Thoughts on the Episcopal Church

August 21, 2009

The State featured my op-ed today on the current struggles in the Episcopal Church. This topic is of particular interest since the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has spoken out against the direction of the national church.

 

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Ladner: The Episcopal gamble
Benjamin Ladner
Guest Columnist

The struggle for gay and lesbian rights in America has followed a zigzag, one-step-forward-two-steps-back path for several years. Breakthroughs of varying significance have been achieved in locales and institutions across the country and have gained some momentum of late. Still, there is a great deal to be done to achieve full equality for gays and lesbians in such areas as marriage, inheritance rights, military service, sports and politics.

Nowhere has the pressure for equal recognition and full participation been more agonizing and complex than in America’s churches. The debates and actions of the Episcopal Church during the past several years have had especially divisive ramifications both internally and throughout the world-wide Anglican Communion of which it is a part.

The election of a gay priest, Gene Robinson, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire six years ago sparked recrimination and schism. Nationally, four dioceses and other individual parishes and groups split from the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America, claiming 100,000 members. The Anglican Communion in some other countries, especially in African nations, adamantly opposed the Episcopal Church’s actions and successfully recruited some U.S. parishes to leave the American church and affiliate with their wing of the communion abroad.

Recently the Episcopal Church’s Houses of Bishops and Deputies overwhelmingly approved a measure affirming the rights of gays and lesbians to serve in any ordained ministerial office, including bishop. This action lifted a moratorium on such appointments adopted three years ago. Prior to the vote, the head of the Church of England (regarded as “first among equals” by Anglican archbishops) urged the Episcopal assembly not to take actions that would “push us further apart.” The resolution is sure to do just that.

Already, the bishop of the conservative Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, reportedly disenchanted with the direction of the national church, has called a convention of church delegates to discuss the future of the diocese.

Other church groups have struggled with the issue too, but more often than not they have resisted allowing the full participation of gays and lesbians in all phases of church life and leadership. They have been content to let the Episcopal Church take the lead, and the flak, and observe how serious the fallout might be.

Churches, of course, reflect the diversity of the American people who make up their membership, so it is not surprising that tensions between conservatives and liberals in churches echo views expressed in so-called secular culture. However, an added ingredient helps fuel the intensity of disagreement in church settings. People in Christian churches of all stripes affirm the reality of a divinely revealed truth, namely that the essence of the sacred is love, which is the touchstone of all human interactions. This is no mere abstract doctrine. The way we treat other people — accepting them with dignity as equals and loving them as we love ourselves — is at the heart of what Christianity is all about.

This disarmingly simply message can be, as the Scriptures say, a “stumbling block” for many. It asserts that the dignity of individuals supersedes any institutional claim — even by the church — that would diminish this dignity in any way. Loving my neighbor takes precedent over loving my church and reducing individuals to stereotypes.

What the Episcopal Church has done, and has done boldly and decisively, is to make a choice, a gamble of faith, without being able to predict or control the ultimate impact on the institution. It is likely that those who supported the action are humbled by the immensity of the risk, encouraged by a memorable moment of collective courage and comforted that the choice they made is consistent with the deepest meanings of the Christian faith.

Some within the church have begun to recognize the extent to which the church has helped create an underclass of people — women and African-Americans, in particular — inside and outside the church. Painful as it surely is to admit, gays and lesbians have been consigned to that same underclass. First women, then African-Americans and now at last gays and lesbians have been winning the freedom to be who they are within the church. In truth, of course, there is no honest Christian faith that would allow for the existence of any underclass based on gender, skin color, sexual preference, age or nationality.

What the Episcopal Church has done is simply to say: “Enough. We can no longer live in the gap between a pretense of faith sanctioned by an institution and the challenge of faith to embrace all human beings as equal before God.”

This gamble of faith is likely to trigger an outburst of condemnation and disaffiliation as some congregations, socially and theologically upright in every other respect, opt not to risk the burden and freedom of faith but to fortify the barriers of the religious institutions they inhabit. That, alas, would be the biggest gamble of all — to gain ecclesiastical exclusivity at the cost of losing the church’s very soul.

Dr. Ladner, formerly president of American University, is a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville.

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