Archive for February, 2016

Suspending the Episcopal Church
Fr. Larry

A number of people have asked what I think about the Episcopal Church “getting kicked out of the World Wide Anglican Communion;” that is, those churches throughout the world in fellowship with the see of Canterbury. I am no great expert on the subject, although I haven’t read anyone else who sounds like an expert either, but by simply being honest, and as someone who continues to love the Episcopal Church, I may be able to offer some clarification, and perhaps a somewhat larger perspective on what has happened and its significance for the future church, which includes, but is not limited to the Episcopal Church.

First, it should be noted that the Episcopal Church has not been expelled, ejected, or kicked out of the World Wide Anglican Communion. What has happened is that the Episcopal Church’s participation in those councils and events by which the Anglican Communion determines policy and doctrine has been suspended. There is obviously a big difference between suspension and expulsion. A high school youth may be suspended from school for a few days to consider his or her actions that are troubling to the school’s authorities, and given time in which to make some amends. If instead they decided to continue in the behavior that got them into trouble to begin with they may be expelled which is, of course, a more serious and permanent disciplinary action. The Anglican Communion has suspended the Episcopal Church for three years giving it time to change its mind primarily in regard to the ordination of gays and lesbians and performing same sex marriages. Bishop Curry, however, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has made it clear that the Episcopal Church is not going to reverse itself on this issue; nor is it likely that the Anglican Communion as a whole is going to reverse itself. I don’t think Bishop Curry is being the least bit obstinate – I think he is simply being realistic. So, I am neither particularly prophetic nor clairvoyant in predicting that in three years the Episcopal Church will very probably be expelled and that at some point thereafter those conservative churches which have coalesced into one of the new American “Anglican” denominations, will be admitted into the World Wide Anglican Communion in its place. This has in fact been the stated strategy of dissident “American Anglicans” for at least sixteen years.

For both sides matters of deep principle are at stake. For the Episcopal Church it is a matter of fundamental Biblical justice – to be in communion with God is to share God’s concerns, purposes, and desires of compassion, love, mercy and justice for all humanity. The majority of the Anglican Communion, interpreting the Bible far differently, believes the issue to be one of basic sexual morality – that there is a “sexual holiness code” to be found in Scripture, which if violated leads to eternal perdition – torment in a lake of fire for ever and ever. Who knows whether ages and ages hence this fracturing may be healed, for now it seems highly unlikely that the two sides will find a way to simply agree to disagree and continue on as institutionally one.

There are, course, many other factors in play so that this is far too simplistic an assessment. One of the major complications is that the field of Christian influence has shifted from the Global North to the Global South. A century ago four times as many Christians lived in the Global North (Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and North America) as in the Global South. Today 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South – 61%. About one-in-every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa and about one-in-eight in Asia and the Pacific. Nigeria has more than twice as many Protestants as Germany – the birth place of the Protestant Reformation. Brazil has twice as many Catholics as Italy. The American Physics Society compiled a list of those countries that would have no religion by the end of this century. They include the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Estonia, and Britain. Note: If there is no religion in Britain will there be a Canterbury Cathedral, a Lambeth Palace, or Archbishop of Canterbury? Even if there is the “polar” shift of Christianity to the Global South will mean, and already means, that fewer and fewer Anglicans will see any reason for their Communion to be centered in Canterbury England. African Bishops are already asserting, “The way to heaven does not necessarily go through Canterbury.” And what, in a hundred years, will all this mean for Rome as the center of Western Catholicism? Pope Francis who is so obviously a part of this movement to bring the Roman Church into the postmodern world is, after all, Argentinian, not Italian.

The age of traditional imperialism and colonialism is over. Whether we of the Global North like it or not, whether we like the conservative hermeneutics of the Global South, or find their attitude towards homosexuals reprehensible, or even diabolical, the reality is that they have, for a very long time, found Episcopal bishops condescending, rude, offensive and arrogant so that the relational or process issue is now deeper and more complex than the content question of homosexuality alone. No. It’s not likely that the World Wide Anglican Communion will hold together. I am not at all suggesting that one may not legitimately choose to enjoy its quaint beauty while it lasts, only that neither the beauty nor the enjoyment are infinite.

Welcome or unwelcome we live in a time of global cultural revolution. The conflict between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is but a small manifestation of the radical changes which have already occurred, are occurring even now, and others that will soon come to pass. The era of denominational Christianity is at an end. What the World Council of Churches could not accomplish mechanically (the organizational unity of denominational churches) ordinary Christian men and women have achieved — an ecumenical Christianity created organically by simply dismissing denominational lines as irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that denominations will disappear tomorrow, but that their relative importance drops further and further all the time. In the small congregation I presently serve people identify themselves in all sorts of ways — Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Anglican, Ecumenical Catholic, and frequently we enjoy the gentle presence of a Hindu. Denominations that continue to function primarily as permission givers and financial institutions will simply become irrelevant at an accelerating pace. Congregations will increasing ask why they need hierarchies that provide nothing but a bottomless pit in which to cast their valuables. Those denominations that function as resource centers for congregations doing contextual ministry, for the work of spiritual formation, and for the skill development, certification, and deployment of clergy will, obviously, lengthen their existence by their relevancy.
Christians of the Global North do not care much, then, about the doctrinal distinctions that once seemed so important to church members. At one time if you knew an individual’s denominational preference you knew an awful lot about what that person believed. Today Protestant fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have more in common with Catholic fundamentalists and other Protestant conservatives whatever their denomination than they do with more progressive believers, even where they are members of the same denomination – or the same congregation. And those who are drawn to something more like what Marcus Borg referred to as the emerging paradigm of Christianity, have far more in common with each other than they do with conservatives regardless of formal denominational ties.

The church emerging in the postmodern world is less institutional than medieval and modern expressions of the church; that is, it is less concerned about protecting its physical existence as an organization, less entranced by money, power, and status; and, less inclined to give unthinking “obedience” to leadership based on authoritarian demands and threats. Instead, it understands that the heart must be consecrated to Christ alone, that leadership must be based on wisdom and service. The future church will be more focused on Christ’s work of compassion, peace, and justice, than with “personal salvation” in the fundamentalist sense. Biblical interpretation will be based less on superficial, literal, and intellectually incomprehensible readings, and more on underlying spiritual principles capable of transforming individual human lives and the world we live in. There are indications that the connection with classical liturgical worship and spiritual disciplines are being rediscovered, but practiced in a more relaxed and contemporary setting. In time the postmodern church that is now emerging in the Global North will very likely arrive where it begun – as a community of faith very much resembling the Jesus people of the first century.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one cultural era ends neatly with smooth ends as another begins – or that all the people of one generation think quite differently from all the people before or after it. Sometimes I hear people arguing anecdotally about things like church music. The fact that someone has a seventeen-year-old who prefers traditional hymns doesn’t prove anything more than does the seventy-year-old grandfather preferring Christian rock. What we know for certain is that regardless of their pace “the changes, they are a comin’.” And it is this to which the most recent rupture in the World Wide Anglican Communion is but one small pointer.

The real question is how you choose to love and serve Christ in an age of change. It may be that you feel called to be an agent of God’s goodness in a rigidly traditional and institutional church, and that doing so is just good for the health of your soul. If so, then I say as sincerely as I know how, “May God bless you, and in that setting work with you in accomplishing the Holy Trinity’s great eternal purposes.” Or, it may be that you have a vision, or at least an inkling, of what the future might promise. Like Robert Kennedy you may see things as they never were, and wonder “why not?” If so, may God bless you on your journey to the future church.

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