Follow the Episcopal money

StacksOCashAll together now, let's repeat the central refrain in the ongoing Anglican Communion wars: "The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions." That old, old saying continues to be relevant, as you can see in the latest New York Times piece on the crisis by reporters Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee. The headline sets the scene: "Money Looms in Episcopalian Rift With Anglicans."

Please ignore the fact that the headline writer, once again, incorrectly used the word "Episcopalian" -- which is the noun, not the adjective (as in "Episcopalians get miffed when journalists make Episcopal errors"). Here's some key info near the top of the story:

The truth is, the Episcopal Church bankrolls much of the Communion's operations. And a cutoff of that money, while unlikely at this time, could deal the Communion a devastating blow. The Episcopal Church's 2.3 million members make up a small fraction of the 77 million members in the Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest affiliation of Christian churches. Nevertheless, the Episcopal Church finances at least a third of the Communions annual operations.

Episcopalians give tens of millions more each year to support aid and development programs in the Communion's poorer provinces in Africa, Asia and Latin America. At least $18 million annually flows from Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, and millions more are sent directly from American dioceses and parishes that support Anglican churches, schools, clinics and missionaries abroad.

Bishops in some foreign provinces that benefit from Episcopal money are now leading the charge to punish the Episcopal Church or even evict it from the Communion.

Later in the story we read this:

Work at the Episcopal Church's headquarters is so intertwined with the rest of the Anglican Communion that shutting off the flow of money would put a stop to much of the church's mission and evangelism.

Officials estimate that collectively, a quarter of the church's budget goes to international programs. There are ministries for women, for young people and for peace and justice that collaborate with Anglicans overseas, acting as host to and paying for delegations visiting the United States and going abroad.

This is a very, very timely and much-needed story, but you would expect me to say that since GetReligion has been beating the drums for coverage of this issue for months. The journalists at this blog are also, as a rule, big fans of Goodstein's work.

Still, I have a basic question, after following coverage of this issue for two decades. Here it is: Are all of the gifts mentioned in this report from the denomination's annual operating budget?

The Times does a good job of stressing that there are regional diocesan gifts as well as the national gifts. That is helpful information. However, I would be interested in knowing if any of the money is coming from endowments, rather than budget money.

Here's why. Earlier generations of the faithful often left money in trusts that were to be used for specific causes -- such as "missions" or "evangelism." Many also designated that their money be spent on specific causes in specific parts of the world, such as gifts for missionary work in Africa (to name one location). In many cases that money cannot legally be used for other work. What happens to those endowments if there is a schism?

This leads to another question: Does the word "mission," or the word "evangelism," mean the same thing today as it did when many of these endowments were created? Is it likely, for example, that the Episcopal Church of 2007 will donate money to a different set of "evangelism" projects than those that would have been favored by the Episcopal Church of 1957? Does, for example, "women's ministry" mean the same thing today than it did, oh, two or three decades ago?

This is one case where following the church money might require some focus on what type of money we are talking about. Could the Episcopal Church cut off some of these gifts, even if it wanted to? At the same time, is it possible that these existing endowment gifts could be used as leverage in debates over, for example, the ordination of women and the modernization of church doctrines?

The bottom line: What do words like "mission" mean, and who gets to define them? The people who write the check, today, or the people who donated the money, long ago? Alas, I think the modern lawyers will win that one.

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