By Charles A. Collins, Jr.
“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it was never meant to be.” So goes an anonymous quote that featured prominently in cheesy posters from the 1970s, but despite the indeterminate source and somewhat unusual context (at least in my mind), it contains at least a nugget of truth.
The ruling handed down by the Judge Dianne S. Goodstein of the First Judicial Circuit on February 3 has ramifications that go beyond Anglican Church or even religious issues. Citing a 1984 case, Robert v. United States Jaycees, Judge Goodstein asserted, “With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate.” That seems elementary even to this (legal) layman — association and affection that is compelled may be many things, but it most certainly is not free.
For this Anglican who is one by conviction and studied choice — who entered seminary as a Presbyterian and was drawn to the Anglican Way in large part because of the Book of Common Prayer — the timing comes at a most precipitous time. My friend the Rev. Dr. Peter Moore has elsewhere in this issue done an excellent job tracing the decline of orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church that led to this point as only one who lived much of it as a priest and seminary dean could do. Although I may not look like it in comparison to the youthful and vigorous Dean Moore, I’m a bit younger with a more limited range of personal experience.
This decision comes at a precipitous time and not so much because of the inevitable appeals; rather, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. (A motion to reconsider was filed by TEC and its local representatives on February 13, but it was denied a few days before we went to press.) Indeed, let us consider church matters beyond the Episcopal/Anglican dispute. Note with care the theological revisionism evidenced in TEC, which has closely paralleled that taking place in other religious bodies belonging to what was largely known as the Protestant Mainline.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the largest Lutheran body in the nation, has undergone the largest church split in American history during the past few years with 500,000 members departing primarily for the North American Lutheran Church, which has parishes locally in North Charleston and Goose Creek and held their 2014 Convocation at The Citadel last July. The policies involving ownership of property among the Lutherans precluded the kind of court battles that occurred in TEC; that is not, however, the case with the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which presbyteries lay claim to the property held in trust by local congregations.
As was the case with the Lutherans and Episcopalians, issues surrounding human sexuality have been the area in which the symptoms of theological revisionism have been most evident. Those congregations wishing to depart the Presbyterian Church (USA) have typically had to pay some of the assessment that would be due had they not departed under a policy known as “gracious dismissal.” In at least one case a minister allowed the manse in which he and his family lived to be sold so that the congregation that he served could depart. Locally, Rockville Presbyterian Church on Wadmalaw Island departed Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church several years ago.
If Judge Goldstein’s ruling stands, it could have significant implications for mainline Presbyterians in South Carolina, possibly making it easier for congregations to depart with their property — something that is relevant as the two presbyteries that cover the coast of South Carolina will vote on whether or not to allow same-sex blessings in late February or early March.
Judge Goldstein’s ruling upholds the historic principle that free association cannot be coerced. It will be appealed and studied for years to come. Stay alert for breaking developments that will almost certainly have ramifications far beyond Episcopal/Anglican circles.
The Reverend Charles A. Collins, Jr., serves as vicar of The Church of the Atonement, a Reformed Episcopal Parish in the Anglican Church in North America in Mount Pleasant. He may be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.