Saturday, February 24, 2007

Episcopalians Ponder the Price of Unity

We've entered a new phase in the ongoing tug-of-war over the future of America's small but influential Episcopal Church. Here is a link to an article that sums up the current situation rather clearly. And here are a few key grafs that capture the gist:

The global Anglican Communion, represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church, has spent years debating how its 77 million members should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth and sexuality.

But for theological conservatives, the time for talk ended in 2003 when the U.S. denomination consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. To them, the confirmation was beyond the bounds of true Christianity.

Ever since, Episcopalians have had a tough lesson in what it means to be Anglican in the 21st century. The communion was once dominated by its North American and European provinces. But these days, its biggest and fastest-growing churches--by far--are in parts of the developing world where traditional Bible beliefs are not questioned.

As a result, Episcopalians have found themselves on the defensive.

It is no coincidence that Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, is leading the charge against consecrating gays. With its 17.5 million members, the Nigerian church is more than seven times bigger than the U.S. denomination.

Episcopalians who share these conservative views of Scripture are in the minority in their own church. But by putting their time, energy and resources behind overseas traditionalists, they have helped move the communion toward the kind of demands they made this week.

Anglican leaders ended their meeting Monday in Tanzania by giving the Episcopal Church until Sept. 30 to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for blessing same-sex couples. If that promise is not given, the Episcopal Church could face a much reduced role in the Anglican world.
It's unclear how the American bishops will respond to the latest demands from the worldwide Anglican communion. Our new presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, seems to be seeking grounds for some kind of compromise. She speaks of accepting the communion's demands "for a time" while hoping that a more inclusive attitude toward sexuality will gradually emerge.

On the other side are bishops like Mark Sisk of New York, who responded with a statement that included these words:

Over the years I have been prepared to make certain accommodations to meet the concerns of those whose view of the Gospel promise differs somewhat from my own. I am fully aware that those accommodations have not been uncontroversial. Now, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not in the least prepared to make any concession that strikes at the heart of my conviction that gay and lesbian people are God's beloved children. They are we. Our witness to the Gospel would be unthinkably deformed if by some tragic misjudgment we willingly submitted ourselves to vivisection.

We are one body in Christ. Each and all of us rely upon the love of God, as revealed in Jesus, to attain to the life that is ours in Him. We have all been called by God to offer ourselves for the transfiguration of our lives in order that we "may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory." This vision of a God who embraces all in the arms of Divine self-offering love is the vision that is at the heart of the Gospel as I know it.
If the liberal, inclusive majority of the Episcopal Church is split on this issue, then I am a true reflection of the church. I find myself deeply torn. I think that acceptance of gays and lesbians reflects the fundamentals of Christ's own teaching. But like Jefferts Schori, my instinct in this time of conflict is to look for some path of reconciliation with the Anglican communion--perhaps a temporary acceptance of the conservatives' restrictions in hope that time and change will ultimately work in our favor.

After all, as Theodore Parker said (in the line often quoted by Martin Luther King), "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Or, to put it in brutally pragmatic terms, the conservative bishops will ultimately grow old and die. Maybe if we can hang on in the communion until then, the tide will turn in our favor.

I also find myself searching for wiggle room within the conservatives' restrictions. For example, the conservatives want a crack down on officially sanctioned blessings of gay unions. Can we get away with holding such ceremonies in local parishes without the official approval or even knowledge of bishops? (It would be the Episcopal version of "Don't ask, don't tell.") I'm not suggesting that this would be an acceptable long-term solution, just a stopgap while we try to marshal broader opinion on the side of inclusiveness.

The problem is that the conservatives seem hellbent on eliminating wiggle room and forcing a showdown. They want a split within Episcopalianism, which they believe will end with them taking control of a sizeable fraction of US churches, aligning themselves with the conservative majority in developing-nation dioceses, and marginalizing (at least in global terms) the American liberals.

Those of us who by nature lean toward moderation, compromise, and fudging of differences may not have that option much longer.

When push comes to shove and a choice has to be made, I will of course stand with Bishop Sisk. It's a shame that the conservatives have decided to force a split on this issue. I am very sympathetic to the spirit of ecumenism--the notion that all Christians ought to be one. But if, as I wrote in this post, some of my fellow Christians have decided that they simply can't stand being the same room with people like me, then so be it.

If the Episcopal Church of the USA breaks into two denominations--just as Jimmy Carter's Baptist church split over racial integration many years ago--we'll have to live with that. It's not as if it would represent an unprecedented breach in Christian unity. Christians are already split six ways from Sunday, among the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Protestants, and dozens of variations thereon. As I said to Mary-Jo the other day, we're not talking about "one church" suddenly being broken into two--more like 70 churches becoming 71.

At some point, we have to decide how high a price we're willing to pay for unity. It seems that point is coming soon.

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