Executive Council gets update on reorganization of San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy

Episcopal News Service -- Stockton, California. January 31, 2009 [013109-01]

Mary Frances Schjonberg

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and her staff have attempted to aid the four dioceses in which the leadership and a majority of members have left the church with a combination of "guidance, support and pastoral care."

So says an eight-and-a-half page memo Jefferts Schori gave the Executive Council during its winter meeting here. The memo was written by Mary Kostel, the recently appointed special counsel to the Presiding Bishop for property litigation and discipline. Kostel has worked closely with David Beers, who is chancellor to the Presiding Bishop.

While the situations in San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and Quincy are all different, there are similarities in their experiences and in the way Jefferts Schori has worked with them, Kostel wrote. Those efforts usually begin with the Presiding Bishop encouraging the formation of a steering committee of Episcopalians from across the diocese who are committed to remaining in the church "and who represent a broad spectrum of views in the diocese on issues such as human sexuality and the ordination of women."

Jefferts Schori's office "has offered extensive guidance to the steering committees on the necessary steps for the reorganization of the diocese," including the protection of diocesan assets.

Calling litigation over church assets "the biggest step," Kostel wrote that the first step taken is to notify financial institutions such as brokerage firms holding "significant diocesan funds" that the Episcopal Church believes the departing bishop and other leaders "have no claim to such funds." The institutions are warned that the church will hold them "accountable for any disposition of the funds to or by those persons." Kostel wrote that the "practical effect" of that communication has been that the institutions "have frozen or nearly frozen the diocesan accounts until a court can decide who is the rightful owner."

The memo said Jefferts Schori's role in litigation has varied in each diocese but "the approach has been the same: To craft a lawsuit that is trim and focused on the critical claims involving the ownership and possession of diocesan property, both real and personal, including records and objects of current and historical significance."

Kostel added that "allegations regarding the behavior of individuals are avoided." Her memo notes that the Presiding Bishop's office fields "numerous inquiries" about the protection of parish property and other issues. "These inquires have usually resulted from some sort of aggressive behavior by the former bishop regarding parish property," she wrote. "Her (the Presiding Bishop's) legal team has dealt with these concerns on a case-by-case basis, but typically has counseled in favor of forbearance from dramatic or inflammatory action, on the view that the disputes over parish property will ultimately be resolved in court … and although there may be temporary inconveniences if a congregation of loyal Episcopalians is forced to worship in a local home or school, for example, there is little to be gained from bitter fighting over the use of church buildings in the short run."

The steering committees serve both as a "single point of contact" for the Presiding Bishop's office and as the organizers of special meetings of diocesan conventions or synods to reorganize the diocese and its leadership. They have also worked with Jefferts Schori's office to "get information about the larger church flowing back to the diocese," the memo said.

"In the months and years leading up to the vote in each diocese to 'leave' the church, the atmosphere was one of factionalism and mistrust; this was usually combined with a near blackout of communication from the wider church, chiefly orchestrated by the bishop," Kostel wrote. "The primary, and in some cases only, voice heard in these dioceses has been that of the bishop, who in each diocese has promulgated a largely or entirely negative view of the larger church, and encouraged divisiveness among Episcopalians in the diocese over emotionally-charged issues."

The Presiding Bishop also begins to determine "what sort of episcopal oversight will ultimately be needed in the reorganized diocese" and who might provide that assistance. In San Joaquin, that work resulted in the remaining Episcopalians choosing retired Diocese of Northern California Bishop Jerry Lamb as their provisional bishop. In Pittsburgh, Diocese of Virginia Bishop Suffragan David Jones worked with the Standing Committee until it could name an assisting bishop, former Diocese of Western North Carolina Bishop Robert Johnson. In Fort Worth, a special convention on February 7 will consider appointing Diocese of Kentucky Bishop Edwin "Ted" Gulick as provisional bishop.

In addition, Kostel's memo said that many Episcopalians in the dioceses "have questions about the church's theology and mission" and others are "conflicted over their desire to stay in the church while remaining loyal to their bishop, while others struggle with the church's position on the protection of church assets.

"Each of these issues demands a pastoral response," Kostel wrote, explaining that the response begins with Jefferts Schori appointing a priest to provide "interim pastoral assistance." She also recently named former Diocese of Bethlehem Archdeacon Richard Cluett as "pastoral assistant to reorganizing dioceses."

Kostel's memo is silent on issues surrounding the Presiding Bishop's disciplinary actions involving the bishops in each diocese. Jefferts Schori deposed John-David Schofield of San Joaquin and Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh with the consent of the House of Bishops. Jefferts Schori declared that a written statement made by Jack Iker of Fort Worth constituted a voluntary renunciation of his orders. Keith Ackerman of Quincy abruptly announced his retirement days before the leadership of the diocese followed his urging and voted to leave the Episcopal Church.