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