Concerns over the financial health of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland overtook theological issues at its convention yesterday as U.S. Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning asked parishes to give weight to "stewardship, partnership and accountability."
The national head of the Episcopal Church, visiting from New York, is functioning as chaplain to the convention at Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn in Baltimore County. His comments followed some bad financial news for the clergy and lay delegates.
An expected sale of the former headquarters of the Maryland diocese at 105 W. Monument St., vacant since 1990, fell through this week. The original $1.25 million asking price for the brownstone mansion near Mount Vernon Place had been reduced in stages to between $600,000 and $700,000.
While Diocesan Treasurer W. H. Holden Gibbs was clearly disappointed, he assured the delegates that an eventual sale of the old Diocesan House will reduce the debt incurred by construction of a new headquarters on University Parkway.
Saying he wanted to deny "rumor, innuendo and accusation" with regard to the financial condition of the diocese, Mr. Gibbs told the convention, "As I go around the state of Maryland, I have heard that the diocese is bankrupt, that our loan is too big to handle, that it's going to drive us down. That is false. We are now in better financial condition than we were last year."
Bishop A. Theodore Eastman had reported to the delegates that "a financial crunch in 1991 required the pruning of our diocesan budget" and as a result "our pledge to the national church was undersubscribed by $292,067." Nevertheless, the bishop said, "the Diocesan Council regards that 1991 shortfall as an obligation to be met, and the Budget Committee expects to propose a five-year payment schedule, beginning with the 1994 budget."
Bishop Eastman has announced that he will retire in January.
In his final address as chairman of the diocesan convention, he had urged Thursday night that competing resolutions on human sexuality and other theological controversies be referred to a new diocese-wide convocation to be created solely for this purpose.
But a committee responding to this request yesterday turned it down, saying, "We can have all the meetings we like, and we will achieve nothing without a renewal of the power of the Holy Spirit within each one of us."
Yesterday, resolutions calling for the official church blessing of same-sex unions were referred to committees -- tabled in effect -- along with resolutions seeking to block approval of any sexual relations outside a conventional marriage.
Bishop Browning said, "Sexual relations outside of marriage are not appropriate," but he also called on Episcopalians "to be in dialogue with the gay community" and suggested that "the gay community is tired of being treated as an issue."
The committee responding to Bishop Eastman's address, although rejecting his proposal for a convocation on doctrinal questions that have divided the diocese, praised him for his 11 years of leadership.
"This committee believes," the members told the retiring bishop, "that your episcopate is an authentic embodiment of what it means to be a faithful witness in a hostile world."
Chaired by Cathedral of the Incarnation layman John Thorpe, the committee also included three priests and two other lay members. They were the Rev. Michael Curry, the Rev. Sandra Haines, the Rev. Robert Patterson, Georgia Giacobbe and Jean Nelson.
Singled out by the committee as one of the bishop's most successful accomplishments was the headquarters next to the Cathedral of the Incarnation on University Parkway. It has been criticized by some in the diocese as an extravagance.
"We applaud you," the committee told Bishop Eastman, "for articulating and bringing to fruition the vision of a cathedral and Diocesan Center in a single place. We acknowledge that place as an outward and visible sign of the unity that Christ offers to a desperately fragmented world."