2021 in Review: The Episcopal Church

(TLC’s review of 2021 in the Anglican Communion will be published December 31)

By Kirk Petersen

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic once again was the dominant topic of TLC‘s coverage of the Episcopal Church in 2021. But the emphasis changed.

Pandemic coverage in 2020 reflected a gradual realization that coronavirus was going to affect nearly every aspect of church and society. In 2021, the focus shifted to the practical implications of making adjustments for the long haul.

Photo by Annika Gordon, Unsplash

Correspondent Neva Rae Fox covered that beat like a glove throughout the year. Her “Creative Ideas for a COVID Ash Wednesday” was by far the most-viewed article of the year, receiving more than 80 percent higher traffic than the runner-up article. (You’ll have to keep reading to learn the runner-up.)

Fox drew on dozens of interviews from across the country to take a deep dive into the practice of combining online and in-person worship. Her three-part series on the “hybrid church” focused on describing the phenomenon; on presenting such worship effectively; and on whether there is a post-pandemic future for hybrid worship.

She described the “COVID Burial Project,” in which a group of Manhattan churches helped find final resting places for unidentified victims whose bodies were being stored in refrigerated trucks and other temporary morgues. Other articles covered the effects of the pandemic on clergy retirements; on prison ministry; and on the development of online walkabouts for bishop elections.

In April, a different author asked a question that now seems poignant: “As pandemic restrictions show signs of easing, is it time to start thinking about scheduling that trip to the Holy Land, or a pilgrimage to Anglican cathedrals and abbeys?” Religious travel agencies said 2021 was a lost cause, but shared their hopes about pent-up demand for 2022. When the article was published, the delta variant had not officially been named, and most people had never heard of an “omicron.”

Executive Council voted to make grants of up to $40,000 to each diocese of the church, after the Church Center ended 2020 with a $10 million surplus. An even larger surplus looms for 2021, driven largely by sharply reduced travel costs. The council will decide what to do with the $16 million cushion in January.

Average Sunday attendance (ASA), long considered the gold standard of measuring the size of a church, will never be the same.

As the omicron variant surged in late December, the Washington National Cathedral canceled in-person Christmas services.

Racial Issues

Reuben E. Brigety II

A racist incident at Sewanee: The University of the South in March provided an uncomfortable reminder that “the Episcopal Church owns and governs the only university in America that was created for the explicit purpose of perpetuating slavery.” Reuben E. Brigety II, the first Black vice chancellor and president of the university, said his campus home had been repeatedly vandalized. Brigety abruptly resigned at the beginning of December after 18 months on the job, saying that he might be named ambassador to South Africa. No nomination has been announced.

The 72-page report of the Racial Justice Audit of Episcopal Leadership, commissioned by the 2018 General Convention, found nine “dominant patterns of systemic racism.” This led Executive Council to call for developing “a plan and pathway for a process of truth and reconciliation in The Episcopal Church.” A task force will present recommendations to the 2022 General Convention.

Diocese of Albany

Bishop William H. Love’s tenure at the last domestic diocese to forbid same-sex marriage rites came to an end. His resignation as Bishop of Albany — announced in late 2020 — took effect on February 1, 2021. On March 30, he was released at his request from ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. On April 4, he was named an assisting bishop of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

Love now serves in the non-geographic Anglican Diocese of the Living Word, which earlier took active measures to recruit Albany clergy who were dismayed by Love’s departure.  (The same article also described efforts by ACNA’s Diocese of Fort Worth to expand into the geographic footprint of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.)

Bishops Gallagher and Smith

Albany called a conservative bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith, to perform episcopal duties in the diocese, leaving the Standing Committee as the ecclesiastical authority during the search for the next Bishop of Albany. In a tense annual convention in October, the diocese postponed action on revising its unenforceable canons prohibiting same-sex marriage rites.

Ending the year on an upbeat note, the diocese announced in December that a long-time friend of Smith would join him in fostering “communion across differences” in Albany.  The Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher was an assisting bishop in North Dakota when Smith was bishop diocesan there, and they share a Native American heritage. Most importantly, they have agreed to disagree on same-sex marriage, and she will provide limited episcopal oversight for any Albany priest seeking to perform such a marriage.

Property Litigation

Of the five dioceses where conservative bishops led a majority of their clergy and parishes out of the Episcopal Church early this century, significant conflict continues in only two.

Unsplash

In South Carolina, parties affiliated with ACNA and parties affiliated with the Episcopal Church (TEC) have been litigating for nearly a decade over half a billion dollars worth of church property. Back-and-forth rulings have left both sides, at separate times, with a reasonable belief they had prevailed. The state Supreme Court heard the case for a second time in December, and in oral arguments the chief justice forcefully and repeatedly rejected key elements of the TEC case. The court gave no indication of when it would rule. In the previous round, nearly two years passed between oral arguments and the confusing welter of opinions issued in 2017.

In Fort Worth, two entities that both called themselves the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth had been litigating over $100 million in property for 12 years. They got a final decision on ownership in February, when the United States Supreme Court refused without comment to hear the case. That left in place a Texas Supreme Court ruling that the property and the name both belong to the ACNA-affiliated diocese.

That meant that five congregations from the TEC-affiliated diocese had to vacate the buildings where they worshipped — and that process turned ugly. One of the churches stripped the nave bare before handing over the keys, removing even the pews. Another church disassembled its high altar and removed every part of it that was removable, including the crucifix and statues of saints. Many of the items were subsequently returned under court order. The TEC-affiliated diocese renamed itself the Episcopal Church in North Texas.

In a mediated settlement later in the year, TEC paid $4.5 million in legal fees and expenses to the ACNA diocese.

Sexuality

The runner-up article for web traffic in 2021 was “Sexuality Conflict Roils ACNA” in February. The conflict stemmed from a “Dear Gay Anglicans” open letter posted briefly online by Pieter Valk, a celibate gay man in Nashville who aspires to ordination as an ACNA deacon. The letter pushed back against a 3,700-word pastoral statement from ACNA bishops that argued against using the term “gay Christian,” instead preferring “Christians who experience same-sex attraction.”

Valk’s letter was signed by a dozen ACNA priests and a bishop, which quickly sparked negative feedback from Anglican Communion provinces in Africa that affiliate with ACNA. That in turn led to an angry middle-of-the-night missive from ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach. The message said “Some individuals have expressed that we are now TEC 2.0. Some think this is going to break the ACNA apart.”  Beach wrote, “if you are one of the clergy who signed on to this, I expect you to send me an email explaining why you signed a letter and beginning a private, non-punitive, conversation with me about your concerns.”

Days later, Archbishop of Nigeria Henry C. Ndukuba issued a scathing letter saying “The deadly ‘virus’ of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA.”

B012 in action in Dallas | Richard Hill

Back in the Episcopal Church, an October article examined “The B012 Compromise, Three Years On.” If you’ve just joined us, B012 is a resolution passed by the 2018 General Convention, mandating that diocesan bishops who oppose same-sex marriage arrange for another bishop to provide episcopal oversight for churches wishing to perform such marriages. Based on dozens of interviews over several months, the article examined the very different paths the eight affected dioceses have taken toward implementing the resolution — or refusing to implement it, in the case of Bishop Love. The article burrowed into the canons and the language of the resolution to explain how some bishops have concluded B012 does not apply to mission-status congregations — a position sharply rejected by some same-sex marriage supporters.

Bishop Whayne Hougland resigned as leader of the Dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, as he neared the end of a one-year suspension after admitting an extra-marital affair.

ACNA Bishop Stewart Ruch III took a leave of absence after he admitted mishandling allegations of sexual abuse at a church in the Diocese of the Upper Midwest.

Bishop Transitions

Nine diocesan bishops were elected in 2021 (or in December 2020, in the case of Chicago), in Central Ecuador, Chicago, Iowa, Nevada, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Springfield, Upper South Carolina, and West Virginia. We wish grace and peace to all of them in equal measure, but we’ll speak further of only two.

Presiding Bishop Curry, Bishop-Elect Clark | Video capture

The Rev. Paula Clark suffered a stroke on April 10, two weeks before she was scheduled to be consecrated as the XIII Bishop of Chicago. Five days later she had successful brain surgery to remove a rare arteriovenous malformation — an abnormal tangle of blood vessels.  She made good progress in her recovery, and the consecration was tentatively rescheduled for August 28. But in July, Clark and Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry addressed the diocese in a streaming video to say the consecration would be postponed indefinitely, and an assisting bishop would be hired in the meantime. “As you can hear from me right now,” the bishop-elect said in a strong but halting voice, she had not yet recovered sufficiently to work full-time.

Then her husband, Andrew McLean, died on November 22. “During this difficult time, Paula is being well cared for by her family and a large and supportive network of friends in Washington D.C.,” said Assisting Bishop Chilton Knudson, in a December 15 message co-signed by the head of the Standing Committee. “She has also continued to focus diligently on her recovery. As Paula said last month in her message to our diocesan convention, she is completing her outpatient speech, physical and occupational therapies at the Washington National Rehabilitation Hospital, and eagerly awaits her return to Chicago once her formal therapy is completed.”

On a much lighter note, the Rev. Matthew Cowden was elected the VIII Bishop of West Virginia, making him the third person to be fitted for a miter after serving at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in South Bend, Indiana. The church had a pre-pandemic average Sunday attendance of about 100, making it the fourth-largest church in the Diocese of Northern Indiana.

Bishop Spong

Eight retired bishops ended their earthly journey in 2021, including the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the VII Bishop of Newark, whose iconoclastic episcopacy attracted passionate followers and detractors throughout the church.

The first bishop of East Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. William Ever Sanders, passed away four days after the first bishop of West Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. Alex Dickson.  At age 101, Sanders was the senior member of the House of Bishops, and previously served as the VIII Bishop of Tennessee. The east and west sections of the horizontal Diocese of Tennessee were calved off in the 1980s.

The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno died suddenly in April, two years after the Court of Review for Bishops upheld his three-year suspension from ordained ministry because of his actions in a long-running dispute with a church in his Diocese of Los Angeles. His successor praised Bruno for his commitment to multicultural and polylingual ministry, his advocacy of inclusion for LGBTQ people, and for co-founding Seeds of Hope, a thriving food ministry.

Also now resting in peace:

Random Stuff

Geeking out with diocesan compensation data

Puerto Rico is leaving Spanish-speaking Province IX to join Province II, the New York-New Jersey province that already includes the dioceses of Haiti, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, and the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.

Potential candidates for president of the House of Deputies must apply by March 8. It’s an open race, because the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings is term-limited.

The three Wisconsin dioceses are serious about reunification.

In “Geeking Out With CPG’s Compensation Report,” we learn there are 14 domestic dioceses where the median compensation for female clergy is higher than for male clergy. The article includes other tidbits, and suggestions for further exploration.

All of us at TLC pray that you and those you love will have a happy and healthy 2022.

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