Monday, June 04, 2007

What in the World is Happening to the Episcopal Church?

Today I am going to attempt to offer my reflections on what is happening to the Episcopal Church in America (ECUSA). I am hardly an expert on this as it pertains to the complexity of our global communion. On the other hand I have been in the thick of it at small church for the last seven years. So, I am capable of reflecting on how this "crisis," as some would call it, is impacting church. And I have some opinions of what is going on globally. These reflections are my own, not necessarily those of small church, nor the ECUSA, nor the Anglican Communion.

One aspect of the Episcopal Church that I love is our ability as clergy and lay folk to wrestle these issues and have our reflections. Since the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979 the abiding doctrine, if you will, that defines how we Episcopalians waddle through issues is the Baptismal Covenant. This covenant was prayed at our baptism, is renewed by the congregation at every baptism, and can be prayed on certain feast days (All Saints, Baptism of Our Lord, Great Vigil of Easter, and Pentecost) whether or not there is a baptism. The covenant asks us several things:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God's help.

These are the questions, which for me, frame how I approach life in the church, the decisions we make, and the way I lead as rector. First, everything we do, we do with God's help. Secondly, each of these questions informs the other. How we proclaim the Good News is dependent upon our understanding of what it means to seek and serve Christ, loving your neighbor as yourself AND striving for justice and peace among all people AND respecting the dignity of every human being.

I have always appreciate the way Judaism approaches scriptural understanding, through conversation in community. These questions from the Baptismal Rite lead us into that kind of questioning process in our understanding of scripture.

In addition the Anglican Communion has the writings of Richard Hooker (The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 16th century). These writings articulate a middle way, the via media, between the Puritans and the Roman Church, the two divisive influences on the Church of England at that time. By positing a process to work through controversy Hooker has given the Anglican Communion a way through.

Essentially (and again, I am not an expert on Hooker) he says that in working through issues the church and its members should rely on three inter-related aspects: reason, tradition, and scripture. And each of these informs the other. Also, the church should always be grounded in the contemporary world. We cannot address current issues through the lens of the past. Scripture is primary to how we understand our lives and faith - but scripture must always be understood in light of the world we live in - we must use reason and tradition to guide our understanding of scripture. Tradition can inform us but it is not a mandate dictating a response. Also, all conversation about issues must take place in the context of community. Hooker articulates a path to finding a middle way, bringing into the conversation the "extremes" and balancing them to create community and inform faith. Sadly, I do not think we are using his process, nor the Baptismal Covenant to guide us.

The primary issue, which has caused the current level of controversy, is the consecration of a openly partnered gay bishop. The extremes in this case (the Puritans and the Romans, if we want to work with Hooker) are those who believe that this consecration goes against the very fundamentals of our faith and understanding of scripture, and those who believe that the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding us into a new understanding. In the middle are a bunch of folks who aren't quite sure what to make of the whole thing, are willing to try living with it for awhile, and prefer to just get on with church life - worshiping, caring for others, and striving to make a difference in the world. In large part this is because the average church can't really do much about what the larger Church is doing. Yes. We can be informed. But do we really have that much influence?

The ECUSA functions something like a democracy. The founding "Fathers" of our country, those who wrote the Declaration of Independence, were Anglicans. This country and the ECUSA were founded on similar principle. The ECUSA gathers every three years to discuss and make policy (church laws are called "canons"). This "General Convention" is comprised of two governing and decision making bodies: The House of Bishops and The House of Deputies. The House of Bishops is comprised of all diocesan bishops (several hundred, I think) while the House of Deputies is comprised of four clergy (priest or deacon), and four lay representatives from each diocese (about a thousand or so members). Resolutions, which define and nuance how the ECUSA functions, believes, worships, and governs, are created and put before convention. Each house votes on each resolution. Therefore, what ever resolutions are passed at General Convention define how we understand and live as Episcopalians. Some resolutions, if they change a previous canon, need to go through several conventions before becoming "law." Each resolution is prayerfully considered. Many are revised and amended. Many duplicate other resolutions so they are collapsed into one. Every effort is made for the process to prayerful and thoughtful. And sometimes the Holy Spirit takes over the room. (I've never been a Deputy to General Convention, although I'd like too. But I do go to our annual Diocesan Convention, which functions in a similar way except votes are divided into clergy and lay).

The election and consecration of a Bishop is similar. All elected bishops must have their election approved by all Diocesan Bishops and the Standing Committee of each Diocese. (A Standing Committee works with the Bishop to oversee and govern the diocese).

Thus, much of what happens in the life of the church, is done in a "democratic" way. The majority "wins." Which means that sometimes people are annoyed and hurt by what happens. Like it or not, like an election in this country, it is what is. If you want to change the course you need to get motivated and get your thoughts and points of view out there for consideration. Even then, the majority will win.

This means that the mandates being handed over to the ECUSA by the broader Anglican Communion, regarding what they think our Bishops should do, are virtually impossible to accomplish. Clearly other Provinces in the Anglican Communion are not democratic, the Bishop has more authority. But not so for the ECUSA.

One of the things that really irks me is the "interference" of Nigerian Presiding Bishop Peter Akinola. He is staking claims on Dioceses in the ECUSA, consecrating Missional Bishops to serve and evangelize in this country. He believes the ECUSA has erred deeply in the consecration of this partnered Bishop. We have broken with the traditional understanding of scripture. We have grossly sinned. And we are arrogant about it. Some of this is true. Or at least it looks true. However, given how we are governed by General Convention, it is perhaps less true than it seems.

His efforts have had sad consequences. This kind of provincial interference is simply not done. It is rude and in bad form. But, as I understand it he argues that the "Western" world has colonized and invaded Africa, enforcing a western way of life on the people of that continent. He feels entitled to do the same in response. And to some degree I understand that argument. The western world has been wrong in the way we have treated indigenous people in our own country and others. We have imposed our way of life as if it is the only right way.

Still, history has proven us wrong in the way we have gone about this...slavery being one of the worst examples, as well as Indian Reservations and the consumption of native lands here, being another. So. My thinking is this. Do two wrongs make a right? At the very least can't our history and tradition teach us that we ought to consider other alternatives?


Mary Beth said...

Blessings on you for this thoughtful examination of the issues. I was hoping you were going to end up with a solution!! not.

My parents (cradle Episcopalians who have recently led their church in a split to go to the Anglicans) are clearly on one side. I seem to be on the other...and at the same time I identify with your

"...bunch of folks who aren't quite sure what to make of the whole thing, are willing to try living with it for awhile, and prefer to just get on with church life - worshiping, caring for others, and striving to make a difference in the world."

Of course you're spot on. No matter what they (THE CHURCH) decide, I'm not changing my mind. But are they going to take my loving, inclusive church home away from me? (I'm in Diocese of Dallas ... as a parish, we are a bit unusual!)


mompriest said...

Thanks Mary Beth. Living in Dallas your parish is right in the thick of things...sigh. I'm glad my words echo with your experience. I too wish I had a solution.

I really thing though that we need to be going at this differently. It's less about right belief and more about continuing a dialogue. I do think we can have different answers to the same issue with out anyone being necessarily "right" or "wrong."

I once read an article about the Conservative (I think that was the branck) Jews who were debating this same issue about the inclusion of partnered gays in leadership. This article said that five documents had been presented to their "convention" for debate. Each of the five argued the point from a different perspective, some for, some against, etc. According to this article it seemed that all five documents might be deemed authoritative. If so it would mean that each rabbi could determine which of the five to abide by. The members of each congregation(s) would probably be determined by which document the rabbi followed and therefore which one they members wanted to be authoritative in their lives. And yet they could all continue to be members of the Conservative branch of Judaism.(I think the article was in Christian Century Spring or Summer of 2006, I remember talking about it with a rabbi in August last year).

hipchickmamma said...

i appreciate your thoughtful wrestling.

many demnominations are having similiar issues in regards to creating an inclusive church.

how is your local church handling the situation? i have been very curious about the impact of local churches and congregations.

it is painful to look back on our past and see the injustices we have created and wonder how long it will take to see the error of our ways now.

stay strong! prayer is the only thing i can offer.

i think we have to continue wrestling and struggling. i love the anglican baptismal covenant and the idea that it is the centering of which the conversation is supposed to take place.

last night at our umc annual conference a person asked if we precluded sexual orientation and gender identity as a barrier to membership would we then have to change our membership vows since "they" are committed to a sinful lifestyle? in feeling completely appalled a young girl of about 16 stood up and pointed out that if sinners weren't allowed in church none of us could possibly go. she recieved a lovely round of applause.

why does it have to be so difficult to include everyone at the table of God? what is it that drives us to seperate and create these barriers to the love of Christ?

better stop now, sorry for highjacking your blog! thanks for the invitation to the conversation.


mompriest said...

hipchickmama, my local church. sigh. I will blog about that one day soon. suffice it to say we had a two hour conversation on the topic of gays and lesbians before I came. I was certain from that that I would never accept the call, if offered. But it was, and I did. We have navigated these years fairly well. I think they find me a just and gentle leader guiding them to look at the many facets of the issue. Encouraging them to understand the multiplicity of voices, both within the congregation and the church at large. I think I have created a safe place for people to speak and be heard. It has been a lot of difficult work. Most of the time people have been thoughful and respectful. But a few people here were really tough and mean spirited. And a number have left the church. And a few have come in anew.

I'm glad you stopped by and entered the conversation. Thanks!

hipchickmamma said...

you are a brave soul. it's not especially nice but i have found that those who have left have plenty of places to go to, while making room for some folks who have never felt at home or even safe in a church. but i try not to be a butt about it, i don't want to be exclusive or intolerent of those who don't believe like myself either. but i really struggle with that.

mompriest said...

Indeed. My hope is to error on the side of hospitality. But it remains a keep the invitation open for conversation with those who only want a conversation if it abides by "their" side...sigh...I know. I've tried...

Diane said...

I'm late to the conversation, mompriest, but I like your sentence, "err on the side of hospitality." That is such a gracious phrase. I think if I try to work out the theology, I sit on the fence all the time, but if I follow Jesus' example of hospitality, then it is clear what I must do.

Nancy said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and concise explanation of the situation. Being new to the Episcopal church I can say that one thing I have found to be very encouraging is that acceptance and love seem to be valued so much more than judgement. My personal view has become this: If I err, and I know I will, I choose to err on the side of love.

mompriest said...

Thanks Diane and Nancy for joining the conversation. Indeed, I think we can go a long way in understanding what Jesus would do and what we can do, if we ground ourselves in hospitality.

Tripp Hudgins said...

Good stuff. Thanks for flagging it for me. And I think that you are on to something...but where I challenge the thinking, and the same in my own tradition, is in the democratic ideal. In the ABC we try to moderate the "majority rule" with the assumption that the minority perspective is always welcome. But then, that really ain't democratic decision making, it's more the employment of a democratic process (voting) to describe the theological geography of a diverse community of believers.

I wonder if the ECUSA is stuck in a "majority rules" place...thus the minority is ousted either figuratively or literally. Thus, in the Nigerian Bishop's mind, he has to be rude. I think he's wrong, too. Please understand that. It's entirely inappropriate, but I think I get what he's trying to do. Do you think he feels like the more "traditional/conservative" voices have effectively been excommunicated from the ECUSA and are thus in need of rescue?

mompriest said...

In some ways we are stuck in apathy. It takes a few years for the minority voice to get the appropriate number of elected folks who can challenge the conversation and's really about being motivated and informed, and many are neither. This is in part the mistake of clergy who are unwilling to teach their congregations and then also congregants who are "too busy" to really get informed, until their buttons are pushed...

Also. In my experience it really is not about devoicing the traditional/conservative side nor excommunicating them. (Although to some it may "feel" that way). What I have experienced is a very high degree of progressive/liberal back bending to accommodate and encourage ALL voices. We have this, perhaps, unrealistic ideal, that we can be a church of many voices and find a way to live together. I love this church for that. BUT. In reality what ends up happening is some folks will only stay in the conversation if they think they can persuade the rest to follow in their direction. In particular the conservative/traditional voice has been like this. It is the claim to "orthodoxy" and "right belief" and therefore, "we" are "right" and the rest of you have sinned badly.

I think the only real solution is for the ECUSA to be able to stop backbending and begin to clarify and define who we really are. If we really want to be a welcoming church then we need to accept exactly what that means. And in my mind it means ALL are welcome. We can't say we welcome all and then exclude those who don't fit in in a particular way.

I have tried very hard to give voice to all in my congregation. But, like I said, there were quite a few who if we were not willing to leave the ECUSA and join the "Anglicans" then they wanted nothing to do with us. So rather than stay in the conversation they left the church for places that fit their needs.

Akinola I think is just being a bully. He wants things his way. He has created a culture of bullies. There is an entire language developed around this accusing the liberal/progessives of being "dismissive." sigh. For my part, and many I know, we are exhausted from trying to be open and listening and hoping for the same in reponse.

Thanks Tripp for stopping by.

mompriest said...

Ok. Maybe "bully" is too strong and insensitive. But my experience is filled with rejection and refusal to have conversation unless it revolves around persuasion and/or one sided agreement. That I think is what is really sad. And I know both sides are guilty of this. But the average person in the church today is indeed somewhere in the middle.

Tripp Hudgins said...

No...that all makes sense to me. It does. We Baptists try to hold that "All are welcome." tension too. We do it through polity. No one congregation can lord over another. But once there is a national level (or even regional level) voice, this polity gets pushed around by the purity seekers.

Thanks for your thinking on this, Mompriest.

mompriest said...

I know...I hear you... All we can do is continue to try. Try to shape and form our congregations, shape and form ourselves, and be willing to be invested. (And sometimes find others who understand...thanks).

Cathy said...

I actually began reading this posting while on vacation, got distracted, and am just getting back to it,(thank you Mary Beth for reminding me of it!).

My heart is sad for ECUSA as a whole right now - I believe it is way bogged down on an issue, that in the bigger scheme of things, is fairly small. Since when has same sex relationships been a "new thing"? And my, I am sure they have been going on since the beginning of time.
We, as the Episcopal Church, have much bigger fish to fry - dealing with world hunger, AIDS, poverty, violence, etc. WE get bogged down in something like this and beat it to death until some other issue comes up to get on to fight about and cause a ruckus.
Thank you for presenting such a thoughtful posting on this matter. I hope 25 years from now, we can look on this as a small blip on the screen of life - right now, it's like a huge pimple on our face.

mompriest said...

Cathy, I like that image, "it's like a huge pimple on our face"...makes me want to push the metaphor - so, many of us are acting like adolescents? :-) (read middle schoolers...)

Thank you for stopping by and adding your thoughts. I agree and appreciate your thoughts.

Cathy said...

Yeah... and sometimes the pimples go away leaving nothing behind, and sometimes they leave a BIG SCAR.

mompriest said...

Yes. But I wonder if sometimes scars can be useful? Check our Joan Chittister's book: Scarred by Struggled, Transformed by Hope, the Nine Gifts of Suffering. (Or check out my post from April 15 for a summary).

Let's hope that the scars we (the ECUSA, the Anglican Communion) have will lead us to a better, stronger, wiser place...

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