Over the summer, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Anaheim, California. There was plenty of good work getting done. The church considered a variety of issues, from benefits for lay employees, support of the Cuban Church, and the other foundational work that allows us to support each other.
One issue excited the media: the affirmation that sexual orientation should not be a bar for the episcopacy. In 2006, General Convention resolved that the church would have a moratoria on consecrating gay bishops for the sake of the communion. It wasn’t suitable for many who opposed, who were looking for a rejection of Bishop Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in Catholic Christendom.
The resolution merely affirms this: The Episcopal Church finds no theological reason to discriminate. One’s sexuality will not be the primary criteria for a Church’s appointment.
Although this may disturb many people, it is a consequence of the democratic nature of the institution and the fragmentation of denominational life that has been happening since the early 70’s.
Because General Convention, our ruling body, is a democratic institution, the church will always accommodate changing cultural views – and the Episcopal church is an accurate bellweather for the views of the culture at large.
The shift toward an agnostic perspective toward sexuality is exacerbated by the cultural shift of the church from a “voice” institution to an “exit” institution. “Voice” institutions are like families: you might not like it, but you don’t leave the family. “Exit” institutions are like franchises or stores.
We are in an era where churches compete, like other businesses, for attention. Conservatives may leave for friendlier franchises while social liberals dominate the Episcopal church. This is the consequence of the church succumbing to the ethos of a commercial society. Do I think this is bad? Not necessarily, but I’m sentimental.
When we divide we are truly succumbing to a cultural shift that affirms our own particular ideological preference is more important than the relationships we have. That said, I do think that “capitalism” – even as churches compete – is more responsible for peace than war. And I’m willing to argue about it (and be proven wrong as well).
However, I worry as we move away from the conservative – and honorable – traditions that affirm loyalty, tenacity and engagement; that familial relationships and traditions are of equal importance to individual preference.
What does this mean for the church? My predictions:
1) The episcopal church will still continue to select primarily married male bishops.
2) Dioceses throughout the world will be split. Bishops in Africa who need our help will be in conflict with other bishops who find the Episcopal view taboo. This split will be difficult in some places, but allow for greater pockets of safety for individuals of different sexualities in less tolerant countries.
3) The Episcopal Church will become a niche church for those who are socially libertarian and theologically modern.
4) The Church of England will be forced to confront its own hypocrisy in its clerical orders as the Archbishop tries to figure out what to do next.
5) The Episcopal Church will continue to build relationships with dioceses throughout the world based on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner.
6) Most Episcopal Churches will continue to decline because they do not offer compelling alternative views to the culture at large.
I do not think the church will grow because of our church’s clarity. It may grow. But people rarely join churches because of an idea. My friends who are cheering the Episcopal church’s liberality aren’t the sort who will find themselves darkening our doors. However, church communities that offer authentic hope, help and hospitality grow, no matter what their beliefs are.
At St. Barts I have been deliberate on ensuring that our own church does is not divided by social, political or economic issues. What unites us our mutual trust and gratitude in being able to experience God’s grand creation.
When the Lord said, “love one another” he didn’t continue with the word, “but…” or “if….” It seems like a simple command, doesn’t it? But how difficult it is when what we believe matters more.