The Rev. Canon David Roseberry is rector of Christ Church in Plano, Texas. Until September 15, 2006, when it announced its departure from the denomination, Christ Church was the largest single parish in the Episcopal Church, with an average Sunday attendance larger than that of the entire Diocese of Nevada.
In the year 2000, during construction of the main nave of Christ Church, I buried two things under the giant concrete slab of our main worship space. I did it quietly and secretly. The site was fenced off to all but construction hard-hats. I did it one evening before darkness fell. The project was in the ‘foundation’ stage and the slab was going to be poured soon. The re-bar was in, the footings were in place, and the wire mesh was everywhere. And just before sunset my wife and I trekked into the center of the church, where the aisles would one day meet the chancel steps. I brought a garden shovel and dug a small hole in the ground. We were going to commemorate the work of this parish by using two symbols. I opened my bible to the passage of the Great Commission, read the passage, and placed the bible in the opening. On the open page of Matthew’s 28th chapter, I placed a Canterbury cross I purchased the summer before at a gift shop in England. We prayed together for our church and its future… and covered the spot with dirt.
A Bible and a Cross… an Anglican Cross… mark the center of Christ Church. So it was then. As it is now. And by God’s Grace, it will remain so.
The decisions that our church made in 2006 were actions to protect the biblical integrity and the Anglican future of Christ Church.
In September of 2006, we (the Christ Church vestry, clergy, and I) signed the legal documents to withdraw from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Dallas. We settled with the bishop and the Standing Committee and Trustees for what proves now to be a fair and mutual agreement. In the past four months our church, our vestry, our staff, and our mission have slowly but assuredly reacted to these seismic events. They were not taken lightly and suddenly. And they were not taken without cost—both personally, professionally, and pastorally. But as I write this essay, I also give thanks to God for His incredible faithfulness to me and our community of faith.
I can still remember where I was when it all hit me. I was at the Columbus General Convention Eucharistic Celebration on whatever day it was that Katherine Jefferts Schori gave her opening sermon. I got mixed up on the times and my wife and I were late for the huge mega-event. The advance billing of her first sermon as the PB-elect had been huge and I thought she might have a word of hope.
She had already begun when Fran and I walked softly across the back of the huge cavernous hall. Several thousands of worshippers were already seated. I really didn’t listen to the opening lines of the sermon. I was intent on being rather invisible and I was watching my steps carefully. But I wished I had listened. I would have picked up on the style of the new PB-elect. She was playful and casual with her images. She was saying something about running and seeing rabbits that didn’t seem to fit the moment. But I walked on and finally stopped in the very back of the conference hall.
A bishop in the church, a prominent leader among the moderate center, approached me on my right. Fran was on my left. From the podium, the PB-elect said something about “Mother Jesus.” I leaned over to the left and asked Fran, “Did she just say what I think she said?” Fran nodded and repeated the phrase, “Mother Jesus.” Then I lean to the right and whispered to the bishop, “We are in trouble… big trouble.” He nodded in agreement.
When the new PB-elect finished her sermon, I cleared my throat and our bishop friend pointed to the exit and whispered, “Can I buy you both a cup of coffee?” We left the room with him… and that began our exodus away from the Episcopal Church.
Frankly, I had hoped I could have stayed within the Episcopal Church. The battle for the soul of ECUSA is also a major battle in the culture. Anyone with children knows how terribly worrisome and treacherous it is to raise children in a culture with so much sexual brokenness. If the Windsor Report had not been rejected (which it was) and the MDG not been embraced whole hog (which they were) I would still be an Episcopal priest. I would have stayed for Round 4 or 5 or whatever the next General Convention would have been. It is (was) a battle worth engaging. But what the PB-elect showed me, and what I should have realized beforehand, is this: The sexually permissive agenda of ECUSA is not an isolated aberration of teaching or practice. It is the outworking of a whole package of Biblically hostile, intellectually sloppy and historically arrogant thinking that has taken over the Episcopal Church. The new PB sounded like a Gnostic - a la the Da Vinci Code - because her theology, perspectives and priorities are not rooted in the old revelation but in the “new thing” that we keep hearing about.
I had weighed quite a bit in my thoughts and prayers over the last few years. But my prayer life went into overdrive. What was I finally going to do? My connections within the Episcopal Church were voluminous. They ran everywhere and they were deep. My son was a newly ordained priest serving as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Dallas. I had many lay and ordained friends in the Episcopal Church. Only six weeks earlier I was elected as the Chairman of the Board of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. In the next four months I was due to become the president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Dallas. I was one of the three longest standing members of the Diocese of Dallas. I had 24 years in the pension plan. I had many friends who knew and admired the planting of Christ Church 21 years earlier. And the congregation was totally united. In a recent survey conducted in May of 2006, our parish saw itself as a united fellowship in tune with each other and God’s vision for our ministry.
All of this went into the mix of prayer and discernment right after the General Convention. I took to heart the words of Jesus in Luke 14. It is not a bad thing to stop and count the cost before you venture out on a task. So I thought long and hard. In fact, I had been thinking about this choice that I saw coming for many years.
There were reasons to stay, but they all centered on my personal ministry and career issues. But there was also a growing list of reasons why we needed to leave ECUSA. We had five major issues facing us if we had decided to stay within ECUSA:
First, we would start to lose our core leadership. The church and I in particular, had become publicly identified with the resistance movement. In June of 2006 alone, I did almost 30 media interviews. The people of our church were zeroed in on the issues and ready to react. They heard me say before the General Convention that what I was hoping for was ‘clarity’ about the direction of ECUSA. After the convention, we all agreed, we had clarity. If I had faltered, they would not have.
Second, we had more buildings to build to accommodate our growth and I had already postponed a much needed capital campaign due to the distress within ECUSA. In fact, in October of 2005, I had called the vestry, staff, and core leadership to a season of prayer about our status within the Episcopal Church. This was not window dressing. If we were going to stay we were going to have to build buildings and pay off debt with the national and diocesan canons declaring that they had a ‘trust’ or an ‘interest’ in our property.
Third, we were beginning lose our sense of mission and purpose. I could feel it in my preaching and I could see it in our congregation. Our leaders were started to get focused and over-interested in the drama of the Anglican Communion. I was too. I was spending way to much time on blogs and phones trying to sort our strategies and organize events that would galvanize ordained leadership. Was I putting that kind of effort into reaching people for Christ? I knew I had been distracted… and so was the congregation.
Fourth, we were sensing that the new PB-elect would have a much more directive role in property disputes and negotiated settlements once she was in office. She doesn’t know me… but I remember her from a church growth work-group I participated in many years ago. She was the bishop of Nevada and while her diocese hadn’t seen growth over the last decade, I did not find her to be without opinions and ideas. She had strong feelings and heady notions of how churches could grow. And I remember that she had stubbornness and tenacity for her own ideas that I think will be borne out in her work at 815.
Finally, I saw that the church debate had changed over the previous three years. In previous conventions and conferences, the discussion of the sexual doctrines of the church was a biblical discussion. It was centered on what the Bible has to say about our families, our marriages, our sexual urges and God’s call to a life in purity. But more recently the biblical truth was not being debated. The Windsor Report had successfully changed the subject. It turned the debate to a nearly impossible argument to win: unity. The discussion of the church was not now about “if” one side was right or wrong in what was taught, but rather “how” we could all get along with each other.
When the vestry and I met after General Convention we had been weighing all of this in our minds and hearts for over 18 months. In fact, the vestry seldom spoke about anything else than the issues facing the church. Our parish was headed in one direction, and the Episcopal Church had confirmed their direction in a wholly different direction. We simply ran out of road together. A fork in the road came… and we took it.
The first few months over the summer as we announced our intention to disassociate (in June 2006) we were filled with an adrenaline rush of activity. We were pushing the outside of the envelope and we knew it. We were working with a legal team from California to give us an assessment of our property status within the state of Texas. We were in regular communication with the Bishop of Dallas and his chancellors. Our chancellor and vestry were busy preparing the founding documents for the new Christ Church. We were closing in on a settlement with the Diocese.
When people would get wind of our work they would ask why. Why are you trying to leave the Diocese of Dallas? Bishop Stanton is regarded as a hero. Why not stand with him? And the answer always had to do with the future. We loved our bishop and we had stood by him for his entire episcopate… and he had stood by us and in particular, stood by me. However, Bishop Stanton had made his position quite clear: He did not intend to leave the Episcopal Church and he was not going to lead the Diocese of Dallas out of the Episcopal Church. But he was willing to work with any congregation whose mission would be hindered by continued connection to ECUSA.
Our goals were be upfront and be generous. We didn’t want any bad blood between the Dallas diocese and Christ Church. We wanted to give them every financial consideration that we could afford. The bishop didn’t want to permanently harm the ministries of the diocese, to which we had been contributing close to $450,000 per year. And we didn’t want to have to pay for our buildings and grounds twice. By God’s grace, Jim Stanton had the pastoral heart to put the whole legal contract for withdrawal under the terms of a “pastoral judgment” from his office.
The details were made public after the deal had been signed. Christ Church had paid for everything it owned over the last 21 years without any help from the diocese, save a small stipend up front. The bishop and our wardens agreed to a pre-paid, devolving assessment over a period of the next five years. We totaled it up, borrowed the money, and paid the diocese with a check for $1.2 million dollars.
In September, I sat with the Standing Committee and read my letter of withdrawal. I wept tears and experienced one of the greatest senses of loss and sadness I had ever felt. I was saying goodbye to colleagues and friends, my bishop, my past, and I was saying goodbye to the future I had thought I had been preparing for. I was weeping. Everyone in the room showed deep emotion.
I left with my senior warden. Before he drove out of the parking lot, I asked him to pull up to the front door one more time. I ran inside and hugged and wept over every one of the staff I could find as I said my goodbyes. These were people I had known for decades: the receptionist, the administrative assistants, the accountants, the missioners, and the staff. They were people whom I knew well and knew I would never know again in the same way.
God made my Senior Warden for this moment. On the way back from the diocesan office, we processed the meeting and shared our reactions to it. I was both elated and exhausted. The meeting was over and so was my life and ministry in the Episcopal Church. I do not take these things lightly. My warden was a great friend and gave comfort to me on the drive back.
I went home and fell apart at the kitchen table. Fran and I cried and cried together. I heard later that the bishop went to his office and wept after the Standing Committee meeting. A deep sense of sadness came over me for the next few days. There was great loss. I loved the church and I lamented what needed to be done. But it was done. Relief. Sadness. Hope. Regret. They all came at once and lasted for many days.
The following Sunday I told each of our five services what we had accomplished. I didn’t expect hoots or applause. I didn’t want them. What we had been through was very hard and I felt little sense of joy and victory.
The next few weeks were difficult all the way around. I noticed that attendance and giving were off a bit. I noticed that the sense of celebration that we usually have on Sunday was more subdued one week and then a bit forced the next. We had had a major death in the parish (one of my best friends) which was announced on a Sunday following, too. They were days of deep grief.
One afternoon, I was sullen and sitting on my family room sofa. Fran knew my mood and she knew that sometimes music will work to cheer me up. She brought me my guitar and said, in as directive a tone as I have ever heard her utter, “Here… play something. God always uses music to cheer you up.” I took the instrument and strummed a few chords… in a minor key!
Then, in the back of my mind, some lovely tune from an ancient chant began to press its way forward. My fingers found the notes and my heart heard the words. “Of the Father’s love begotten, ‘ere the world began to be. He is Alpha and Omega. He the source, the ending, He. Of the things that are and have been. And that future worlds shall see. Ever more and ever more.” I sang under my breath the ancient words and they ministered to me in a might way. My spirit connected to that lifeline of music and hope. I didn’t feel anything else for the moment except somehow held in the Father’s hands. Cupped in His Hands. Protected. Strengthened.
We had launched a major capital campaign only a few weeks after General Convention because we knew now we were going to withdraw and we could move forward with our plans. This timing was difficult - there were literally only 23 hours between the announcement that we had received the title to our property and the public launch of the capital campaign! In hindsight, it would have been better for a bit more time to help the church understand its new status. But as the weeks went by, we were able to turn the campaign into a way that the church did get to know itself again.
Things turned out well. Praise God! I began to get back ‘on message’. The congregation shook off the trauma and drama of the previous few months. Attendance picked back up to levels we were at last year. We are growing again. The leadership got behind the capital campaign and on Thanksgiving Eve I was able to announce a total victory for the future of Christ Church. We made three-year pledges for 9.2 million dollars over and above the operating fund giving.
As we celebrate that victory we give thanks to God for his provision and leadership. It has been hard, demanding, and it has taught me more about faith than most any other event in my ministry. I think now about our future and I hear in the back of my mind another quote… but this one not from an ancient chant but from the children’s story of Peter Pan? Where to? “Second star to the right, then straight on till morning… ” What a line! What a future! Where will our future lead us?
That is the subject of my next article.