Frustration over Thwarted Mission Propelled AMiA's Murphy out of ECUSA

Episcopal News Service. January 26, 2001 [2001-16S]

Jan Nunley

(ENS) In an interview with three reporters, including ENS, conducted during the Anglican Mission in America's "Homecoming" Winter Conference in January, missionary bishop Chuck Murphy sketched his vision for AMiA and revealed some of the tensions that originally propelled him out of ECUSA.

Murphy, a cradle Episcopalian and the son, brother, and brother-in-law of Episcopal priests, sees AMiA as "an effective mission to reverse the trends of the last 30 years that have afflicted the Episcopal Church and the other mainline denominations," trends that in his view are characterized by crises of faith, leadership, and mission. "The crisis of faith is expressed in issues like Jack Spong's 12 Theses," a 1998 document in which the then-Newark diocesan bishop declared that "theism is dead." "The crisis of leadership is expressed in the inability of the top leadership, the bishops, to address these profound theological and organizational matters."

Murphy is convinced that "we have had confusion about the essentials: the person of Jesus Christ, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, whether we stand over the Scriptures in forming them or whether they stand over us in forming the church. If you don't have a clear faith, if you don't have a clear theology, if you don't have a clear message, you don't make a clear impact. And we've got ten years of the Decade of Evangelism to demonstrate that."

'Uniformity on essentials'

Murphy admitted that the AMiA will contain much of the same diversity as ECUSA, with evangelicals and charismatics rubbing shoulders with Anglo-Catholics, Calvinists, and even covenantal theonomists who believe Levitical law should override the U.S. Constitution. But he's not worried about it.

"We're going to have tremendous diversity in worship and liturgical styles, but we're going to have uniformity on the essentials of the faith, and basically the theology of the Prayer Book, 1662 , as far as its theology and basic format," he said, comparing AMiA's structure to that of General Motors. "Hey, all are united, from Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, now Saturn--they're all united under the basic framework of the values that drive the corporate life of General Motors. That's the unity over the essentials."

One essential on which there is not agreement is that of women priests and bishops, which AMiA's Forward in Faith supporters oppose. "We have agreed to a moratorium on any further women's ordinations until we have completed a serious study," Murphy reported. "John Rodgers is going to chair that effort for the Anglican Mission in America with his theological background. He's already come up with two thousand pages of reading that's going to be required, pro and con. And we have already determined that no one's going to have a vote unless they've done the homework.

"We may end up with a period of reception--you know, churches had to do that for a long time. We'll have heresies throughout history that we weren't sure whether they were heresies or not till a long period of time and we've had theological development that took a little time as well," said Murphy. He anticipates that the study will take only two years.

Murphy makes it clear that there will be no debates over homosexuality in the AMiA. Unlike women's ordination, he said, "the authority of Scripture is pretty clear on that particular issue."

Mission frustrated

But while press reports about the AMiA have concentrated on differences with ECUSA over sexuality and the authority of the Bible, a different motivation for Murphy's departure from the Episcopal Church emerged as he reflected on mission.

"In order to do mission in this country and remain Anglican, you inevitably push up against the constitution, canons, and structures of the ECUSA, and that's where there is the more political dimension of this work," he explained. "If we had not gone, transferred to another province, we would be subject to the structures and canons of the Episcopal Church, and those structures and canons would have, I'm certain, disciplined or in one way or another prevented this mission from being effective."

With evident frustration, Murphy referred to turf battles with other South Carolina Episcopal parishes over mission. "I actually tried to get a church planted here in this diocese ten years ago, in Myrtle Beach, because it's absolutely exploding. And we were prepared to fund it, raise the money, make it happen," he said. "It got bogged down in the structures and system of the South Carolina diocese, and it got bogged down simply because there were already two Episcopal churches in North Myrtle Beach, and they didn't want a third one."

Things will be different in the AMiA, Murphy said. "We've got non-geographical boundaries. In our AMiA, you're going to have episcopal oversight based around affinity, not geography," he declared.

Struggles over property

Nevertheless, Murphy clearly doesn't want to turn over the fruits of his 18 years in Pawleys Island--with its $8 million campus set amid oaks and Carolina pines draped with Spanish moss, its 66 acres of prime real estate abutting stately gated communities and golf courses with names like "Tradition" and "Heritage"--to the diocese of South Carolina. In September 2000, diocesan officials filed a notice at the Georgetown County Courthouse stating that the property of Episcopal parishes is held in trust for the diocese and the national Episcopal church. The notice, based on the text of a 1979 amendment to the church's constitution called the Dennis Canon, puts a legal "cloud" on All Saints' title to the property.

But Murphy claims All Saints, founded in 1767, has never been bound by those rules, and that the Dennis Canon was the result of a conspiracy "because they knew they were going to introduce unacceptable theological innovations, and there was the felt need to try to lay claim to a lot of property that had never been laid claim to in the past."

Parishioners filed suit last October to clear the title, saying that the parish predates the formation of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina. The diocese responded that the parish has been dormant several times since its founding. Murphy maintained that, in any event, diocesan trustees relinquished any right to All Saints in a 1902 agreement made at the time All Saints was incorporated, and he likened the diocese's action to a parish vestry voting to confiscate parishioners' personal property.

"You see, this beautiful campus has existed before there was a United States, and before there was an Episcopal Church," Murphy said heatedly when asked about the conflict. "I have appealed to Caesar. Paul did it, and I'll do it. I have appealed to Caesar, and we'll get that resolved." He emphasized that AMiA parishes will always hold title to their own property.

Not leaving--yet

Yet, though he is the parish's rector emeritus, he doesn't support bringing All Saints out of ECUSA and into the AMiA. "Every time it's been raised, and it has been raised on occasion in vestry and other leadership gatherings, questions of whether or not we should step out of the Diocese of South Carolina, I have resisted," he said. "I have said that I feel at this point that is not necessary... I would like to take it a step at a time."

Murphy has high hopes for the meeting of Anglican primates at Kanuga in March. "One of the things I think that is most essential is that the primates discover together how they might more effectively lead and discipline within a very vast and global communion," he said. "The questions that the ECUSA has challenged the larger communion with need to be addressed at the highest levels of the church. And I would love to see them develop the structures and the consensus to address those questions, because churches die from the top down."