Thursday, March 01, 2007

Episcopal: The Way We Do It

Photo of members at worship around the "table" at an Episcopal church in Indiana.

Eternity is not something that begins after you are dead. It is going on all the time. We are in it now.

---Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A monk asked the master: "How are you when death arrives?"
The master replied: "When served tea, I take tea. When served a meal, I take a meal."

---Zen mondo

I don't necessarily agree with everything I say.

---Marshall McLuhan

This is not an evangelical attempt to missionary you folks who aren't Episcopalian. Our denomination has been in the news lately, and mostly we've just gone about our Lenten business trying not to get too excited about it. One Lutheran professor a couple years ago put it to our congregation this way:

The difference between you Episcopalians and us Lutherans is we'll have a huge study committee set about to spend a few years deciding whether openly gay people ought to be bishops, but you guys just consecrate one and figure out the theology later.

That seems to be true about us. And if pressed and even threatened by the Anglican world on this, we'll just elect a woman to be our Presiding Bishop. Is this impudence or what? Are we the wise guys of the Christian community? Now the big meeting in Tanzania has given us 30 days or something to straighten up our act here in the States or else. Increasingly I hear people around my parish say, "Well, if we get thrown out it won't be so bad." Generally I don't like to see liberal groups splintering up all the time, so I was relieved this morning to read an editorial piece in The New York Times~~~

The New York Times
March 1, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
A Divorce the Church Should Smile Upon
Los Angeles

The decision of the global Anglican Communion to threaten the Episcopal Church, its American affiliate, with expulsion is about much more than the headline issue of homosexuality. Yes, the impending divorce has been precipitated by the decision of the Episcopal Church to consecrate a gay bishop and to allow individual congregations to decide whether or not to allow gay marriages. But as so often in religious history, the deeper issue is one of church governance. In effect, the Episcopalians left the Church of England more than two centuries ago.

The problem dates back to the time of the American Revolution, when the Church of England in America was just what that name says: it was the Church of England, merely in America. Since the 16th century, when King Henry VIII made himself, in effect, the pope of England, the English king had been the supreme church authority. Time had somewhat eroded this authority by 1776, thanks in part to the Puritan revolution in the mid-17th century. Nonetheless, the authority structure within the church remained officially monarchical.

So it was no surprise that after the newborn United States broke with the crown in the political realm, the Church of England in the United States did so in the religious realm as well, establishing a democratic form of self-governance under a “presiding bishop,” whose title echoed that of the chief executive of the new nation. The name the new church adopted — from episkopos, the ancient Greek word for bishop — signaled that its governance would be neither by pope nor by king but, as in early Christianity, by elected bishops.

British colonial history did not end in 1776, of course. As the British Empire grew, the Church of England went wherever the crown went, evolving in the process into a religious multinational, called the Anglican Communion, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury exercised a global spiritual jurisdiction. Structurally, however, the Episcopal Church, though long since reconciled with Britain, remained uneasy under this arrangement.

Why? Because the deepest rationale for the creation of the Church of England had been that church governance through separate national churches better reflected the practice of the early church than did papal governance. During its first centuries, Christianity had governed itself as separate but equal dioceses or administrative units, each coinciding with a great capital city, each headed by a bishop; the pope, at that time, was merely the bishop of Rome.

Thus, the same logic that dictated the initial creation of the Church of England dictated that, once the United States had become a separate nation, it ought not to belong any longer to the Church of England nor to the Anglican Communion as a colonial extension.

For sentimental reasons, including now fading American Anglophilia, Episcopalians and Anglicans alike tended to mute this logic. However, under the improbable stimulus of a dispute over homosexuals, the logic may be about to assert itself, with consequences that may be larger for the Anglican Communion, and in particular for the Archbishop of Canterbury, than for the Episcopal Church itself.

Numerically, the 2.3 million Episcopalians do not loom large among 77 million Anglicans. Symbolically, however, given the global importance of the United States, the departure of the Americans will leave the archbishop exposed as a quasi-colonial, quasi-papal figurehead heading a church made up, anachronistically, of Britain and her mostly African and Asian former colonies. This will be an awkward state of affairs, and portends further fissures along the same logic that underlies the impending departure of the Americans.

There is, finally, a quintessentially 21st-century implication to this quite likely split. A solid majority of American Episcopalians supports their church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. A minority disagrees, and some of these members have even sought to pull out their congregations from the Episcopal Church and affiliate with one of the Anglican churches in Africa that have been most vehemently opposed to the Episcopalians’ decisions on homosexuality.

The flip side of such threats is that, along the same lines, any British or Canadian or Australian congregations that wished to disaffiliate from their local forms of Anglicanism might well affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In fact, a few have already signaled their readiness, though in the hope of preserving Anglican unity the Episcopal Church has not encouraged them.

I pass over, for the moment, the many legal complications involved in such rearrangements, the surrendering of church property that is entailed and so forth. The broader point is that communications technology makes new forms of church organization possible, and geographically distant congregations can easily join together. Rather than voting with your feet, you may now vote with your mouse, perhaps the most amicable form of religious divorce.

A generation from now, when we look back on the breakup of the Anglican Communion and on the status of homosexuals within the churches of the world, what may we expect to see? An old proverb holds that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and at this juncture, the Author of Liberty, as a venerable American hymn names him, seems to have taken pen in hand.

Jack Miles is a senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy and a scholar in residence with the Getty Research Institute.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


jazzolog said...

Our Church of the Good Shepherd received a new rector this year whose name is Bill Carroll. He has OK'd the posting of an email he sent me as reply to this article~~~

"I have long believed that this is the last gasp of the British Empire. The Anglican Communion has been kept together with the sword either by the State (in England) or by the Empire (globally). We can't contain our disagreements without some theological coherence. We will continue to be a broad tent, but some theological perspectives are inconsistent with belonging to a broad tent. We also need to oppose the growing tide of Christian fascism. Rowan Williams, an ardent socialist and peace activist,...has become an imperial administrator, trying to keep the colonies in line. The lull of torpor is how the British kept the colonials pacified.

"...This is about power and about the center reasserting itself over the periphery (of the Empire). In the Church, we should have no center but Christ, who is everywhere, directly empowering the faithful to live holy lives in their context.

"I do think that the rest of the Anglican world confuses our revolutionary defiance of injustice and passion for liberty (the good part of being an American) with our unilateral, imperial ambitions (the bad part of being an American). Both are part of blazing modernity. Some of the Enlightenment bashing and new communitarianism forgets that the Enlightenment brough liberation from oppressive traditions and (the ideal of) universal human rights. Our forging ahead looks a little too much like going it alone in Iraq. But we can't sell out one set of Empire's victims (queer folk) in our effort to stay connected with others (the Global South). Just because their bishops are behaving badly and are in bed with the American and British hard right, who don't give a damn about AIDS, malaria, child soldiers, the arms trade, etc. We need to find a way to use the wealth of the Episcopal Church for MDG work, without selling out some of the most vulnerable members of our own Church.

"We need international solidarity that promotes liberty rather than being founded on scapegoating and domination. That the primates can sit idly by while one of their number (Nigeria) collaborates in massive crimes against human rights in his own country shows us how deeply this stinks.



jazzolog said...

Father Bill also sent me a sermon given last Sunday by Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints in Pasadena. You've probably heard of that church because the IRS has been taking a look at its tax status as a result of a sermon, given there in 2004 by its former priest, entitled "What if Jesus debated John Kerry and George Bush". The White House thinks that may have been too "political", compared to the churches it thinks are doing a better job. So here's Father Ed on the ultimatum~~

"As a faith community, All Saints is given graces every nanosecond. However, there are four graces I want to hold up as graces that are being tested right now as severely as Jesus’ baptismal grace was tested in the desert. One is the grace of our knowing that Christians are not advantaged before God more than Jews, Muslims, and other people. The very theology of God's universal grace which makes the sun to shine on everyone alike, that very theology of grace is under attack by conservative forces in the Anglican communion. Another is the grace of women who are ordained as clergy. There are certain bishops who are interested in regressing to a time when we will not ordain women to the priesthood. Another is the grace of our open communion – whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you are welcome. The fourth grace I want to bring to mind is the grace of blessing same-gender unions publicly and joyfully.

"All four of these graces are under attack by the forces and the theology driving the communiqué in Tanzania. Although the communiqué focused only on Gene Robinson's being ordained to the episcopacy – a holy man living in a holy covenant with his life-partner who is also a holy man and the blessing of same-gender relationships, the energies, and I know them and I've read what they write, the energies who want the Episcopal church to 'fast' from justice toward gay and lesbian people have on their agenda coming after those other graces as well including the grace of open communion.

"The way that these graces are being tested in us is whether we as a church will kow-tow to a regressive understanding of Jesus and scripture for the sake of unity all the while scapegoating those who have been oppressed in the name of the Church for 2,000 years.

"Whenever oppression is going on, whenever abuse is going on, it is an act of choosing destructive power over life-giving power to be in either the role of abuser or to be in the role of the abused. That is the perverse nature of the temptation to abuse. You can choose destructive power in the active role or in the passive role. It is an act of complicity in a situation of abuse and oppression to participate in the abusive power by agreeing with it and complying with it and to internalize the abuse. Internalized oppression is just as real as external oppression and it takes place when you comply with abuse by being silent and by ceasing and desisting even for a season. Justice has no season; justice is for every season. You cannot, you should not, you must not fast from justice for Lent.

"Nor are we to try forcing others to see the world as we see it. But relational, redemptive power rather than dominating power says what we at All Saints will continue to say and to do. We will say to everyone in the Anglican communion, 'We love you. We love Jesus. We love Scripture as we use it critically, discriminatingly, and non-abusively. We love the Anglican communion. And we will continue to bless same-sex unions.'

"Jim Wallis of Sojourner's magazine tells a story that is appropriate for us to savor this morning. At the height of apartheid in South Africa, a political rally had been called and then canceled by the government, so Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, 'Okay, we're just going to have church then.' And church he had. The protesters gathered together in the Cathedral in Cape Town and the police were massing by the hundreds on the outside and they were there to intimidate, to threaten, to try and frighten all the worshipers. Jim Wallis who was there said 'I will testify, being on the inside, that I was scared. You could feel the tension in that place. The police were so bold and arrogant they even came into that Cathedral and stood along the walls. They were writing down and tape recording every thing that Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood there to preach. And he stood up, a little man with long, flowing robes, and he said, "This system of apartheid cannot endure because it is evil."' Jim Wallis commented, 'That's a wonderful thing to say, but very few people on the planet believed that statement at that point in time. But I could tell that Bishop Tutu believed it. Then Bishop Tutu pointed his finger at those police standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, "You are powerful. You have behind you the power of the state, you are very powerful but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked." Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, "So, since you've already lost, since you've already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!" And at that the congregation erupted and they began dancing in the church. They danced out into the streets and the police moved back because they didn't expect dancing worshipers.'

"Today we at All Saints Church say to the forces of ecclesiastical abuse, 'You have already lost, come and join the winning side.'"