The Paradise Valley church where the late Sen. Barry Goldwater worshipped and where his ashes are interred, where renowned broadcaster Hugh Downs was last Sunday’s lay leader, has worked out an agreement with Arizona’s Episcopal bishop to transfer pastoral oversight to a New Mexico bishop “whose views more closely reflect that of the parish.”
It’s an arrangement that other Episcopal parishes nationally will watch closely as they wrestle with what they say is a denomination that has strayed from orthodoxy and traditional Anglican teachings. It was exacerbated in 2004 with the ordination and installation of the fi rst openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. That event riled the 77 millionmember international Anglican community and prompted calls to separate from the American church over the issue of homosexuality.
Now Christ Church of the Ascension Episcopal Church, led by the Rev. Kenneth Semon, has completed a three-way agreement that still keeps it part of the Arizona diocese, gives it a different bishop for pastoral support and offers parish members a way to redirect fi nancial donations to areas other than the diocese.
Describing themselves as a “Christ-centered, Bible-based Anglican community,” Christ Church members and vestry have sought a way to respond to changes in the larger church. The church has weighed whether to do nothing and risk losing members, whether to bolt from the Episcopal Church or align with a foreign Anglican communion, as a large breakaway faction from St. James parish in Tempe has done. Some parishes have renounced the Episcopal Church and joined the new American Anglican Council, which touts tradition and orthodoxy.
With the daunting prospect that some Christ Church members were poised to leave if nothing was done, the vestry established a committee to develop options for the parish, whose church sits on land donated by Goldwater. (His home sat on a mountain just south of the campus.) “He had a fence around his property, but he had a gate, and he’d come down here,” Semon said. “He owned all this land but gave us four acres, and we bought four acres” for the church erected in 1975 and recently remodeled.
Rector of Christ Church since 1999, Semon believes that his church will better relate to the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, bishop of the Rio Grande Diocese, who was the third signer to the agreement. “We are really waiting for the Anglican community to work this out at a higher level and provide a structure for orthodox Episcopalians, so we can still be part of the Anglican community,” he said.
After many discussions the past summer, Semon and the Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona entered into the agreement that keeps Christ Church part of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, but with Steenson to provide pastoral care, meeting with the church’s board, or vestry, and carrying out other interaction with the parish. “We are trying to set a prudent path in which we remain in harmony with the Anglican Communion, Holy Scriptures” and the church, Semon said in a letter to the local church.
Under an option developed by the national church, called Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, or DEPO, Christ Church has gone under the care of Steenson, whose diocesan headquarters is in Albuquerque, which serves New Mexico and parts of western Texas.
Smith said the 12-point agreement “is something I feel good about. I think it is an example of the church working well together and saying, ‘You know we are not going to let our differences shatter our unity.’ ” The bishop whose diocese includes 60 parishes called the arrangement a “positive thing” and a “reconciliation effort,” showcasing “the church at its best.”
Smith said talks began early last summer “as a way that we could all stay at the table together.” Rather than the diocese holding a recalcitrant position, the bishop suggested Christ Church consider using the DEPO mechanism. Through a series of meetings, e-mails, drafts and more talks, the agreement was signed Oct. 24.
“It is really important to realize that, in our system, people can leave the church, but parishes cannot,” Smith said. “The parish belongs to the diocese, and the property belongs to the diocese. At the same time, we want to keep as many people at the table as we can.”
Semon said the Episcopal Church began a shift about 40 years ago led by Bishop John Shelby Spong, a theological provocateur who served the Diocese of New Jersey for two decades. He sharply questioned traditional teachings in books and sermons. Spong challenged biblical literalism and rejected the concept of original sin, God as a being and the Virgin Birth of Jesus. He has called for full acceptance of gay people in the church and argues that the Christian Church will die if it does not reinvent itself to serve 21st-century humanity.
“They were unable to discipline Bishop Spong,” Semon said. “The Episcopal Church decided … that it would make it look like a medieval church to have a heresy trial.” Such relativism and a turning away from absolute truths have seeped into many parts of the church, he said.
The rector said his 1,100-member parish is healthy, drawing people from Chandler, Anthem, Surprise, Mesa and Cave Creek as well as the north East Valley because of its traditionalist reputation. “We have people coming a long ways — this is the only orthodox Episcopal church around,” he said, noting that he hosts new-member groups at his home three or four times a year and there are regularly more than 20 people on hand. “It’s a constant stream,” he said, acknowledging that some members, however, have departed because of the church’s conservative position.
Semon said while his church would otherwise pay 16.9 percent of its operating budget to the diocese as an apportionment, the agreement cuts that amount by 50 percent. The other 50 percent will go to outreach, including needs in the Diocese of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, needs on Navajo Indian reservations and a Sudanese mission, but those details are to be worked out.
“There were people in the parish that were concerned that they didn’t want their money going to support the Diocese of Arizona,” Smith said.
With the ordination of Robinson two years ago, leaders in four parishes in the diocese talked of bolting. In 2005, about 175 members of St. James the Apostle Episcopal Parish in Tempe, including its rector, pulled out and formed Living Faith Anglican Church, meeting in leased space in Tempe. It is affiliated with the American Anglican Council as a “missionary province” of the Episcopal Province of Rwanda more than 9,000 miles away. Meanwhile, St. James itself “is doing well” today, Smith said. He said the rectors of St. Augustine parish in Tempe and St. Luke’s by the Mountain parish in Phoenix began steps to join the network of breakaway parishes, but both rectors are now gone, and the two parishes remain in the Arizona diocese as “mission churches,” with debts, or currently need financial help from the diocese to sustain themselves.