Episcopal Church Woes I
Bill Long 4/15/06
Putting the Issue in Perspective
In its April 17, 2006 issue, the New Yorker magazine ran a long article (written by Peter J. Boyer) on the current crisis in the Episcopal Church (USA) arising out of the consecration of self-affirming, practicing homosexual Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. As is customary with articles in that magazine, this one is well-researched and written, sprinkled with quotations from a variety of interested and influential sources in the debate caused by Robinson's consecration. What is also customary with the New Yorker is that its articles don't go quite deeply enough into the subject or provide an interpretive template to understand the context of the issue. Having set myself up for a magnificent fall through that last statement, I will only claim in these essays to place the controversy unleashed in the World Anglican Communion by this act in 2003 into a broader historical and theological context, and then try to suggest what will happen in the next several years in the Episcopal Church.
Beginning by Getting Personal*
[*Feel free to skip this personal religious narrative and continue at the bottom of this page, if you wish.]
Since church affiliation is often an intensely personal issue, layered by criss-crossing loyalties to family, liturgy, friends and traditions, we should begin with some personal "confessions." I am neither an Episcopalian or son of an Episcopalian. My people a century ago were of middling means and associated either with the ethnic churches of their ancestors (my father's people were Lutherans) or the simple Gospel of the post-Civil War and pre social-gospel American Baptists (my mother's side). By the 1940s, however, we had moved "up" in the world by becoming New England Congregationalists. Indeed, my great uncle, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Evers, freshly minted with his Bachelor of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in the late 1890s, served a Congregationalist parish in Connecticut for more than 50 years--my childhood Church.
Then, when my family moved to a posh San Francisco suburb in 1967 we made the ultimate upwardly mobile religious move--we became Presbyterians. Never would we have contemplated becoming Episcopalians. I think it was the liturgy and the very "English" nature of the church that kept us away. We Presbyterians were almost as well-heeled as our Episcopal counterparts, but we didn't engage in all the bowing, kneeling, candle-lighting, robe-wearing, and prayer book-using and that characterized our Episcopalian brethren. Presbyterianism provided an opportunity for us to keep touch with the more free liturgical traditions of at least one side of the family while, at the same time, assume the dignity in worship which we wanted others to think we had attained in our non-religious life.
Yet, in the past five months I have begun attending an Episcopal Church (St. Francis of Assisi Church, Wilsonville, OR). I wasn't drawn by the liturgy or the vibrant evangelistic efforts of that congregation, though I have found it to be among the friendliest churches I have ever attended. In fact, my friend, the Rev. Anthony Petrotta, became the rector of the church late in October and I, to "support" his ministry, began to attend worship and even teach a biblical class (Book of Job). In fact, I have enjoyed the liturgy and the life of the congregation. When I get bored, I can pore through the Book of Common Prayer and, as I did one morning, memorize the feast days of a number of Episcopal "Saints." I realized that if you wanted to get your name included as one of them you either had to be a figure in historic Christendom (like Augustine or Ambrose), an English person of literary and theological attainment (Cranmer, Sydney, etc.) or to die a painful and strange death while trying to plant the Episcopal faith in insalubrious climates in the 19th century.
One further personal comment is appropriate before I move to some analysis historical and theological. Even before I began to attend St. Francis, I, through the marvels of web technology, developed a thoroughly engaging email relationship with a woman from Texas, a lifelong Episcopalian, a graduate of University of the South in Sewanee Tennessee (Gene Robinson's alma mater), a daughter of the rectory and now, as it turns out, passionately in love with a single Episcopal priest in her home state. Through our conversation I began to see how the rhythms of the Episcopal Church could be stitched to a person's soul, and how deep conflict within that body could be about the most painful thing imaginable to a person who was marinated in that tradition.
The "Current" Crisis
But as I read Boyer's article describing the current crisis in the Episcopal Church occasioned by Robinson's consecration, a crisis which has led to an alignment of conservative American Episcopalians with the hyper-conservative Anglicans in the third world (especially Africa), I had the same feeling I had when America went to war against Iraq in 2003. The feeling was a sort of dawning realization, a realization that because of my study and personal history, I have seen this history before, and if we/these people repeat it, it will be disaster. And I had a second thought like unto it. We/they will repeat it.
Turn to the next essay to see what I mean.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long