Senator John Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, gave a speech at the Episcopal Church's convention in Columbus, Ohio, in which he complained about the recent controversies within that denomination on issues relating to homosexuality. Danforth said,
"If the Episcopal church decides that what it is really into is latching on to the most divisive single issue for America today, focusing on that issue as hard ... as we can, then we'll splinter and we'll be even smaller in number than we are now. Then we are going to be viewed by the rest of the country as irrelevant.I can't help but wonder what kind of speech Danforth would have given at a convention of an American church in the 1850s that debated the subject of slavery. This idea that a church should not tackle an important issue of social justice simply because it might split the church strikes me as an argument for moral cowardice. In fact, American churches did undergo splits prior to the civil war on the issue of slavery--including the Baptists and Presbyterians. How does history judge those churches that refused to take stands against slavery at the time? And what should the voices of conscience done back then--should they have refused to oppose slavery out of fear of splitting their churches?
Relevancy isn't necessarily tied to the size of a church. Some denominations have exerted influence beyond their size--Quakers, for example, have always been a small denomination but have often exerted considerable moral influence on social issues throughout American history. (Ironically, two of the three main Quaker denominations, the Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International, have taken bigoted stands against homosexual rights--which stands in stark contrast to the traditional Quaker opposition to slavery during the 19th century and the Quaker support for the interests of oppressed minorities. Fortunately, other Quakers, mostly found in the Friends General Conference, have taken a more enlightened view on this subject.)
The question of whether Episcopalians should be willing to risk a split over a social justice issue gets to the heart of whether it makes sense for reform-minded people of a denomination to try to pursue reconciliation with the more conservative forces within their churches. This desire to hold the denomination together, when opposite forces are clearly sharing the same denominational roof, has not made sense to me.
In Matthew Fox's book A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity, he asks the rhetorical question "Two Christianities: Time for a Divorce"? Fox is writing from his perspective as a former Catholic who was hounded out of that church by it reactionary inquisition (which was headed up by the man who is now the pope, Cardinal Ratzinger). Fox compares the two kinds of Christianity that are at conflict:
One worships a Punitive Father and teaches the doctrine of Original Sin. It is patriarchal in nature, links readily to fascist powers of control, and demonizes women, the earth, other species, science, and gays and lesbians. It builds on fear and supports empire building.How can such radically different traditions coexist within the same churches? It makes no sense to me, and it appears that it makes no sense to Fox either. He concludes:
The other Christianity recognizes the Original Blessing from which all being derives. It recognizes awe, rather than sin and guilt, as the starting point of true religion. It thus marvels at today's scientific findings about the wonders of the universe that has brought our being into existence and the wonders of our special home, the earth. It prefers trust over fear and an understanding of a divinity who is source of all things, as much mother as father, as much female as male. It is an emerging "woman church" that does not exclude men, and tries to consider the whole earth as a holy temple. Because it honors creation, it does not denigrate what creation has accomplished, which includes the 8 percent of the human population that is gay or lesbian and those 464+ other species with gay and lesbian populations. It considers evil to be a choice that we make as humans--one that separates us from our common good--and that we can unmake.
For some time, Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have been trying to coexist within these two traditions. But with world developments being what they are--with the buttressing of the American empire under George Bush by fundamentalist ideology and religious forces, with "faith-based communities" encroaching on the principle of separation of church and state, with the ignoring of issues of poverty and economic justice, it is time to separate these two versions of Christianity.I believe that only by building a new religious movement, not constrained by a need to compromise with the Old Paradigm for the sake of holding together a divided denomination, can the New Paradigm flourish. It is time for the New Reformation to take hold.