Is the Episcopal Church edging toward a serious schism after the denomination’s recent move to elect a gay bishop and allow same-sex ceremonies?
At this point, the answer seems far from clear and often depends on which publications and observers one listens to and reads. But even beyond the question of schism, the controversy over the election of Bishop Gene Robinson and the decision to allow same-sex ceremonies reveal new faultlines and dynamics that are not easily captured by conventional denominational politics.
As one might expect, liberal commentators were more likely to downplay the possibility of a significant split of conservatives from the church. Supporters of these measures often compared the conservative threat of schism to the opposition over women priests almost two decades ago; many complained but few left the church. In the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 12), theologian Harvey Cox writes that “Episcopalians handle deep disagreement better than most,” through a decentralized unity that combines reason, experience and tradition as the basis for decision-making.
This “supple authority” will prevent the church from undergoing a major schism, Cox concludes. The New York Times (Aug. 10) likewise focuses on a distinctly Episcopalian sensibility to minimize the prospect of schism, venturing that such a break would not be in keeping with the “decorum” of the denomination.
But the conservative Anglican news service Virtuosity (Aug. 30) notes that there are external and even international factors involved in the rift over Robinson that were not present in previous church feuds. Editor David Virtue writes that the momentum for schism is growing, with “more wealthy defecting parishes from mainly orthodox dioceses than was first thought . . .” There is also an expanding movement of parishes pledging to withhold funds from the national church and their own dioceses over this issue (more information on this campaign is available at the website:www.communionparishes.org).
But propelling much of this fierce resistance is the reality of an influential conservative bloc of bishops from the global South with whom Americans have built close connections and coalitions. Virtue cites a recent report claiming that these bishops are increasingly confident that they can force the expulsion of the American Episcopal Church from the Anglican communion over its liberal line on homosexuality.”
Virtue may be overreaching on the impact of the Robinson affair when he writes in the August 25 issue of Virtuosity that “There are the lives of African Anglicans who will be slaughtered by Muslim fundamentalists because it now confirms in their minds that Christianity is a Western decadent religion deserving of their retribution.” But it is the case that Muslim-Christian conflicts in much of the Third World may have some bearing on the global South’s bishops’ anger over the Robinson decision.
The Aug. 10 issue of Arab News editorializes that the election of Robinson serves as an instance of Western liberal arrogance toward traditional non-Western fellow believers. “After all,” Amr Mohammed Al-Faisal writes, “does that non-Westerner Jesus know more about Christianity than an American or British bishop? If this is how they deal with their own religion, think what they will try (are already trying) to do with other religions such as Islam.”
Bishops and other sympathetic observers to the Robinson election often predicted that the decision would likely make the Episcopal Church more attractive to the younger generations. But in the Aug. 18 issue of Virtuosity, David Sumner examines the growth rates of the dioceses in which the bishops voted for Robinson (presumably supportive of gay rights in the church) against those dioceses opposing the measure. Sumner finds that the bishops who voted “yes” to the confirmation of Robinson came from dioceses which lost 85, 374 members in the last six years.
As a whole, the Episcopal Church lost 94,326 members during this same period. Bishops who voted “no” came from dioceses that had a total net loss of 345 members. There were dioceses which voted “yes” which gained members (Tennessee gained 18 percent and Dallas gained 13 percent) and there were dioceses that voted “no” which lost members, but their losses “were almost completely offset by those dioceses that gained in membership,” Sumner writes.
Yet when studying Episcopalians as a whole, the scenario of conservative growth and liberal decline becomes more complex. The New York Times (Aug. 16) reports that a new study based on interviews with more than 2,500 Episcopalians shows the church divided, but not in the ways widely assumed. It is often noted that from 1967 to 1997, the Episcopal Church’s membership declined by 36 percent. Yet one finding reported in the new study is that From 1974 to 1997, church attendance among Episcopalians increased by more than 31 percent, and financial giving also rose.
The study’s authors, Rev. William Sachs, director of research at the Episcopal Church Foundation, and Thomas Holland, claim that focus groups and individual interviews with Episcopalians in more than 200 locations revealed not decline and stagnation in these congregations but “pervasive vitality.” Congregations were being transformed by an influx of new members quite distinct from lifelong Episcopalians, the study says. These adults saw themselves as embarked on spiritual journeys within the confines of a community. The “new reality” among Episcopalians that the researchers describe involved a new emphasis on the spiritual rather than the institutional and the local rather than the diocesan or national.
Denominational conflicts “were less likely to be over theological or ideological differences than over frustration, even anger, at diocesan and national offices that were accused of not `honoring local wisdom’ and not providing the resources and guidance needed for local initiatives.”When it came to the battles that have roiled the church for years over the moral legitimacy of homosexual relationships, the study suggested that many Episcopalians were less exercised about the outcome one way or the other than about legislative approaches to the issue that overshadowed the congregation’s ability to deal with these concerns in their own, more flexible fashion.
There was overwhelming agreement (from 95 to 99 percent of those answering a survey of 30 congregations) about three things: the centrality to congregational life of the Eucharist, of the Book of Common Prayer and of prayer in general. Peter Steinfels concludes that “a great many Episcopalians are apparently willing to leave doctrinal questions unresolved as long as the effort to grapple with them is rooted in traditional forms of Anglican worship and prayer, and produces a stronger spiritual community engaged in effective local outreach and good works.” In the Christian Century (Aug. 23), Sachs finds additional confirmation of his findings by noting how the deliberations to elect Robinson were often couched in terms of spirituality and diversity rather than “justice” and “rights.”
Dominant throughout the proceedings “was a conviction that the church’s task is to encourage people on their spiritual journeys, to accept where that journey may lead, and to build a faith community on that basis from the local level outward,” Sachs writes. He notes that the emphasis on “local autonomy among Robinson’s supporters made little reference to the Episcopal Church’s place in the Anglican communion.”
“Intentional” parishes are what such mainline observers as Diana Butler Bass (in her book Strength for the Journey) call mainline congregations involved in this move away from the establishment and toward the local and spiritual. Such observers would argue that the gay rights movement in the church should not be equated with secularizing the denomination through importing politicized and non-Christian causes.
At the mid-August conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) in Atlanta attended by RW, sociologist R. Stephen Warner took issue with other scholars who argue that mainline churches’ acceptance of gay clergy and same-sex ceremonies are yielding to secularism and becoming “low tension” religions. Warner said that “essentialism”–that one is born homosexual–marks the views of many gay Christian groups and individuals and stands in marked contrast to the secular gay rights movement that stresses a socially constructed, chosen gay identity.
“They believe that God made them gay . . . These ideologies are different, [gay Christians] are not just imbibing on secularism,” Warner said.