Skip to comments.Fight for the faith: Two Anglican parishes form opposing camps
Posted on 05/17/2005 4:51:39 PM PDT by sionnsar
LAUREL, MARYLAND(5/12/2005)--The Rev. Nick Athenaelos presides over a service at the new Annunciation Anglican Catholic Church. Worshippers recite a solemn liturgy using archaic language, sprinkled with "thee's" and "thou's." Some of the female parishioners wear lace veils as a display of respect. The service is led - as required - by males alone.
Organized by a Laurel couple, James and Susan Mathis, and hoping to find a home in Laurel, the newly formed Annunciation Anglican Catholic Mission held its first service at Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in Beltsville on April 3 with about 18 in attendance.
A few miles north, 160-year-old St. Philip's Episcopal Church on Main Street conducts its worship services with a contemporary flair.
A St. Philip's skit April 24 to celebrate Earth Day stars parishioner Betsy Welsh as a sometimes uncertain God who totes a golf bag, cracks jokes and hypnotizes Adam.
At this service, the priest, lay communion assistant and cross-bearer are all female.
Both churches claim as their birthright the Anglican tradition, which dates back to the founding of the Church of England in the 16th century. But in many essentials they could hardly be more different.
St. Philip's is part of the Episcopal Church USA, a 2.3 million-member denomination that two years ago consecrated an openly gay bishop.
Annunciation is part of an approximately 12,000-member denomination formed in late 1970s by Episcopalians concerned about the increasingly liberal direction of their church. The denomination refuses to ordain women as priests.
St. Philip's is identified on www.gaychurches.org as one of two gay-welcoming churches in Laurel; Annunciation is part of a denomination that would never in its wildest dreams contemplate ordaining an openly gay priest.
One church identifies itself as orthodox, the other as inclusive. Playing out in two churches here are two world views dividing the wider Anglican Church - and more broadly, Christendom - over what the Bible means and how Christ's message should be lived in the world today.
Do both - or either - offer a model of how to keep Christianity faithful and vibrant in the 21st century?
The Annunciation way
The Mathises didn't set out to become high-church Anglican Catholics. Susan Mathis was raised a Southern Baptist. James Mathis began life as a Roman Catholic but later became a Protestant evangelical.
Concerns with the evangelical churches, rather than any differences with the Episcopal Church USA, led the Mathises to Anglicanism.
The evangelical churches are often too focused on a comfortable, feel-good style meant to attract converts, they said.
Humans are often the center of the worship there, not God, said James Mathis, who holds a doctorate in American studies with an emphasis on religion. "We approach God in a very formal, solemn and edifying way," James Mathis said.
The Mathises and their young children had been traveling to Alexandria to attend St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Catholic Church and were surprised when both its priest and the bishop of their diocese supported the idea of a Laurel mission.
The Laurel-area location was strategic for the church, which had no congregations in the vicinity, said the Rev. Nicholas Athanaelos, Annunciation's priest.
Annunciation is orthodox but not rigid, the Mathises said. The church opens its arms to seekers and to dialogue. It wants to attract people hungering to experience spiritual growth.
Before becoming Anglican Catholics, the Mathises attended a church so fundamental that any deviation from a narrow doctrine was unacceptable. That's the last thing they want to create in the new church, they said.
"We don't want our community to be like the Stepford wives," James Mathis said. "I'd like our community to be more like the Simpsons ... imperfect people who care about each other ... not clones."
The first service attracted a disenchanted Episcopalian couple, Julie and Ed Day of University Park.
The Episcopal church they were attending was teaching non- gender-specific Bible stories to children in Sunday school, Julie Day said.
While friends sometimes think she left the Episcopal Church over the installation of gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, "it started long before the issue of Gene Robinson," she said. "We were looking for something a little more respectful of the conservative tradition."
The Days are typical of people who seek out the Anglican Catholics, said Athanaelos, who is also priest of St. Andrew and St. Margaret.
Athanaelos said the small denomination is growing. St. Andrew and St. Margaret has almost doubled in size to 300 members since the Episcopal Church ordained Robinson, he said.
"We're experiencing the strongest growth we've ever had," he said." We weren't prepared for the influx."
People are attracted to the Anglican Catholicism because it mirrors what the Episcopal Church was like before all the changes began in the 1970s, he said.
"We want to worship God the way our grandparents did," James Mathis said.
Both Athanaelos and Day expect the Episcopal Church to fracture. "I think a lot of people are waiting for the schism," Athanaelos said.
Consecrating an openly gay bishop "is hypocritical," Athanaelos said, given biblical proscriptions against homosexuality.
If the Episcopal Church were to face the facts, it would acknowledge that it was no longer a Christian body because it was following neither the traditions of the church nor the teachings of Scripture, he said.
Community and inclusion
The Rev. Linda Lebron, who currently leads services at St. Philip's while the church searches for a full-time priest, bristles at Athanaelos' notion.
It's wrong to label the church non-Christian "because we dare to struggle with the issues ... because we change the wording, because we dare to broaden the theology," she said.
Episcopalians are engaging the society, she said, not changing the fundamentals of the faith.
"I'm definitely a Christian," she said. "I believe in the Trinity, and I believe in the presence of Jesus in the world. I have dedicated my life to Christ."
Most parishioners at St. Philip's seem less concerned with the theological debates threatening the larger church than with the sense of community that binds them together.
Words like community, family, welcoming, supportive and accepting are repeated by members to explain their attraction to the church.
"It's the relationships, the people, the open-mindedness" that has kept her coming for 12 years, said Libby LaMancusa of Ashton, the church's senior warden, or top lay leader.
Moreover, the church has "a strong focus on what's important. ... It's a God-based community," she said.
LaMancusa hesitated at characterizing the church as "liberal," preferring the term "inclusive."
Jesus' acceptance of all people demonstrates to St. Philip's the need to accept and include people in the life of the church, LaMancusa said.
St. Philip's inclusiveness included hiring a lesbian priest to fill in for an interim period several years ago, though it wasn't done to "be a political statement," LaMancusa said.
The vestry "felt she was the best candidate the diocese gave us," she said.
Amy Elmquist, who was raised Unitarian, finds St. Philip's lack of dogma refreshing. People are encouraged to explore their spirituality, she said, and to openly discuss issues such as the last presidential election, abortion and gay marriage.
"The Episcopal Church is so not fundamentalist," she said.
On the controversial topic of the consecration of Robinson, "Most people felt very comfortable with that decision, but even those who disagreed were accepted," she said.
The unconditional acceptance and warmth at St. Philip's helps people to grow spiritually, she said. Because people experience Christ's love there, "it's much easier to live it."
About reverent worship, Elmquist is thoughtful. The founder of a contemplative prayer group, Elmquist uses prayer beads and silence "to be completely God-centered. ... Yes, I think there are a lot of things in modern worship not conducive to that union" with God, she said. "There might be too much of making ourselves God's buddies."
Yet the good sermons Lebron preaches are important, Elmquist said, because they show how the Bible applies to everyday life.
Is St. Philip's relevant or relativistic? Will skits about a golf-playing God, acceptance of gays and ordination of women become a ripple that fades away as time goes on or is it the beginning of a lasting reinterpretation of Christian thought?
Are the Anglican Catholics hopelessly unrealistic and out of touch in their quest to turn back the clock on church doctrine and practice? Or do they represent the cutting edge of Christianity?
These issues, which hinge, ultimately, on different understandings of Biblical language, lead to the sharp differences dividing Anglicans.
For example, should women be ordained? No, Athanaelos said. Because Jesus broke rules all the time, if he had wanted women to be priests, he would have chosen a woman as one of his 12 apostles.
Women are allowed to become senior wardens, however, Athanaelos said. Priests answer to the senior warden, which means that women can hold power in the church.
"The line is drawn ... at the altar rail," he said.
Not surprisingly, Lebron disagreed. "There should never be a line," she said. "Everyone is invited to the altar." Faithfulness, not gender, should determine whether someone becomes a priest, she added.
Anglican Catholics "probably don't consider the possibility that God language is flawed," she added.
Therein lies the core of the debate: to the Anglican Catholics, when the Bible says "he" it means "he." To the Episcopalians, the Bible was composed in a patriarchal world where the pronoun used to describe God was more a function of the culture producing the text than an absolute reflection of God's gender. As was the choice of apostles.
The Episcopal Church refers to Mary Magdalene as "the apostle to the apostles," Lebron pointed out, since she was the first to bring the news that Jesus had risen. This is one reason for women priests.
But Anglican Catholics are not swayed. It's not prejudice that dictates women can't be ordained, James Mathis said. It's a millenia-old truth standing against the fashion statement of the last 35 years.
Annunciation would not perform a skit in the middle of service, said its priest, said Athanaelos. It's not part of the service outlined in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. A skit could be done before or after the service, he said.
But to Lebron, strict orthodoxy in worship should be subordinate to "the creative energy" of the church.
St Philip's, she said, "grapples" with the big issues of the day -- and is willing to tolerate a measure of uncertainty.
In contrast, "we know who we are and what we believe," Susan Mathis said of the Anglican Catholics. "There are things we are not going to compromise on."
Some internal critics of the Episcopal Church say its current direction is carrying it toward obsolescence.
Without changes in ideology to move it toward the center, the Episcopal Church will become a "boutique church," perhaps losing four-fifths of its current 2.3 million members, said the Very Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl, dean and president of the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa.
On the other side, Bishop John Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, to which St. Philip's belongs, said the Episcopal Church is broken, but not yet split.
Chane's vision of Christianity puts him firmly in the inclusive camp. Christianity is "meant to be lived on the edge. ... It's pretty clear to me," he said, "that if we take our marching orders from Jesus, Jesus wasn't all that enamored with orthodoxy."
Despite the hopes of some Anglican Catholics for a break, "schism is the worst heresy," Chane said in a phone interview.
He puts the denomination's current struggles in perspective. Most of the Protestant denominations are facing deep division, he said. Further, "great tension" over doctrine has always been a hallmark of the Christian church.
Chane sees good arising from the controversies in the worldwide Anglican Church. Finally, far-flung parts of the church are engaging in "intense dialogue and communication."
However, the dialogue can get heated.
For instance, Chane accused Zahl of telling a "flat-out lie" when told of Zahl's contention that the Diocese of Washington doesn't allow its seminary students to study at Trinity.
"I have never, ever said anything against that seminary," Chane said. "That (misrepresenting the truth) is some of the stuff that goes with the religious right in the Episcopal Church."
Moving to the middle
Despite the tensions, in the end, people below the leadership level on both sides seem more interested in religious freedom than in fighting.
Elmquist, for example, is thoughtful and neutral in her attempt to weigh the views of the Anglican Catholics against those of the Episcopal Church.
"It's more important that they (the Anglican Catholics) be fed than that they fit a cookie-cutter (image) of what I think they should be," she said. People need to "make a space for God to work."
The Mathises, too, emphasize that their way of worship is not for everyone. They don't want to fight with people; they are far more interested in building a caring community that serves the needy and worships Jesus.
Their denomination is "not just a lifeboat for disenchanted Episcopalians," James Mathis said. "We want this to be a place anyone can come, regardless of religious background."
One observer suggested the Episcopal and the Anglican Catholic denominations represent parts but not the entirety of what the Christian church needs in the future.
Dr. Michael Gorman, dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore suggested the Episcopal Church would continue to shrink if it remains out of touch with the values and traditions of many of its constituents.
On the other hand, the Anglican Catholic Church will remain small if it clings too rigidly to the past, he said.
"There are elements in both the extremes that are valuable and need to be preserved," he said. There "has to be some compromising and moving more toward the middle."
Chane said he still sees common ground in the Anglican community. The rank and file of the church, on both sides, seem more interested, he said, in building faith communities and serving in the wider world than fighting over doctrines.
The key is to work together on the many, many issues the different sides agree on, he said, such as battling AIDS in Africa.
"How can we come together to fight the issues that are destroying God's children?" he asked.
I love the line about "not just being s lifeboat for disenchanted Episcopalians"..Before I left..I spent many a sermon gazing up at the "inverted lifeboat" of my parish..
I'm willing to believe that she is probably correct. What does that say about the other candidates -- and the bishop?
I'm glad the writer at least attempted to balance both sides. You can tell it went against the grain, though. The progressive church has "flair" while the Anglo-Cathlics use "archaic" language.
Funny. I never noticed that the language in the 1928 BCP was archaic. I guess if you manage to read the KJV more than once in your life, the repetition improves your English so much that you have to go back to Chaucer for really archaic language. Sheesh!
You wrote: "What does that say about the other candidates -- and the bishop?"
It speaks volumes. Having turned my back on my cradle ECUSA parish when Bishop Warner of the Olympia Diocese foisted a lesbian priest off on us, I can personally relate to the situation.
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