Wednesday, September 12, 2007

From Bishop John Howe

From the September, 2007 Central Florida Episcopalian

Dear Diocesan Family,

At the end of this month the House of Bishops will hold its annual fall meeting in New Orleans. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and several members of the Primates’ Joint Standing Committee will be with us at the unanimous request of our Bishops. It is still theoretically possible there will be some surprises, but nearly every observer of the events of the past several years is convinced that a watershed moment is at hand.

In their meeting in primates' meeting">Dar es Salaam in February the Primates asked the American House of Bishops to clarify the decisions of last year’s General Convention, which, in turn were The Episcopal Church’s response to the recommendations of the 2004 Windsor Report and subsequent requests from the Primates themselves. More specifically, they asked our Bishops to give “unequivocal assurances” that we will not consent to the election of another noncelibate homosexual Bishop, and we will not authorize or permit any (more) “same-sex blessings.” And they set a deadline of September 30 for our response.

Nearly thirty of our Bishops – myself among them – have given the assurances requested, but a larger number than that have said they will never agree to these requests, and more than a third of the Bishops have yet to declare themselves. (Note: The Episcopal Church has never officially authorized the blessings, but some Bishops have done so in their own Dioceses.)

Everyone hopes that clarity and understanding will be improved on all sides when the Archbishop meets with us, but I know of no one who expects that at the end of the meeting the unequivocal assurances will have been given by the House as a whole.

Archbishop Williams will need to consult with the other Primates to consider and evaluate whatever responses we will have given them. The Archbishop has recently said he is “hopeful, but not optimistic” that the Anglican Communion will be able to stay together after that point.

What this will mean for parishes, Dioceses, and The Episcopal Church as a whole is not yet clear. There is, however, increasing talk among several of our Central Florida clergy about the possibility of their declaring their “separation from The Episcopal Church” and their seeking “realignment” with some other Province of the Anglican Communion. They would hope to take as many of their parishioners with them as possible, and they would try to retain the property belonging to those congregations.

If they decide to do this it will be extremely messy, difficult, and costly in every way imaginable.

Both the canons of The Episcopal Church and the state law of Florida stipulate that congregational properties are held “in trust” for the Diocese and the national Episcopal Church. This means that even if every single person in a given congregation wanted to leave they could not simply “take the property with them.”

(You may remember my discussion at our Convention last January of the Church of the New Covenant in Winter Springs, in which we had precisely that scenario, and CNC ended up purchasing the property from the Diocese at “fair market value,” without interest, over a period of 30 years. But that agreement only came after we determined the Diocese had no alternative use for the property.)

I believe that in virtually every one of our congregations, even those in which the desire to separate is widespread, there are many who do not wish to leave The Episcopal Church or the Diocese of Central Florida. If those who desire to remain can become a viable congregation, that congregation becomes the continuing body of that parish, with a claim upon the property.

So: I foresee an extremely difficult period ahead of us, in which congregations may be pulled apart, and arguments over property become horribly distracting and costly.

I am committed to being as gracious and generous as possible to those who, for conscience sake, believe they must separate. But I am pledged to stand alongside those who, for conscience sake, choose to remain, and I am committed to the rebuilding of congregations and this Diocese in the wake of any such departures.

Pray for the Church.

Love to every one of you,

John W. Howe

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