Church Wrestles with Implications of Attempts to Appropriate Church's Name by Conservatives

Episcopal News Service. January 15, 1998 [98-2065]

(ENS) The creation of a new organization for "orthodox Episcopalians" who say they are dedicated to "upholding and propagating the historic faith" has added a new facet to the continuing struggle between conservatives and liberals in the Episcopal Church.

A self-described "loose affiliation" of bishops, clergy and lay people known as Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Incorporated (PECUSA, Inc.) in mid-December began soliciting funds and membership in the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

When now-retired Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning became aware of the group, he challenged their actions and warned bishops of the church that PECUSA, Inc.'s efforts were "an unauthorized and misleading effort" which "violates the church's right and need to protect its name from misleading and unfair use."

A series of letters, conversations, accusations, counter-charges, and press statements were exchanged during the holidays as Browning ended his 12-year tenure and prepared to turn over authority to Bishop Frank Tracy Griswold of Chicago, who became the 25th presiding bishop on January 1.

The controversy, which cast a shadow over Browning's departure, continued into the new year with some glimmers of reconciliation.

Open door, pastoral approach

Griswold, in his first press conference as presiding bishop the day before his investiture on January 10, reaffirmed that he will be a bishop whose "heart must be open" and that "a bishop's door must be open to everyone, absolutely everyone."

"My sense is that I'm ready for conversation," Griswold said. "All one can do is to open the door and say, 'Please come in, sit down and let's talk.' I certainly intend to do that.

"I think on the other hand...they can choose not to come in and talk, there's no way you can compel them to do so," Griswold said. "The door is open and I do hope some of those who feel alienated and devalued in the life of the church will find a way to sit down and possibly together we can find a new way to live in communion with one another."

Among the first to ask for that opportunity is Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire (Wisconsin), founder of PECUSA, Inc. Griswold said he would honor Wantland's request for a meeting. "I look forward to that conversation. That's obviously where I will begin."

Wantland, who did not attend the investiture in Washington, said in a telephone interview that he, too, was willing to meet. "Frank does like to listen, and he likes to come to resolution on issues," Wantland said. "I would hope we can work together to avoid further damaging the church."

Founded in 1996

According to documents filed with the State of Wisconsin, Wantland chartered PECUSA, Inc. in August 1996. Joining Wantland as co-founders were Canon Lawrence Rowe of All Saints Church, Altoona, Wisconsin, and Eunice Muenzberg of Eau Claire. Incorporating documents listed Wantland as president, Bishop John Howe of Central Florida as vice president, and Bishop John-David Schofield of San Joaquin (California) as a director.

Both Howe and Schofield have since resigned from the organization.

In a letter to his clergy announcing his resignation from PECUSA, Inc., Howe wrote that he had been approached by Wantland "about a year and a half ago" suggesting "there might be a way of creating a structure within the church that would preserve its faithfulness to the scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer, and the faith we have received. It would not be a matter of creating a new organization, but simply be incorporating who we are..."

"Bishop Wantland's thought was that if at some point the General Convention should take actions that were truly unacceptable, actions that represented a departure from 'the faith once entrusted to the saints,' there would be a kind of safety zone within the church where orthodox believers could remain. ...I agreed to be a part of that effort and to put my name on the board of trustees. "

Saying "it was never our intention" to create confusion or engage in misleading and unfair use, Howe wrote, "I initially thought this was a prudent, protective step to take, but now I fear it will be the occasion for a contentious struggle."

Other church leaders also distanced themselves. Bishop James Stanton of Dallas -- whose name appeared on at least one of the documents registering PECUSA, Inc. in 45 states -- said in a statement in early January, "I was not in any way involved in organizing or registering PECUSA, Inc. When Bishop Wantland informed me that I had been elected (in my absence) as vice president, I informed him that I would not be part of that effort. It was not a project I was interested in or wanted to be a part of. I was assured that my name would be removed and that another election would be held for vice president. That, for me, was the end of the matter."

Legal issues considered

Members of the church's Executive Council attending Griswold's investiture were briefed about PECUSA, Inc. by Washington attorney David Beers, who served as Browning's chancellor and will continue to serve Griswold.

Beers told council members that "there is nothing unusual or untoward about the church's legal structure" because of PECUSA, Inc.'s incorporation and that the Episcopal Church's "rights are fully protected by law."

Beers also said that "there is nothing Wantland has done that threatens the church's structure or rights." Noting that "they cannot be forced to stop using our name," he added that PECUSA Inc.'s formation "does not have considerable legal significance."

The Episcopal Church was founded in 1789 with a "Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America." The name was never incorporated. In 1846, however, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America was incorporated in New York State. Originally a fund-raising organization for missionary activity, the DFMS evolved into the corporate structure of the Episcopal Church. Members of Executive Council serve as the board of directors and the presiding bishop is president.

Since 1837, efforts have been made to remove the word "Protestant" from the name of the church -- mostly at the request of Anglo-Catholics. In 1964, General Convention added a preamble to the Constitution, which states the name of the church is "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church)."

Some changes made

PECUSA, Inc. seems to have backed away from claims in its original Wisconsin charter that its purpose was to "engage in religious, educational and charitable activities and particularly the executive, administrative and financial administration of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United Sates of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church. It shall have charge of the Church pension fund and the church's program..."

In a statement in mid-December, Wantland noted that Browning had requested, and the trustees had agreed, to remove that language from the charter which Wantland admitted was "not appropriate to what we were about."

"The trustees were fully willing to amend the Articles of Incorporation to make it crystal clear that we were not laying any claim to the programs or funds" of the national church structure, Wantland wrote. He explained in a recent telephone interview that the words had been lifted "word for word" from Eau Claire's diocesan charter. He also noted that a letter had been sent to Alan Blanchard, president of the Church Pension Fund, disavowing any claims to clergy or lay pensions.

Wantland also claimed in his statement that "the National Church had begun to remove from the Church Constitution all references to the old title...As the old name was abandoned, so the old Faith was abandoned."

Beers explained that "common law doctrine" protects the name and assets of the Episcopal Church from "having somebody misappropriate our name or to mislead" in fund-raising efforts.

He added that a variety of options were being considered in response to PECUSA, Inc. No legal actions have been filed.

Beers noted that in the event of a schism --- or formal split in the church -- it would be "unlikely they could take existing property." But "there is no threat to our legal position at this time," Beers said. "We have time. If, ultimately, legal actions are needed" they will be taken.

Praying for unity in Kansas

Bishop William Smalley of Kansas responded to what he called "recent threats to unity" by calling his diocese to join him in prayer.

Considered by some to be a conservative bishop, Smalley has invited all of the parishes in his diocese to join in a covenant to "work and witness for the mission and unity of the Episcopal Church."

Smalley said the church "is called to be people of light, to brighten every comer of God's world by our lives and witness." But he said that "light is being darkened by divisions within the Episcopal Church, and that energies that should go for mission are being diverted inwardly to maintain our corporate life."

Citing PECUSA, Inc's actions, Smalley said he decided to draw the diocese into a plan for unity. He also criticized groups attempting to operate outside of canonical boundaries of the church and dioceses which have withheld funds from national church operations in protest.

Smalley, who is a member of the presiding bishop's Council of Advice has asked all parishes to join in a four-point covenant by praying and pledging not to "join or give support or encouragement to any group that advocates division and disunity in the Episcopal Church."

"The Diocese of Kansas has been a faithful partner with the Episcopal Church," Smalley wrote in the diocesan newspaper Plenteous Harvest. "We have always abided by the canons of the church and the resolutions of General Convention. We have unfailingly fulfilled our financial obligations to the ministry of the Episcopal Church. We have provided leadership to the Episcopal Church through many of our members who served in national roles. We also have been a diocese relatively free from the divisions that have marked the Episcopal Church in other places."