The Diocese of Virginia Protocol for Departing Churches Revisted

BB NOTE: This afternoon it occurred to me that – with all this talk of the Virginia Protocol – I wondered how many folks have been able to read it? It’s not easy to find, though it is still officially on the Diocese of Virginia website here, but only in pdf format.

I read it again on the train this evening out of Washington. This was the protocol that we followed in good faith in Virginia. The tone of hope and faith and promise are all over the pages – it was an extraordinary achievement, one that brought very different people together after nine months of an intense listening process, a process that was both frank and transparent.

As I read the words, my heart just hurt. You can see in the protocol that we got as far as Bishop Lee starting to appoint the property committee (the protocol provides a just and fair way to do that so that all parties are represented amicably, as you will see). The spirit in which this document was written, the hope and witness that we could walk through this with grace was indeed sincere.

For those of you who visit the Cafe here often, you will know that I was utterly shocked by the complete change of suddenly rejecting the protocol in January replaced by a march into the courtroom. As you will see in the protocol, the property is not transferred until the negotiations are complete. So when we hear those who say that the property was transferred (as 815 has recently been saying on its official releases) that is utterly false. The vote – which the protocol sets out very plainly – was officially recorded. That was all.

Bishop Lee did take part in the 40 Days of Discernment, as did the Diocese of Virginia Standing Committee. The Bishop chose not to address the congregations in person, but instead made a personal video (which you can see here or here at the 40 Days of Discernment website). At Truro, the President of the Standing Committee did, however, personally address the congregation live in a congregational meeting before the vote and then met with members of the Vestry and Trustees of Truro for a time of listening and sharing. I was present for both those meetings and can witness that they were cordial, respectful, and honest.

The Protocol was endorsed unanimously by the Bishop and his committee (the names of those courageous members are listed at the end of the text below) and the Bishop then took the Protocol on November 9 (over a month before the voting began) to persuade a joint meeting of the Standing Committee and the Executive Board to receive the report from his committee. There were some rather strong attempts by some members of the two bodies to amend the report before receiving it, but on the Bishop’s request – the Standing Committee and the Executive Board unanimously agreed to receive the report as is and without amendment. It was an extraordinary achievement and so much of the reason that it was such an achievement was due in no small part to the courage of the Bishop of Virginia and the Chancellor of the Diocese of Virginia to see it through.

I never dreamed it would come to this, to where we are now, today. But I continue to pray – even at this late hour – that we may find a way to pick up the pieces and rebuild the process and restore our witness of Christ’s redeeming love as a world – and a Communion – watch.

bb

Protocol for Departing Congregation

After nine meetings spanning nine months, the Committee believes, for some members of the Diocese, separation from the Diocese and the Episcopal Church is increasingly likely. Accordingly, with a view toward prudence and stewardship, the Committee offers the following protocol to departing members including concomitant issues concerning real and personal property.

Procedure

a. Before any vote by a congregation on whether to leave the Episcopal Church, a period of reflection and discernment of at least 30 days shall occur. The period of reflection and discernment should include “live” presentations directly to the congregation on behalf of the Diocese by persons appointed by the Bishop.

b. Voting on the issue to leave the Episcopal Church shall occur at a special congregational meeting called by the vestry after at least ten (10) days notice of the time, place and object of the meeting having been given either on an occasion of public worship or by other adequate means to the rector, each vestry member, and the congregation. (The Bishop’s appointees may appear at the meeting.)

c. As a predicate to any such congregational meeting, the vestry, by at least a seventy percent (70%) majority of all members, shall have voted to recommend to the congregation that it leave the Episcopal Church.

d. Any vestry members voting against such departure shall be afforded an opportunity to submit in writing and/or orally, and distribute to the congregation, their reasons for voting not to leave.

e. All adult communicants in good standing, registered in the particular church in question, shall be entitled to vote at the congregational meeting. The voting shall be by ballot in person and a 70% majority of the votes cast shall be necessary to support such withdrawal from the Episcopal Church.

f. If the required voting percentage is achieved, a second vote shall be taken. The question presented shall be, “Should the real and personal property of ____________ (name of parish/mission) be offered to the departing congregation?

g. If the second vote passes by a 70% majority, the amount of payment to the Diocese for its claim to the real and personal property and the terms of such payment shall be determined by agreement, after disclosure of the nature and amount of the parish assets, between representatives of the departing congregation and representatives of the Diocese, appointed by the Bishop. The representatives of the Diocese should include a representative of the remaining congregation, if available. In approaching their agreement, we urge the parties to be guided by principles of fairness, equity and Christian charity.

h. Any agreement will require the further consent of the Bishop, Standing Committee, and Executive Board.

i. The departing members of the congregation shall not include the word “Episcopal” in any “name” it chooses.

There are many other issues – for example: inclusion of the members of a congregation who wish to stay in the Episcopal Church if the congregational vote is to leave – that we have wrestled with and that will require the input of other members of the Body. Notwithstanding the division which may cause some to “walk apart”, we shall earnestly seek to find areas of cooperative ministries in “as close a union as possible.” What we hope to communicate is that there is a way forward that will require faithful humility and forbearance on the part of all of us, if we wish to model something of Christ’s costly reconciling love. Given the state of the world in which we live, we believe we are called as a Diocese to work together and that we will respond to that call.

We end this short epistle on another note of hope. You may have learned that some parishes, considering whether to remain in the Diocese, will be entering a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and discernment later this fall. We recommend that it would be good for all us, all 192 parishes and missions that make up our church family, to be intentional about reflection and prayer for one another as we all seek God’s guidance and grace, especially this year as we pray for the Diocese of Virginia as we prepare to elect a Bishop Coadjutor.

Imagine for a moment if we agree to fast for six Fridays, agreeing to donate what we would have spent on food to feed the poor. Imagine what we, the Diocese of Virginia, ninety thousand baptized strong, could do to alleviate some of the misery amongst us, and just as importantly, witness to our essential unity in Christ, albeit in trying times.

We acknowledge the challenges we face, we maintain our confidence in god and we are called to remember the words of Jeremiah; “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV; Jeremiah 29:11).

We believe that every parish, cluster of parishes, or regions, should be free to develop its own approach to this forty-day period.

Close is a relational word.

We pray that all of us stay close to the Holy Spirit and to one another as we navigate these turbulent waters knowing that Christ promises to be with us always, even to the end of the ages.

The Bishop’s committee, by unanimous agreement,

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, Bishop of Virginia, Convener

Hugo Blankingship, Jr., Chancellor, the Falls Church, Falls Church; former Chancellor for the Diocese of Virginia.

The Rev. Andrew T.P. Merrow, Rector, St. Mary’s Arlington; former member of the Executive Board of the Diocese of Virginia; Chair of the Diocese of Virginia’s Task Force on Reconciliation.

Russell V. Palmore, Jr., Committee Chair, Chancellor, the Diocese of Virginia; member of St. Paul’s, Richmond.

The Rev. Caroline Smith Parkinson, Rector, Grace Church, The Plains; former President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Virginia.

The Rev. John Yates, II, Rector, The Falls Church, Falls Church.

Thomas D. Yates, Trustee, Truro Church, Fairfax.

Received by the Diocese of Virginia’s Standing Committee and Executive Board without amendment, Nov. 9, 2006.