The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has begun informing scores of priests that they can be released from their ministerial ties to the Episcopal Church to become licensed in any entity they choose.

The move affects approximately 100 priests and deacons who have not been active in the Episcopal Church since October 2008.

The release alleviates a situation where the clergy could otherwise be at risk of disciplinary action for “abandonment.” If that occurred, the penalty would likely be defrocking – officially called deposition – which would bar them from ministry not only in the Episcopal Church in the United States, but also in the world-wide Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S.-based member of the Communion.

In a letter from the diocesan Standing Committee dated October 5, the clergy are given an option of stating their desire to remain active in the Episcopal Church or to allow the release to proceed.

“We’re doing this for pastoral reasons,” says the Rev. Dr. James Simons, the Standing Committee president. “We do not want to see our priestly brothers and sisters deposed.”

Critical Timing

This action comes one year after former diocesan leaders purportedly removed the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh from the Episcopal Church to join the Province of the Southern Cone, part of the Anglican Communion based in Argentina.

Many of the ordained involved in the purported realignment assumed their licenses were also “transferred” to the Southern Cone, but those priests and deacons remain on record as clergy of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Next month, many of these inactive clergy may be asked to join the Anglican Church in North America, an entity newly created by the group’s leaders. Unlike the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, this new religious body is not in communion with the Episcopal Church.

As long as they remain priests and deacons of the Episcopal Church and seek formal admission into a religious body that is not in communion with the Episcopal Church, the clergy could be deposed or otherwise disciplined for having “abandoned the communion.”

A release would protect the clergy from those charges.

Options At Various Levels

The Standing Committee, as current leaders of the diocese, initiated the release on its own. Bishop Kenneth Price, who is expected to become Provisional Bishop of Pittsburgh on October 17, was involved in the final stages of planning and wholeheartedly supports the decision.

Bishop Price stated, "As the Standing Committee worked through this necessary action, I was painfully aware that they were not just talking about a list of clergy, but friends of long standing. For this reason I am grateful the canons provide this ‘softer’ method of allowing those who wish to depart from the Episcopal Church to do so legally without us making a judgment on their ordination."

Unlike a deposition, the release does not remove the priest or deacon from the ordained state, but rather ends the individual’s standing as a licensed minister of the Episcopal Church.

“This does not affect your ordination, which you may register with whatever entity you choose,” the Standing Committee writes in its letter.

The Committee also keeps the door open for future reconciliation, writing, “Please know that this release can be reversed in the future if you so choose, but that the Diocese of Pittsburgh hopes that all of you will decide to remain with us.”

The letter asks for a response by October 19, 2009.

A PDF copy of the Standing Committee’s letter can be downloaded from the diocesan website by clicking here.

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