Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Family That Stays Together...

Today you may have read or heard about Bishop Jack Iker and a significant number of his followers in the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth who have separated themselves from the Episcopal Church.  That has happened in three other Episcopal dioceses over the past year or so.  According to the dissidents, who claim to be "purists" of the faith, their dioceses are "leaving" the Episcopal Church.  That's quite impossible under the guidelines of the Constitutions and Canons of the Episcopal Church because dioceses are created and/or dissolved only by agreement of the Church's triennial General Convention.  The situation is even stickier for the Episcopal Church in that the four departing groups have, in most cases, absconded/will abscond with church property and funds held in trust for the Episcopal Church. Any way you look at it, it's a sad debacle.  Hardly the kind of witness which a group (both sides!) purporting to follow Jesus wants to display publicly.  

Yesterday and today the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California held its 98th annual Convention in Redding, CA.  I've been a member of this diocese for 31 years and served as an active priest for 25 years before retiring last year.  Not that I'm that much less active now! This year is only the second time in 26 years that I've not attended the Convention.  I have to say that I really missed attending.  The bonds that have been forged with other members of the Diocese over these 30+ years are very strong.  We are very much like an extended family.  Convention is the one time when a goodly number of the "family" can have a reunion, reconnect, think about the "good ole days", gossip together, and share our visions and dreams for the future.  Not to say that it's all hunky-dory, by any means! There are definite polarities among our people and groups at times; we don't all see or do things the same way.  But we manage to cohere, to literally "stick together".  One reason is that we have a fairly new Bishop, Barry Beisner, who suggested a sort of healthy group mantra for us when he was first elected:  "Focus on the mission; stay together; keep moving forward together in Christ."  By and large, I'd say that most folks in the diocese are generally proceeding according to that agenda.  Thankfully, only one parish, with its clergy and most of its people, and a few other individuals in other parishes, have chosen to walk away.  

The other reason for our cohesiveness as a diocese, I believe, is our rather hardy history.  In 1975, in his booklet The Episcopal Church in Northern California - An Overview, the late Father Charles Eldon Davis, diocesan historian, described that hardiness:

"The constant continuing requirement to visit lumber camps, fishing villages, mining areas, farm lands, hamlets, villages, and occasional cities, has meant that our bishops over the years, have had to be continually 'enroute' both physically and spiritually.  One of the most urgent challenges...has been to bring, in their own person, some family identification to the many heterogeneous groups within the jurisdiction...
[They] have known the strain of trying to assimilate life styles, economic outlooks, political inclinations, and natural insularities of diverse groups into an harmonious pattern which can be known as the visible Family of God in this northern third of the state of California..."

The first bishop of what was to become the Diocese of Northern California was Bishop William Ingraham Kip (1853-1874).  He was elected in 1853 and hastily consecrated in October that year, so hastily that, as he himself observed, "...I never received any official notice of my election, nor did I in any way send an acceptance."  Behind this was an urgent need for church leadership in the expanding West.  Kip's task was indomitable: an incredibly huge area, expensive travel by land and water, make-shift surroundings for services, dealing with the expectations and feelings of many kinds of people,  etc.  Father Davis refers to one incident, only three years after Bishop Kip took charge of the area.  In 1856 a group of prominent laymen, including the then 4th Governor of California, J. Neely Johnson, left the membership of Grace Church, Sacramento, and founded their own church, conducting services in the Senate chambers! By the time Governor Johnson left office in 1858, all reference to their existence had been expunged from the district's official records, so no one really knows why they originally left Grace Church, nor what was the ultimate outcome of their venture.

Northern California was a slow starter; it was growth- and financially-challenged during the episcopate of Bishop John Henry Ducachet Wingfield (1874-1898).  He was the first missionary Bishop of the new Missionary Jurisdiction of Northern California, established in 1874.  He inherited 24 counties in the northern third of the state, an area of 52,564 miles.  Its population numbered 214,019, of which some 25,000 were Chinese and another 2500, Native American.  The Episcopal Church there had a 660 communicants, and Bishop Wingfield's salary ($2.00 per communicant, plus $3000 from the Board of Missions), about $4320, was never increased during his 24 years of service!

Son of an Episcopal priest, Wingfield was well-bred, raised among horsepeople in Virginia, a child prodigy who could read at age three, study Latin at six, and Greek at nine.  A graduate of William and Mary College and Virginia Theological Seminary, he was interested in the Oxford Movement and the challenge of "growing" the early Episcopal Church.  He also endured much personal hardship and adversity during his 24 years in Northern California.

As a young Southern priest, Wingfield had first-hand experience of the terror of the Civil War.  His parish was taken away from him and he chose imprisonment, rather than sacrificing his convictions.  Later he was sent to a rural Maryland parish, 16 miles wide, where he served his people on horseback.  The 1874 General Convention elected him Bishop as he was on his way to become the rector of Trinity Church, San Francisco.

Six years after he came to Northern California communicant strength had grown by only 103, and the finances were so desperate that Bishop Wingfield almost accepted the House of Bishops' offer for him to go to Louisiana.  Yet he remained loyal and devoted to his people, having a passion for and a commitment to missionary activity and education, despite continual frustration and even giving heroically of his own financial resources to the jurisdiction.  About halfway into his episcopate, Bishop and Mrs. Wingfield were attacked and robbed in their quarters in at St. Augustine School, Benicia, which he oversaw.  In the summer of 1889 their son, John Paige, was shot and killed in Benicia by a jealous schoolmate over the school's grading system.  Seven years later Wingfield suffered several paralyzing strokes, occasioning a two-year interregnum by Bishop Anson Graves (1897-1899), until Bishop Wingfield died in 1898.

John Wingfield was just one of a succession of Episcopal bishops who left their impress on the people of Northern California, and led Episcopalians there to reach out to people in their communities with sensitivity and compassion. Early on there were intentional efforts at inclusiveness and diversity by both laity and clergy: to women, especially under Bishop Graves; to Native American people, such as the Hoopa in Humboldt County; to the Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican populations of Sacramento County.  That hardiness of spirit has endured down to the present.  I'm proud of our diocese, if you hadn't figured that out already.  Despite our occasional differences, and they're certainly not to be minimized, it appears that we've learned how little there is to be gained by running away from one another, but a whole lot to be enjoyed by sharing the diversity and richness with which we've been blessed.



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