I just returned from the second day of our diocesan convention, which this year featured the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. I was personally impressed with the Presiding Bishop, who preached a thought-provoking sermon about St. Teresa of Avila and answered questions with grace and humor. However, I was confirmed in my belief that her understanding of the Church is radically different from mine.
The most frustrating part of the afternoon question-and-answer period was her discussion of the issue of property fights between the denomination and parishes that wish to leave the Episcopal Church. She has been criticized for allegedly preventing such congregations from purchasing “their” property, preferring (where necessary) to deconsecrate the property and sell it for some other use. She was asked about a recent WSJ op-ed piece on the subject, and criticized it as “more fiction than non-fiction.” However, she affirmed that the Episcopal Church does not let property go without deconsecrating it.
The problem I see with this position is that it is proper only to someone claiming to speak for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is the Church as a whole that consecrates or deconsecrates. To suggest that fellow Christians cannot use consecrated property is to suggest that they are no longer part of the true Church.
As far as I could tell, the Presiding Bishop’s ecclesiology is one in which the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is made up of diverse, parallel organizations that both cooperate and (at times) compete with each other (she used the example of a healthy ecosystem in which there are many flourishing organisms). And yet, as her stance with regards to the Episcopal Church’s property shows, she winds up in practice speaking as if the Episcopal Church simply were the Church. If she really valued the presence of many competing “organisms,” why not let the departing parishes go, facilitate their purchase of the property they had been using, and celebrate the resulting diversity?
The basic problem here is that however much a denomination may claim to be only part of the universal Church, denominations don’t seem to be able to stop themselves from acting as if they were the Church. And I think the answer is to admit that a denomination is not even a Church in any theological sense.
There are local churches, gathered around a local bishop, and there is the Universal Church.
Everything in between is just administration.