The highest ranking elected leader of the Episcopal Church USA spoke to the “continuing Episcopalian” congregation in Falls Church Sunday, making a presentation, taking questions and then preaching during the group’s weekly religious service.
Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, said the schism in the Episcopal Church has “awakened a sleeping giant” in the church. “The laity is being pushed into reaffirming its faith, reclaiming its own voice, and is focusing more on dynamic outreach and mission efforts,” she said, and while she admitted there is lots of anger, there is also “a lot of hope.”
The progressive denomination, which elevated the first openly-gay priest to standing as a bishop in 2003, provoking some congregations to leave, is keenly aware that it may have a special, revitalized role amid the new and young idealism that swept the nation in the 2008 presidential election.
Anderson, who hails from Michigan, told the News-Press that at the next General Convention of the denomination this summer, Marshall Ganz of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a top general orchestrating the Obama for President movement, will be a keynote speaker.
She spoke of more “collateral advantages” from the schism, including the revival of ecumenical partnerships and shared worship and social action efforts with Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterians.
Sunday’s meeting took place in the loft above the new fellowship hall at the Falls Church Presbyterian. It is located across the street from the historic Falls Church, where defectors from the Episcopal Church continue to occupy the site and deny access to the “continuing Episcopalians.”
Present Sunday were representatives from four area congregations of “continuing Episcopalians” who’ve been exiled from their church properties by the majority at their churches who defected from the mainstream denomination and realign as an arch-conservative “Council of Anglicans in North America.”
Members of the Falls Church “continuing Episcopalians,” all present Sunday, include Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, former Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Warren Pace and founding member of the Falls Church School Board Jesse Thackrey.
“You are incredible for what you’ve done” to remain a vibrant church, Anderson told the gathering.
Anderson confirmed that research on the “money trail” from rich and powerful right-wing foundations and individuals those that have promoted the conservative split within the Episcopalian and other mainstream denominations has provided a “fair and accurate look.”
She cited the work of Jim Naughton, public relations director of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C. and in Stephen Swecker’s book, “Hard Ball on Holy Ground” documenting the links, and noted, “There is nothing in their published research that is made up.”
She challenged the argument of those pro-schism conservatives that, for example, the Bible condemns homosexuality.
“It really comes down to a question of who has ownership of the truth,” she said. “Life is a journey is discerning the truth.”
In this case, she said, it goes to the question, “Who gets to pick out the things in the Bible to take literally?” She cited the many prohibitions in the Old Testament, and declared, “There is a lot of ambiguity in the Bible,” and questioned those who “claim to have a corner on the truth.”
“We have to ask, ‘Is this true for us in the lives that we live?’ We are on a journey in a canoe with others. We figure things out was we live our lives out. To say, ‘I know the truth!’ cuts off dialogue, and reflects being stuck in a mindset gripped by absolutes. The only certainty in the Bible is love.”
She said that “things are too litigious and testy right now” for cordial conversations or negotiations for shared property use between “continuing Episcopalians” and defectors. But she added that among the other “collateral advantages of the “recent unpleasantness” has been the ability to put the question of property in a proper perspective.
“There is a lot of emotion associated with a building, or a place, where maybe family members are buried, or where many meaningful things have happened,” she said. “But on the other hand, we must affirm that our real home place is with God. This situation has called us to look at that.”
The outcome of legal challenges on the property issue remains unresolved, although last week, California’s seven-member Supreme Court ruled that church property belongs to individual parishes only as long as they remain part of the bigger church.
That is the issue at the heart of the Virginia court actions involving the historic Falls Church and 10 other Virginia congregations, which will now go to the Virginia Supreme Court.