- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

Unable to block the recent election of the first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop, conservatives in the Episcopal Church are threatening to try to bankrupt the denomination’s liberal leadership.

Although only Bishop Stephen Jecko of the Diocese of Florida has actually cut off funds to church headquarters in New York, several conservative dioceses are meeting in September to vote on whether to cut off substantial monthly contributions.

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson was confirmed at the Episcopal General Convention in Minneapolis as bishop of New Hampshire earlier this month by the votes of two assemblies — one composed of bishops, and the other of lay members and clergy.

Forty-three bishops voted against confirming Bishop Robinson, with 62 in favor. In the other house, the delegations from 32 dioceses voted against Bishop Robinson. Another 13 diocesan delegations were divided, and 63 voted for the cleric.

With a $48 million yearly budget at stake, not to mention billions worth of assets and church property, dissenting dioceses could do serious damage if they all withheld funds.

The Florida diocese, which is based in Jacksonville, is diverting its $16,562 monthly assessment — beginning with its July payment — into an escrow account for an indefinite time.

Bishop Jecko said he “will not remain silent when the General Convention has repudiated the plain teaching of Scripture.”

The selection of Bishop Robinson put Episcopalians in such bad repute in north Florida, he added, that even officials at a local prison resisted allowing church members in to minister to inmates.

Adding fuel to the fire, Episcopal bishops and deputies also passed a resolution at the General Convention allowing each diocese to decide whether to conduct same-sex “blessings.”

A conservative Episcopal Web site, www.CommunionParishes.org, has posted “a plan for withholding funds” that could apply to other dioceses, especially those whose lay delegates voted against Bishop Robinson.

As for the online petition, 52 congregations in 20 states, 320 priests and 16 bishops have so far endorsed it. The Rev. Don Armstrong, rector of 2,300-member Grace and St. Stephen’s Church in Colorado Springs, which operates the CommunionParishes site, estimates conservative parishes make up one-third of the denomination’s 7,364 churches.

“They have more money and are larger and probably represent 70 percent of the church’s income,” he said. “In terms of cash flow, the Episcopal Church is going to lose 70 percent of its income.

“[Liberal] bishops think we conservatives will get over all this, but most conservative rectors [senior pastors] I know have foregone their vacations this summer and are working against this. We are calling for the discipline of liberal American bishops, and we are going to withhold funds big time.”

His church, for instance, is cutting its $100,000 annual assessment to $15,000, starting next year.

Withholding funds in order to change church policy is a recent phenomenon in the 70-million-member Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is one part. When the Rev. Jeffrey Johns was appointed this spring to be the next bishop of Reading, England, threats from evangelical Anglicans to withhold millions of pounds from church coffers is believed to have induced Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to talk Mr. Johns into giving up his position.

“Criticism will be that one should not use money to influence church policy but simply trust ecclesiastical leadership,” retired South Carolina Episcopal Bishop Fitzsimons Allison wrote in an Aug. 12 letter distributed on Episcopal e-mail lists.

“To ask people to put their treasure where their heart is and use that treasure to do precisely what givers believe to be unbiblical and un-Christian is immoral,” he wrote.

But Tom Hershkowitz, comptroller for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society — the corporate name for the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church — says many conservatives will have to opt out to make a dent in church finances.

About 60 percent of the church’s $48 million annual budget comes from 100 dioceses, he said, and the rest comes from endowment income, government grants and sales of church publications.

“If one diocese withholds, it doesn’t have that much impact,” he said. “It’s not something we are happy about, but at the end of the day, it won’t make a big difference.”

Presently, about one-third — 38 — of Episcopal dioceses are giving less than the 21 percent assessment mandated by the church, causing a $4.7 annual shortfall in funds. Some of the dioceses are too poor to afford giving away one-fifth of their budget; others, such as the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, are holding back money over disagreements with the church’s liberal leaders.

Thus, instead of the annual $300,000 assessment that Fort Worth has been asked to donate to church coffers, it is donating $80,000 per year instead.

Like many dioceses, Fort Worth allows individuals and parishes to redirect funds away from the national church into local or mission funds. The $80,000 represents those who wish to contribute to the national church budget.

Other conservative dioceses that have cut back include the Diocese of Central Florida, based in Orlando, which only gives 12 percent of its assessment, and the Diocese of Texas, based in Houston, which gives only 8 percent.

Dioceses are independent entities whose annual giving in 2001 ranged from $3.7 million from the Diocese of Virginia to $266,514 from the Diocese of Quincy, Ill.

But individual parishes can make a dent in diocesan giving. At an Aug. 10 congregational meeting at the second-largest parish in the Diocese of Virginia, Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, 504 members signed a “a statement of disassociation” with the actions of the General Convention.

Immediately afterwards, its vestry — or governing board — voted to put in escrow its $11,250 monthly payment to the diocese.

Since dioceses cannot be forced to give their 21 percent assessment to the denomination, pressure has to be put on bishops to comply, Mr. Hershkowitz said. Nineteen dioceses have actually increased their giving in the past three years, he added, to bring to 62 the number of dioceses that are paying their assessments.

This is roughly the same number of dioceses that approved Bishop Robinson’s election.

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