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The Center Still Holds

By Joan R. Gundersen

For months we have been told that the Episcopal Church is in turmoil, that its long-cherished unity has vanished, as radically different theological perspectives — revisionist and orthodox — have pulled the Church apart. Fault for this sorry state of affairs has been laid at the feet of the “revisionists,” liberals who have willfully ignored the concerns of conservatives for more than 30 years. Now, so the jeremiad continues, the Episcopal Church has shattered the unity of the Anglican Communion and the worldwide community of Christians. The reputed fruits of the wrong-headed actions of the Episcopal Church are a 30-year membership decline and resultant fiscal woes.

With due respect for the distress of those raising these cries, I propose that, when one steps back from the angry rhetoric, the situation looks quite different. The center still holds. The vast majority of Episcopalians are members of parishes going about Christ’s work — worshiping according to the Book of Common Prayer, caring for their neighbors, gathering for prayer and study, sharing time together as a community, inviting their friends to church, and growing as a community of faith. These people are doing what Episcopalians have always done, honoring the idea of the via media by refusing to make individual interpretations of scripture into dogma that must be accepted by others. Contrary to its critics, the Episcopal Church has recently been the fastest-growing mainline protestant church in this country. In the last decade, Episcopal communicants grew 17.9 percent, and despite the current disputes, the church exceeded its revenue goals for 2004.

Of the 100 dioceses within the United States, so far only nine have joined the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. Of more than 7,300 parishes in the Episcopal Church, only 4 percent are affiliated with the American Anglican Council (AAC), and one-third of those are in the nine network dioceses. Roughly one-third of the dioceses of the church have no AAC affiliates.

Although there is no public listing of individual parishes affiliated with the network, apparently only about 70 have done so. For example, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, home of network moderator Bishop Robert W. Duncan, approximately 27 percent of diocesan communicants belong to parishes that have officially repudiated the network. Groups supporting tolerance of diversity have arisen in 12 dioceses with strong AAC presences, and these groups have formed a national alliance called Via Media USA to preserve the traditional Episcopal openness to different perspectives and scriptural interpretations.

Make no mistake, only one side is driving the present conflict. Upset by their minority status within the Episcopal Church, the AAC/Network nevertheless demands that everyone believe as it does, because its members have declared themselves to be “right.” The Church has neither approved a liturgy to bless same-sex unions nor required dioceses to permit such blessings; it has only permitted local experimentation. The Episcopal Church has not rejected the principles of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilaterals of 1886 and 1888. In fact, it affirmed them in the first section of the General Convention resolution allowing for local-option experimentation in blessing of same-sex unions. The Church has asked that people recognize the validity of its decision-making process, and not just when that process affirms their positions.

Conservative parishes unwilling to deal with bishops they deem too liberal or female or “tainted” by support for the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson have been given an option that allows them to request that another bishop provide pastoral services. No such provisions have been offered liberal parishes that believe their bishops are fostering schism, are homophobes or Donatists, or have ignored Christ’s commandment to love one another.

Ah, but the critics say that majority and minority roles are reversed in the larger community. The Episcopal Church represents a minority within the Anglican Communion and is out of step with Christian churches around the globe. But while some primates of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion have broken communion with the Episcopal Church because of the consecration of Bishop Robinson, consider that over half of those provinces were already in some stage of impaired communion with the U.S. church over ordination of women. Interestingly, the Episcopal Church has more dioceses with female bishops than it has dioceses with network bishops. As for the worldwide Church, it does not speak with a single voice. There are Christian churches throughout the world in which homosexuality is not an issue. Given the Roman Catholic Church’s adamant stance against ordination of women, the consecration of one “out” gay bishop can hardly be blamed for derailing the movement toward full communion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Yes, the actions of the Episcopal Church have upset many, both internally and internationally. And, yes, the Lambeth Commission on Communion spent a year trying to decide how to handle such upsets. And, yes, the voices of anguish, though few, have been very loud indeed. If you reside in a diocese with a strong AAC/Network presence, as I do, the din can seem overwhelming.

Attending the Anglican-Lutheran Historical Conference in June 2004 helped put the “crisis” into perspective for me. There, theologians and scholars from several Lutheran traditions, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church gathered for presentations and discussion. Near the conclusion of a presentation on the more than 30 years of dialogue on homosexuality in the Episcopal Church, the presenter, an Episcopalian, noted that he was surprised to learn just the previous week that there was something called the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. You see, in his part of the Church, there is no crisis, just Easter and Pentecost and an Episcopal Church that still honors the via media.

So is this a case of the Church burying its proverbial head in the sand? I think not. Rather, it is that most Episcopalians have kept things in perspective. The controversy is a result of our flawed state as human beings in a flawed human institution we call the Church. Humankind constantly diminishes God by trying to fit God into boxes (theological, political, and biblical) that we have created. By focusing on Christ, the message of redemption, love, and service, rather than the current theological/biblical squabbles, Episcopalians are keeping their “eyes on the prize.” That, I would suggest, is putting things in their proper place.

Joan R. Gundersen is the vice president for policy, Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh.

The Living Church 230, 5 (January 30, 2005), pp.13-14

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