Humpty Dumpty and the Episcopalians


An article in yesterday's New York Times compared the divisions taking place now in the Episcopal Church with divisions that took place among many US churches before the civil war over the subject of slavery. It is an interesting article, and worth checking out. Many US denominations were split over the issue of slavery, and a similar split seems to be taking place, over homosexuality at least within the Anglican Communion, between the generally progressive Episcopal church and the reactionary church leaders in sister churches elsewhere in the world. The divisions over slavery were bitter and many of the denominations that split took a long time to reunify (and the Baptists never did get back together again.)

The article highlights a problem that many Episcopalians face--they seem to value unity above all else. The example of the Civil War was presented as a case in point:

The Episcopal Church is one of the few that did not split over slavery. Churches in the Confederate States did form a separate alliance, Mr. [John L.] Kater said, but the national Episcopal Church met without them and “pretended they were out of the room,” calling out the dioceses’ names for a vote “as if they had just gone to the bathroom.”

“After the war there was a simple reconciliation process, and they were all brought back in as if it had not happened,” he said. “I was taught in seminary that this was the great strength of the Episcopal Church, that when all the other churches divided, it stayed together and this was a sign of its great sense of unity. I think it was shameful, that the church considered that unity was more important than slavery.

I think that last point is critical. This valuing of unity above all else is apparently what led to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Schori, to have essentially sold out the gays and lesbians in her church by signing on to a document that issued an ultimatum to the Episcopal church to change its ways by September 30. Imagine an American church in 1860 that supported equal rights for African Americans being given an ultimatum to rescind its position on the issue by the end of that year. History judges harshly those who buckle under in such circumstances. While up to this point I had had respect for Ms. Schori, it seems to me now that she doesn't have the moral courage to stand up to the reactionaries in the Anglican Communion. Just as the antebellum Episcopal Church considered unity more important than slavery, Schori seems to consider unity more important than standing firmly for the the dignity and equality of all God's people in her church.

We know that this love for unity is a one-sided proposition. The other side couldn't care less about diversity under a big tent, and will happily kick out anyone who doesn't conform to their rigid and morally bankrupt doctrines. As the Times article points out,
The liberals insist that what defines Anglicanism is theological diversity, and the conservatives claim Anglicanism requires a commitment to doctrine. The liberals are saying, “Can’t we all just get along,” while the conservatives are saying, “Can’t we all just get in line?”
This contrast between "getting along" and "getting in line" is clear. The theological fascists within the Anglican Communion, like their like minded brethren in other churches, are primarily interested in crushing opposing viewpoints within their organization, and evicting anyone who thinks different. How can anyone who believes in "getting along" possibly miss this point now? All the conflicting parties have to agree to "get along" if "getting along" is going to work at all. The other side, the theological conservatives, couldn't care less about such a lofty goal. Tolerance has never been the hallmark of theological conservatism.

Unfortunately, this intolerance extends all the way to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The blogger MadPriest has given a clear example of what he correctly calls an alarming example of this; he quotes from an interview with Archbishop Williams in which Rowans said,
The stance of the Anglican Communion is clear: It has never said anything other than that. The ordination of active homosexuals is not acceptable.

It has never said anything other than that the marriage of same sex-couples is not to be admitted.
So much for agreeing to "get along".

I'm not an Episcopalian, and it is not my place to tell them what to do, but it seems absurd to me at this point for progressives within that denomination to hold to the pretense that "getting along" is either desirable or possible within the Anglican Communion. Maybe if they shake the shackles of religious conservatism from their denomination, they might find themselves free to blossom into a remarkably progressive faith that can move forward without having to negotiate at each step of the way with the religious reactionaries.

There are other mainline denominations in the US that are facing similar divisions. Except for the occasional breakaway church, the mainline Lutheran, Presbyterian, and the Methodist denominations continue to pursue official policies of bigotry against gays and lesbians. To my knowledge, the UCC is the only mainline denomination besides the Episcopalian church that takes a progressive stance on this issue. Whether these other denominations will some day split or not over this issue isn't clear to me. The progressives remain hopeful that slowly and steadily they can sway their denominations towards an inclusive policy. However, the Episcopal example suggests that what instead will inevitably happen is a breakup rather than a transformation from within. But what is clear to me is that courageous people of faith in the US before the civil war realized that unity was less important than taking a moral stand for justice. There seems to be a kind of Humpty Dumpty paralysis, a fear that the world will somehow come to an end if a denomination splits. But I suspect that all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put these diverse factions back together again. Sometimes it is better if those who want to get along just leave those who want everyone to get into line. Inclusiveness and exclusion cannot easily coexist under the same roof.


Cynthia said...

One of the hardest things to do in a marriage is for one spouse who is forging ahead to wait for and to love the one who is trying to catch up or who does not want to budge.

I've just started reading Marcus Borg's "The Heart of Christianity", where he talks about the major paradigm shift taking place within Christianity, between the earlier and the emerging paradigms. Those of us for whom the earlier paradigm no longer works--how do we love those for whom it still does?

Annie said...

Not that I am not sympathetic with your point of view on the AC--but that unity has its foundation in "scripture" too. If we still embraced the historical diversity we have allowed in the past, then we could still embrace it now. I think a lot of liberals see it that way--why can't we share communion even if we don't agree? Note that in the CW they didn't split the sheets--they just ignored each other.

I, for one, and I think ++KJS sees this the way I do, believe we have an obligation to other provinces in the world that are coming along in this and even to GLBT living elsewhere. You might check Thinking Anglicans today and see what is being said about recent Nigerian legislation going into effect, where ++Akinola is actively participating in a new law to abrogate the civil rights of GLBT people. I don't think she overlooked the pain that signing the document would cause our members, but hoped that it would be seen that we've been making progress slowly these past four years and we simply hope to continue to make inroads into worldwide prejudice and persecution. Besides, truth be told, she doesn't appear to have the authority to do much else.

Otherwise I don't see how we'll last in the AC beyond September either . . .