Category Archives: Anglican church

2016 General Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland


Tomorrow morning the 2016 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will convene in Edinburgh for their annual week-long meeting. While the hype in the main-stream media probably exceeds the reality – more on that in a minute – it should still be an interesting meeting with all the usual pomp, ceremony, formality and of course interesting discussion that we come to expect of this GA.

If you are interested in following along, here are some starting points to help you:

  • There will be live streaming of the proceedings and you can connect to the stream appropriate for your device from the media page.
  • Most of the Documents pertaining to the Assembly are linked from the General Assembly Publications page. This includes the Proceedings and Reports volumes, known as the Blue Book (and it is back to its blue cover this year) in several different electronic formats including the traditional PDF as well as MOBI and EPUB formats for your eReaders. There is also a separate Order of Proceedings. The Daily Papers will contain late-breaking changes are available on the Papers, minutes, letters, and speeches page. There is an option to subscribe to notifications of new documents being posted. In addition, there is a General Assembly App with versions for Apple iOS and Android.
  • Reports are also available individually from the Reports and minutes page.
  • If you need to refer to the documents about how they do this decently and in order most of those are linked from the Church Law page. Unfortunately the essential “An Introduction to Practice and Procedure” is still listed as under revision and not available.
  • A brief order of the docketed events and reports can be found on the General Assembly 2016 page.
  • And from the media page there will be regular daily updates in print, audio and video if history serves. And as always, hosted by the Rev. Douglas Aitken.

What we all want to know of course is how to follow along on social media and there will be no lack of that. You can begin with the Church of Scotland’s official Facebook page as well as the Facebook page for the National Youth Assembly.

On Twitter the starting point is the Kirk’s main feed at @churchscotland and the official hashtag #ga2016. There is an official account for the Moderator of the General Assembly, @churchmoderator, but during the Assembly we will have to see how much opportunity there will be to tweet. Similarly, the Church of Scotland Youth will likely be tweeting at @cosy_nya and the official account for the NYA Moderator, currently Hanna Mary Goodlad, is at @NYAModerator. The church’s official publication, Life and Work, is also a good source for information on the web, on Facebook and on their Twitter feed @cofslifeandwork. In addition, while it is a personal account, you can follow the editor, Lynne McNeil, at @LifeWorkEditor.

This year I would also suggest three semi-official accounts. The account Church Scotland Voices with weekly rotating contributors at @churchscovoices will be curated by GA commissioner Andrew Kimmitt (@akimmitt). The official photographer will be Andrew O’Brien at @AndyOBrienPhoto. And during the Assembly I. D. Campbell (@idcampbellart) will be the artist-in-residence painting people from the Poverty Truth Commission (@PTCScotland).

In suggesting personal accounts to follow, let me start with two past Moderators of the General Assembly. The first is the Very Reverend Lorna Hood who is always a good read at @revlornascot and has been very active the past few years with projects related to Srebrenica justice and remembrance (@SrebrenicaUK). The other is the Very Reverend Albert Bogle at @italker who has been getting some recent traction with the Sanctuary First ministry (@sanctuaryfirst) that is now seeking to become a completely online church. Another well-connected individual to follow is Seonag MacKinnon, the head of communications for the Kirk, who tweets on her personal account at @seonagm.

In suggesting other personal accounts let me begin with the Rev. Peter Nimmo of Inverness who is a member of the Church and Society Council (@ChurchSociety01) and always a good source of information at @peternimmo1. Others I regularly follow from the Kirk include Darren Philip (@darphilip), Alistair May (@AlistairMay) and Michael Mair (@MichaelMair). Another who will probably weigh in, whether or not he is in Edinburgh, is Glasgow theologian Douglas Gay (@DougGay). I will update with more as the Assembly gets under way.

Once again the Assembly will have its annual Heart and Soul festival on the Sunday afternoon of the Assembly week that will again be happening in Princes Street Gardens near the Assembly Hall. The theme of both the Assembly and the Heart and Soul event this year is “People of the Way.” One of the new features of Heart and Soul this year will be link-ups with concurrent local events throughout Scotland.

Concerning the business before the Assembly there is a nice summary of each report on the Life and Work site. Three items in particular have been in the news. The first is the Columba Declaration for mutual recognition between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. After the Moderator of the Kirk spoke at the CofE General Synod in February the Archbishop of Canterbury will participate in the CofS debate on the Declaration as part of the Ecumenical Relations Committee presentation on Wednesday. (I hope to post a few of my observations and thoughts on this in the next couple days.)

The big mainstream media coverage the last few days – which has even made it over here to the states – relates to the Legal Questions Committee report on Saturday and specifically item 14:

14. Instruct the Committee, jointly with the Mission and Discipleship Council and the Theological Forum, to research the implications for the Church of Scotland of the development of online church and report to the General Assembly of 2018.

The body of the report itself focuses on new technologies and particularly their application to voting and administrative contacts. There is mention of the changing nature of membership in that section of the report and one, just one, reference to sacraments in general that says “As fewer people join up in the traditional sense and as they make choices which include ever greater interaction with the Church through online access and social media, questions arise about online membership and even about access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation.” The next line begins “There are no easy answers…” It should be an interesting discussion but the report is really concerned with particular administrative items yet in looking forward does contain an invitation to start thinking more broadly about issues that will arise. However, it is nowhere near the invitation to approve online baptisms as the media reports would make you think. The Church of Scotland issued a press release to put the reports into perspective.

Finally, the Assembly Arrangements Committee report contains the results of a review of the Assembly operations and response to many suggestions that have been made. Some, like biennial assemblies or moving out of Edinburgh, are recommended against based on factors considered in the study. The committee does seek permission to further review one suggestion, moving the Assembly to the second week of June so more young adults are available following completion of university exams. This discussion will also occur on Saturday and there is a Kirk press release on this as well.

So fasten your seat belts and get ready for the full week of Presbyterian action. As always, our thoughts and prayers are with the commissioners and officers of the Assembly and we look forward to following along with your discernment process.

Church Of England General Synod Discusses The Columba Declaration Tomorrow

The General Synod of the Church of England began meeting today. While that fact alone may be of interest to polity wonks, for the GA Junkies this Synod meeting holds particular interest as they take up the matter of the Columba Declaration, a joint agreement with the Church of Scotland.

According to the agenda for the Synod the Report of the Church of England-Church of Scotland Joint Study Group will begin at 2:30 PM BST tomorrow, 16 February 2016. If you wish to follow along there is a livestream and there are Twitter accounts @c_of_e for the church and @synod for the Synod meeting itself. There is a #Synod hashtag to follow as well.

Of particular note is the address to the Synod by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Angus Morrison early on in the report. According to the Church of Scotland news article it is believed this is the first time a currently serving moderator has ever been given this privilege. In addition, Rt. Rev. and Mrs. Morrison will be the guests of Archbishop and Mrs. Welby at Lambeth Palace during their stay in London.

The action before the Synod has three parts: To welcome the report as a significant development between the two churches; To approve the Columba Declaration; And to request the Council for Christian Unity to oversee the implementation.

We will see how this goes tomorrow in London and we can expect to see reciprocal action at the Church of Scotland General Assembly in Edinburgh in May.

Church Property Case Not Accepted By Supreme Court… At This Time

It is the first Monday in October and that means two things…

They begin announcing the Nobel Prizes for this year and…
The U.S. Supreme Court begins its new term.

Now, I will leave the Nobel Prizes (and their humorous cousins the Ig Nobel Prizes) to you.  (Although it does strike me that there is something theologically significant about the fact that cows with names give more milk than cows without names. See the Ig Nobel award for Veterinary Medicine.)

But with the start of the new Supreme Court year it brings a list of the cases that the court has agreed to hear, and the vastly longer list of those the Court will not hear.

For those looking for a Supreme resolution to the diversity of views and court decisions on church property, the trust clause, and neutral versus hierarchical principles, we won’t have it from the national court this year.  The Court has declined the request of St. James of Newport Beach to have their California high court decision reviewed.  If you look at the list of court orders you will see that their case, 08-1579, is just one in an approximately 80 page list of cases that the court has declined to hear, almost all with out comment.

What this means is that the case goes back to trial court as the California supremes ordered.  It also means that once the trial court has rendered a decision the case can once again make its way through the appeals system and possibly have another shot at the U.S. high court.  There is also a possibility that a different property case could make it there first.

As always, for the legal context, interpretation and decoding into plain English check out the Anglican Curmudgeon.

And the story continues.

Reflections On Corporate And Individual Salvation — It Is Not Either/Or But Both/And

from Wikimedia Commons
A couple of weeks ago the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, began a heated debate with these comments in her opening address to the Episcopal Church General Conference:

The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.

This comment has been taken in many quarters to equate to the statement of Cyprian of Carthage:

Outside the Church there is no salvation

Part of the reason that this was taken negatively was that it seemed to be addressed at particular churches and dioceses that were departing from the Episcopal church and realigning in their own, new ecclesiastical structure.  For more on how this was taken within the Anglican world as an insult or threat you can check out comments from VirtueOnline, Anglican Curmudgeon, and Sydney Anglicans.  In the broader blogosphere there were comments, as much about the theology as the church politics, from Apprising Ministries, Internet Monk, and Bible Belt Blogger.  Maybe most notable were comments from two seminary presidents — Richard Mouw at Fuller and Albert Mohler at Southern Baptist.

The comments got me thinking both about confessional Christianity as well as the ecclesiastical relationship to salvation.  I’ll leave the former to another time and just address the latter now.

Let me state my thesis right at the beginning:  Based on my understanding of Scripture and Reformed thought this is not an either/or proposition but a both/and situation.  To put it in the simplest form — The Church is the bookends around individual salvation.

Part of the expressed concern is a long-standing theological tension that exists between individual salvation and corporate salvation.

On the individual side there is the ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord,” and the more modern tool – the Sinners Prayer.  As Dr. Mohler nicely points out in his piece, the mechanistic use of these formulae can be manipulative and gives a simplistic representation of the meaning and depth of salvation.  There is also concern for “Lone Ranger Christians” and the “Jesus and Me” situation, both of which are labeled heresies by some, where the only thing that matters is if a person has a right relationship with Jesus exclusive of the role other Christians play in that relationship.  All of this presents a simple view of the rich experience of Christianity.

On the other side is the belief that all you need to do to be a Christian is to jump through the hoops to become a member of the church.  The individual relationship with God is not what is important, but rather it is the relationship in the community — fidelity to the teachings of the church and participation in its sacraments.  You are saved by being a member — corporate status precedes salvation.  This view negates the personal call and responsibility that is involved in the Christian life.

Now most theological positions are more complex and I have caricatured the two extremes.  The varying theological positions are generally found in the middle ground.  Dr. Mouw in his article reflects this by saying that individual salvation is important but “that individual salvation is not enough.” (emphasis his)  He also mentions the centrality of the church in salvation.  I suggest that the answer to individual versus corporate lies very close to the center of this spectrum.

To begin, let us turn to the first post-ascension, and in many ways the archetype, conversion experience — the Day of Pentecost.  On that day one of the men in the crowd asks Peter “what should we do?” (Acts 2:37) and Peter responds:

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

The center of the conversion story is the recognized need, individual repentance and baptism leading to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

But note the full context in the story — It begins with the believers receiving and being empowered by the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:4)  When the crowd mistakes their divine empowerment for inebriation (Acts 2:13) Peter preaches a sermon (Acts 2:14-36).  Only then comes the question about what they should do.  And the response includes baptism.

For those of a Reformed bent you probably caught where I am going with this, but for those who are not as familiar with it, the Reformed view of the marks of the church can be expressed like this:

Hence the form of the Church appears and stands forth conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” (Matth. 18: 20.)  [Calvin, Inst. 4.1.9]

The repentance and conversion experience are bracketed by the Word preached and the sacraments administered.  The individual is buttressed and supported by the corporate.

And what happens?  “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47b)

The interplay of the corporate and individual is remarkable.  The core of the experience is individual — you must repent for yourself.  But the initiative belongs to God in the empowering by the Holy Spirit that produced a sermon that with the Spirit’s touch convicted those that heard it such that they were “cut to the heart.” (Acts 2:37a )  The first Great End of The Church: The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of human kind.  But the story does not end there because with individual repentance comes the sacrament of baptism that produces new believers that are added to “their number,” that is the New Testament Church, daily and share the breaking of the bread.

Empowered by God the Church supplies the preaching of the Gospel that leads to individual repentance which through the sacraments bring those individuals into the Covenant Community that is the Church.

In fact, in John Calvin’s thinking, salvation through election and the Body of Christ found in the Church were inseparable and each presumed the other.

Sometimes when [the Scriptures] speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God – the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. [Calvin, Inst. 4.1.7]

I won’t repeat the argument here that I made in my last Calvin post, but the essence is that if salvation is the act of adoption by God into His family then the Church and Salvation are two sides of the same coin.  It reverses Cyprian’s statement so that “Outside salvation there is no Church.”

Now I won’t pretend that either Scripture or the writings of John Calvin are totally clean cut on the issue.  There is the story of Paul and the jailer in Acts 16:25-35 where the jailer, after the earthquake, asks what he must do to be saved.  And the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 where Cornelius has a vision and sends for Peter.  In both cases there is a divine prodding, earthquake and vision, and there is a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  There is also a baptism of those present after hearing the Gospel proclaimed.  The nature of the repentance or individual acceptance of the good news is a bit murkier.  It is clear that in both cases the head of the household has an individual conversion experience.  But the result is the baptism of the whole household.  It is left as an exercise for us, the readers, to decide if all members of the household had an individual conversion experience or if the repentance of the head of the household, and maybe some others, was enough.  I won’t pursue that any further except to affirm that at a basic level there was the pattern of divinely assisted proclamation of the gospel, some level of individual repentance, and the inclusion of multiple individuals into the Covenant Community through baptism.

From another perspective, Calvin includes in the Church Invisible, the true church known only to God, individuals who are not part of the visible church body but who have none-the-less not rejected Christ or the Church. (Inst. 4.1.9)  While this might argue against the need for the role of the Church and the possibility of isolated individual salvation, remember that Calvin is viewing this in the context of the Church Invisible.  Community and salvation form an indivisible union.  From a practical standpoint, and from my reading of the Institutes, this represents a particular moment in time and does not necessarily speak of the conversion which came before or the Christian life that is to follow.  And of course, this all ultimately falls in the realm of the Sovereignty of God and His perfect will.

It is probably also necessary to acknowledge that the idea of “individual salvation” takes on a nuance for the Reformed side that is not part of the view of much of the rest of the Church.  This difference is not a major issue for the discussion here where the focus has been on individual salvation in the sense that salvation comes to each of us individually apart from whatever role the wider community plays in the process.  Outside Reformed circles the “individual” nature of salvation also includes the idea that there is an individual choice in accepting salvation based on our human free will.  The Reformed view is that our condition is far enough corrupted by our sinful nature that left to ourselves we can not make the free choice for salvation and God must do that for us.  So while God saves each of us individually, as opposed to a chosen nation of the Old Testament, we can differ over what role an individual can play in that salvation.

So in summary, what scripture gives us as examples of salvation in the New Testament church is the necessity of the corporate component and the individual part, but neither is sufficient by itself.  The church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament are the foundation on which in individual receives salvation — the Word to convict and the Sacraments to affirm.  It is not individual salvation or corporate salvation but individual salvation through the corporate presence.

You Have To Admit The Anglicans Know How To Do Schism

You have to admit, the Anglicans know how to do a schism.  Five hundred years ago, just a couple of months before John Calvin was born outside Paris, this guy assumed the throne of England and was married to the first of his wives.  Twenty five years later he would separate the Church of England from Roman authority so he could be in charge, or at least get what he wanted from the church. Henry VIII of England

 from Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to today…

Now the church that Henry wanted to control is looking more and more uncontrollable by Rowan and accusations going back and forth about groups splitting off so they can get what they want.

I don’t know what the Anglican/Episcopal equivalent of a GA Junkie is, but they must be having a great time at this moment with both the U.S. Episcopal Church General Convention meeting in Anaheim, California, and the Church of England General Synod meeting in York.  And there is a conversation of sorts going on between the two of meetings.

Now I have enough going on in my life right now that I can’t keep close track of a whole different Protestant tradition, but I have been following both the Convention and the Synod at arms length because there are implications for Presbyterians in some of their actions.  And as I go forward here I will put in the disclaimer that because I am not up on some of the polity and nuances of their system some of what I mention below may be a bit inaccurate.  Also, as you can tell from the opening, this post may have a bit of a snarky tone so if that bothers you I apologize now.

The Anglican system of church government is at least doubly complicated compared to the Presbyterian form because they have at least two deliberative bodies, one of them being the House of Bishops.  In the Church of England there is a separate House of Clergy and House of Laity while the Episcopal church blends those two together into the House of Deputies.

For some time now there has been tension in the Worldwide Anglican Communion over the Episcopal church’s openness to ordaining practicing homosexuals as clergy, and especially as bishops.  Back in 2004 the Communion issued the Windsor Report which essentially asked the Episcopal church to stop doing that, at least temporarily, because there was not agreement in the Communion on those matters and it was straining relations between the member Provinces.  In response, the next Episcopal General Convention in 2006 passed resolution B033 (for the Episcopalians this has the recognition status that PUP or Amendment B has for those in the PC(USA)) that stopped the practice.

Well, within both the Episcopal church and the Church of England there is concern by conservatives who don’t like the direction they see the church going and are speaking out.  In fact, in North America a group has now set out on their own forming a new Anglican Province, the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

So with all that as backdrop the conventions began meeting…

In Anaheim the Presiding Bishop ( PB ) of the Episcopal church started things off with a bang in her opening statement by making a statement that a lot of those commenting seem to agree implies those with ACNA are heretics.  (Of course, other Anglicans worldwide have labeled the Episcopal church as heretical and abandoning the communion so the feeling is mutual.)  Her specific quote was:

The crisis of this moment has several parts, and like Episcopalians, particularly ones in Mississippi, they’re all related. The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.

(Another time I might take this statement apart, particularly in light of the similarity is presents to the Federal Vision theology in the Reformed branches.  For now, I would just express the view that in a Reformed setting covenant community and individual salvation are held in a balance and tension.)

In addition, to try to smooth things over the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) made a brief appearance at the Convention before jetting back to England for his own meeting.  While there he made a plea for unity and was generally well received but things got a bit more testy when the CofE Synod started.  A motion was brought to the Synod to recognize the ACNA.  Before the resolution was even debated the PB made news by warning the CofE and the ABC that recognizing the ACNA would only encourage them and others and foment schism. (Yesterday the motion was tabled and it looks like it will be considered by General Synod in February.)  In addition, the ABC has commented that he regrets the decision of the House of Deputies at the Episcopal General Convention to overturn the restriction on gay ordination after he had asked them not to in his Convention sermon.

Although the General Convention is still going it is clear that the Episcopal church is now headed in a progressive direction.  The rules prohibiting the ordination of gay clergy have been repealed, or maybe not.  In addition same-sex marriage is being debated and there are signs of support and adding appropriate ceremonies to the Book of Common Prayer has been sent to the writing committee.  And it has been noted that there is a lack of conservative voices at the Convention, particularly in the House of Deputies, this being attributed to those dioceses that left to form ACNA.  The Convention still has a few days to run and at ten days long they have the PC(USA) seven days topped.  (Although, if you consider that their meeting is triennial and the PC(USA) is biennial, then they are about even on a pro-rated basis.) (And another thought, does this vote to go against the Windsor Report mean the Episcopal church as a body has an “individualist focus [that] is a form of idolatry”?)

With the direction that the Episcopal church is headed more and more commentators are considering schism likely, one headline calling it “inevitable.”  Of course, some said the same thing about the ACNA formation.  So for a Presbyterian, having gone through this a few times in the last 300 years, the parallels are interesting and it will be something to watch as this plays out.  I do admire ABC Rowan Williams for the work he is doing and the effort he is making to hold the communion together.

It is important to note that the CofE has its own conservative group, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans which recently held its own meeting.  While not showing signs of realigning away from the mother church, they are becoming a recognized voice in the call for orthodoxy in the Anglican Communion.  They did get into a bit of a public argument over whether they have the support of The Queen based upon the reading of the tea leaves in the response from the palace to they letters.  While some interpret it as support there are also indications that they may be reading too much into the correspondence.

In all the discussions going on, I did learn something about the Episcopal church that casts some of this in a new light.  One of the things about Anglicans is that they are territorial — none of this non-geographic presbytery stuff for them.  So one of the arguments against the ACNA and some of the churches that have realigned with Anglican Provinces elsewhere in the world is that there can (should?) only be one Province in one locality.  It turns out that the Episcopal church has an international presence as well.  For example Province II, mostly New York and New Jersey, also contains Episcopal Churches in Europe and one in Haiti.  In all the General Convention coverage I now can not find the article that brought this to my attention but my thanks for that piece of information.

And a final word about General Convention and new media.  There has been a great deal of volume on Twitter but when the General Convention began there were two hash tags advertised for the tweets – both #ecgc and #gc09.  You have to check them both for info.  (Another sign of schism? )  I would also comment that the official “Media Hub” is a great resource for news, information and video, but a tremendous load on my computer because of its background network activity.  Wish there were a lower-overhead alternative besides Twitter.

Seeing Double — Recent Developments in the U.S. Anglican/Episcopal Church

Yes, this is still a Presbyterian blog and I don’t plan on regularly covering the Anglican and U.S. Episcopal church.  But I do drift off in that direction on occasion, like now, when the developments either (1) intersect with Presbyterian politics, or (2) are interesting to a polity wonk or GA Junkie.  Both cases are true at the moment.

The major news with significant implications for hierarchical churches in the United States, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is that the St. James Church case from California has now been officially appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  This has been reported by Anglican Mainstream, Stand Firm, and VirtueOnline.  But as usual, if you want a detailed analysis you look to the Anglican Curmudgeon.  He has started a series of posts on the Constitutional arguments why the Court should over turn the California Supreme Court Decision on First Amendment Establishment Clause issues.  From the petition to the Court for review he quotes one of the arguments:

I. The California Supreme Court Has, By “Legislative Fiat,” Empowered Self-Proclaimed Hierarchical Churches to Unilaterally Create Trust Interests For Themselves in the Property of Affiliated Local Church Corporations, Impermissibly Preferring Hierarchical Religion and Infringing on the Free Exercise Rights of Local Congregations.

Now I need to think this through a bit more myself, and the root of this case is a specific section in the California Corporate Code that applies only to hierarchical churches, based on the 1979 Supreme Court decision setting forth “neutral principles.”  I do wonder if there is a logical conclusion if generalized further — If under the establishment clause the state can not make or enforce laws that relate to the hierarchical church being able to govern a congregation without that congregation’s explicit consent, then does it effectively reduce all congregations to being able to opt-out effectively reducing the denomination to a congregationalist government.  Again, I will say that I am thinking generally about something that, if accepted by the court, will be tried on very specific merits and that has gotten me in trouble before.

(In an interesting related case there is a brand new state appeals court decision that affirms that the Assemblies of God church is a hierarchical denomination.)

A second news item related to the PC(USA) is that the Episcopal Church will vote at its General Convention in two weeks on an agreement for full communion with the Moravian Church. A similar agreement with the Moravian Church was agreed to by the last PC(USA) General Assembly and affirmed by the vote of the presbyteries.  In reading Mark Harris’s endorsement of the Episcopal-Moravian agreement I also learned that the Episcopal Church has a full communion agreement with the ELCA, again like the PC(USA).

(Another aside – while the PCA may have had their General Assembly at the second “Happiest Place on Earth®,” Orlando, Florida, the Episcopal Church will have their Convention at the first “Happiest Place on Earth®,” Anaheim, California.  (And yes, the phrase is a registered trademark of the Mouse House.))

Now, in case you missed it, the big news coming from the Anglican/Episcopal branches in North America is the establishment this week of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).  This church is intended to be a parallel church to the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Church of Canada but with a conservative stance.  The inaugural assembly in Bedford, Texas, had all the attendant pomp and ceremony including the installation of an archbishop for this new province of the Worldwide Anglican Communion.  The problem is of course that while it has been recognized by several other Provinces, mostly in the southern hemisphere, it has not been recognized yet by the whole communion and certainly not by the currently existing provinces on these shores.  But, in one ecumenical relationship the ACNA was recognized by the leader of the Orthodox Church in America.  Another endorsement of the new province came from the Rev. Rick Warren who addressed the Assembly last Tuesday Morning.  To say “This could get interesting” would be an understatement.

And finally, the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in California gives us our polity question of the week — If the vote of a diocesan convention is necessary to elect a bishop but that convention does not have a quorum what do you do?  Specifically, on March 29, 2008, 21 clergy were present at the meeting and 61 were absent.  Under the church canons a quorum for such a meeting is one-third plus one or 28.  The bishop’s answer was to go ahead and have the convention elect him, then depose the 61 who did not show up, sort of giving a retroactive quorum.  I have simplified this a great deal, but the situation is very real and plays into the California trial court case concerning the situation of property when not just a congregation but a significant portion of the diocese chooses to leave a denomination together.  As always, check out the Anglican Curmudgeon for the details and keep watching the news to see what the civil courts do with this.

Church Property Case Headed For The U.S. Supreme Court

I was right in concept but picked the wrong case.  My money was on Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v. Harnish for the first case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify issues of church property and the trust clause.  That was the case earlier decided by a state supreme court (New York) as opposed to the case of St. James Episcopal Church, part of the California Episcopal Church Cases.  The California Supreme Court sent that back down to the trial court to have it heard and decided based on the concept of “neutral principles.”

Well, St. James Church announced yesterday that it would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the California Court decision.  As the press release on the church web site says:

St. James Anglican Church, at the centerpiece of a nationally
publicized church property dispute with the Episcopal Church, announced
today that it will file a petition for writ of certiorari with the
United States Supreme Court to resolve an important issue of religious
freedom: Does the United States Constitution, which both prohibits the
establishment of religion and protects the free exercise of religion,
allow certain religious denominations to disregard the normal rules of
property ownership that apply to everyone else?

To put the legal question another way – “Can a hierarchical church impose a property trust clause on a particular church without their explicit consent” as the California Supreme Court decided.  Or to put it another way, when the trust clause was added to the Episcopal Canons did the individual churches implicitly agree and accept them.  Hierarchical churches are the one case where California law allows a trust to be imposed on a corporation.  The particular church wants a decision if that is constitutional.  (Yes, I am highly simplifying the legal issue here while hopefully still conveying the essence of the question.)

I must admit that as I look over these cases again I have to think “be careful what you ask for.”  The majority California decision was argued that it was based upon neutral principles of law while basically siding with the hierarchical church in this case.  Justice Kennard’s separate decision basically called the rest of the court on this and said “if you are going to side with the hierarchical church in this way at least be honest and call it principle of government.”  And J. Kennard is very direct about it:

In my view, Corporations Code section 9142 reflects the principle of government approach. That statute allows a hierarchical church, such as the Episcopal Church here, through its bylaws to unilaterally impose a trust on the property of a local member parish. The statute does not state a neutral principle of law; rather, it creates a special principle applicable solely to religious corporations.

I’m not sure I would wager money that the U.S. Supreme Court would take this approach, but I could see them concurring with this overall case but using it to strengthen the principle of government theory.  My thoughts on it and I’ve been wrong before.

So we are back to watching this move through the judicial process.  We will have to see if the court accepts the case, when arguments are heard and when a decision is handed down.  Clearly this process will take a year if not more.  But the decision will affect court cases in multiple denominations with many different individual cases now in the courts.

Gracious Witness — The World Does See It

The World is watching…  And the World has noticed.  (At least here in California.)

As much as we are concerned about the confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty in the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), at this moment events are moving faster in the Episcopal Church and their local churches that are realigning with other Anglican Provinces.  The California Supreme Court cases, while they will have an impact on Presbyterians, were about Episcopal Churches here in Southern California.  The bishop is offering reconciliation but the churches are looking ahead to the cases being heard in trial court.  And there are more church cases waiting in the wings (e.g. St. John’s, St. Luke’s).  The Presiding Bishop’s office has brought on new high-power legal talent. Meanwhile a SoCal megachurch has offered to have displaced Anglican churches nest on their property.

At a higher level, while the PC(USA) has some unhappy presbyteries, the Episcopal Church has four diocese that have realigned with other provinces and are looking at a new North American province.  Here in California the Episcopal hierarchy has set up a new San Joaquin diocese along side the realigned one and is trying to figure out how the new court decision might help them there.  And in Fort Worth the Presiding Bishop herself will be stopping by in a couple of weeks to lead a special meeting to bring the diocese back into the fold. 

So, in the midst of all this discord what is the good news?  The Modesto Bee has noticed that while the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians have similar problems, the way they are handling them is different.  In an article titled “Presbyterian Splits Lack Episcopalian Litigiousness” they compare how the the two denomination are handling church departures and observe “[M]any of the Presbyterian churches have been allowed to leave “with
grace” and their property, as opposed to the Episcopalian parishes and
dioceses that have been sued across the country.”  It is nice to see that the “gracious witness resolutionpassed by the 218th General Assembly may be bearing fruit, not just in the life of the church but as a witness to the world.  As one of the points of the resolution says:

Gracious Witness: It is our belief that Scripture and the Holy Spirit require a gracious witness from us rather than a harsh legalism

California Supreme Court Decision: Denomination Controls The Property

The California Supreme Court decision has been issued:  In a unanimous decision on the outcome they upheld the appellate court decision which found in favor of the national Episcopal Church and against the local churches.  The majority found that under “neutral principles of law” the property resides with the denomination because the churches agreed from their founding to be part of the greater church and abide by their documents.  (The appellate court used “principle of government” in its reasoning.)

The majority decision, written by Justice Chin, goes on to present the legal rational for this finding.  In a very interesting concurring and dissenting individual opinion Justice Kennard says, and I paraphrase here, “I agree the higher church body gets the property, but you are really stretching California law in finding for neutral principles when this should be based on principle of government.”

So we basically have a unanimous decision, but a 6-1 split on the legal reasoning.

Now some details, and I’ll quote extensively from the very readable introductory summary to the decision.

Near the beginning of the summary it says:

When secular courts are asked to resolve an internal church dispute over property ownership, obvious dangers exist that the courts will become impermissibly entangled with religion. Nevertheless, when called on to do so, secular courts must resolve such disputes. We granted review primarily to decide how the secular courts of this state should resolve disputes over church property.

State courts must not decide questions of religious doctrine; those are for the church to resolve. Accordingly, if resolution of the property dispute involves a doctrinal dispute, the court must defer to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the doctrinal point. But to the extent the court can resolve the property dispute without reference to church doctrine, it should use what the United States Supreme Court has called the “neutral principles of law” approach.

The decision summary continues with this important paragraph, the one Justice Kennard takes issue with:

Applying the neutral principles of law approach, we conclude that the general church, not the local church, owns the property in question. Although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be bound by its governing documents. These governing documents make clear that church property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled by the local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the general church. When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it.

Within the full discussion the majority say that important in the reasons they were favoring neutral principles is because “that is the [U.S.Supreme] court’s most recent on this subject and, hence, is of critical importance to the instant dispute.”  They also quote the U.S. Supreme Court decision about the dangers of neutral principles including that it requires a court to examine church documents, such as a constitution, for a trust clause but the court must avoid deciding based on any associated doctrine in the document.  And the decision notes that this is the first case the state supreme court has had to consider neutral principles since its development.

Related to this the decision notes that the Appellate decision in this case criticized previous appellate decisions because those decisions used neutral principles when the state supreme court’s previous rulings had used principle of government.  This current decision responds:

We disagree. As explained in the Court of Appeal opinion containing the most thorough examination of this question… the principle of government method… and the neutral principles method… are not mutually exclusive, but can be reconciled. In any event, this court unquestionably has authority to adopt the neutral principles approach. [citations removed for length]

This makes it sound like another reason the majority went with neutral principles was to help set the record straight on the previous decisions.

It is also important to point out that in response to the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision detailing neutral principles the California Legislature, in 1982, added a section to the California Corporations Code recognizing a denominational trust clause.  And the decision reaffirms that under this California statute a hierarchical church can unilaterally impose a trust clause if “the governing instruments of that superior religious body so provide.”  There is an argument in the Episcopal Church that the trust clause was not properly adopted in the first place.  The court literally says that “it is a bit late” to argue that point.

It is also interesting that in the full decision the court points out that most of the decisions in other states have favored the hierarchical church.

In the separate decision, Justice Kennard writes of the majority’s reasoning regarding the California Corporate statute:

But that conclusion is not based on neutral principles of law. No principle of trust law exists that would allow the unilateral creation of a trust by the declaration of a nonowner of property that the owner of the property is holding it in trust for the nonowner. [citation removed] If a neutral principle of law approach were applied here, the Episcopal Church might well lose because the 1950 deed to the disputed property is in the name of St. James Parish, and the Episcopal Church’s 1979 declaration that the parish was holding the property in trust for the Episcopal Church is of no legal consequence.

But under the principle of government approach, the Episcopal Church wins because that method makes the decision of the highest authority of a hierarchical church, here the Episcopal Church, binding on a civil court. This result is constitutional, but only because the dispute involves religious bodies and then only because the principle of government approach, permissible under the First Amendment, allows a state to give unbridled deference to the superior religious body or general church.

In my view, Corporations Code section 9142 reflects the principle of government approach. That statute allows a hierarchical church, such as the Episcopal Church here, through its bylaws to unilaterally impose a trust on the
property of a local member parish. The statute does not state a neutral principle of law; rather, it creates a special principle applicable solely to religious corporations.

In my common sense way of thinking Kennard’s argument makes more sense to me as a path to ruling for the denomination.

Finally, a couple of polity and legal observations from this GA Junkie, who is not a lawyer.

1)  It is interesting that neutral principles was the legal theory that prevailed because one of the internal arguments among PC(USA) denominational people was whether trust clause (neutral principles) versus administrative commission process (principle of government) was a stronger argument.  At least in this state it appears trust clause prevails.  Personally, I favor process.  It seems so much more Presbyterian to me.

2)  In reading through the detailed decision it seems to me that the court has tried to position its decision so that it will be upheld on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, should there be one.  It seems that great effort is taken to lay out the legal history in U.S. Supreme Court decisions to show how this decision is completely compatible with that court’s
existing decisions.  Maybe another reason the majority went with neutral principles.  And being a lowly physical scientist by training, maybe this is what all legal decisions look like.

3)  There are clear winners and losers.  But one of the winners may be those churches which have been already been gracefully dismissed by their presbyteries.  If principle of government had prevailed I could imagine an increase in the pressure to use PJC’s and AC’s at higher levels to chase down and pull back congregations dismissed by their presbyteries.  This decision does, of course, only apply to California.

Lastly, I do expect a lot of spin and discussion on this.  But out of all the responses, I appreciate the detailed and disagreeing analysis of an authentic church lawyer over at Anglican Curmudgeon.  We will see what others have to say.  Stay tuned…

Updates:  A few details I missed the first time around…
1)  The case is not over — If nothing else the cases are sent back to the trial courts.  And if the local churches are unsuccessful there some are suggesting that it will be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.

2)  In comments that I am trying to decide suggest a true sense of victory or just making the best of this outcome, some associated with the local churches are happy the majority relied on neutral principles since that is how they were arguing their case.  As the article from VirtueOnline says:

The California Supreme Court today ruled in Episcopal Church Cases that
church property disputes must be resolved by “neutral principles of
law,” not by civil courts merely deferring to the decrees of church

This ruling has wide and favorable impact for
churches throughout California that seek to change their denominational
affiliation. While adopting this “non-religious” method of resolving
property disputes between churches, the Court seemed to defer to the
Episcopal Church’s alleged “trust canon,” which purports to create a
trust interest in church property owned by local congregations.

And the press release from the Episcopal Church quotes the local churches lawyer, Eric Sohlgren:

What’s good about the decision from the perspective of St. James is
that the court has adopted a rule of neutral principles of law in that
church property disputes will be resolved by neutral, nonreligious

Interesting to see how this goes from here.

3)  And on my commute home last night I heard one radio station give the following “teaser headline” that seems to miss the point of the “neutral principles:”

California Supreme Court rules for Episcopal Church in dispute over gay bishops and property

Looking Ahead To Monday

It’s Saturday, but Monday’s coming…

The holidays are over, I’m still trying to keep Christmas in my heart and soul while recovering from New Years and the distraction of medical issues in my family over the break.  I will need time to reflect on how “real life” intrudes into the divine.  It seems like I should be seeing it the other way around since God takes the initiative.  And my wife commented to me today that this is the first day she has really seen me since her father was hospitalized.  (The situation is better, he is home, but the issues are not over and it will be a long road ahead for everyone.)

So, with the end of the holidays will come Monday and a return back to work.  And with the return back from Christmas break we anticipate some news.

First, and scheduled, is the decision on the Episcopal Church Cases from the California Supreme Court.  Notice was posted on Friday that the decision would be handed down at 10:00 AM PST on Monday.  I have discussed this case before (see the tail end of this post) because even though this decision is specifically about Episcopal churches, it will set the “lay of the land” for all the hierarchical churches in California, including the Presbyterians.  In light of that several Presbyterian entities submitted amicus briefs.  The case was argued back in early October (my observations on the oral arguments) so now being close to 90 days the decision was expected this week.  With the imminent decision the Anglican Curmudgeon has started a detailed series of posts on the cases and he promises to finish up with his prediction of the outcome.  The first article is very good background piece, and the rest should be just as good.  Even after almost 90 days I am sticking with my impressions from the oral arguments:  I’m not sure if Neutral Principles or Principle of Government will specifically prevail but I’m still leaning towards Government. However, based on the tone of the jurists in October, I’ll stick my neck out that the hierarchical church will prevail in this one.  (And from some of the arguments I could see the denomination prevailing even if a majority favors Neutral Principles.)  I’ll post a brief summary as soon as I can find time in my work day to review the decision.

Second, and hinted at, is the appointments to the Special Committees, Study Groups, and Task Forces created by the last General Assembly of the PC(USA).  In his Moderator Monday from December 15, GA Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow gave an update on the appointment process and said he hopes to have it finished up “by the end of the year.”  With the realities of the Christmas season I am not surprised that the announcement has not been made yet, but based on that goal I anticipate seeing announcements this coming week, maybe as early as Monday.  And Bruce’s comment that “not everyone is going to be happy with all the choices made” and for people to “trust the Spirit” has raised my curiosity about their composition.  Again, we await developments, maybe this week.

So my Christmas break is over.  As I promised myself before the holidays I did some blogging but did not get consumed in any major analysis pieces.  However, I’ve got a couple outlined and with breaking developments, and a slightly lightened work load with no teaching this quarter, I anticipate a resumption of my obsession with The Politics of Presbyterianism.  So Happy (Gregorian) New Year (as opposed to the liturgical one was a month ago) and hang on for the ride.