Religion Beat: Diocese gears up for fight

Michael Miller

The Episcopal Church has a question for the west-central Illinois Diocese of Quincy.

Are you ready to rummmmmbbbbblllllllllle?

The denomination's executive council declared last week that certain parts of the constitutions of four dioceses, including Quincy, are "null and void," particularly sections which TEC power-structure higher-ups feel might be used to leave the church.

The dioceses are on the record with others as wanting oversight from a province other than The Episcopal Church, which may find itself booted from the worldwide Anglican Communion by the end of the year due to the American church's open acceptance of homosexuality. Leaders in several individual churches and dioceses, including Quincy and Springfield, object to TEC's current direction, saying it's unbiblical.

Quincy officials said the diocesan constitution and canons haven't been changed since 1993. When asked earlier this week to which particular part of the Quincy constitution the executive council was objecting, denominational spokeswoman Rev. Jan Nunley pointed to a 2006 pastoral letter's reference to one article in the constitution. Neither she nor another TEC official would say why Quincy's 1993 constitution was not considered a problem until recently.

But one question is whether the named dioceses -- herewith known as the Null 'n' Void 4 -- are being threatened with litigation by their mother church.

Quincy leaders and others say they certainly feel like that's the case, or that at the very least the national church is positioning itself to take them to court.

According to a report by Cherie Wetzel of the Dallas-based traditionalist group Anglicans United, TEC chancellor David Booth Beers said at last week's executive council meeting that "We can sue them," referring to dioceses that have changed their constitutions.

"These are recalcitrant dioceses," Beers was quoted as saying of the Null 'n' Void 4, which are hereby renamed the Recalcitrant 4. "What did they actually do? Those dioceses have said that they don't like what we are doing and they won't go along with it. We will frame our litigation in reference to that."

Nunley said Beers, who declined to be interviewed, wasn't threatening legal action. But Wicks Stephens, chancellor of the Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network, of which Quincy is a member, isn't convinced.

"What we're seeing is an attempt on the part of The Episcopal Church, and now acting through the executive council, to simply issue intimidating language and threats in areas in which they have no authority," Stephens said. "They're after us because we reserve the right not to follow their unbiblical actions."

Nor was the Rev. John Spencer, the president of Quincy's standing committee, persuaded by Nunley's reassurance.

"It's just one more example of the sort of placating talk that we hear from the national leadership," said Spencer, vicar of St. Francis Church in Dunlap. "They continually talk about reconciliation and trying to build bridges and so forth, but in my opinion this was another example of a heavy-handed tactic. 'Submit or there will be legal consequences for you.' "

The church's demands -- or suggestions or threats, depending on whom you're talking to -- started about a year ago, Spencer said.

He said Beers sent a letter to Quincy and other dioceses telling them that if certain parts of their constitutions weren't changed promptly, the presiding bishop would have to decide what action to take.

"It was sort of a veiled threat," Spencer said. "It was a clear statement that we needed to change the constitution in order to conform to the language that they said it needed to have."

"It's threatening the diocese when you put together the various actions, including the statements that David Beers makes," Stephens said. "One can conclude that it's litigation that's being threatened, but they try to deny it."

It's not that The Episcopal Church isn't already in court. It recently sued 11 churches in Virginia that have left TEC.

Spencer said the Diocese of Quincy wouldn't initiate any legal action due to the teaching in 1 Corinthians 6 against Christians suing Christians.

"We don't see the civil courts as a place where our disputes ought to be settled," the priest said. "We need to work out some sort of resolution to this conflict in Christian love and charity."

Michael Miller covers religion for the Journal Star. Write to him in care of the Journal Star, 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, or send e-mail to Comments may be published.