For those of you not in the area or not in Episcopal circles, a property dispute has been going on between the breakaway ACNA congregation (hereafter referred to as “Bizarro St. Edmunds”) that occupied the building of St. Edmunds Episcopal Church in Elm Grove, Wisconsin and the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee. As a neighboring rector, I did not feel it seemly to comment on the goings-on there. At the end of 2011, a Waukesha County court ruled that the property and all its contents belonged to the diocese. This is not surprising, considering the way most court cases are going in the US and the fact that Wisconsin has some specific precedent. What was surprising was the state that the breakaway congregation left the property in. I found out about it in the Waukesha Freeman. To wit:
“When we went on Feb 1 to see the church, which we’d been locked out of for three years, there was some defacement to the altar - some charcoal writing.” Said the Rev. David Pfaff, spokesperson for the Episcopalian (sic) Diocese of Milwaukee. “We’re not 100 percent sure, but they appear to be Hebrew characters that say something like “The Glory of God has departed.”
Also, you will notice in the photo that the sanctuary lamp container is sitting upside down on the altar. Another symbol of the presence of God being removed.
The Freeman interviewed The Rev. Dr. Samuel Scheiber, the pastor of the breakaway congregation. His response was to say that Rev. Pfaff’s comments were a concerted effort to paint Bizarro St. Edmunds in “The worst possible light” and that “when you’re going to leave a church in a time of conflict, there are certain things that you do.” He also claims the Hebrew reads, “No Glory.” (I’m going to point out here that due to the way Hebrew works, the word could be read either way. Pfaff’s interpretation would be more Biblical. In any case, as Rev. Scheiber indicates in the article, it is a clear reference to the Phillistines capturing the Ark of the Covenant.) He goes on to say, “This has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with our service and with closing out our site of worship.” In a final note, Rev. Scheiber indicates that the diocese “isn’t guiltless,” because Bp. Miller performed the rite of “Restoring of things profaned,” at the site, including sprinkling holy water on the property the day after the diocese had taken possession of the property. He bemoans that children at the day school on the site saw this.
OK. Those are the facts as reported. So now the commentary…..
Um... The worst possible light???!! It’s the light you intended from your own comments! I’m not sure where Rev. Scheiber got his “certain things that you do” in a time of conflict, but nowhere, in Anglican or Roman usage, have I been able to find directions to write in Hebrew on an altar for any reason. In the Roman church, a church is deconsecrated when the bishop declares it to be so and the sacrament is removed. There is no rite. In the Episcopal Church, there is a rite for “Secularizing a Consecrated Building” in the Book of Occasional Services, but it involves reading a decree from the bishop and several prayers. No charcoal, no writing. For a congregation that claims to be “traditional” in their liturgy, it sure seems like they are making things up.
It is very hard to believe that this “had nothing to do with them (the diocese).” Otherwise, they would have removed the writing before vacating the premises. Since there is no liturgical justification for what they did, and it was left for the diocese to find, it is pretty clear that this was an ecclesiastical middle finger gesture. Did they think this through? Since the property is owned by the diocese, they have technically vandalized a house of worship and photographed themselves doing it. That’s a hate crime, folks. I doubt the diocese will press charges, but it would be a pretty easy case considering the incriminating photographic evidence published in the paper.
As to the school children being traumatized by the sight of a bishop sprinkling holy water - really? Holy water is threatening? The rite is commonly used in spaces where there has been conflict to “clear the air” before continuing with use. It uses the language of “whatsoever in this church has been stained or defiled through the craft of Satan or by human malice, may be purified and cleansed by your abiding grace; that this place, purged from all pollution, may be restored and sanctified, to the glory of your Name.” The rite does not infer that the members of the breakaway congregation were not Christians or apostate - simply that the place has seen a lot of malice, and no one can deny that. On the other hand, inferring that the people of the Diocese of Milwaukee are pagan “Philistines” in an interview with the newspaper does make a statement. So does defacing an altar. Evidently, since Rev. Scheiber had, like Elvis, left the building, the spirit of God had to go too.
Around Christmas, I had some sympathy for the members of the breakaway congregation. Even though I felt they were in the wrong, I could sympathize with losing one’s long-standing house of worship. I have none left after witnessing these antics which are dishonoring to them and to God as well as harmful to the spread of the Gospel. The people I have sympathy for are the loyal Episcopalians who were locked out of their church for three years, and then returned to find the altar they worshiped at defaced by their former fellow congregants.
Nice one, Bizarro St. Edmunders. You didn’t hurt the bishop you despise, but you did manage to punch the laypeople you used to call your friends and church family in the stomach a second time. What would Jesus do in a time of conflict in the church like this? I’m not sure, but I can tell you this - he did upset money changers, but he didn’t deface altars dedicated to his Father.