The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has been embroiled in deep controversy for many years. It reached the breaking point for thousands of devout Anglicans in 2003 when an openly partnered gay bishop, Gene Robinson (born 1947), was consecrated as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson is widely known for being the first openly gay, non-celibate priest to be ordained as a bishop in a major Christian denomination that believes in the historic episcopate. Now, eight years later, the church is even more deeply split.
Even before the consecration of Bishop Robinson numbers of Episcopalians had begun to leave, forming several different Anglican church communions. Most of these early churches and priests submitted to the oversight of African Anglican bishops. I have several friends who followed this course and I’ve had the joy of speaking to a national gathering of these Anglicans.
Since Robinson’s consecration many, many more lifelong Episcopalians have left their church. Among these are even more of my friends. And numbered among those who have not left the Episcopal Church are other good friends. The sad fact is that to openly admit this creates tensions on every side in the midst of such a heated battle.
This historic breakup is genuinely tragic. On both sides there have been rash and hostile actions taken in debate. Though my sympathies are clearly aligned with those who believe that consecrating a bishop who is living in open immorality is wrong I cannot defend some of the actions my conservative friends have taken. The reproach of separation, and what often follows such action, clings to many of their otherwise fine efforts for the kingdom. Those friends who most encouraged me remained as long as possible (conscience is never a humanly uniform guide) inside the Episcopal Church but many of them finally left with tears and great sadness in a spirit of Christian love and humility. They are, to put it mildly, sick about this breakdown in Christian relationships within their beloved church. They did not leave because they hated someone or because they loved a good old fashioned ecclesial fight. They left because they felt their own call to ministry demanded they leave once their church had taken a moral stance that was not defensible biblically or historically. And almost everyone I know in this category continues to be in cordial relationship with many of their brothers and sisters who did not leave. Friendships can survive even ecclesial battles if the love of Christ prevails!
I often criticize conservative Christians for their penchant to divide and create new schism in the church. Today I grieve over the schism and tragic commitment to destruction that has been taken in the liberal Episcopal Church in the United States. This is especially true with regard to the leadership of Katharine Jefferts Schori (born 1954), the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Let me explain.
In 2009 the breakaway Episcopalians in the U.S. and Canada formed the Anglican Church in North America. I’ve been in conversation with leaders on both sides of this breakaway over the last few years. Again, I have friends who chose differently about how to respond to the moral crisis they see within the Episcopalian Church. The Anglican Church in North America reports 100,000 members in nearly 1,000 congregations. (Remember, there were large numbers who had already left or moved to other contexts before 2009!) What makes the Anglican Church in North America different is that it has been formally recognized by many Anglican primates outside the United States. And various Anglican bishops are working internationally to preserve the unity of the church as much as possible. As of this writing 22 of 38 provinces in the Anglican Church have declared themselves to be in “broken” or “impaired” communion with the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Yet in spite of all this global unrest in the great Anglican communion Bishop Schori says this new Anglican group is encroaching on her church’s jurisdiction. As a result of this belief she has authorized dozens of lawyers “to protect the assets of the Episcopal Church for the mission of the Episcopal Church.” On the surface this stance might seem to make sense but consider what she is really saying. Alan Haley, a canon lawyer who has represented a diocese in one such case, says the Episcopal Church has dedicated $22 million to legal actions against departing clergy, congregations and dioceses.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Episcopal Church has increased these attacks in recent months. It has decided that any church which breaks away, and buys its property from the Episcopal Church, must disaffiliate from all other Anglican groups.
In September a well-known Pittsburgh congregation, All Saints Episcopal Anglican Church, walked away from its building, inhabited since 1928. The congregation called the Episcopal Church “mean-spirited” and said it had denied them their “freedom of religious affiliation.” Having read both sides of this debate, and followed it with growing sadness, I have to agree with All Saints Church in this case. It seems liberal Christians are liberal only up to a point. Then it seems that it is OK to be “mean spirited” in the same way they rightly charge of some conservatives.
Some churches have opted to disaffiliate rather than spend years in expensive litigation. Two congregations in Pennsylvania and two in Virginia have promised they will not affiliate with other Anglicans for five years after they bought their property. But affiliation with a bishop, by definition, is essential to Anglican identity. This position leaves the church unable to work with local and national church bodies on things like disaster relief, youth retreats, educational seminars, clergy insurance and pension programs, etc. (Many ministers are losing their insurance and pensions as this tragedy unfolds!)
In 1 Corinthians 6 the apostle urges Christians to not settle their church issues before the courts. I have seen this text randomly applied in ways that suggest no Christian should ever use the courts to settle a true legal grievance with another believer. I find this interpretation weak at best. But what is clear from Paul’s counsel is that a church should not sue a church. The Episcopal Church is telling Christians where they can and can’t worship and whether or not they can remain Anglicans. They are clearly using the courts to fight churches and ministers who want their freedom of conscience. Other denominations who have trended in this same progressive direction on sexual practice have maintained that they will not follow this legal and spiritual pattern. They say they respect the freedom of conscience. I hope they really mean it and do not follow the Episcopal Church in this regard. Time will tell since religious battles like these are often unsettled and messy.
What does Bishop Schori have to say about this complete capitulation to the tactics of opposing churches and leaders in secular courts? “We can’t sell to an organization [note what she calls a church here] that wants to put us out of business.” Read her sentence again. She is really saying that this struggle is a kind of holy war within her church and one side must defeat the other! By calling these congregations “an organization” she may mean what she says; i.e., these are not churches! No fundamentalist could have said this with more prejudice and fervor. She adds that her job is to assure that “no competing branch of the Anglican Communion impose on the mission strategy” of the Episcopal Church. What mission strategy is this?
In this instance actions do speak much louder than words. Bishop Schori, as recent cases plainly demonstrates, could not be clearer in her intentions. When Good Shepherd Church in Binghamton, N.Y., left the Episcopal Church the congregation offered to pay for their building. In return the Episcopal Church sued the congregation to seize their property. What did the Episcopal Church do to reflect the “mission strategy” that Bishop Schori speaks about? They sold the property for a fraction of the price the congregation would have paid them and today the church building is a mosque! So much for a mission strategy.
Bishop Schori openly expressed the conclusion that the Episcopal Church would rather sell property to Muslims, Baptists, or even barkeepers, than fellow Anglicans who disagree with the Episcopal Church. Remember, this is war and she is packing the weapons of her warfare in both her language and actions.
Bishop Robert Duncan (born 1948) was deposed from his ministry by the Episcopal House of Bishops in 2008 by a vote of 88 to 35 in a closed meeting in Salt Lake City. This action removed Duncan from ordained ministry on the grounds of “abandonment of the communion of this church.” This “abandonment” amounted to Duncan’s support of Anglicans who disagreed with the Episcopal Church’s actions on sexual practice. Today Duncan is an archbishop in the Anglican Church in North America. He says his group has no intention to replace the Episcopal Church in the United States. I have many friends who know Bishop Duncan well. He served the Episcopal Church faithfully and was bishop of Colorado and then the bishop of Pittsburgh. He is a noble and generous Christian man. These Anglicans, like Archbishop Duncan, are not trying to destroy the Episcopal Church. They disagree with her actions so deeply that they feel compelled to follow their conscience into the ecclesial wilderness. But they are not out to destroy but rather to build and do Christ’s mission. More giving and activity in mission has been generated by these new alignments than by all the efforts of the Episcopal Church before this schism. Sad but true.
It is one thing to tell a congregation that you cannot have the property that you worship in each week because it belongs legally to the diocese. It is another to tell them to abandon what they believe or face legal action. Bishop Duncan says that the ongoing litigation is “scandalous” but what is worse is that the Episcopal Church is now saying you must abandon the tenets of your faith or we will punish you in court!
Many of you might say, “If these leaders and Christians believe they are following the Bible and conscience they should simply leave and get over it.” If you this think this then you show that you do not understand either Anglican polity or principle. What was always the “middle way” of gracious, orthodox generosity has become a way that now demands radical conformity beyond imagination. The Episcopal Church says to fellow Christians, who are Anglicans in faith and practice, if you do not agree with us in our liberal doctrinal and political stances then we will sue you and make you conform or we will drive you out! We will make sure you cannot be Anglicans! And we suggest that Catholics have abused power.
This practice needs to be seen for what it is—a new form of excommunication employed by progressive and liberal Christians who have always been the first to speak against other forms of excommunication. This is more than an irony. It is great tragedy!