Saturday, July 07, 2007

Anglican Schism--A Brave Act of Conscience? No, A Property Grab

If you're not an Episcopalian--or even if you are, but haven't been closely following the controversy over right-wing attempts to create a schism within the church--it can be dangerous to read the New York Times coverage of the ongoing story. For anyone not very familiar with the actual issues and events, the Times version of what is happening can be very misleading.

Consider, for example, today's story about Trinity Church in Bristol, Connecticut. It's one of the ultra-conservative parishes that objects to the ordination of homosexuals and is therefore trying to break away from the main body of the church. The leaders of Trinity Church have declared that they no longer recognize the authority of the Episcopal Church (their rector, Donald Helmandollar, has even said, "I'm ashamed to be an Episcopalian"). They now claim membership in a fledgling organization of extreme conservatives that calls itself the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

In response, the diocese of Connecticut has deposed Father Helmandollar and ordered the church's lay leaders (wardens and vestry) to return control of the church property to the diocese. However, officials of the diocese say they are still hoping to negotiate some kind of settlement, a claim that seems to be supported by the fact that a parish directory on the Episcopal Church's official website still lists Donald Hermandollar as the rector of the parish.

The leaders of Trinity Church are vowing defiance. Their lawyer, Howard M. Wood III, is quoted in the Times as saying that "any interference with the property rights of Trinity Church Society will be met with a claim of trespass."

At bottom, this is a battle over the legal title to church property--is it properly held by the individual parish or by the church as a whole? So far, courts have sided with the Episcopal Church, not with the right-wing dissidents. But based on today's article in the Times, you could easily get the impression that this is actually a story about the ruthless suppression of free speech by a church hierarchy that will not tolerate dissent.

The headline reads, "Parish Falls Out of Step, and Favor, With Diocese," as if the problem is that Trinity Church refuses to march in lockstep with the decreed wisdom of the diocese and therefore is being ostracized. And in the third paragraph, the article sums up the dispute like this:

Last month, Connecticut's Episcopal bishop, Andrew D. Smith, defrocked the Rev. Donald L. Helmandollar and ordered the congregation's lay leaders "to vacate the property of Trinity Church, Bristol, and release every claim on the assets of this parish by July 8, 2007." The parishioners had objected to the church's position regarding homosexuals in the clergy.

Now, hold on a minute. Episcopalians can "object to the church's position" on anything they like and never run afoul of diocesan authorities. Within the Episcopal Church we argue about doctrine and practice all the time. We're Americans, that is what we do. No one ever questions our right to do that, let alone asks us to vacate the church premises.

On the other hand, if a group of people want to leave the Episcopal Church (or any other denomination) and start their own church, they're perfectly free to do so. People do this all the time. They buy a building, hire a minister, hang a sign out front, and they're in business.

The real issue, of course, is that Trinity Church wants to abandon the Episcopal Church and take ownership of church property with them. Their right to claim the property is the issue the lawyers are wrestling over--not their right to "object to" church teaching, as the Times implies.

Imagine if Donald Helmandollar managed a local Wal-Mart and decided, for some reason good or bad, that he disagreed with certain policies of the parent company. Now imagine if Helmandollar were to announce, "I'm ashamed to work for Wal-Mart" and to declare that, henceforth, he would no longer be affiliated with Wal-Mart but instead would launch a new store chain (call it "Angl0-Mart"). And then imagine that Helmandollar claimed the store building, the merchandise, the parking lot, and all the equipment as Anglo-Mart property.

Is there any doubt that Wal-Mart would take umbrage (to put it mildly)? Would it be viewed as unduly harsh if Wal-Mart's lawyers sent a stern letter to Mr. Helmandollar ordering him to cease and desist? And would the Times portray the dispute as an issue of Helmandollar's freedom of conscience?

Maybe the Times has fallen prey to the temptation to portray a disagreement between a small handful of dissident parishes and a large, national church organization in simplistic, David-and-Goliath terms. It's an easy spin to put on the story. But it's factually wrong, and lends an air of heroic martyrdom to a collection of homophobes who deserve no such thing.

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