|Chaplain's Corner |
By The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey, J.D.
Chief Operating and Development Officer, American Anglican Council
I'd like to share with you a letter from the Bishop and Diocesan Council of The Episcopal Church's (TEC) Diocese of the Rio Grande. But first, a little background so that you can appreciate the letter in all its fullness.
This time two years ago, approximately 80% of the parishioners of St. Mark's on-the-Mesa (TEC) left the parish and formed Christ the King Anglican, Albuquerque, NM (Anglican Church in North America). When those parishioners left the parish, the Diocese of the Rio Grande, and the Episcopal Church, they left everything. They left the property, building, endowments, bank accounts - even paperclips and pencils. They did so in good conscience, with generosity, and with love for those who in good conscience could not leave The Episcopal Church. Based on their reading of scripture, these parishioners did not want to fight over buildings and property in civil courts. Instead, they walked away and began a new life together as Anglican followers of Jesus Christ at Christ the King Anglican Church. Not only did the new parish draw former Episcopalians, but also Christians from other denominations who wanted to worship and serve at Christ the King Anglican.
Fast forward two years to August 31, 2011 (about three weeks ago). The congregation's rector, the Rev. Roger Weber, former priest at St. Mark's, received this letter from TEC Bishop Michael Vono of the Diocese of the Rio Grande:
August 31, 2011
Dear Father Weber,
RE: St. Mark's on the Mesa, Albuquerque
Fair Share Obligation, Third Quarter 2009
I pray that this finds you well in the Lord! Summer is always such a gift in the ministry, a time for reflection, refreshment and anticipation for the end of the liturgical year.
On July 12 of this year, the Diocesan Council had a meeting here a [sic] Diocesan House. At that time, a group from St. Mark's-on-the-Mesa, Albuquerque came before the Council to request forgiveness for their Fair Share obligation from the third quarter of 2009. As I am sure you are well aware, it was during this time that a good number of the clergy and congregation at St. Mark's-on-the-Mesa left to form a new congregation, leaving the remaining members with quite a financial and emotional burden to carry. What follows is the motion as it was amended and passed that afternoon.
Motion, that the -$25,000 Fair Share obligation for St. Mark's on-the-Mesa, Albuquerque for the third quarter of 2009 be forgiven. Moved and seconded to amend the motion by replacing it with the following: that the -$25,000 Fair Share obligation for St. Mark's-on-the-Mesa, Albuquerque for the third quarter of 2009 be adjusted to $5,000 and that the Diocesan Council write a pastoral letter to the leadership of Christ the King Anglican Church appealing to them to cover $20,000 of the original Fair Share obligation for St. Mark's on-the-Mesa, Albuquerque for the third quarter of 2009. The amendment passed. The amended motion passed.
As you can see, it was the decision of Council to hold St. Mark's-on-the-Mesa responsible for the entire Fair Share payment for the third quarter in 2009, requesting that the burden be split between the members that left and the members that stayed, dividing the responsibility roughly along the lines of how the congregation self-selected.
I would ask that you would prayerfully consider accepting the responsibility of paying the portion of the Fair Share that was required by the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande.
If you have any questions regarding this matter, please contact me here at Diocesan House, or in my absence, Mr. Fred Winter or Ms. Lisa Katz-Ricker,.
Your brother in Christ,
The Right Rev'd Michael L. Vono
IX Bishop, Diocese of the Rio Grande
cc: Ms. Debi Lester
Ms. Lisa Katz-Ricker, Business Manager
Mr. Fred Winter, Assistant Treasurer
The Rev'd Canon Kathleene McNellis
The Rev'd Canon Daniel Gutierrez
The Most Rev'd Robert Duncan
Now as a life-long student of the Bible, I searched in vain for some scriptural basis for this request. There is none. As someone familiar with the laws governing non-profits, I am not aware of any fiduciary duty Fr. Weber or the Board/Vestry of Christ the King Anglican would have to support an organization they left. In fact, would it not be a breach of their fiduciary duties to the new parish to support an organization they left? As a practicing attorney, I can't think of any legal principles that would support this request.
But just to be safe, I called my good friend, Shelby Sharpe, who has practiced non-profit law in this region for a while. I asked him to look at this letter and here is his reply (with his permission):
"In the 25 years that I have been involved in litigation involving religious bodies, I have never seen or heard of a request that those who leave a religious organization have any continuing financial obligations to support the organization they left. I know of no passage in the Bible or legal theory that supports the request made by The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande."
Seriously, I think this letter is significant for what it tells us about the state of mind among TEC leaders:
1. They have no shame.
The people who left St. Mark's-on-the-Mesa willingly surrendered their property. They literally turned the other cheek. In response, the Diocese of the Rio Grande basically said, "we have all your stuff now, but we think you owe us more."
2. They seem to think they have authority over Anglicans who have departed.
We are not very far from Wonderland and Alice who cried "Curiouser and curiouser!" Apparently, the Bishop and the Diocesan Council felt that their decision, memorialized in their minutes, was of at least sufficient moral authority to cite in the letter, to persuade Fr. Weber and the Anglicans of Christ the King to accept their "responsibility." Note to Bishop and Diocesan Council: it may come as a surprise to you, but Fr. Weber, the clergy and people who formed Christ the King Anglican have moved on. They are not coming back. They really meant what they said. And when the bishop addresses them as if he were the lord of the manor, the diocesan council his advisors, and these departed Anglicans as if they were permanently indentured serfs. . .it doesn't go over very well.
3. They don't seem to believe their own justification for suing Anglicans.
For years we have been hearing the mantra from TEC's legal team that "people can leave, but churches cannot." But now it turns out that TEC bishops and leaders don't actually believe their own justification for suing departing Anglicans! Even when people walk away for conscience sake, they are "indebted" for God-only-knows-what-and-how long to TEC. And never mind that supporting an organization they left is a violation of their conscience. These Anglicans are still obligated; it is "their responsibility."
To the Anglicans at Christ the King Albuquerque and to all the others who have faced veiled and unveiled intimidation from TEC: "You have joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property," (Heb 10:34) and you have come to a new place, "You have come to Mt. Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. . .to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." (Heb. 12:22-24). You have come to a global fellowship of Anglicans who really believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all. You have come to a fellowship of Anglicans who believe in the power of God's written word and the power of the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out - now and forever! Keep moving on, further up and further in. Enjoy your freedom in Christ!
Because nobody can tax it or take it away. Nobody.
Yours in Christ,
This letter is also available on the AAC's website.