual schizophrenia is this?’ Virtue asked.
But Bennison still appears to face vociferous opposition in the diocese, including that from a group of Episcopalians of diverse races, theological views and economic backgrounds that has come together as Concerned Pennsylvania Episcopalians (CPE). As well, a special diocesan convention on March 25 severely curtailed the bishop’s spending.
The convention overwhelmingly adopted a budget resolution proposed by activist layman Jeff Moretzsohn of CPE, which limited the use of unrestricted net assets (UNA) to $550,000 instead of $950,000, as proposed by the Diocesan Council (which has not supported the call for Bennison to resign). The decision forbids the Council to spend more without convention approval, and requires an independent auditor to verify that the cited amount of UNA is available for use.
The biggest cut in funding was to the Bennison’s Camp Wapiti, and the convention also reduced its pledge to the national church by $225,000, ignoring the bishop’s contrary pleas. There was evidently no move to cut the bishop’s salary, but the numbers of diocesan staff were cut from 24 to nine. The convention had earlier stripped the bishop of the right to appoint members of the Finance and Property Committee, which, along with the Diocesan Council, he allegedly manipulated to get what he wanted.
Last but not least, the convention demanded a full audit of diocesan finances, to show how unrestricted, temporarily restricted and permanently restricted net assets have been spent or classified since 2003. The results of that probe could well eliminate whatever remaining support or acquiescence the bishop still commands in the diocese.
Sources included The Living Church, VirtueOnline, Evening News.
Auburn Traycik is editor of the Washington-based orthodox magazine, ‘The Christian Challenge’
Democracy of the dead
I think it was Chesterton who said ‘tradition is the democracy of the dead,’ so perhaps it’s no wonder that Philadelphia churches, situated in one of the birthplaces of modern democracy, should be looking to reinvent themselves for the future by looking to the past. One of these, St Dunstan’s, sought the help of the British expatriate, Fr Richard Giles, well-known author of Repitching the Tent and Dean of Philadelphia’s Episcopal cathedral.
Giles advises churches to ruthlessly reassess their liturgical space in order to become more relevant and therefore appealing to outsiders. He certainly did so at his cathedral, overseeing the stripping of a noted Victorian interior down to a Corbusian take on Romanesque minimalism. Relevant? Perhaps. Popular? Not very, for few of Philadelphia’s ‘outsiders’ seem drawn to the Dean’s ruthless liturgical aesthetic. Be that as it may, St Dunstan’s gave themselves a make-over with the Dean’s assistance and both being traditionalists, went for a decidedly old fashioned, Seventies’ look.
As reported in a local newspaper, ‘Pews were rearranged so that everyone could face each other, with the pulpit and lectern removed, allowing the priest to sit with the congregation.’ The Holy Table is not mentioned but it’s safe to say that it probably finds itself somewhere in the midst of the reordered ‘worship space.’ Well, anyone with a taste for 1970s retro chic will find themselves right at home in the new St Dunstan’s and presumably with the thinking that put it into place.
This runs thus, in the words of Churchwarden, Anne Kime: ‘People did not worship in buildings originally, they were outside. The building shouldn’t matter at all. Dean Richard Giles’ attitude is ‘What can we do to make the church more interesting so that outsiders will want to come and worship here?’’
Obviously enough, pews, pulpit and lectern had to be reassessed; they were, not least because of their pastor’s desire to be like Jesus. We learn from Kime that he ‘wants to be a member of the congregation now. He doesn’t want to be above everyone,’ but more like Our Lord, who ‘never sat up on high: he was down with the people. Why should the priest have any more importance than anyone else?’
Quaker meeting hall
It is praiseworthy that St Dunstan’s should want to grow and doubtless brave that they are prepared to sacrifice the time honoured arrangement of various pieces of furniture to do so, but are they right in this? Certain questions beg to be answered. Who were these people that worshipped in the open air, freed from oppressive structures of mud, brick and stone? When was this halcyon era of everlasting spring, when carefree worshippers met under a temperate sun to praise the gods of earth and sky? Who were the mysterious people who enjoyed this mythic, golden age of liturgy? Perhaps Kime and her friend the Dean are referring us back to the original Garden and the worship of the Adam before all was poisoned by the Fall? Whether they are or not, why tell us that buildings don’t matter at all and then proceed to spend so much time and energy making something that’s unimportant ‘more interesting?’
Granted a certain propensity for logic to break down under the weight of human imperfection, is it still the case that St Dunstan’s achieved its goal, is their church more intriguing than before? I suppose it must be, especially to those who were looking for an Anglican church and found to their amazement that they had stumbled into a facsimile of a Quaker meeting hall. Still, maybe the new arrangement makes sense; maybe Quaker-style architecture succeeds where other forms fail? It might, but only if you’re already a member of the inner circle circumscribed by facing pews, laagered to repel outsiders.
What about the unfortunate pulpit and its ally, the lectern? They have gone and with their demise the ability of the congregation to hear and see the Word of God being proclaimed and taught. Then again, like the building itself, this might not matter much in the brave old-fashioned world of liturgical and spatial reassessment.
It is certainly interesting, as is the Pastor’s conviction that he should be a ‘member of the congregation.’ Presumably he didn’t feel so before, when he was preaching or reading from the elitist podiums of the old St Dunstan’s, and now that the congregation find it harder to see and hear him he feels more ‘of the people,’ like Christ.
He, we’re told, never sat up on high. Who gave the Sermon on the Mount? Was it some one other than Our Lord who was transfigured on the mountain? And what about the Ascension, you can’t sit much higher than that, it seems to me. All this is forgotten in the clergyman’s rush to be anything other than some one who stands out, and with this offer the people transcendent worship of the transcendent God.
Instead of looking to the hoary maxims of antiquated modernism they might have decided to opt for something really radical, something that will never go out of style, though it might be persecuted and driven underground. That something is the Catholic Faith. It is this Faith which brings in the outsider, that opens the gates of the City of God to a people who live without its walls. And whether its adherents worship in catacombs, cathedrals or parish churches in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, they may be sure that they are offering what the world needs; the redemption that is only to be found in the worship of the one true God in his Body, the Church. This will never go out of date, neither will it cease to bring souls to salvation. May those of us who understand this never cease to have confidence in the same.
Windows on the world
hilst Queen Elizabeth I refused to make ‘windows into men’s souls,’ the cyber version of Windows does, at least, give an opportunity of peering into what others deem as being important.
A number of years ago there was a handy little booklet made up of a number of cartoons entitled ‘how not to visit the sick.’ I was reminded of it when I recently took a cyber tour of the Australian Anglican diocesan websites. If I had the same cartoonist’s skills I would endeavour to write the sequel ‘how not to build a website.’
Open to newcomers?
It is not the case that the problem is always one of a lack of a clean and professional look. It is more that the average Anglican ‘world-view’ is so ego-centric and administratively weighed down, that the true gift and potential of the World Wide Web is not acknowledged. Indeed, Pope John Paul II’s expression of the internet as a ‘new forum for proclaiming the Gospel’ seems to have been translated into Anglican-speak as a ‘new forum for excluding.’
Part of the problem is, perhaps, a failure to understand exactly to whom one is reaching out in a website. My tour of the Australian sites would make it appear that the Anglican Church believes that the only users of the internet are clergy (perhaps a theory that could be supported by some prisons) and Synod representatives.
Of the twenty-three sites I found, only two in Easter Week welcomed one with an Easter message (Ballarat and Newcastle).
It is fair enough to excuse a diocese for not keeping their ‘Home Page’ liturgically up to date. After all, it is all too easy for a webmaster to be away at a time when the necessary changes are most important. But surely there can be no excuse for presenting to the world a Home Page that invites only those in the know to proceed, whilst ignoring the very real opportunities that exist for those seeking faith to enter.
From my own parish’s website (done, I admit on a shoestring) I know that the majority of people who come to it do so as a result of searches for prayers for the sick and the dead. They are not crawling the web for the minutes of my latest Standing Committee.
But most webmasters seem to think that clergy are the only surfers. And so it is that the vast and remote Diocese of North-West Australia (at least remote to me in Melbourne) pushes to the front page ‘Positions Vacant.’
Canberra and Goulburn (one Diocese) have at the top of their menu a link to the Clergy Intranet (password required) – welcome to Anglicanism at its best! If you don’t know the secret word, you are not allowed in!
On the Sydney site, one is greeted by the Archbishop in suit and tie (liturgical wear?) and the claim that there is the desire to see 10% of the people of Sydney in Bible-based Churches in ten years. (And there was me thinking that the Great Commission was to the entire world, not just 10% of it.) However, not to let us down on the administrative sphere, the Bishop warmly lets us know that on the site we can find all the ‘papers and ordinances related to Synod and Standing Committee.’ ‘Bring on the conversions’ is all I can say!
The most bizarre juxtaposition on a home page is that of Brisbane, where there is a button for information about the Archbishops and Bishops placed next to the button for Caring Services. (Considering the bishop’s treatment of David Chislett, perhaps it is only right that they should be separate buttons!)
All in all, the general feeling from the sites is one of administrative overload biased towards those in the know, rather than a tool to bring people in. Committees having precedence over liturgy and outreach would be the order of the day. But then, the websites only mirror what is going on in all of the dioceses anyway.
My own ‘Regional Bishop’ for example, who last year wrote an extended essay to me on why he as chief pastor should preside at the Mass, has written again in a different vein. Having seen my last New Directions article regarding the election for a new Archbishop of Melbourne, he wrote to ask if I could get somebody else to celebrate the Solemn Mass at St Mark’s on St Mark’s day, so that I could be at a Regional meeting to share ‘hurts’ and ‘fears.’
So on second thoughts, none of the web sites should change. At least not until the dioceses themselves change, and the sacramental and pastoral life is seen as a priority, rather than the bureaucratic overload that currently defines the genus of Anglicanism.