‘Stand Firm’ Ungracious in ‘Defeat’ at Truro.

The Incomprehensible Surrender of Truro

It is difficult to overstate the depth of the failure represented by the settlement agreed to by Truro Church with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

It is a failure on three different and increasingly serious levels:

The first is the mundane and the practical, the world of dollars and cents.

Truro could have walked away from the property the moment the congregation realized that the game was over. They could have walked away, and found themselves a new campus. They could have made a fresh start.

Instead, they will stay in the building for another year, paying hard-earned money for the upkeep of the buildings, and during which visitations by ACNA Bishop John Guernsey are made purely at the pleasure of TEC Bishop Shannon Johnston.

Then they will leave, with nothing, and with a year’s worth of maintenance expenses down the drain, unavailable to them to support any expenses at their new facility.

The second failure is on the level of political intangibles: Morale – the effect this decision has on others fighting the same battles – and what political wonks call “optics” – how it looks to people who have been keeping up with it, and both lending support to it as well as drawing strength from it.

The goal of these legal battles is to keep your property. It’s that simple. Keeping one’s property is the goal of entering into litigation like this.

If keeping the buildings is not important, then don’t enter into litigation over property. Just walk away. Buy new buildings, and make sure that this time you have clear title to them, and that you don’t hand it over to anyone, ever, no matter how godly they may seem. People come and people go, so the good bishop you trust with your congregation’s property today, may well be succeeded by the venal charlatan you wouldn’t trust as far as you could throw him. People also change. And they lie. Just ask Matt Kennedy about the things bishops will say one day, and what they will swear they never said the next.

Yes, I know that the most important thing is the Gospel, not the buildings. I understand that buildings are just stone and wood and glass. We all like to tell ourselves this when we’ve just lost some wonderful buildings.

But buildings do matter. No, they’re not what Christians should consider the most important part of a church, far from it.

But they do matter, and where they matter the most is in those places where they best support the mission and ministry of the church. I am sure the parishioners of Truro can fill books with all the ways their buildings have supported their mission and ministry over the years. I suspect that Truro, over the whole history of its existence, takes second place to no one when it comes to using its buildings the way Christians were meant to use them.

So make no mistake: When Truro lost its buildings, it was a huge defeat. They will never recoup the financial cost of litigation, nor will they recoup the gigantic amounts of human and spiritual energy invested in it. And what was the statement they released explaining their agreement to the settlement with the Diocese of Virginia?

You can read the sad details here, but in a nutshell it’s not just a defeat, but complete capitulation. The congregation loses the buildings. Bishop Guernsey’s visits are made purely at the pleasure of Shannon Johnston. While the congregation may remain for another year, it alone will be saddled with the considerable cost of maintaining the buildings during that time. The TEC diocese waltzes into the facility next April, a gift from the good people of Truro.

Meanwhile, orthodox Anglicans from Pittsburgh to Fort Worth to San Joaquin are left wondering: What??? What’s the point of leaving – to say nothing of fighting – if you’re going to be so pleased with losing?

The third failure is the deepest, and the most serious: It is the failure to make a courageous stand for the Gospel, in the form of letting a wolf into the fold. And not just being asleep or distracted while he slipped in – but knowingly, deliberately inviting him in. And not just into the local parish, but Baucum is “[opening] up relationships and ministry opportunities to him in the CofE.” Whether he means to or not, Baucum is endorsing Johnston’s false teachings by recommending him to other parts of the church.

To do what? Well, presumably to preach the same poisoned Gospel that compelled Truro to leave the Episcopal Church 6 years. But in fact, there’s “reconciliation” going on everywhere you look: According to Baucum, Johnston has allowed him to “minister in Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Virginia as DOK Chaplain and has encouraged my relationship with VTS and Dean Ian Markham, who has invited me to teach a missions course there.”

There’s no doubt, between Truro’s statement and Baucum’s sermon, that whatever differences there may have been between Truro and the Diocese of Virginia, they’re no longer enough to keep them from being partners in ministry, from inviting each other into their homes.

Which raises the question: Why did Truro leave in the first place?

It’s not as though the Diocese of Virginia has stopped pursuing the agenda that prompted Truro’s departure in the first place. If anything, it’s sped up. Bishop Johnston approved the blessing of a “covenant relationship” between two lesbians just a few days ago at St. Paul’s Memorial Church at the University of Virginia. If anything, Shannon Johnston is far more committed to the Episcopal Church’s “new thing” than Peter Lee ever was.

So again, the question: Why did Truro leave in the first place? It could have slapped Johnston’s back, and locked arms with the diocese in mission… and kept its buildings… and not wasted huge amounts of cash on legal expenses… had it simply stayed put.

It’s one thing to engage in a noble fight and lose, to walk away defeated but with your dignity and purpose intact. It is entirely another to engage in a noble fight and lose… and then hug your opponent afterward and say, in effect, that there was really no reason to fight in the first place.

This is what has happened at Truro, but why did it happen? Was it bad judgement born of fatigue? Was it the realization that the split was, on second thought, not such a good idea? Was it part of some sophisticated “master plan” the design of which we do not yet see?

There is nothing wrong with being civil to your opponent in cases like this, nothing wrong with being able to sit down and be polite with each other, to hammer out the details of a settlement as gentlemen. I’m acquainted with Bishop Johnston – he was a priest in the Diocese of Mississippi for years; I interviewed him at our annual diocesan convention shortly after his election as bishop, and asked him specifically how he proposed to handle the property litigation in Virginia. Johnston is a genial man: Soft-spoken and very pastoral in the way most people like their priests to be. So I understand how easy it is to feel at ease around him, and to want to extend one’s warmth and friendship.

But either Shannon Johnston is a false teacher, preaching and promoting a sinful and harmful version of the Gospel; or he is not.

If he is, then there is no justification for the ecclesial comity Truro has agreed to with the Diocese of Virginia – and certainly not under the aegis of Mark 2. The right thing to do is to continue to call out Johnston and TEC as false teachers, to preach and teach against their false Gospel. Speak the truth in love, yes, but by all means speak the truth. Do not make friends of the lie, which is exactly what this proposed “covenant of mutual charity and respect” between Truro and the diocese does.

But if he’s not a false teacher, then neither was Peter Lee before him, and Truro’s leaving was nothing less than an act of schism. In that case, the only right thing to do is repent, and seek full reconciliation with the Diocese of Virginia.

The one course of action that makes no sense at all, is precisely the one the leadership of Truro has chosen: Splitting from a heretical church with which, it turns out, they’re happy to partner on mission and ministry, and handing over their home to them for the privilege of doing it.

__________________________________________________________________

This spiteful outbreak – from ‘Stand Form’, the conservative quasi-Anglican dissident organisation which had hoped for the complete separation of  its followers from TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada – should not be too surprising.

In a situation where Truro Church had been ordered by the courts to return the property of TEC to its rightful owners; it would appear that the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has made an accord with the leader of the breakaway faction, allowing them to retain use of Truro church and buildings, rent-free, for another year.

This agreement was entered into by both parties in a Christian spirit of a desire for reconciliation, even though the odds had been against the Truro congregation (that had left TEC) retaining any further use of the property.

It appears that the willingness of the departing congregation, and its leader, Fr. Baucum, to accept this offer of hospitality from TEC Bishop Johnston, has displeased the ‘Stand Firm’ sodality, which believes that, on principle, the former Truro  parishioners – who had moved away from TEC – should have shaken off the dust from their feet and walked away – without accepting the proffered use of the Church and buildings for another year without payment.

However, Fr. Baucum and his followers have gladly accepted the offer, and are pleased with the graciousness of Bishop Johnson and the Episcopal Church in the difficult circumstances in which they had found themselves. This accommodation will allow the departing parishioners adequate time to make  arrangements for the future, without the added strain of having to move immediately – which the Courts had requested (and authorised) in the summary judgement.

It is to be hoped that the pride and hubris of ‘Stand Firm’ may not be sufficient to  inhibit any further acts of generosity by TEC towards its former members who have chosen to walk apart.

“Where Charity and Love are – there is God”

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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