Nine months ago, the Episcopal Church met in convention in a mild-mannered city, Columbus, Ohio. What transpired was anything but mild-mannered and the emotional temperature since has steadily risen, both within a vocal minority of Episcopal churches in the United States and several countries of the global Anglican Communion.
Since the convention sent a clear indication that the American church, overall, will not back off from a more-inclusive stance on homosexuality, the issue has devolved to parishes and dioceses, where a wide range of reactions is emerging.
A group of about 10 conservative dioceses, including Pittsburgh, San Joaquin (Calif.) and Quincy (Ill.), have leadership that wants to disassociate from the Episcopal Church and its new leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Some want to form a new structure that will link with churches in other parts of the world, mainly Africa, that consider homosexuality sinful and contrary to Scripture. Individual parishes, including some historic ones in Virginia, also want a divorce from their national church and battles over church property are progressing through the courts.
Other dioceses, including Washington (D.C.) and Newark (N.J.), passed statements of support for the national church and/or Bishop Jefferts Schori, who was elected at the General Convention. Eight of the church’s 111 dioceses have said they want a different primate. Some dioceses do not ordain women and some disagree with her vote to approve the election of the U.S. church’s first openly-gay bishop and her acceptance of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
While it might seem as if the U.S. church is breaking in half, Dean George Werner, former president of the house of deputies (one of the legislative chambers of the General Convention, representing clergy and lay), said his travels around the country showed that most people are in the middle on this issue.
In his six years in office, he said, he saw that “about 12 percent of the Episcopal Church thought they should split (away from the main church), 16 to 18 percent thought we had done the best thing (in being more inclusive to gay people) since Moses came down with the tablets, and 70 to 75 percent of the church was pursuing the Millennium Development Goals (against world poverty and disease) and trying to deal with full plates already,” he said.
Describing himself as a “militant centrist,” he said he was not impressed with the pressure tactics used by both sides at the convention, but in the long run, he said, events have shown that “the side that is the nastiest usually drove the middle over to the other side.”
Even in parishes and dioceses that want to leave the mother church, “you always have a strong group of loyalists. Never do you have the number of people leave that you think will leave. In 1976 (when the church first ordained women), they said that more than 100,000 people would go. It was about 8,000,” he said.
The Episcopal Church has also seen splinter groups form in the past. “The Reformed Episcopal Church is 130, 140 years old. Some are totally opposed to women priests, others (left) because of homosexuality. They’re not all in there for the same reason,” he said. (The Reformed Episcopal Church was formed in 1873 amid a debate about “the excessive ritualism and exclusive attitude of the Protestant Episcopal Church” and counts seven Canadian churches among its 137 parishes and about 13,400 members, according to its Web site. The Episcopal Church has about 2.2 million members.)
Generally, Dean Werner said, “when people gather around a negative, they don’t last too long.”
Conservatives in the U.S., led by Bishop Robert Duncan of the diocese of Pittsburgh (also Dean Werner’s home diocese), are seeking to create a structure that would be recognized as the U.S. Episcopal church in communion with Anglican churches around the world, especially those in Africa and Asia that see homosexuality as sinful.
“Before the 1998 Lambeth Conference, they recruited allies in Africa and the Southern Cone (Latin America) and made it an issue for the Communion,” said Dean Werner.
However, the Anglican Communion is no monolith, said Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of world mission and global Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. “We need to break up the presupposition that there was a grand integrity of the whole where differences didn’t exist. Both sides are trying to make some presuppositions that there was this great intact whole that is being wrecked. There isn’t one Anglican church,” he said.
The church is moving toward hearing a “breadth of voices,” said Mr. Douglas. “If you look at those that are the most disgruntled, they look at lot like me,” he said, describing himself as “heterosexual, white, male, overly-educated, middle-aged and financially secure.”
He finds encouragement in one outgrowth of the situation, he said. “There has been an incredible growth of interest and commitment in what it means to be an Anglican globally. I was in a clergy meeting (recently) and asked 10 priests what percentage of your congregations five years ago would have understood that we are part of the Anglican Communion. They said less than 10 percent. Today? Ninety percent,” he said.
Mr. Douglas said he believes that “God works in mysterious ways, through pain and suffering and death to bring new life. It’s not always joy and light and fun. What we are witnessing, I’m absolutely convinced, is the coming into being of a mature Anglican Communion.”
The genius of Anglicanism, he said, is “a dynamic between the local and the global – a particular ecclesiastical history that privileges neither the centralization of a global order nor the de-centralization of a local Christian expression.”
The question is, he added, “will we continue to live into that witness or will we blow it and come apart such that what we can do together is compromised or squandered?”