Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Schism--The Easy Way Out

As I wrote here, the Episcopal Church in the USA is facing a crisis driven by its most conservative members. Angered over the installation of a gay bishop and by other acts they view as unorthodox (especially the ordination of women), a relative handful of conservative parishes have tried to withdraw from the ordinary structure of the church and establish ties with African bishops who share their right-wing views.

Back in February, the conservative faction wielded enough votes in a gathering of the worldwide Anglican communion to pass a communique that asked the American church to agree to halt the practices deemed unacceptable or face possible expulsion from the communion. This was an unusual step because the Anglican tradition has always permitted a great deal of leeway to national churches to control their own practices.

The communique also asked the American church to ratify and recognize the links between some US parishes and conservative African bishops--another unusual step, since the Anglican communion has always required local churches to accept the authority of duly elected diocesan bishops. The communique offered a so-called "pastoral scheme" under which conservative US parishes could, in effect, conduct worldwide "diocese hunts" to find bishops whose practices they consider congenial.

Now the US bishops have responded. In this resolution passed at a meeting held in Navasota, Texas, the bishops have reaffirmed their continuing desire to remain a part of the worldwide Anglican communion while rejecting the "pastoral scheme." After listing the doctrinal and traditional grounds for this rejection, the bishops make this point:
Most important of all it is spiritually unsound. The pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation. The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships and the vows that established them rather than seek the transformative power of the Gospel in them. We cannot accept what would be injurious to this Church and could well lead to its permanent division.
Here we get to the heart of the matter. When do philosophical, personal, and spiritual disagreements between people become so great that the only solution is separation? How long do people who have been bound together go on striving for reconciliation, while enduring the pain and anger that inevitably arise from harsh dissension?

This is the question at issue in the looming Episcopal schism. It's also the question--at least one of the questions--at issue when a married couple contemplates divorce, as well as one of the chief questions that the American nation faced during the struggle over slavery.

And perhaps there's a pattern here. Rigid, absolutist conservatives seem to be the ones most eager to insist that separation is the only solution to the unbridgeable differences they perceive between themselves and those with whom they are in conflict.

It was the Southern Confederates who insisted that the only solution to the slavery crisis was civil war. It's the conservative Episcopalians who today are pushing a denominational schism. And--perhaps not coincidentally--the four leading Republican presidential candidates (Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and the as-yet-undeclared Gingrich) have nine divorces among them, whereas the four leading Democrats (Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and the undeclared Gore) have each been married to the same spouse for decades.

I guess, for the "family values" party, marriages--figurative or literal--last only as long as everyone agrees with Daddy. Once he doesn't get his way, he's out the door.

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