The voices on the telephone sound angry and anxious and they keep calling Charles Nalls at the Canon Law Institute and telling him sad stories that he has heard many times before.
They have been faithful. They have filled their pew for decades. They receive Holy Communion on kneelers covered with their own needlepoint and the prayer books are dedicated to their loved ones. They have washed altar cloths and signed checks. Now they're asking hard questions because they aren't sure what their church teaches, anymore.
They have decisions to make and the clock is ticking.
"They just feel shattered," said Nalls, whose non-profit institute handles legal disputes in many ecclesiastical settings, including the Episcopal Church. "I tell them, 'For God's sake, revise your wills! Do it, literally for God's sake and your own sake.' ... There are millions and millions of dollars worth of buildings and endowments and trusts that are at stake and people need to do whatever they can to stay out of the court battles that are dead ahead."
In recent weeks, Nalls has heard from three dozen parishes that are considering severing ties to the Episcopal Church, in part due to last summer's landslide House of Bishops vote acknowledging that many believers live in "life-long committed relationships," outside of Holy Matrimony. The bishops pledged to provide "pastoral care" for these Episcopalians, but stopped just short of authorizing rites to bless sexual unions outside of marriage.
Most of these parishes, said Nalls, seek ties with two bishops who were consecrated last January -- by a global coalition of Anglican prelates -- as missionaries in America during a time of doctrinal and pastoral crisis. Bishop Chuck Murphy III of Pawleys Island, S.C., serves under the Anglican archbishop of Rwanda and Bishop John Rodgers of Ambridge, Pa., fills the same role for the Anglican Province of Southeast Asia. Together, they have formed the "Anglican Mission in America" and hope to oversee up to 80 parishes by next summer.
Meanwhile, other parishes want to align with "continuing" Anglican bodies that left the Episcopal Church during earlier battles over a modernized prayer book and the ordination of women. Others are investigating Eastern Orthodoxy, on one side of the ecclesiastical spectrum, or opting to become "independent Episcopal churches," on the other side.
The response of most Episcopal leaders at the national and diocesan level has, understandably, been chilly silence or fiery condemnation. The bottom line: See you in court. The national and local hierarchies will continue to insist that they own the buildings and endowments of congregations that choose to depart. The majority of the people in those pews will continue to disagree.
The colonial and contemporary legal issues are stunningly complex and recent actions by the overseas primates could inspire new questions and legal scenarios. Would the opinions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, have any standing in an American court? What would happen if a global gathering of primates voted to censure or even amputate the Episcopal Church from the body of worldwide Anglicanism?
Already, there are two competing ecclesiastical bodies on America soil that are recognized as valid by segments of the Anglican Communion -- the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Mission in America. What will happen when a procession of archbishops and bishops from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world testify in court that parishes exiting the Episcopal Church are merely seeking to follow the tradition and doctrine of the global Anglican hierarchy?
Who wins in a battle between the Episcopalians and the Anglicans?
Once, Communion existed at four levels -- parish, diocese, national and global. Now, the American hierarchy is convinced that Episcopal traditions, doctrines and laws are best defined by diocesan and national authorities. Meanwhile, the rebel parishes in America believe that courts should validate the views of Anglicans voiced in local parishes and at international conferences.
Nalls concluded: "Are there really two traditions, one for the Episcopal Church and one for the rest of the Anglican Communion? That's a scary question and I am sure there are a lot of Episcopal bishops who don't want to have to answer that question, right now."