TO HEAL A DIOCESE OR NOT
In early February 2008 when the Presiding Bishop asked me to serve as a Co-Pastor in the Diocese of San Joaquin, I agreed to do so with two clear understandings. First, I was to have a key role with conservatives in the diocese, both to articulate their perspective and to create options for them other than leaving the Episcopal Church to join the Province of the Southern Cone. In the course of my work in the diocese from the beginning of February until the end of April, it became obvious to me that many conservatives, including most of the former Standing Committee, did not want to follow Bishop John-David Schofield to the Southern Cone. Hence, the characterization of Remain Episcopal as a “bunch of liberals in the diocese” was simply not true. My experience of Remain Episcopal was that it consisted of clergy and laity from across the theological and political perspective who were united by one goal: remaining faithful to their walk with Jesus Christ within the Episcopal Church.
At the same time, the American Anglican Council newsletter, Encompass, hailed Bishop Schofield as “making Anglican history.” From the AAC perspective the Diocese of San Joaquin’s departure from the Episcopal Church was the first giant step in a fundamental realignment of the Anglican Communion by establishing an alternate province of the Communion in the United States that would eventually receive recognition from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Schofield became the AAC’s “Sea Biscuit” going up against “War Admiral” consisting of the Presiding Bishop and the might of the national Episcopal Church. I have known Bishop Schofield for thirty years. He is a godly man who loves Jesus Christ and has sought to be a faithful shepherd both as a bishop and priest. It breaks my heart to see the way that he has been demonized by so many in the church. It broke my heart to see the House of Bishops vote in March to depose him. At the same time, I must say that his efforts to take the Diocese of San Joaquin out of the Episcopal Church were misguided and hurtful to many people, both clergy and laity, in the diocese. On my first visit to the diocese in February I discovered a whole fabric of broken relationships at every level and a history within the diocese of ostracizing moderate and liberal church members.
What I discovered was complex. On the one hand, there was the bishop and a core of conservative clergy who sincerely believe that the Episcopal Church under the current leadership is in error and leading the Episcopal Church into an apostate form of Christianity that is inconsistent with the heart of the Anglican tradition and the mainstream of the Anglican Communion. They were tired of feeling unheard by the leadership of the Episcopal Church and were convinced that it was beyond reformation. They believed that leaving and establishing an alternative province of the Communion was their only feasible option. They resented the accusation that they were schismatic, saying that militant liberals were firmly in control of the machinery of the Episcopal Church and were not seriously committed to a pluralistic and inclusive vision of the church. They fully expected the church hierarchy to come after them and to go for the jugular vein and were prepared to stand their ground. They were open to the possibility of reconciliation but defined that as “the parting of friends.” In their own hearts they had already left and there was no turning back. In general, they were cynical about any possibility of reconciliation and described 815’s version of reconciliation as “We won, you lost. You’ll come around to our way of thinking or get out. However, we won’t let you take the property with you.”
On the other hand, there were at least as many conservatives in the diocese who shared those same concerns but, for reasons of conscience, were choosing to live with the uncomfortable diversity within the Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, the voices of these conservatives were largely drowned out by the escalating nature of the conflict between the bishop and officials in the national church. Hence, it is not and never was a conservative vs. liberal conflict despite AAC’s efforts to put that spin on it.
There were also those regarded as moderates and liberals in the diocese who had faithfully endured the experience of being marginalized, not unlike the experience of many conservatives in liberal dioceses. As Canon Mark Hall constantly reminded us, “A liberal in San Joaquin is not the same as a liberal in Newark.”
My colleague, Canon Robert Moore from the Diocese of Olympia brought a very much needed healing touch to those who had been deeply wounded during the Schofield episcopacy. He was able to establish an immediate rapport with them and gain their trust in a way that came with much more difficulty in their relationship with me. Ironically, although Bob was a self professed liberal and I was a self professed conservative, we mostly agreed in our analysis of the conflict and our sense of what needed to occur.
I met with clergy, vestries, concerned laity, the leadership of Remain Episcopal and the former Standing Committee. I attempted to meet with a group of clergy who were committed to the Southern Cone, but Bishop Schofield prohibited that meeting. I was willing to meet with Bishop Schofield but was instructed to avoid such a meeting until after the Special Convention. My goals were twofold: First, put together as broad a coalition as possible of people willing to find some way to live together in the Episcopal Church. Second, conduct a faith-based reconciliation seminar and invite both those who were committed to remain in the Episcopal Church and those committed to leaving for the Southern Cone. Even if reconciliation meant “the parting of friends”, I believed that reconciled relationships benefited all Episcopalians in the San Joaquin Valley and their witness to the world. The Presiding Bishop and Bishop Jerry Lamb were willing to work with that approach.
Unfortunately, from the beginning of my involvement in the conflict the specter of litigation loomed in the background. Bishop Schofield, operating out of a win/lose paradigm, made the first move by seeking to change the title on Corp Sole. This was a significant aggressive move since Corp Sole held the title on 95 percent of the diocesan property, including most parishes and missions. From the beginning the church hierarchy assumed that litigation would be necessary to block Schofield’s efforts to take all the property with him. The subject of litigation was the source of more than one heated exchange I had with national church chancellor David Booth Beers. I explained my position that swift and broad litigation would guarantee the worst possible result in San Joaquin. I felt that litigation would so poison the atmosphere and relationships in the diocese that it would make any efforts at reconciliation next to impossible. That has proven to be the case.
I was in Israel working on a faith-based reconciliation project when the litigation began. I learned about it by email. I must confess that, although I was aware of the possibility of litigation from the beginning, when it actually happened, I felt a profound sense of sadness. The depositions of Bishops Schofield and Cox by the House of Bishops added to that sadness. I realized that the old paradigm of win/lose advocacy would prevail in San Joaquin and that my efforts at reconciliation would be mere window dressing. That brings me to the second reason that I accepted this assignment from the Presiding Bishop.
I agreed to serve out of a profound sense of call from the Lord, regardless of the outcome or any assumptions about my motives. Many of my conservative friends were convinced that I had “gone over to the dark side” by agreeing to accept this assignment from the Presiding Bishop. I received a large and diverse volume of email from around the country which ranged the whole spectrum. Some expressed gratitude that I offered my skills and experience as a reconciler and peacemaker to the highly volatile and complex conflict in the Diocese of San Joaquin. Others expressed anger at my ignoring the “godly admonition” of Bishop Schofield to “stay out of his diocese.” Still others questioned my sanity for intervening in a conflict that had all the characteristics of a lose/lose scenario.
Before I accepted the assignment I prayed and fasted, sought counsel from a number of my friends including several bishops and received the blessing of my wardens and vestry. In the end, I came to the conviction that this was God’s will for me and I surrendered my concern about the outcome or about people’s perceptions of my motives. I became involved because I saw for a fleeting moment the possibility for this conflict to be approached from a wholly new paradigm of faith-based reconciliation instead of the prevailing paradigm of win/lose advocacy. I dared to dream that God could be glorified by the Diocese of San Joaquin becoming a model of how the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion could deal with their deepest differences and continue to live together or to “part as friends.” But, it was not to be. Upon returning home from Israel I contacted Bishop Jerry Lamb and informed him that I was withdrawing my offer to conduct a faith-based reconciliation seminar in June. He was saddened by my decision. I understand this. I have great respect for Jerry Lamb and realize that he has taken on an extremely difficult assignment. I realized that my decision was not making his task any easier. Nevertheless, the decision to withdraw my offer came from a sense of conscience. The existing paradigm of win/lose advocacy currently being practiced by protagonists on both sides of the conflict has created a toxic environment in our church. In the end it really doesn’t matter who wins and who loses. Relationships are destroyed and Episcopalians live in a state of hostility toward each other.
What is needed in the Episcopal Church if we are to have any future as an institution is a paradigm shift from win/lose advocacy to faith-based reconciliation. Without it there does not exist a sustainable environment for living with our deepest differences. In September 2006 one of my colleagues and I went to see Katharine Jefferts Schori in Reno to talk about the subject of faith-based reconciliation. We all agreed that what was needed in the church was a paradigm shift, a change of culture, from win/lose advocacy to reconciliation. As I looked into the eyes of Katharine Jefferts Schori that day I believed in my heart that she sincerely wanted to create a reconciling spirit in the Episcopal Church that would find a respectful place for all of us. The experience in San Joaquin has given me pause. I believe that God was giving us a historic opportunity to approach our deepest differences from a wholly new paradigm of faith-based reconciliation and we let that opportunity slip from our grasp. Israeli leaders used to say of Yasser Arafat that “He never missed a chance to miss a chance.” Will that be our legacy?
The Reverend Canon Brian Cox is Rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California.