Skip to comments.Bonfire of the Sacristies: To the 2006 General Convention
Posted on 04/13/2006 10:02:30 PM PDT by sionnsar
There are two regular, official publications in the life of the Episcopal Church which today stand in the most stark, and most revealing, contrast. One is the smartly-edited national church monthly newspaper, Episcopal Life, which sports aggressively upbeat headlines about Episcopal laypeople involved in racial reconciliation, young adults' ministries, investment in Palestine, and the growth of church publishing.
The other is the dour national church yearbook, the Episcopal Church Annual, which publishes detailed break-outs of diocesan statistics, clergy listings, the Episcopal succession list, and similar matters so leaden that the front-matter advertising is usually the most interesting part of the entire production.
If we were to judge by the relentlessly chipper news-and-features contained in Episcopal Life, life has never been better for Episcopalians. We are engaged in soul-satisfying work relieving hunger and oppression, spreading good cheer, hugely enjoying each other, and listening to the untroubled words of wisdom dropping from priests, diocesan bishops, and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
(From the December 2005 issue: "Hundreds visit each day to see the exhibit of Washington National Cathedral's multi-cultural crèche collection"..."Armed with paintbrushes and spades, vinca, azealeas, peat moss and mulch, volunteers start church makeover project"..."Prince Charles and Camilla worship in California").
Pages thirteen through twenty-two of the Church Annual dispel this image in a cascade of brutal statistics. In 1994, the Episcopal Church claimed 2.4 million members in 7,367 domestic parishes and missions; in 2002, those numbers had declined to 7,305 parishes and missions and 2.32 million members. In 2003, the numbers took a sharper downturn, as the Church lost a net of 85 parishes and missions and over 35,000 members; in 2004, the downturn accelerated, as the number of parishes and missions fell again to 7,200, and membership totals spiraled southwards even more steeply, subtracting another 36,000 members and reducing the overall membership to 2.25 million.
In the United States, there are 159 million members of Christian churches; in the world-wide Anglican Communion, there are 77 million, with 9.2 million in Nigeria alone. This means that the Episcopal Church has become statistically negligible on the horizons of both American Christianity and the Anglican Communion.
It accounts for little better than 1% of American Christians, and less than 3% of worldwide Anglicanism. And this, of course, is predicated on the official membership figures. Reckonings of actual attenders on Episcopal Church services then sinks to about 795,000, according to the Episcopal Church's own national web-site, and even that is down from 850,000 only three years ago.
Over that time, the Episcopal Church has been, on average, hemorrhaging the numerical equivalent of a congregation a day. On the other hand, numbers are not a moral quantity. We could, if we liked, reconcile the shrinking circle of the Episcopal Church by pointing out that small families can be just as happy, and sometimes happier, than large ones, and that Episcopal Life's insistent perkiness simply reflects the fact that small is beautiful.
But even this rationalization falters when we apply the loupe to the diocesan level, for there, the picture becomes a dark landscape of barely-surviving parishes and dioceses whose parlous state is balanced only by the outsize wealth and visibility of a handful of Northeastern, upper Midwestern, and Pacific Coast dioceses.
The diocese of New Hampshire was never likely to be a powerhouse, but all the same it has only 49 parishes, a baptized membership of 12,000, and an estimated attendance on Sunday mornings of 5,000. The diocese of Arkansas has 56 parishes and approximately 12,000 members, of whom perhaps only 5,000 are regular attenders.
The diocese of South Dakota has closed seven parishes since 1999, shed 5,000 members since 1999, and will run a $1.3 million deficit over the coming fiscal year. In the diocese of Iowa, ten out of 62 of the diocese's parishes have less than twenty members left on the rolls. The diocese of Colorado, a comparative giant with over 100 parishes, will limp into its third consecutive deficit budget in 2006.
The even-larger diocese of North Carolina squeezed into the black by selling off its 210-acre diocesan campground, and in the diocese of Pennsylvania (where I live, and where approximately 70 of its 160 parishes are unable to support themselves), budgetary matters have become the most uniformly contentious issue in diocesan conventions. Overall, the number of Episcopal parishes registering attendance growth has declined 46% since 2000; and it has been broadly spread, too, since over half of Episcopal parishes (52%) have experienced that decline.
Like the family farm, which had become too insignificant to warrant the an occupational identifier in the 2000 census, the Episcopal Church looks like becoming, in fifteen years or so, a church too numerically feeble to earn even a line in the World Almanac's annual register of American denominations. But these are not, in fact, the worst numbers. By far the most ominous statistics concern the age of the people still in the churches.
A recent Lilly Foundation survey found that less than 1% of Episcopalians were school-age - in other words, elementary school through college. In 2002, 49% of all Episcopal clergy were in the 50-60-year-old age bracket; 38% of the laypeople were 60 years old, or older. The Episcopal Church, in other words, is withering all around us.
There are, to be sure, many ways to account for this. We worship in a structured, liturgical fashion, while all around us, our culture celebrates informality, relaxation and spontaneity. We insist on defining the "marks" of the Church as oneness, holiness, and catholicity; the rest of American religion defines them (as Duane Arnold and George Fry have wryly suggested) as "upbeat music, adequate parking, a warm welcome, and a dynamic sermon."
So perhaps the problem is not in us, but in our stars, and we should content ourselves with the realization that Episcopalianism is a mandarin taste in religion (like Shostakovich or crème brule) and not worry our heads over what is, in reality, a mark of cultural superiority.
Or, just as comforting but slightly more exciting, we can blame Episcopal marginality on our progressive social/political postures, from civil rights to homosexual rights, and simply write off the membership losses and financial losses to the price a blue-state church has to pay for justice in a red-state nation. We are to be, as John Shelby Spong puts it, a "prophetic church," and prophets cannot be expected to be popular.
I wish I could take comfort in these rationales. But I cannot, since fundamentally, they share a suspicious characteristic, and that is, the giving of permission to ourselves to do nothing. Liturgical worship, it is true, goes against much of happy-clappy religious frisbee-throwing that passes for worship in many places I have been; but if the problem was liturgy, it would afflict all liturgical churches - and it doesn't.
The Episcopal Church, it is true, likes to see itself taking up brave and prophetic stances that must, for the sake of discipleship, cost it casualties. But what, exactly, have we been prophetic about? William Augustus Muhlenberg was probably the most prophetic Episcopal churchman of the 19th century, especially in his focus on ministries to the poor, the sick, and the unemployed, ecumenicity, and his revival of women's ministries (in the form of the female diaconate, pioneered by Muhlenberg's disciple, Anne Ayres).
But Muhlenberg was also an Evangelical, and lived long enough to see his brand of Evangelicalism disowned by the leadership of the Church and his friends driven from its ministry. Muhlenberg is any sign, we lost any real purchase on 'prophetic' stances a long time ago.
Too often, the actual context of our 'prophetic' practices makes the word fail on the lips. John Henry Hobart, the most famous Episcopal bishop between the Revolution and the Civil War, thought the great 'prophetic' virtue of the Episcopal Church was its promotion of the idea of "subordination" - hierarchy, in other words, not democracy or equality.
A Southern Episcopal bishop, Leonidas Polk, resigned his see to become a Confederate general; a northern Episcopal bishop, John Henry Hopkins, wrote a disastrously ill-timed polemic during the Civil War, defending slavery as a Biblical institution. A century-and-a-half later, the House of Bishops still interprets leadership as micro-management, and prefers tinkering with liturgical, social and its own internal governmental issues to the reasonably mandate of evangelism.
True, we held high the banner of the Civil Rights Movement, but only at precisely the moment it was safe to do so - not in the 1890s, after Plessy v. Ferguson, or in the 1910s, at the high-point of lynching. We ordained women, but a decade after The Feminine Mystique and the 1966 "Committee to Study the Proper Place of Women in the Ministry of the Church."
The 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual male priest, as bishop of New Hampshire, was framed as an event likely to cause the unwashed to stone the righteous to death. But did anyone ever believe that the Robinson consecration would be denounced by NPR or made the subject of a reprimand from the New York Times?
A genuinely prophetic life promotes a community of accountablility in which people meet as equals, as in a neighborhood, without indulging self-complimenting illusions; by contrast, the General Convention frequently has the feel of a stage-managed shareholders' meeting. Why not simply accept the fact that Episcopal progressivism is the establishment?
It would not, after all, be the first time that Episcopalians have sat in the establishment sky-boxes: in the 18th century, Episcopalians were the church of Tory property-holders (those whom the American Revolution had not driven off, that is); in the 19th century, as cultural power slipped from property-holding into industry and finance, the Episcopal Church sedately re-positioned itself as the church of Wall Street, or State Street, or Chestnut Street.
It became, as Kit and Frederica Konolige so sharply put it, "a religion for sophisticates," or for mercantile social-climbers eager to acquire "Good Form." It should come as no surprise that, as cultural power has shifted yet again in American life, from industry and finance to the acquisition and manipulation of information, that the Episcopal Church should once again reposition itself, and take up the ground occupied by what Peter Drucker called, "the knowledge class" - the class of Seinfeld, the class of Bill Gates, the class of what David Brooks lampooned as "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians) who live in inner-ring suburbs and whose chief social identifier is a blue New York Times bag in the driveway.
(Not that saying this insults us; to the contrary, none are better than Episcopalians at making fun of Episcopalians. Our self-esteem is so gigantic that not even the most viciously-barbed humor disturbs us). Episcopalians who excuse the diminishment of the Church on the grounds that it is paying the necessary penalty for being 'prophetic' ignore the fact that prophets speak from the bottom, and in pain, upwards, not from the perch of cultural approbation, downwards. Prophets, also, are persecuted, not feted, which suggests the very interesting question about which foot the prophetic shoe is on these days.
In Connecticut this past July, the diocesan bishop, Andrew Smith, inhibited the Rev. Mark Hansen, a critic of the bishop's participation in the Robinson consecration; the bishop thereupon descended upon Hansen's parish with a locksmith and security guard, deposed the vestry, and appointed a vicar in Hansen's place.
In the diocese of Central Florida, diocesan bishop John Howard attempted to impose a Letter of Agreement on five anti-Robinson rectors, and provoked the secession of one (to be followed, in all likelihood, by the others). Inhibitions and threats of canonical prosecution under Canon IV.10 (for "abandonment of communion") have been flying in Ohio, Pennsylvania, eastern Michigan, and Kentucky.
The point is not whether the individuals involved are necessarily right or wrong, or justified or unjustified. It's that the hard hammer of conformity, which prophets should normally expect to feel whacking them on their heads for being prophets, has not been visited on the Episcopalians who usually like to think of themselves as 'prophetic.' Inhibitions and canonical prosecutions are not the tools of prophets. They are, instead, the weapons of an establishment.
Prophets are also generally not bishops. Partly, this is because of the discernment process through which clergy now pass, and which very few prophets are liable to survive; partly, this is because of the bureaucratic role that modern church management has thrust upon diocesan bishops; and partly, this is product of the vetting process which has developed out of that role.
Although Episcopal seminary enrollments are at an all-time high, those numbers increasingly have seen a shift upwards in median age, as more and more Episcopal seminarians come to the priesthood from other careers. This is usually lauded as a positive development ("See, we're developing a more mature, more intentional pool of candidates....") but it frequently disguises the fact that many of the second-career seminarians are rolling off first careers which were flops.
(This should be a warning that someone may be looking for a short-cut to status or prestige that eluded them in the secular world, rather than seeking how to become a servant of Christ). The result is that many second-careerists enter the priesthood for the wrong reasons, and at the wrong age, when they will not be able to acquire sufficient years of parish service to deepen their understanding of what pastoral administration is all about.
Let them become bishops, and they will fall back on the reflexes of their first careers, and a great deal of what we have seen in the way of inhibitions and canonical proceedings reflects exactly that - the response, either of irritated bureaucrats for whom my-way-or-the-highway is the operating principle, or (worse) of inexperienced bureaucrats who are afraid to be seen as weak in front of the long-service office-holders in diocesan headquarters.
These decent souls become bishops because the episcopal vetting process tends not toward selecting the best or brightest, but the corporate-minded. In a process similar to that which has seen colleges and universities turn increasingly to career fundraisers and administrators for presidents, rather than scholars or intellectuals, episcopal search committees tend to attract as members people whose lives are bounded by corporate life; they, in turn, tend to recognize their own kind as the most comfortable choice for a bishopric.
But a bishop does not preside over an organization; he serves a life, and along with that life come complications which do not usually afflict organizations. A CEO is not usually called upon to deal with middle-managers whose objections to the CEO's strategic plan are based on the word of God; but bishops whose chief recommendation for the office has been simple decency or a knack for facilitating committees will not be a bishop for long before situations of intractable theological conflict appear in the room, and at that point, all the virtues which made them attractive candidates to the search committee will turn out to be useless.
In that event, the CEO-type response will be, first, mystification, then embarrassment, and finally irritated backlash. I have known more than enough truculent clergy over the years who have begged for, and deserved, a good episcopal backlash or two; but in today's climate, the backlash tends to corporate and political, not theological.
So, while the decks of the Episcopal Church cant ever more steeply toward capsizing, its episcopate is puzzled why campaigns of salesmanship and openness do so little to stop the flooding. Instead, they find themselves beleagured by dissent and litigation, two ugly realities for which both seminary education and the episcopal selection process have left them unprepared.
The House of Bishops has, very much to its surprise, found itself ostracized by the Anglican Consultative Council and scolded by the Archbishop of Canterbury, suffered a revolt by several of its members who have formed a dissident "Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes," and been rebuked by the Windsor Report. No wonder the bishops, who were never given any reason to expect that they had more to do than make their dioceses happy, have been sluggish and petty in their response.
The results have been two-fold, and neither have been pretty. On the one hand, bishops who have suddenly found themselves confronted with situations for which they have no mental pigeonhole have proven unable to resist the temptation to politicize dissent; and when separation, division or schism result, they are surprisingly indifferent to schism's spiritual entail.
I have never understood how, as Episcopalians, we can so energetically deplore schism - even to the point of treating schism as a greater offense to Christian integrity than unbelief -- but simultaneously be so unwilling to acknowledge any measure of responsibility for having provoked it. The confrontations in Pennsylvania, eastern Michigan, Florida and elsewhere should have seen bishops in tears, that the body of Christ should have been rent on their watch.
The unhappy first officer on the Titanic's bridge when it struck the iceberg is said to have shot himself in remorse before the liner sank; if he were an Episcopal bishop today, he would seek to inhibit the iceberg and issue statements deploring schism between the water-tight compartments. And if there is going to be one good, final and for-all-time demonstration of episcopal failure and the inadequacies of the whole sorry apparatus whereby the least-prepared are inducted into the ranks of the most-responsible, it is precisely the schism which now begins to loom iceberg-like over us as the General Convention of 2006 draws near.
Up to this point, I have tried to keep my attention on the statistical and organizational factors contributing to Episcopal decline, without involving myself in the fundamental question of whether Episcopal decline is what the dissidents frankly believe it is: the product of a basic moral failure, a desertion of catholic or biblical standards, or a subversion of the most primary tenets of Christian revelation.
That, I think, is best addressed in the pulpit rather than the historical quarterly. However, what cannot be ignored is that never in the history of the Episcopal Church has outrage over failure, desertion and subversion reached such a violent pitch. The depth of that outrage has caught most of the Church by surprise.
It shouldn't. Although Episcopalians like to tell themselves that their Church has, unlike more déclassé brands of American Christianity, always been an untroubled sea of live-and-let-live tolerance, the truth is that Episcopal history has been pockmarked with division, argument, and denunciation (which is another reason we have so little energy left for evangelism).
The Episcopal Church hadn't even actually been officially born before, in 1785, High Churchmen and Latitudinarians were threatening to go their separate and unlovely ways. The Church split in 1861 over the Civil War, with Southern Episcopalians organizing a Confederate Episcopal Church. And in the later 1860s and 1870s, Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals were litigating, agitating and raising general havoc with each other, culminating in the 1873 separation of the Evangelicals under Kentucky bishop George David Cummins to form the Reformed Episcopal Church.
It is a marker of how early the corporation mentality was at work in the Church that no one, from the Presiding Bishop on downwards, ever made the slightest gesture of reconciliation to Cummins, or made the slightest acknowledgement that Cummins and the Evangelicals had been compelled to watch their dearest principles as Evangelicals routinely trampled-upon.
The most recent upsurge in Episcopal separatism occurred in the 1970s, over the ordination of women and the 1979 Prayer Book, and has persisted as a slow seepage into what became known as the "Continuing Church" ever since. And the same wonderful indifference, the same refusal to acknowledge even a scintilla of shared responsibility for schism, has repeated itself in the House of Bishops. And why not? In a corporation, one does not mourn the departure of one-time brethren, the way one should in a family, or a neighborhood. It would make the shareholders uneasy.
What has made ignoring our past history of separatism convenient is the relatively short (or feeble) shelf-life of these movements. The Confederate Episcopal Church lasted only slightly longer than the Confederacy itself, and was absorbed painlessly back into the national church in 1865. The Reformed Episcopalians started strong, with Cummins, an articled Episcopal bishop, at their head and a regiment of Evangelical secessionists behind him; but George David Cummins died less than three years after the beginning of the Reformed Episcopal movement, and after his death, the Reformed Episcopalians fell upon each other in a frenzy of internal strife.
By 1915, the Reformed Episcopal Church had drifted into a small-scale - and unthreatening - backwater. The Episcopal Church at first denounced the Reformed Episcopalians, and then, when it became clear that their movement had stalled, pretended that it had never heard of them. The "Continuing Church" dissidents who split from the Episcopal Church in 1978 lacked even a figurehead bishop. Instead, they consecrated four of their own number - Robert S. Morse (whose parish had left the Episcopal Church in 1977), Peter F. Watterson, James O. Mote (the rector of St. Mary's, Denver, which walked out after the 1976 General Convention), and C.D.D. Doren - who quickly fell into quarrels that ripped the movement into dozens of tiny, ridiculous pieces. Watterson converted to Roman Catholicism; Morse, Doren and Mote all ended up leading split-off movements of their own.
By 1988, the Continuers had fractured into seven principal groupings, with dead-weight names like the 'Anglican Catholic Church' and the 'Anglican Rite Jurisdiction of the Americas,' and not more than 51,000 members; fifteen years later, a more realistic estimate pegged the membership numbers at closer to 30,000 in the United States. The dissidents who form the Network, or who have left over the past three years to form the Anglican Mission in America, will not be immune to the momentum of separatist movements to keep on separating. Two issues in particular - the ordination of women and liturgy - are only waiting until the dissidents meet the first challenge to their common front, and then the self-lacerations may well begin.
The common denominator missing from all of these separatist movements has been legitimacy. Separatists who keep on separating do so because they have no confidence that their new separatist organization possesses more legitimacy, or deserves more deference, than the one they separated from. For Episcopalian separatists, that legitimacy has usually been bound up with episcopal headship and the material profile of Anglicanism. Without an incontestably genuine bishop at the head - and there is no point here in entering into a definition of what makes a bishop 'genuine' -- and sufficient numbers or visibility to present a culturally-commanding front, the separatist movements have dwindled into oblivion or insignificance. (This does not, incidentally, speak well for what Episcopalians really consider the "marks" of a church; we are, in that light, less far removed from the "marks" of parking, music and therapy that we deplore on the larger American landscape).
The fact is that Episcopalianism does not flourish in small rooms. It is made for grand spaces, practices good theatre, and exudes the faint aroma of undeserved success - all of which constitutes one more reason why dissent and secession in the Episcopal Church is usually accompanied by a single-minded preoccupation with who gets the property, the props, and the endowments.
The General Convention of 2006 is free to assume that the threats of separation generated by the Robinson consecration need be taken no more seriously than the threat of the Reformed Episcopalians or the Continuers. This may make us, however, similar to those armies which are always prepared to win the last war, for in 2006, the circumstances are significantly different. For one thing, the issues are of a different order than ever before.
There has always been enough room in the interpretation of doctrine, or even the question of who should be ordained, to dispel the kind of urgency that generates outright division and schism. But homosexuality is about personal moral practice, and despite every effort of Integrity and Via Media to cast homosexuality as a "rights" issue, this is one "rights" issue to which, as Alan Wolfe discovered, Americans have been peculiarly resistant. "Moderation and tolerance - an appreciation of the modest virtues - are the bedrock moral principles of the American middle class," Wolfe wrote in 1998.
But Wolfe found that tolerance was not an infinitely-plastic virtue: "The line separating gay America from straight America is a line that an unusually large number of middle-class Americans are unwilling to cross." It is also an issue which rasps painfully on laypeoples' nerves, and those bishops who have behaved as though it were only a political or bureaucratic issue have been unusually tone-deaf to the moral resonance which the dissidents have generated.
Even more ominous is the network of international alliances which the dissidents have constructed. In 1873, at the time of the Reformed Episcopal eruption, the Anglican world was white, English-speaking, and securely headquartered in Britain and north America; in 2006, the 'average' Christian is an African who lives in the Congo river basin, and the Anglican provinces of Africa, Asia, and Latin America dwarf the crumbling structures of Anglo-American Episcopalianism.
Peter J. Akinola, the archbishop of Nigeria, has oversight of 17½ million west African Anglicans, and speaks as the titular head of another 22 million across Central Africa. And they are, overwhelmingly, on the side of the dissidents. The first moment of their emergence as a voice to be reckoned-with in the world of Anglican affairs came at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, when African bishops, for the first time, stopped being post-colonial decoration for the Anglican Communion and started behaving like real players at the table.
Together with north American conservatives, they forced from the conference a declaration "rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture." The American and British church leadership, who had worked for three decades to promote an international Anglican consciousness, were unprepared for that consciousness to question them, and were inclined to blame the surge of the African bishops on bribery by north American dissidents (or, in more bleakly racist terms, on African primitivism).
The refusal to take seriously the opposition of Global South Anglicanism has had two painful consequences. First, it has caused the House of Bishops to underestimate hugely the genuine depth of horror that the Robinson consecration generated in the Global South. "Homosexuality is against the book," one Nigerian laywoman told the Washington Post, "Here we still follow the book. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality.
That's it. God doesn't change. He's not human." Anglicanism in the Global South still has the imprint of missionary and crusading fresh in its heart, and is accustomed to fighting strenuously against militant Islam to win its way; it has none of the establishment mentality that afflicts the Episcopal Church or the Church of England. Of necessity, it marches as to war, and it is as fully prepared to wage that war against la trahison des clercs in its rear as it is against the jihadists in its front. Second, this refusal has caused the British and American establishment to underestimate the real skill the Global South bishops have shown, not only for independent action, but for political maneuvering that has outshone the best efforts of the Communion bureaucracy at damage control.
It took only a month after the Robinson consecration for the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes to have thirteen of the Episcopal Church's dioceses signed-on, with promises of recognition by sixteen of the 38 Anglican primates. In July, 2005, the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA), together with Archbishops Drexel Gomez and Gregory Venables of the West Indies and the Southern Cone, announced plans for the formation of a Council of Anglican Provinces of the Americas and Caribbean (CAPAC) "to provide regional solutions to regional needs."
Translated, what this means (according to Venables) is the creation of an alternative Anglican communion. "How we begin to realign, we don't know," Venables said, "I do not personally think the Anglican Communion will survive as we know it because we can't bring together the two elements, they are antithetical." Nothing of this sort has ever emerged in any Anglican separatist movement before. We are, in other words, not in Kansas anymore. What is this likely to mean for the Episcopal Church and the General Convention of 2006? Plainly, unless some clear step backwards from the Robinson consecration is made, the dissidents will secede. Such a step is unlikely to be made, and so the secessions will come.
The secessions may happen individually, or as parishes, or even as rump dioceses. But unlike the previous secession movements in the Episcopal Church, they will immediately have the protective legitimacy of the Global South bishops to sustain them.
In November, 2005, over 2400 dissident bishops, clergy and laypeople met in Pittsburgh (the seat of the dissidents' most publicly-recognized American bishop, Robert Duncan) to hear Archbishop Akinola warn against accepting crumbs from the table of the House of Bishops. "All they have been doing so far is to try to justify their actions and to defend their impudence".
The dissidents must "make up your mind of exactly what you want to do. ... If you really want the Global South to partner with you, you must let us know exactly where you are." The "thunderous applause" which greeted Akinola's challenge indicated pretty much where the dissidents thought they were. Two days later, Akinola wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, urging him "to use your moral authority to challenge the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to call for the immediate cessation of any blessings of same sex unions and on any ordinations of those in such unions in every diocese in the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada."
The General Convention could, of course, conclude to tough this out, either by issuing conciliatory but tactically-empty statements, or simply by telling the dissidents to go ahead and make the General Convention's day, using the twin threat of deposition from the priesthood and seizure of property (under the "Dennis Canon") as the means for chilling the dissidents' urge for separation.
This certainly worked in 1873 and 1978, and in October a leaked memorandum emerging from Via Media suggested that plans were already under way to draft presentments against sixteen dissident Episcopal bishops, and file lawsuits to claim diocesan property. Whether this will work in 2006 is another question.
With the Global South primates ready on the sidelines, deposition from the American priesthood may not be all that serious a threat to the dissidents anymore; and movements against the church properties of secessionist congregations have met with singularly disappointing results over the last several years (not to mention whopping litigation costs). The diocese of Pennsylvania is now in its fourth year of thus-far fruitless litigation over the properties of three dissident parishes, while the legal billing-meter runs merrily onward.
In August, 2005, when St. James, Newport Beach, broke its ties with the diocese of Los Angeles, the California Superior Court ruled against the diocese and in favor of St. James; it ruled again in October, on appeal, that the diocese had no "valid claim of ownership to the local parishes' land and buildings." Without the scimitar of the Dennis Canon to hang over the dissidents' heads, the General Convention may lose the only realistic weapon it has left to restrain a mass exodus.
But are weapons what we want to find ourselves talking about? The discipline of the Church is first about bringing people into reconciliation with Christ - not about bringing them into reconciliation with each other, with an institution, or even with themselves.
"The ministerial commission to exercise episkope is not the same thing as the privilege of being kings and priests to God," Colin Buchanan observed at the time of the ill-starred Anglican-Methodist unity discussions, but that does seem to be exactly the misconception which has come to prevail, and which responds to dissent as lese-majeste and encourages bishops to become judges "administering what must be a very rough justice from a desk."
The really dismaying aspect of the Via Media memorandum was not its assumption that separation was likely enough to justify plans for anticipating it, but that the anticipation of it was cast almost entirely in political terms. There was no soul-searching, no reflection on the horror and wastage that schism inflicts on both sides, no urge to prevent a separation in the name of the Body of Christ -- only a determination to salvage from it as much material and corporate capital as possible. Not that the dissidents haven't been guilty of the same: I remember that, in the wake of the 1978 ruckus, the most-frequently-asked question I heard from dissident priests who were thinking about leaving the Church for the Continuers was "Will this affect my pension?" The moment I heard that, I knew their movement was doomed, and so it was. Dissent without suffering is cheap. That so many dissidents in the Episcopal Church seem to want dissent without suffering is the surest sign that this may all come to an end without creating more than another footnote to Episcopal history.
In fact, if the General Convention has any hope of avoiding the shipwreck that, at this moment, seems surely before it, then this hope can be based only upon the sufferings of Christ. "The church lives true to itself when she obeys the call to take up the cross," wrote N.T. Wright over a quarter-century ago, "If that means self-denial at a personal level, at a corporate level it will mean that tradition and custom and fashionable ideas are all to be laid on the altar before God to be sacrificed. ...A church that seeks merely to save its life, merely to preserve itself for posterity, will lose it." If the dissidents are prepared to throw all their lives, careers, properties, pensions and what-not into the cauldron of Christ's suffering, and walk away as though these things never existed or never mattered...if they are ready to rebuke themselves for having broken the unity of the Body of Christ and offer full and meet repentance for an action that they know to be tragic rather than celebratory...and if they are then prepared to go forward without a look back to the Church, but only forward to the Kingdom of God...then they will be irresistible.
On the other hand, if the House of Bishops and the General Convention are prepared to remember that the Kingdom of God is always of greater import than the Church...if they are willing to embrace their responsibility, as bishops, to prevent schism as a crime against the Body of Christ rather than a political solution that rids them of troublesome clerks...and if Christ, in all his fullness and glory, means so much more to them than Episcopal clubbiness, that they are willing to love as the father of the prodigal did and give them every part of the inheritance they demand, as though they had no personal stake in inheriting anything but God's love...then the Convention will have lit a hot coal of remorse which will burn in the hearts of the dissidents as no other instrument can. The historical record is not long on encouragement that this understanding of the "ecclesiological implications of the biblical Gospel" will prevail.
In one of his less sensational moments, J.A.T. Robinson once wrote, "Just as the New Testament bids us have as high a doctrine of the ministry as we like, as long as our doctrine of the Church is higher, so it commands us have as high a doctrine of the Church as we may, provided our doctrine of the Kingdom is higher." A failure to explore and practice the oceanic meanings of that sentence may, at root, be the thing that wrecks both the Episcopal Church, and the larger Anglican Communion. The Church, for its life, has only one appeal and that is to the Gospel. The moment is makes its appeal for life merely to its own institutional existence, then it has lost the only ground upon which it, as sinners, it can stand before God.
For these things, let us pray. And may it be unto us, according to Your word.
--Allen C. Guelzo was appointed as the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and professor of history at Gettysburg College.
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