The Church Maintained in Love: Maintaining Integrity and Preserving Relationships When Asked to Leave a Church

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right….” Martin Luther

The past three years have been filled with change and transition for me as anyone who is a regular reader of this site understands.  This week another transition took place as I was asked to leave the Charismatic Episcopal Church over my perceived “liberal” writings and spiritual journey.  This has been a long time in coming and while I was surprised at the timing I was not surprised that it eventually came to this.  While my Bishop states that he did not ask me to leave the tenor of his call, which was pastoral and friendly yet used terms such as “you do not appear to be happy in the CEC,” “I would think that you might be happier in another church” and “liberal beliefs” indicated to me that I was being asked to leave and that was how I interpreted it.  He did not at all threaten my status in the military as I made my transition but left me with the impression that the sooner I found a new home the better.

Before I go into the process of how this happened I have to say that I depart the CEC without rancor or personal animosity and that unlike many who have departed the CEC will not engage in criticism or attacks on that Church or its leadership.  While I have theological, philosophical and pastoral disagreements with where I see the CEC going it is not for me to sit as the judge upon the CEC.  I have too many friends in the church and dare not risk relationships over issues that are mine to deal with.  At the same time I will in this post note those differences.  But again I say that all churches have the right and responsibility to do what they think is correct regarding their beliefs and how to deal with their clergy and laity that have differing views.  It is my view that unless a person is willing to stay within their church and abide by its discipline that they should leave peacefully.  I also believe that if a person feels that they are bound by the faith and by Scripture to remain in a church as a voice of loyal opposition that they should but have the grace not to make their opposition a personal crusade to get their way or to force change in their church before it is time.  I believe that a person who practices principled opposition can never use his opposition as an excuse to seek further division in the church. Likewise a person cannot allow his or herself to become so attached to his cause that he sees his opponents as enemies and allows hate to dominate his actions.

I believe that the Church is a community centered on Jesus and bound together by our baptism, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of All.  I believe in this community that there are many expressions of that faith.  We maintain the faith that comes passed to us in the Gospel “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19 NLT)

Within this context lies my journey. As a priest in the CEC I was bound by my vows to be obedient to the discipline of the church.  When I entered the CEC in 1996 I felt very comfortable with those vows. Over the course of the years I began to have misgivings about those vows as the church went through a number of very bitter splits over what amounted to be the issue of power and authority.  Money was at the root of much of this but also the personal misconduct of a number of Bishops as well as clergy aggravated the situation. In the United States during the period of 2004-2007 a total of 8 bishops left the church to form their own denominations or join other groups, many taking the majority of their clergy and parishes with them. Two of these bishops would return to the CEC in later years. One Archbishop resigned and became a Roman Catholic layman. One Archbishop was removed from his episcopate and left the church to form his own church and eventually the world-wide Patriarch was forced to step down after being complicit in the cover-up of an affair of his archdeacon and the wife of a layman in the church whose father was a priest in the military. All of those Bishops did more to damage the faith and witness of the CEC than any article that I could ever write so I am not ashamed as I have behaved with honor and maintained my vows.

During my time in the CEC I had a number of negative experiences with Bishops and clergy that are no longer in the CEC. The Archbishop that laicized and became Roman Catholic had forbidden me from writing after publishing two articles in a conservative Catholic journal.  The accusation was that I was “too Catholic and misrepresenting the church.” Of course my writings were following the lead of this bishop and a number of others that were trying on their own accord to push the CEC into communion with Rome. He did not inform the Archbishop for the Military of this.  I later had conflict with this bishop when I corrected a priest in his diocese who was not following what the bishop said to do. For my trouble I was forbidden to have relationships with civilian clergy in that diocese. When this bishop laicized this diocese imploded, only a few missions with very few members remain in the CEC. The others found homes in communions that the other departing bishops formed after failing to remove the Patriarch in 2006.  I had many friends leave the CEC at that time.  Thus from 2004 I had no local support of fellowship with anyone in the CEC. The bishop that inherited the scattered remnants of this diocese never contacted me in that time, apart from my fellow chaplains I felt completely cut off from the church.  Thus when all the major scandals and schisms occurred I only had the support and fellowship of a number of the priests of our military archdiocese. Despite this I felt bound to my vows as none of the Bishops that remained had wronged me in any way and I valued my relationship with my military bishop and fellow chaplains.

The CEC continued its implosion while I was in Iraq with the resignation of the Patriarch. I wondered if the CEC would survive in any form and began to explore options contacting a number of communions while in Iraq. When I returned home suffering from PTSD flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety as well as the lingering effects of wear and tear injuries to my shoulders and knees and a badly sprained ankle which refused to heal I was in pretty ragged shape. I told Judy that I felt that I needed to leave the CEC and recognizing the danger of a hasty move she persuaded me to stay and at least wait a year to make any decisions.

In fact in light of the journey that I have been on, especially since returning from Iraq in February 2008 I had began the process of seeking to find a home. This was done in large part because when I am done with my military service we plan on retiring in the Hampton Roads area.  One thing that I discovered after Iraq was that I needed local relationships and a church home.  This was something that even if I had remained in sync with the CEC that they could not have provided and I did find a local church home at St. James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth.

During that year I experienced a major crisis of faith that left me for nearly two years as a practical agnostic wondering where God was. Christmas of 2008 was so bleak that I left the Christmas Eve Mass at Judy’s parish before it started walking into the cold of the night asking God if he even existed.  Faith was a struggle for the next year, but I did find a local church home at St. James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth whose priest, Father John Agbaje became my pastor and friend. Though I was still struggling I found comfort in the liturgy and tradition of this historic church. It was a place of solace, something that I had not had in the CEC for many years.

By the summer I realized that if we were to remain in the Hampton Roads area that I would have to leave the CEC if nothing else for the local relationships that we were building at St. James. While this was occurring my faith journey continued. I saw many things going on in much of the church world, to sometimes include the CEC that concerned me as a Christian. These were pastoral, societal and political issues and not creedal issues even though for many conservative Christians including most of the CEC they are “hot button” issues.  While I consider myself a moderate many people on the far right consider that to be “liberal.” Due to the poisonous political and social climate that we live in here in the United States most people are no longer open to debate or dialogue on those issues. Since I have written about this in my recent article “Faith Journey’s: Why I am Still a Christian” ( https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/faith-journey%E2%80%99s-why-i-am-still-a-christian/) I will not go into them here.

In fact it was the Monday following that article that I received a call from my military archbishop telling me that I would have to find a new denominational home due to my “liberal” beliefs.  He is a friend and I sure that the call pained him to make, we go back almost 15 years.  I do not know what led to the call but presume it was pressure from other bishops to do something about me although he stated that this was not the case. I hold no ill will toward Bishop Doug or anyone else in the CEC leadership for asking me to leave. In a way it was a relief as I realized that my writings, even as circumspect as I tried to make them could cause problems for me in the CEC.

At no time did I attack the leadership of the CEC or its stand on any of these issues but evidently some considered my statements as a challenge to the church and its authority.  I am of the belief that to remain viable that there should be differing opinions on matters that are pastoral and societal and not out of keeping with the Christian tradition.  For me it does not matter if a church is conservative or liberal, if it silences dissent by people who are committed to that church for dissent on non-creedal issues then it does itself a disservice in the long run. But again I have to say that the CEC like any Church has the right and responsibility to maintain its church discipline and uphold what it believes to be true and that asking me to leave was within the bounds of its canons

Another endorsing agent helped me find the the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church (http://www.apostoliccatholic.org/default1.htm) an Old Catholic Communion whose ethos is very similar to mine.  I have had meaningful talks with the Presiding Bishop, Diana Dale and a number of priests who have served or are serving as military chaplains.  I really look forward to serving in the ACOC for many years to come.

My original desire was to leave the CEC quietly but my writings have placed me at odds with the CEC as a whole and as a consequence I have been asked to leave.  I can do so in good conscience knowing that for 14 years I served the church well and presented a positive view of the church even when the church was going through its most difficult times.  I can maintain my integrity and be more open in my beliefs by leaving than remaining.

Over the past three years Bishop Doug has been most supportive and even had not chided me on other articles that voiced similar sentiments as the Faith Journey’s article and I shall maintain a friendship even if we disagree on some issues. Relationships matter and I refuse to make enemies on my way out of the CEC. I will miss my friends at Church of the Messiah in Jacksonville where we worshipped in 2002-2003 and St. Michael’s in San Clemente who hosted the best of our military diocese convocations, as well as my friends and brothers in the Archdiocese for the Armed Forces. I will remain in contact with many through Facebook and other means.  Friends are friends and I and I will not leave with the bitterness and animosity of so many that left the CEC earlier in the decade, people who have not been able to move past their hurt and embrace their new church homes.

I hope this article in some ways explains my journey. Bishop Doug has already let my fellow military priests know that I am leaving the CEC so at least some people know what has happened. I will contact those that I am closest to personally and provide this article to others.  This is a painful time of transition but it is the right decision for both the CEC and me.

My official change over to the ACOC will take place sometime next week.  I thank all of my friends in the CEC for your support and prayers over the years.  I will keep the CEC and you my friends in my prayers as I continue my journey.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

Non nobis, non nobis, Domine
Sed nomini tuo da gloriam

Postscript: I had a conversation with Bishop Doug this morning. In that conversation he stated that he did not ask me to leave the CEC in our conversation two weeks ago, just that I appeared to be “unhappy” in the CEC and might want to look elsewhere because of “liberal views” suggesting the Episcopal Church as a possibility.  This is true, he did not directly ask me to leave, but I interpreted the call in that manner he used the term “liberal views.” It was that term that led me to believe that perhaps he had been talked to about me as the term is loaded in the current climate of American religious and political debate. I did not mention other instances regarding past encounters with some in the current CEC leadership that also influenced my interpretation of Bishop Doug’s words. That serves no purpose and I will not mention names or even incidents because I do not want those encounters to be used against the CEC or anyone in it.

I implore anyone that reads this post NOT to disparage Bishop Doug in any way. He is a gentleman and a Christian and I know that he bears me no malice whatsoever. He has been attacked personally on the blogs of many that left the CEC and I cannot countenance that or lend my voice to those criticisms. SLD+

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13 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy, remembering friends

13 responses to “The Church Maintained in Love: Maintaining Integrity and Preserving Relationships When Asked to Leave a Church

  1. Scott Shields

    Steve,

    You are called to be a servant of Christ, and of Christ alone, not any particular denomination, to serve wherever and whenever you submit yourself to His purposes. We must not constrain ourselves or be constrained by denominational doctrines or creeds, even if they are Scripturally sound, for therein lies the potential for abuse by men who seem to think more needs to be added than what Jesus said. Keep it simple, servant. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your soul, and everything else… and love your neighbor as yourself. With this being said, I would strongly recommend that you not involve yourself in either the Episcopal or Catholic denominations. Their highly legalistic dogma has the potential to steal your freedom in Christ and entrap you into a lifestyle of liturgy and ritual. We belong to Christ, the hope of glory, called to serve Him in freedom, not as Pharisees or Sadducees who were obliged only to the Law. Do you really want to experience true freedom? Then remove yourself from serving any denomination, spend time in prayer and fasting, and really listen to the voice of God through the Holy Spirit as you break yourself open to the Lord and ask Him to fill you and use you in whatever way He desires. Then be ready, my son, for the ride of your life. Romans 12:1,2. God bless you on your journey.

    • padresteve

      Scotty
      I am exactly where the Lord wants me, thank you for your care and concern. The liturgy has given me a stability and freedom that I never knew as an Evangleical Protestant. The historic Creeds and Councils keep me from making things up as I go as so many people do. Having spent much of my life in Evangelical and Charismatic movement I can say that the worst legalism that I ever saw were in supposedly “free’ churches.
      Blessings
      Steve+

  2. Vinson

    Steve,
    You continue to have my prayers, brother. Being faithful to one’s call and having the integrity to stay both accountable within a tradition and honest where one’s journey pulls one is tearing at times and even for seasons, no doubt. It is rarely appreciated on Earth, but scripture is replete with examples of how God ultimately blesses those who wrestle with their faith. I made the transition almost 3 decades ago from politics to religion, and perhaps it is why I’ve long noticed how 1/4 of the band of disciples Jesus called, were enamored with power, and that authority for them meant lording it over others (something Paul later on spoke to). All but one eventually figured out what authority meant to Jesus.
    I think that regardless of which Christian tradition we find ourselves in, the percentages are about the same – even if some allow more breathing room. And, while we cannot control what path others choose as to a spiritually healthy perspective on authority, we can for ourselves.
    We truly live in a time when “The Confuser” (aka the serpent of the Garden of Eden) has been busy at a societal and church level sowing distrust and bitterness. I am glad that in your walk, you have kept the honest, transparent path of walking humbly with our God. That is something which is neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but quite simply — faith.
    Blessings,
    Vinson

  3. Fr. Steve, I appreciate you, your blog, and testimonies such as this as they do much to propel and uplift me. More importantly, I appreciate your faith.

    • padresteve

      Thank you Joel. I appreciate yours as well. I think I have discovered the title of my book on the Church and being a Christian “The Church Maintained in Love” What do you think? Blessings, Steve+

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  5. frjim123

    Prayers and support for you always, brother.

    -Jim+

  6. John+

    Padre Steve, I have always appreciated your written thoughts and musings and fully embrace your passion as a moderate. I am not in “trouble” because I am just not as big of a mouth as you and do not make the time to write down my thoughts in the profuse manner in which you do. I believe you believe in TRUTH. I think that your “belief that to remain viable that there should be differing opinions on matters that are pastoral and societal and not out of keeping with the Christian tradition” is a statement of paramount significance. It should matter very much to us, regardless whether it is a church or any other institutional body, conservative or liberal as you say, that “if it silences dissent by people who are committed to that church for dissent on non-creedal issues then it does itself a disservice in the long run.” Life in general or Church life will never be just “plain black and white” and the “either/or” position many take is just very unfortunate. We tend to want to subsist in a “sterile” environment with much defined boundaries of “right” and “wrong” and this is just not possible…not in real life anyway.
    I disagree with your statement (which sounds more like a concession on your part) that “the CEC like any Church has the right and responsibility to maintain its church discipline and uphold what it believes to be true and that asking me to leave was within the bounds of its canons”. If you were an outright heretic, no doubt they should discipline you, and should you not “see” the error of your ways…ask you to leave. That would be responsible leadership. However, I personally don’t think you are “unhappy” because you are speaking out on many issues, but would dare say you are “very happy” whenever you are passionately musing! That you would be “happy” elsewhere I don’t think is a correct assessment of who you are and what you are about.
    Perhaps making reference to someone I know we both share a great admiration for may serve to somewhat accurately describe you; and that is the Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam.
    Though with no clear apparent “success” Erasmus remained firmly neutral between the squabbling of the RC Church and Martin Luther, each side seemed to accuse him of siding with the other. Yet it has been pointed out that it was not for lack of fidelity with either side but a desire for fidelity with them both that Erasmus wrote “I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss.” Sounds familiar!!!
    During the initial flare ups between Rome and Luther, “Erasmus was sympathetic with the main points in Martin Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church, describing him as ‘a mighty trumpet of gospel truth’ and admitting that, ‘It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.’ He had great respect for Martin Luther, and Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus’s superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. In their early correspondence, Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. When Erasmus hesitated to support him, the straightforward Luther felt angered that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or a lack of purpose. Erasmus, however, dreaded any change in doctrine and believed that there was room within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most.” Erasmus chose to remain a Roman Catholic and in the process somehow managed to stay in the Roman Catholic Church which did not ask him to leave because he sided with, recognized and respected the value of much of what Martin Luther was saying.
    A modern RC “dissenter”, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, has managed to stay in the church for some 40 years despite his big mouth and passionate musings. When asked why has this been possible, with much gratitude, Richard refers to the Bishops “on his side” who have protect him from those who would rather silence his voice by reminding them that despite Richard’s faults and often antagonistic statements “he is really not that bad” .
    You and Judy are in my prayers
    John+

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