Benediction Online

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Schism in the Episcopal Church?
There have been a number of news reports this week that the Episcopal Church is in schism. This is an attempt to provide a background to the media story.

Over the last fifty years the Episcopal Church has made some quite big changes. If you were transported back to a service in the 1950s you would probably be amazed at the difference. None of these changes have happened without critics within the church. Since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s some felt that the church was getting into inappropriate political areas and should focus more on its spiritual task of raising individuals and families in the ‘historic faith’. This sense that the church was trying to serve the world rather than God increased when in the 1970s a new prayer book was adopted with more focus on celebration and less on sin, and women were ordained as priests. The church’s critics began to argue that the Episcopal Church had turned away from the historic faith and biblical teaching and was being absorbed by American culture.

This way of thinking was supported by the growth of right-wing, conservative Christianity across the US. Within the Episcopal Church, many different conservative pressure groups have, since the 1980s, sought to turn the church back to what they believe is ‘orthodox’ Christianity. They have experienced themselves as a persecuted minority and have attempted a number of times to create a different structure within which they would receive the ministry of ‘orthodox’ bishops. Each of these attempts failed and so they cultivated relationships with conservative bishops in Anglican dioceses overseas and convinced them that the Episcopal Church is in serious trouble.

As a result, these bishops have been persuaded that the Episcopal Church is heretical. From their perspective the church (1) has refused to discipline those, such as Bishop Spong, who have taken radical positions which are at first sight contrary to traditional teaching; (2) has changed the Prayer Book, thus changing the emphasis of traditional teaching especially about sin and redemption; and (3) has continued to welcome gay and lesbian people. These are seen as symptoms of a bigger problem, the apparent refusal to acknowledge the authority of the Bible. (Actually, most Episcopalians fully accept the authority of scripture but not the way it is being interpreted by these conservatives.) The ordination of Presiding Bishop Katharine was the final straw, not because she is a woman, though this is a problem for some, but because she interprets the Bible according to current historical-critical understandings and supports the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons. Thus she embodies all that is wrong with the Episcopal Church.

Several of the ‘primates’ (head bishops of Anglican churches), mainly from the Global South, have sworn to take action on behalf of those who are holding to the ‘orthodox’ faith. Many conservatives hope to create a separate church which would become the ‘official’ Anglican Church in the US, so the Episcopal Church would no longer be recognized as part of the Anglican Communion. The diocese of San Joaquin has taken steps in this direction by eliminating from its Canons and Constitution all references to the Episcopal Church. This will have to be ratified at a second diocesan convention, which could be held as soon as March. The Archbishop of Nigeria, Akinola, seems determined to earn his place in history by leading the ‘orthodox’ to the safety of a new church. He has made a Virginian rector, Martyn Minns, a bishop in the church of Nigeria but functioning in the US. Two large churches in Virginia have decided to join the Nigerian church under his pastorship. This is what is being described as ‘schism’ by the media.

Over the years many parishes have decided to leave the Episcopal Church for other small Anglican churches, usually conservative. Yet others have decided to join the Episcopal Church. Whenever a parish decides to change denominations it raises difficult questions about those who do not want to change and the intent of those who gave money, time and energy to build the church buildings and endowments. It is particularly complex when a church decides to leave the Episcopal Church but join another church in the Anglican Communion – something that would be unthinkable had conservatives not managed to declare an extreme emergency of faith in the Episcopal Church.

In February the primates are meeting in Tanzania, and it is anticipated that this will be a crucial meeting for the future of the Anglican Communion (the family of churches that have grown from the Church of England). Some primates have already declared that their church is no longer ‘in communion’ with the Episcopal Church, and it is possible that a major split will occur within the Anglican Communion which will be expressed ‘on the ground’ here in the US. Let us pray for all the leaders of the Church that they may hear and respond to God’s call.


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