Blessed Sacrament Church in Placentia, California is an active and healthy Anglo-Catholic congregation in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Our membership of roughly 350 people includes many who have been in the parish for decades, as well as a considerable contingent of young families with children and dozens of college students from missionary and evangelical backgrounds. We have had about half a dozen vocations to ordination in the past four years, with two more currently in process. At the moment there are six priests (five of them part-time non-stipendiary) and one vocational deacon on staff. The theology of the parish is generally that of Forward in Faith or the American Anglican Council. Several people of decidedly different convictions are also active members. For us, holding to the revealed truth of the Gospel is an uncompromised principle, and unreserved love for all people is a standard. In these times of the hijacking of the Episcopal Church we have always rejected discouragement and defensiveness. On the contrary, rather than see ourselves as a place beleaguered, we are intentional about being a family where love, truth, joy, and light in Jesus prevail regardless of circumstances.
The Discernment Committee of Blessed Sacrament was formed well over two years ago. The Committee was comprised of about twenty volunteers. They were to be members of the parish who took the issues seriously but had not already decided what we ought to do. I charged the committee to make a recommendation for our future and provided several axioms for their work: they were to pray through their labors; all meetings were to be open; our Bishop, Jon Bruno, would be kept informed; only verified first-hand sources would be used; everything would be done in charity; no action that could involve lawsuits would be contemplated (since Scripture forbids that course); individuals representative of various convictions in the Episcopal Church would be invited to share in face-to-face discussions; and there would be no deadline.
In the course of the discernment, our Vestry met twice with Bishop Bruno, who offered us another bishop to serve as our pastor under the provision for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight. We accepted that offer, and the Bishop of Northern Indiana, Ed Little, began to serve us in that capacity about a year ago. Bishop Bruno also suggested that we redirect our Mission Share Fund to causes both he and the parish could wholeheartedly support, and we accepted that offer as well with the understanding that we would be given credit for paying our Mission Share Fund in full. Without going through the diocese we now support international missionary work, the scholarship fund at Nashotah House seminary, and local charities.
When the Discernment Committee drew near to the completion of its work, it had emerged that three courses were open to us: to remain in the Episcopal Church, to align with the emerging Anglican Church in North America, or to seek some sort of arrangement with the Roman Catholic Church. Most members of the parish were drawn to one of these three options. On the one hand, it was quite evident that no one of these three options appealed to the entire parish. On the other hand it was also quite evident that nearly all the people were determined to retain the unity of the parish family—that is, most wanted to remain at Blessed Sacrament. We had come to an impasse.
In December of 2008 I suggested to the parish in a sermon that we adopt a plan in which all three options could be followed to the benefit of all. Three general meetings of the parish this spring responded to that sermon and applied the Committee’s work into setting a direction.
We recognized that putting the decision to a vote would be disastrous. Voting assumes from the beginning that there must be a division with “winners” and “losers”. We rejected any decision in which there could be winners and losers. We determined that, rather than voting, our model for decision-making would be that of the New Testament—to come to the point where we could say, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). By that, we meant that we must come to a godly consensus in which everyone could say, “I can live with that.” With that commitment, clarity emerged. We believe that our decision may be unique in the cheerless and escalating stresses of these times.
The way forward came to look like this, although details still have to be worked out: most of our people will remain in the Episcopal Church under the DEPO arrangement. A significant number of others will remove themselves from the Episcopal Church and align with the emerging Anglican Church of North America but continue to connect—as Anglicans—with Blessed Sacrament. We are currently investigating several attractive ways of doing this that will strengthen all the faithful rather than weaken either group. A few people—perhaps fewer than a dozen—will enter the Roman Catholic Church (some have already done so) and receive sacramental ministrations there while also retaining their participation at Blessed Sacrament. When all three groups have settled in to who they are, the parish will deepen and expand its ministries, especially those of education, evangelism, fellowship, and outreach, to ensure that we remain bound together in spite of the different courses our people have chosen. All ministries will continue and be done jointly/ecumenically.
One Episcopalian from a local parish said to me recently, “I hear that you’re dividing your parish up into groups.” I responded, “No, it’s not that at all. We are intentionally not dividing. What we’re doing is diversifying.” We remain a single family with an expanded sense of membership. The canonical key to the success of this approach is the recognition that the property of a parish is in the exclusive hands of its Rector. If a Rector can permit groups not connected with the parish to use the facility for a number of reasons, then certainly he can allow a group of non-Episcopal Anglicans to use the facility for worship and ministry. And if that group worships at the same time as the “Episcopalians” and shares the same ministries, there is nothing whatever in the canons that forbids it—and nothing that can prevent it, either.
I have been clear that those who follow what we are calling The Stand Firm Option—remaining in the Episcopal Church—must refuse to appear as if they are merely “accommodating” to the apostasies of the Episcopal Church or are hesitant to “make a stand”. Rather, those in the parish who “stand firm” are bearing witness within an apostate body; they follow the example of Amos and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and other prophets whom God called to bear a witness of fidelity and challenge to a rebellious house. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 2:5).
I have also been clear that those who follow what we are calling The Anglican Option—leaving the Episcopal Church for the Anglican Church of North America—must refuse the choice merely to “quit”. From the earliest years of the tensions, I have consistently rejected the sadly common but always ill-fated rationale, “their heresy demands our schism”. Schism is not an answer to heresy; it is in fact one form of heresy itself, just as heresy is one form of schism. Those in the parish who follow the “Anglican option” are like those who “remove the dust from their feet” when they depart from those who refuse the Gospel. With those who are creating the Anglican Church of North America, they are building an ark for the faithful before the storm comes.
With such an understanding, both “stayers” and “leavers” bear effective testimony—“speaking the truth in love”. Both courses are clearly Biblical, and it is obvious (I hope) that God calls different people to different vocations so that his will overall may be achieved. Both courses require courage and conviction, and both work best when they work together.
The decision has not satisfied every member of the parish. A few have expressed their regretful intention to leave the parish toward the end of the summer. One can never please everyone; though I believe that the reasoning I have heard from those who are leaving the parish is seriously flawed, I do not know everything about how and when God speaks to people or what his complete will is for them, so I shall see that the partings are amicable.
There are a few individuals who are troubled or grieved by the course we have chosen, yet the time to choose had come. “Not to decide is to decide”—and not to decide is usually to decide poorly. I think that the great majority of our members are confident of a new beginning and a more solid parish than we have been, and I am hopeful that those who are not will find that their fears will not be realized. The influence of the General Convention Church has pretty much been stopped at the borders of Blessed Sacrament, except for those concerns brought inside by our own members. At the same time, such influence as we have goes forth and bears fruit. I am delighted that attendance at Blessed Sacrament is significantly up over last year at this time, the money’s not too bad, even during the summer, and the morale seems good. I am feeling quite positive personally.
One young member of the parish wrote to me in mid-June, “I was doing lectio one morning last week in the Ephesians 6 passage about the armor of God, and the part about spiritual forces of wickedness made me think about the spiritual wickedness at work behind the actions of the Episcopal Church, and how the current mess is a spiritual battle playing out. And I had this image of Blessed Sacrament, tiny amid the black clouds that were swirling about her, but bright and protected by a bubble that the darkness could not penetrate, standing firm against it as Paul exhorts us to do. And I felt this sense of calm, like I didn’t need to worry about the future of Blessed Sacrament because God was taking care of her. I know you've basically been saying this for years... but now I think I believe you :-)”
It was intensely gratifying to receive this message. It was, I think, at least in part, a sign that the strategy I had described in this post was bearing fruit. Discernment is rarely, if ever, easy, and there are many alluring but false paths that appear throughout the process that must be carefully weighed, identified, and rejected. Having avoided a number of pitfalls during our discernment process and come to a decision that I believe is Scriptural, godly, logical, and unassailable, after the way forward was set I was filled with an overwhelming calm.
In that place I was ready for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which met July 8-17 ten miles from us in Anaheim. (General Convention is the body that sets course and policy, etc. for the Episcopal Church. It meets every three years. It is the General Convention that has made so many decisions over the past few decades that have caused immeasurable harm to the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion.)
Our parish provided about ten or a dozen volunteers to work either at Convention or in one of the exhibits. I myself served seven shifts as a volunteer. One reason I wanted to volunteer was to acquire first-hand information. Although I didn’t witness any of the decision-making process, I read many of the proposals that were acted on, and participated in several “behind the scenes” discussions as I worked. I was also an usher for four of the Convention Eucharists.
At the end, I drew a few conclusions. On the positive side, I was impressed at the effective organization. The Convention was well run. I also met many friendly people. Some of the Eucharists I attended were, to my surprise, well done, and the preaching I heard was mostly good. One sermon in particular was excellent. It was full of Jesus and a traditional interpretation of Scripture.
The main purpose of the Convention, however—to make decisions and set policy for the Episcopal Church—was predictably disappointing. With many traditionalists no longer present, it was a foregone conclusion that the Convention would follow the same direction as the injudicious decisions it has made in previous decades. A new and significant insight began to come to me in one discussion I had with a group of volunteers; it came out that many of them had gone to very prestigious universities: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford, etc. Yet it was apparent that not one of them knew how to think critically, much less theologically. One priest even said, “Well, I’m not an expert in the Bible.”(!) (“Logic!” said the professor, half to himself. Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” —C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter five)
Even the official statistics provided in the Blue Book for the General Convention—the manual of information and business matters—show that the Episcopal Church at large continues to diminish in size, and those same statistics show that the primary reason for the waning of the Church is decisions the General Convention has made over the past thirty years and the resulting conflict in both congregations and dioceses. Further, the same statistics show that many faithful congregations and dioceses are thriving. Yet very few deputies or bishops seem to get the obvious lesson. The General Convention Church’s budgets are being cut; it continues its commitment to litigation against other Christians without accountability for the funds spent for the purpose; its “gospel” is reduced to incantatory “justice” issues and “building God’s
kingdom reign on earth”. What may be called “the General Convention Church” appears to be lurching into free fall.
At the risk of drawing a conclusion from anecdotal data, I surmised from the discussion I heard and (much more so) from the result of the votes, that the General Convention is so unaware of the realities of both world and Gospel that it has become pretty irrelevant and therefore powerless. I found it ironic that as soon as the revisionists had finally achieved nearly complete control over the decision-making process of General Convention, they lost power to affect or do much. Who really pays attention now to what decisions the General Convention of the Episcopal Church makes? Just about no one but the revisionists themselves. While admittedly some very good ministry is being done, generally the Episcopal Church is a faltering juggernaut of the liberal 1960s with traits of coming collapse: rapidly diminishing membership most of whose youngest members are about in their forties, and declaiming ideals that are increasingly ossifying. One deputy wondered if they were becoming the “fundamentalist left”; they are certainly no longer genuinely liberal. Only ruin awaits if they “stay the course”—and there is no sign that any other option is even envisioned, much less considered. [NOTE: For an excellent comment on this paragraph and my response to it, please see the second and third comments on this blogpost.]
It struck me that my remarks to the Convention of the Diocese of Los Angeles in 2006, about being prophetic to those who had claimed to be prophetic, were coming true. The Church that had touted itself in 1992 as being a Church of “no outcasts” has self-contradictorily engaged in “theological cleansing” of traditionalists to the point that its inherent fatal flaw has become obvious. While publicly proclaiming a commitment to “inclusivity” and “valuing a variety of views”, etc., the revisionists are put into a bind whenever that means actually making a decision in support of any traditional position. I.e., “inclusivity” as a party line in the “new Episcopal Church” is really an untenable position for them since, in fact, the General Convention Church is intolerant of traditional positions and therefore cannot be inclusive as they define inclusivity. To put it another way, those committed to a partisan position (i.e. “the General Convention Church”) in spite of a claim to be inclusive, etc. cannot really be generous, i.e. cannot live with anomaly and be true to their own partisanship. By cleansing themselves of traditionalists, they have put themselves into a position where they cannot survive except by repentance.
Orthodoxy, in sharp contrast, is truly generous and can live with anomaly as truth is being discerned. This means that only the orthodox can be truly liberal. Any attempt at liberalism without orthodoxy will fail in both. Whatever is true and loving will always remain. That’s why I named this blog JohnOneFive: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overpower it.”