“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

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?