A liberal Episcopal group is crafting a strategy to disenfranchise about 16 conservative bishops if the denomination’s pivotal General Convention next year in Columbus, Ohio, results in a church split.
Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property.
The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.
“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes.
Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.
In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.
The memo assumes that the Episcopal Church will refuse to renounce its 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the denomination’s first openly homosexual bishop, an action many archbishops in the 70-million-member Anglican Communion have urged it to do.
If the 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church votes to uphold Bishop Robinson’s consecration, conservative bishops are widely expected to walk out. Sixteen of them are affiliated with two conservative groups — the American Anglican Communion (AAC) and the Anglican Communion Network.
“What will be our response the ‘Day After,’” the minutes ask, “when [conservative] bishops start announcing they are in a ‘new’ Anglican Communion and the Network is ‘recognized’ as the only legitimate expression of the Anglican Communion in North America?”
The AAC condemned Via Media by calling the minutes a “planned coup of biblically faithful dioceses.”
“If Via Media’s plans become a reality, every orthodox bishop and diocese will be ousted, leaving dioceses with rogue bishops and diocesan commissions,” its statement said.
Ms. Gundersen defended the group’s actions as merely preparing for a hypothetical situation.
“It’s like buying flood insurance,” she said. “You hope to high heaven you never have to use it.”
The steering committee that drafted the minutes acts as the board for Via Media, a group that has no office, no budget and no executive director, she said. It does have a Web site, at www.viamediausa.org.
Although not officially part of the Episcopal Church, Via Media’s activities have been covered in detail by Episcopal News Service.
Two observers from the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council attended its March 2004 founding meeting in Atlanta, Atlanta Bishop Neil Alexander preached at Via Media’s closing Eucharist, and presiding Bishop Frank Griswold sent a letter of greeting to the group.
Michael Battle, associate academic dean at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, spoke April 30 at Via Media’s Dallas chapter meeting.
The group has an impressive list of friendly bishop contacts, judging from a list posted in the minutes. One of those listed, Washington Bishop John Chane, has not been contacted by Via Media, according to a diocesan spokesman.
The group is most active in dioceses whose bishops have been critical of the Robinson consecration, such as Albany, N.Y.; Central Florida; Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and South Carolina.
“We are loyal Episcopalians,” said Ms. Gunderson, a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. “We have no secret meetings. We are concerned about the direction our dioceses are taking.”