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Via Media USA groups connect people, focus on mission

By Mary Frances Schjonberg


[Episcopal News Service]   When Christopher Wilkins thinks about healthy church communities, one metaphor he considers is that of a harp.

The individual strings "learn how to play themselves together to make harmony." If the harp is broken, the strings can't sing together.

There is dissonance in Episcopal dioceses whose leadership struggles with the Episcopal Church, Wilkins said. Those who don't agree or don't want to be part of that struggle feel isolated and filled with grief.

"A lot of the dynamics you see are grief dynamics. Part of that is an intense anger about having lost something valuable," said Wilkins, the facilitator of Via Media USA, a nationwide alliance of Episcopal laity and clergy formed in 2004 to offer a counterpoint to efforts to "realign" the Episcopal Church along more conservative lines.

There are Via Media USA-affiliated groups in the dioceses of Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Rhode Island, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, South Carolina, Southwest Florida, Springfield and Tennessee.

Wilkins is also the vice president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP), a Via Media USA affiliate. Joan R. Gundersen is PEP's president.

Pittsburgh has been a focus of efforts to "realign" the Episcopal Church. Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan is the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network (ACN). Formed in 2004, the ACN — also known as the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (NACDP) — is a group of diocesan leaders and congregations who oppose recent decisions made in the Episcopal Church, including the 2003 election of an openly gay priest as the diocesan bishop in New Hampshire. The ACN's website says that 10 of the Episcopal Church's 111 dioceses — Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, South Carolina and Springfield —have "ratified their affiliation" with the Network.

The Network concluded a two-day Annual Council meeting August 2 at Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

"What troubles us about how some of the Network folks who operated, is that they kind of exacerbate that tension in an effort to bring people onto their team to solve the problem they have then created for them by breaking their church," Wilkins said. "That's beyond the pale as far as I'm concerned. That's completely irresponsible ministerial behavior and not what the Church should allow."

One goal of Via Media USA's affiliates is to repair those fractures. "We've been trying to build bridges among the parishes that have said they are not a part of the Network, and in some of the places we think when push comes to shove, they're not going to leave the Episcopal Church," Gundersen said of PEP's work.

Both Gundersen and Wilkins, along with the Rev. Diane Shepard, a PEP board member, estimate that about a third of the Pittsburgh diocese does not agree with the stances taken by Duncan and the rest of the diocesan leadership.

It's a hard number to quantify but "I think the impression is out there that this is a puny little bunch and I don't think that's true," said Shepard, who recently left her position as rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.

The pastoral inclinations of many clergy make them not want to get engaged in a "fight" and they have seen that speaking out can lead to isolation, all three noted.

"Many of the priests, even though they may be pretty conservative, really don't want to be in a fight," Shepard said. "People who want to do ministry really don't want to be leading crusades."

Many lay members of the diocese face tensions, as well. Most want to trust their clergy and their bishop, Gundersen said. "Many of them would like to believe the best about the people that are their leaders."

Opposing the stance of a congregation's leadership can lead to some "painful choices," Wilkins said.

"There are all kinds of ways that people get hurt in those dynamics," he said. "They're all tragic because to preserve their own kind of faith and integrity, which is a good thing, they leave another good thing which is a community. The community just somehow vaporizes."

Sometimes, the congregation is the only Episcopal community in the area, and people's family stories of weddings, baptisms and funeral live inside the buildings.

"If you stop going, you've turned your back, literally, on your neighbors," Gundersen said. "So, there's all sorts of reasons why people will stick it out even when they're really feeling isolated within a parish, but we have  people driving [long distances] to find a parish where they can worship in peace and be nurtured and not find themselves upset by the sermon or announcements."

In addition, some people who think of themselves as traditional Episcopalians "are not interested in a kind of right-wing, kind of true-believer movement, and even though they might or might not be particularly interested in the gay issue, they want the Church to be the way they think of the Church as having been," said Shepard.

Part of that tradition, Shepard said, is the invitation of "come, let us think together."

"That's not out and, instead, we have this authoritarian, this-is-the-way-it-is kind of teaching," she said.

Gundersen said those who disagree with Pittsburgh's diocesan leadership have been called "non-Christians" and "pagan," and accused of being the ones to cause strife.

"We have never stopped taking communion with them. The parishes that have a PEP majority continue to pay our diocesan assessments. We continue to welcome the bishop. He is still officially the bishop of this diocese and we recognize that office," she said. "But there are people who won't have communion with us and who insist on calling us pagans and non-Christians. We don't think we're causing strife."

Wilkins worries that Network leaders are "proposing structural solutions for what I consider pastoral problems and they're creating more pastoral problems. They bind themselves closer together but in separation from everybody throughout the Episcopal Church."

And so, PEP and the other Via Media USA groups try to connect non-Network people and congregations with each other and plan for the future. Sometimes in the Pittsburgh diocese, Gundersen said, the efforts are as simple as sponsoring picnics and other social events, and conversation among parishes "trying to look for common ministry and common ground," Gundersen said.

The efforts also include providing educational resources that offer basic Episcopal history and perspective without being "indoctrinating," she said.

Gundersen said PEP in particular will be preparing to ask "pertinent and appropriate questions" about resolutions coming to Pittsburgh's November diocesan convention, especially the one withdrawing the diocese from Province III. 

"Part of what we'll have to do is to be geared up to try to convince people that this is a bad idea and to get to the parishes that are kind of out there on a fence, to see if we can at least put up a good resistance," she said.

(The General Convention assigns dioceses to provinces, with the consent of the dioceses. Article VII of the Church's Constitution provides for provinces and Title I Canon 9 says that the dioceses of the Church "shall be and are hereby united into Provinces." The canon goes on to list the membership of each of the Church's nine provinces.)

The opposition in Pittsburgh extends beyond PEP's structure. A group of nine parishes released a statement July 11 declaring their loyalty to the Episcopal Church and opposing the diocesan leadership. Shepard said the rectors and vestries of nine parishes, including St. Stephen's, wanted to make a statement that was rooted in the institutional structure of the Church.

Because PEP is lay-led and runs across parish lines, "they're able to take stronger stands than often a parish leader is able to take and that's their role. They're the head of the protest movement," she said.

Parishes sometimes have resources to bring to bear on other actions, Shepard said. For example, in 2003 St. Stephen's and a parishioner at another parish joined with Calvary Church of Pittsburgh in a lawsuit to preserve Calvary's property in the face of the diocese's "realignment" efforts. The suit was settled two years later in favor of Calvary and also allowed Pittsburgh parishes to refuse to be part of the Network.

Wilkins said the Via Media USA groups try to help parishes find ways to be involved if they are reluctant to be visible in their opposition to current diocesan leadership.

"What motivates them most of all is when we can help them focus on a more positive part of the Church's mission," he said, citing as an example having connected a large parish in a Network diocese with a struggling parish that he said was being ignored by the leadership.

"That really does have staying power as a strategy because that's going to be a continuing need in all the dioceses where we are," he said. "Somebody's going to have to make what is thriving in the Episcopal Church in these places continue to thrive and to help it grow in the future whatever happens. When there is something that people can do to make a positive difference, it feeds them and really is what we're called to do by the Great Commission."

Gundersen said she wishes PEP's resources could be used elsewhere.

"I think the thing that all of us in PEP quite agree on is that if we could have taken this energy and used it for outreach, if we could have taken the money that the church as a whole has spent to deal with these issues, and used that for the Millennium Development Goals, how much more wonderful a place would this be and how much more would we have been able to advance God's kingdom on earth," she said.

Wilkins said the Via Media USA groups are also concerned about the future of the Episcopal Church and while the work they do is expensive in many ways, they will continue to do it.

"Our people are very motivated to what they need to do and want to do to, as our mission statement says, preserve and protect the Episcopal Church as much as they can, focus it back on its mission and move forward as best we can," he said. "The future is the work of building the church, focusing on its mission and going forward no matter what those who don't want to be part of this Church choose to do."

People who feel isolated from like-minded Episcopalians can "find other people who are in the same boat," he said. "Put a website up with a blog if you want to – anything like that to help find people – and just start talking about what it is that's you're called to do in the Church, what it is that you're called to do in this particular denomination and in your own parish."

"The most important three words that we can say to people who are worried are: Be not afraid. We believe in a loving God who came into your world in a way you could see, hear, feel and touch, who died and rose for you to reconcile you to God's self and the rest of us to each other. We bear witness to that in the Church and, when we really think about it, everybody involved with this struggle wants to do that – I hope they do," he said. "If we focus on that, focus on our mission as the Church, we can go forward effectively and not burn our energy in a protracted struggle that hurts people and damages the world and the Church. 

"So, be not afraid. Know God is love and see where that leads you, and trust that, as the Bible promises, the truth will be known and will set you free."