Thursday, December 21, 2006

Episcopal Schism "Very Well Staged"

Updated below

You've probably been reading and hearing about the "schism" within the Episcopal church over issues like the empowerment of women, abortion, and, especially, gay rights. Here is a side of the story you haven't seen reflected in the MSM.

This article from the church's official Episcopal News Service describes the experiences of Sandra Kirkpatrick and Dawn Mahaffey, two longtime members of St. Stephen's Church in Heathsville, Virginia. It's one of eight parishes in the state that recently voted to "secede" from the Episcopal church and place themselves under the leadership of a new right-wing splinter organization headed by a bishop from Nigeria.

In December 2003, Kirkpatrick said, a vestry survey showed that the majority of St. Stephen's members wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church.

However, Mahaffey recalled, the perceived failings of the Episcopal Church "became the topic of [Rector Jeffrey Cerar's] sermons from that point forward. It did not matter what the liturgy was for any given Sunday or what the Gospel was, there was always a way to bring the topic around to that issue. We very often got the message that the Episcopal Church had sinned and needed to be repentant."

"It got to the point that our needs for pastoral oversight and ministry were not being met because of the single-minded focus on this issue. We were not hearing the Word and how that was applicable in our daily lives. I don't think we were being ministered to in all of our needs."

There was a "steady outgo of people who found this message intolerable," Kirkpatrick said, and a "steady influx" of people who approved of the leadership's position.

"Everyone down here knew that St. Stephen's was taking this stance," she said.

Mahaffey said the growing disaffection with the Episcopal Church "has been very well staged."

"I think it has been sold to the congregation," she said. "Three years of hearing it week after week after week."

The issue of homosexuality was the "precipitating event but it has gone so far beyond that that I haven't even heard that mentioned in probably the last year," Kirkpatrick said. "The first year it was an issue, but not since. It has been: 'We know the truth and we are telling it to you. If you don't accept this truth then you really don't belong here."
After almost three years of this, the parishioners voted to support Father Cerar's "secessionist" proposal. It's an interesting approach to democratic governance. I tell you what: Give me control of a church pulpit for close to three years, let me use that pulpit to promulgate my social and political beliefs every Sunday, and I bet by the end of the experiment the majority of people remaining in the pews will be people who agree with me.

The so-called conservatives who support the secessionists might respond to my sarcasm by saying, "You liberals can dish it out, but you can't take it. Why is it all right for the church to ordain homosexuals, thereby advancing your left-wing agenda, while our traditional values have to be silenced?"

Personally, I wouldn't much care for a parish where the rector preached a sermon in support of acceptance for homosexuality every single week. There are other topics of importance in the life of the church. So I have serious questions about any priest who chooses to use his weekly sermon exclusively to promote a political agenda--whether I happen to agree with that agenda or not.

More important, however, let's remember that this is not a symmetrical debate. The "liberals" in the church are not forcing or urging anyone to be gay. They are not forcing parishes to recognize gay unions. They are not even forcing anyone to have gay friends or a gay rector. (Episcopal churches hire their own priests, and each parish is free to be as progressive or conservative as they like in their choice.) They are simply permitting individual parishes and dioceses to recognize gay rights--and, if they choose, to recognize the ability of gay men and women to serve as deacons, priests, and bishops.

So if the "conservatives" feel they can no longer remain members of today's Episcopal church, it's not because anyone is forcing unacceptable religious, liturgical, political, or even "lifestyle" choices upon them. It's simply because--metaphorically speaking--they can't stand being in the same room with certain of their fellow Christians.

I think that schisms within and between denominations are very unfortunate. I believe God wants all humans to be brothers and sisters--and obviously that should apply to all Christians as well. I appreciate the good-faith efforts that the "liberals" in the church have made to accommodate the strong feelings of their "conservative" brethren (and susteren--as in Greta?), including the self-imposed 15-month moratorium on ordinations of gay clergy consecrations of gay bishops that the church maintained through June of this year. Christians who find themselves at odds with one another over matters of faith or practice shouldn't be in a hurry to head for the divorce court.

But if, upon careful reflection, the "conservatives" decide that they find me or certain of my fellow Christians so repugnant that they can't bring themselves to share the same church with me--all I can say is, they shouldn't let the door hit them on the way out. And if, as they depart, they expect to claim ownership of church property that generations of Episcopalians, straight and gay, helped to pay for--well, we "liberals" can hire lawyers, too.


In my original version of this post, I goofed--I described the moratorium from March, 2005 through June, 2006 as having been a moratorium on ordaining gay clergy. Actually, it was a moratorium on consecrating gay bishops, as reflected in my correction above. Sorry for my error.

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