The complexity of Anglican/Episcopal identity

The Religion News Service has an article that tries to crunch some numbers to figure out the differences between “Anglicans” and “Episcopalians” in the United States. They’ve asked that the graph not be reproduced so you’ll have to click this link to view it yourself.

There are lots of problems with this data: it is dated and it is not clear that everyone means the same thing when they say “Anglican” or “Episcopalian.”

But if we take the data as it is, two things grab my attention.

First, over half of “Anglicans” think homosexuality should be accepted in society. (No clues as to what “accepted” means.) This is less than the Episcopal number but still substantial. More significantly, it is much, much different than the usual pronouncements we hear from the leaders of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) and its affiliated organizations.

Second, more than a quarter of Episcopalians identify as conservative. Historically, given the membership patterns in the Episcopal Church, this is not surprising. But it might come as a surprise for those who believe in the too-often presented image of the church as gone-off-the-rails-liberal.

So three conclusions:

First—and perhaps such an obvious point it doesn’t need to be said—membership in organizations is far more complex than the pronouncements of its leaders.

Second, there is an apparent disjuncture in both Anglican and Episcopal churches between the rhetoric at the highest levels and the reality of the membership. If it is genuinely true that over half of ACNA members think homosexuality should be accepted, then the disjuncture is particularly acute. ACNA leaders have pegged their flag to opposing homosexuality in part because they derive their legitimacy from international links to some other Anglicans, the first condition of which is opposition to homosexuality. What happens when their membership no longer supports such a position?

And third, wouldn’t it be great if we had similar data about other provinces of the Anglican Communion? I bet that if we did, we would find that our beliefs about each other would shift dramatically. Certainly when I have traveled in the allegedly conservative provinces of the Anglican Communion, it has been my experience—time and time again—that the people I meet hold views that are substantially different than what their leaders are saying. People sometimes find that surprising. But based on this data, the same could be said for the Anglican/Episcopal presence in the United States.

So… religious identity is a complex phenomenon whether in the church down the street or the one across the world.

Can a Starbucks barista find a place in the Episcopal Church?

Number 41 is an Episcopalian

It’s no secret that the Episcopal Church has historically been associated with a particular stratum of society—white, educated, socially connected, middle- to upper-class. The Presiding Bishop used to live in Greenwich, Connecticut—and now lives (or could live) in a Manhattan penthouse. We are a church that can count the number of presidents who have been members and can cite the large number of elected officials who belong. There has always been a number of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church but by and large in majority-black congregations. Power—thanks to the church’s abysmal history of race relations—has remained with the church’s white (and usually male) members.

In recent years and decades, this has begun to change. There are now several African-American bishops, including two of dioceses south of the Mason-Dixon line. There is a growing interest in Spanish-language ministry. We ordain priests from immigrant and Native American communities. Above all, there is the recognition that simply being the church of the white elite is no longer an option—not if we are serious about thriving in the wonderful hetereogeneity of 21st-century America nor, for that matter, if we are serious about being the body of Christ.

At the same time, the church has come to be dominated by a theology that centres on the “mission of God.” There is much to admire about this emphasis—indeed, I wrote a book about it. But I want to highlight one aspect of this emphasis. In the current theology of the church, the word mission is, as I have written at length elsewhere, often associated with a constellation of other words: task, job, do, work, labour, obligation. I once called this the Nike theology of mission: just do it. Get out there and do the work of God.

It is a truism that all theology is contextual and emerges from a particular community. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders found a powerful parallel in Exodus and God’s deliverance from oppression. During a catastrophic civil war in southern Sudan, it is not surprising that people were drawn to Christianity in part because of the promise of eternal life. When your friends are dying, you begin to think about what comes after life.

The current emphasis on mission in the Episcopal Church can be seen in a similar way. It may not always feel like this but Episcopalians are, by and large, people who tend to have disposable time and disposable income. When we hear calls to volunteer at soup kitchens, start homeless shelters, donate to food banks, or whatever, it is not unreasonable for us to think about responding. In my experience of the Episcopal Church, Episcopalians are people who come from an action-oriented stratum of society that is used to exercising its own agency. When we hear calls to “mend the world,” we might think it’s a tall order but we might also think it’s not unreasonable to start making plans.

Spotted from time to time in an Episcopal church
Spotted from time to time in an Episcopal church

All of this came to mind while reading a lengthy investigation in the New York Times recently about modern labour practices. The article focused on a young, single-mother who has no certainty in her work schedule from Starbucks and so ends up living a life of constant chaos, torn between child care, work, transit between the two, and with barely any time for any of her major life goals, like education or a driver’s license.

The article doesn’t say but I’d guess that this young woman is not a member of the Episcopal church. She may not be a member of any church, in fact. But let’s imagine she walks into her local Episcopal church on a Sunday morning and hears a sermon exhorting her to join in the mission of God, to get out there and build the kingdom, to do, to labour, to work. It’s not unreasonable to think that her response might be, “I can barely keep my head above water as it is. Why would I want to join a church that tells me I need to do more work?”

IMG_1768There’s a picture I once took on a weekday afternoon in a Nigerian church. There was a young woman, praying with her head bowed in a side pew. Over her was a sign that read, “The steadfastness of the Lord never ceaseth.” I was reminded in that moment of the deep well that is Christian theology with its themes of mercy, reconciliation, peace, redemption, truth, and so much more. This woman (I’m guessing) found her faith expressed at a moment of Christian consolation. You don’t have to do anything—just dwell in the love of God.

(As I write this, I am recalling a sermon I once preached on Matthew 11.28-30—”come to me, all you that are weary…”—and focused on how we were being called to take up the yoke of mission. All work, little consolation.)

The truth is, I can only tell you about what draws me to Christianity and to the Episcopal Church in particular. I can’t see inside the head of a Starbucks barista or a Nigerian church-goer. It is decidedly not the case that people from a lower socioeconomic background cannot mend the world or that they don’t want to try. Mission theology is not inherently misguided. But mission theology is, as all theologies are, particular to a particular community.

As Episcopalians think about our future as a church, one common theme seems to be that the main problem we face is that our message is not being heard broadly enough. We need to be better at evangelism, at church planting, and at communicating in the fractured media world of this era. All true. (And all steps that are action-oriented.) But I wonder if we might not stop and question not just how we communicate but what we communicate as well.

As Episcopalians look to transcend our historic membership patterns, we need also to think about the theology—or, more likely, theologies—that will be at the root of our new, broader community.

Episcopal book of the month club

pic_bookThe Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, Robert Wright, recently suggested to his people that they read Rick Warren’s book, The Daniel Plan, during Lent. Evidently, he stirred up quite a lot of trouble because he had to write a lengthy letter explaining why he could suggest a book written by someone who did not support same-sex marriage. For what it’s worth, I think the letter is a fine example of the kind of reconciling work which bishops are called to.

But there’s another problem here and it has to do with the missed opportunity this selection represents.

It is no secret that the publishing industry is in bad shape. This is especially true for religious publishing and even more especially true for books published by authors in mainline churches. I know because I am such an author. In the course of publishing my books, I have received a steady stream of rejection letters that say, essentially, “Your book proposal looks nice but in this climate we just can’t afford to take a chance on it.” In the end, I was fortunate enough to find publishers for both books I have written but I know many people who have not been so fortunate. That’s distressing. The church needs a constant circulation of new ideas, new thoughts, and new projects. Books are one major place where authors are able to develop their ideas and help contribute to the conversation about the future of the church. When those books can’t be published, our conversation and our life together is impoverished.

Publishers have managed to survive in the current climate by relying on a handful of superstars to generate most of their revenues. They want as much assurance of success as possible before they publish. In the religious world, Rick Warren is a superstar. His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is apparently one of the best-selling books of all time. (I note that The Daniel Plan is currently #83 on Amazon’s sales chart.)

Many bishops suggest that their people read a particular book during Lent. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a Lent book every year. What I would love to see is bishops deliberately choosing books that are not published by superstars but by those authors who make important arguments that are insufficiently heard. Choosing such books would be one more sign to publishers that if they take chances on books and new authors, the church will be there to support them and make those chances successes.

Now, lest anyone think this is a purely self-interested post, let’s look at some of the books that have been published in the last year that might be suitable for Lenten reflection.

A young Episcopal priest has offered Bubble Girl, a book about her journey to faith, tied in with theological teaching, reflection, and questions for discussion. A great book to be used by a group of people who are new to the faith or wanting to go a little bit deeper beyond what they hear on Sunday.

An Episcopal bishop in South Sudan has published Come Let us Rebuild, a thoughtful reflection on the state of his country and a call for action for the future. South Sudan is, unfortunately, in the news a lot lately. How often do we get to hear directly from its leaders in such an extended, unfiltered way?

A tutor at a theological college has written a helpful, instructive guide, Why Sacraments? that goes a long way to helping people in the pews understand the rites that are at the heart of our common life.

(And, OK, fine, I’ve recently written a book that sheds light on the life of Anglicans at the grassroots level around the world and thinks about how the unity of the worldwide body of Christ is connected to our witness to the world. I would love it if you read it.)

None of these books comes with a cook-book tie-in, as The Daniel Plan does, but they are all books which church members would benefit from reading. I want church leaders who help us broaden our horizons, help us see things we hadn’t seen before, and point us in new directions. Pointing us to Rick Warren seems to do none of these things.

On scholarship and the priesthood

In any given week, I spend a lot of time thinking about Christianity in Sudan and South Sudan. It is, more or less, my job. I’m a doctoral student and my research concerns precisely these topics.

In most weeks, my focus on this research is a quiet affair. Sure, I talk with friends and colleagues about what I am uncovering, think about how it connects to other questions in the field of African and world Christianity, and ponder what the implications are for mission and evangelism in the western world, but for the most part it is just me, my books, and interview transcripts from my oral history fieldwork trips.

In the past two weeks, however, this has all changed rather dramatically. South Sudan has become enveloped in a disastrous spiral of violence. Personally, I have found these developments deeply distressing and have spent a fair bit of time calling friends and contacts in South Sudan simply because I have a great deal of love and affection for them and want to know how they are.

But I have also had a professional reaction to all of this. “Hey,” I thought when this all began, “I know something about this. And I think that what I know could help Christians and others around the world begin to understand the deep complexity of what is happening in South Sudan.” So I’ve been posting material on this blog. Some posts have been historical in nature. Others have reported on my phone calls with friends and tried to provide context to what is going on.

To tell you the truth, I had no particular strategy in mind when I began posting things. I just knew I had information I wanted to get out there and writing is a default response for an aspiring academic. But I gradually began to notice something. People were reading it. They were contacting me to thank me for the background and the context. Aid organizations have asked me to send them what I know. International reporters have been in touch to ask for my contacts in South Sudan. It has been an effort just to stay on top of the e-mail I’m receiving (though don’t let that stop you writing).

For me, my scholarship and my ordination as an Anglican/Episcopal priest are inextricably linked. The Latin word for priest—pontifex—means literally bridge-builder and the idea has a deep resonance for me. As a priest and a Christian, I believe I am to help develop relationships between people and God and between people and one another. I dig deeply into the history of the church in Sudan and South Sudan because I think there is information there that will help all of us be linked more deeply to our sisters and brothers in Christ there. I hope my research also helps build links in the other direction as well.

Sometimes the connection between my research and that bridge-building is not immediately obvious. I can go whole weeks (months, even!) wondering just why I thought it was a good idea to start this degree. But then something like this explodes and the connections become obvious—and painful—once again.

I am not the first to write about this, bit it is worth noting that the Episcopal Church has not historically been a place that is congenial to this connection between scholarship and priesthood. The church, it sometimes seems, prefers to put its emphasis on the new, the trendy, and the novel. History is for boring old fuddy-duddies. Except, of course, as these last weeks have shown, it’s not. People in the church really care about this stuff. My Inbox is testimony to that fact.

The thing about scholarship, of course, is you never know just what is going to be important so you have to support lots of it. But history has a way of rearing its head in unexpected ways. The Episcopal Church is currently debating liturgical changes around same-sex blessings. Surely there is something to be gained from studying the extensive history of acrimonious liturgical revision in Anglican history to see what insights might apply to our current day? But where is the next generation of liturgical scholars in the Episcopal Church? This is one example of many that could be cited.

As we look back on 2013, perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the church is the emergence of the Scholar-Priest Initiative to address precisely these concerns. Scholarship (at a doctoral level or otherwise) and ordained vocations (priestly or otherwise) are intimately inter-related. That’s what the last few weeks have demonstrated yet again for me.

The church’s mission: helping the world live with complexity

Last spring, I wrote a review essay of two books by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In it, I found reason for praise and reason for critique. In the 1500 or so words, I tried to present a well-rounded understanding of what she had written, as well as make an argument about some of the current thinking about mission in the church.

An author for VirtueOnline, the premier source of conservative Anglican polemic, used my article to make an entirely different case:

The Christianity of liberal Pecusa leaders rings hollow as they not only violate the teachings of Scripture on human sexuality, but they do so on other fronts as well like not suing fellow Christians. Now, this injunction would only be a problem for liberal Pecusa leaders if they are, in fact, Christians. So, I ask you, what does their practice suggest about their standing with the Almighty?

This led to a string of comments about whether or not the presiding bishop was Christian, even though my review contained the sentence—conveniently overlooked by the author and his commenters—that “The reader is left in no doubt of Jefferts Schori’s strong, lucid, and passionate faith in God in Christ.”

I thought of that when I read this week Robert Hendrickson’s critique of the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. He takes her to task for not referring to Jesus often enough:

Whether it is time to consider the Incarnation or the Resurrection, the Presiding Bishop is consistent in her unwillingness to mention the person in whom our whole faith and hope rests.  It takes some effort to avoid using the name of Jesus in an Easter or Christmas message – multiple times.

He even offers a word cloud that shows the absence of the J-word.

Then, yesterday, I got my weekly update from the American Anglican Council, a conservative organization that has broken away from the Episcopal Church. The lead story was nothing more than a link to Robert’s post, the word cloud image, and this text:

Notice anything missing in the Presiding Bishops’ sermon? Jesus! How could a Christian leader forget to specifically mention Christ – especially at Christmas?

The author then carries on in a familiar vein for a bit longer. (Incidentally, I don’t particularly enjoy the AAC weekly updates but I started subscribing after they attacked me for my travels in Nigeria some time ago and it was only a kind stranger who brought it to my attention.)

What to make of all this?

First, the obvious: some people will read into your writing whatever they want to see, regardless of what is there.

Does that impose any obligations on those of us (and I think I can include Robert in this category) who are members of the Episcopal Church, not planning to go anywhere, but who, from time to time, feel it necessary to point out how we think things could be different? Does it impose an obligation on us to toe the party line?

I think not. As Robert himself says in a follow-up post, he loves the conversation his initial post generated. He sees it as characteristic of the church he loves. I appreciated the feedback some people sent me on my book review and the way they challenged me to explore further what I was arguing.

Perhaps the real lesson we can take away from this is that the Anglican world is not divided into sharp black and white camps, with the liberals on one side and the conservatives on the other. When the Presiding Bishop speaks, not every member of the church agrees with her, though places like Virtue Online and the AAC would love for you to think otherwise.

Likewise, when the primate of the Church of Nigeria speaks, not every member of his church agrees with him (as I demonstrate, incidentally, in case after case in my new book Backpacking through the Anglican Communion). Yet I know more than a few Episcopalians who have tried to argue precisely this.

There is no shortage of polemical material in the world today. Just turn on the television or visit your favourite web sites. People don’t write to change other people’s minds but to make their point while brooking absolutely no dissent or uncertainty. Frankly, it all gets kind of boringly predictable after a while.

I wrote some months back about the increasing “Congressification of the church”—interestingly, in response to criticisms of another comment by the Presiding Bishop—and I still wonder if the church can help the world deal with complexity. Can we live in a world that doesn’t insist on a black-white, with-us-against-us model of thinking? It would be a powerful witness to the world.

 

BE-Renk

There’s a lovely article in Glencoe News about Noah Hillerbrand, a young, lay Episcopalian, who has just begun working with the Diocese of Renk in South Sudan:

After the family joined Christ Episcopal, Hillerbrand became even more deeply involved in that community. It was his dad Eric who first suggested he meet with Bishop Joseph last fall, when he made one of his many trips to Chicago.

“My first thought was that it sounded really cool, but I thought I’d probably find something else to do,” Hillerbrand said. “But when I asked Bishop Joseph what I could do there, right away he said, ‘Teach English.’ There was no hesitation, and he said he could find plenty for me to do. That was when I felt this was something important.”

I’m particularly delighted that he found my book, Grace at the Garbage Dump, so helpful as he prepared for his time in Renk:

Hillerbrand finds inspiration from a book by Episcopal priest Jesse Zink, who served for two years in a South Africa slum neighborhood’s medical clinic.

The book Zink wrote about his experience ”really spoke to me,” Hillerbrand explained. “When he first arrived, he didn’t know the language, he wasn’t trained to do anything at the clinic. He had to be content with being with these people. He called it a ministry of presence. Realizing the ministry of presence is something that I’ve kind of trained my trip around.”

You can follow Noah’s work on the Facebook page he has set up for his trip, facebook.com/BERenkSSudan.

When we shift our focus in the Anglican Communion away from bishops, it’s amazing what kind of stories we find.

C of E vs. TEC

English bishop Nick Baines has posted about the differences between the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Church of England. After a year in the C of E, I thought I’d do the same from the perspective of an American in England, with the proviso that I am writing in broad generalities and, of course, from my own experience of the church.

  • In England, it is quite common to have baptisms outside the regular Sunday-morning service. In fact, I’d say this is when the majority happen. People request a “private” baptism. Often, huge numbers of friends and family attend these services. This takes place without a Eucharistic service. All of these things are exceptionally rare in the United States. I have very mixed feelings about the English practice.
  • Clergy stipends are standardized across dioceses in the Church of England. That means what a vicar of a hugely successful parish gets paid is not different from what the vicar of a struggling, multi-point benefice down the road gets paid. This is hugely different from the U.S. where one’s compensation is tied to the size of one’s church. I have this sense in the C of E that there is less ladder-climbing and competition among clergy, and more collegiality. I like it. For one thing, it ensures rural ministry is given adequate attention.
  • I came to England as a skeptic of Establishment and especially of the parish system, whereby every square inch of the country is under the care of some priest somewhere. But it is quickly growing on me. The default orientation of clergy here is towards their entire community, and not just towards that portion of it which darkens their doors on Sunday morning. There are American clergy who have this orientation too, of course, but I don’t get the sense it as widespread there as it is here. Here, it just has to be. Every soul in the parish is in your cure.
  • One result of the parish system is that priests mostly live where their people do—no matter if the socio-economic background of the parish is such that an educated professional might not usually chose to live there. In the United States, I know lots of commuting priests. There are fewer here.
  • In England, dioceses are larger (in terms of number of clergy and parishes, not geographic size, of course), which means bishops are more distant from their people, their ordinands, and their clergy. What’s more, to the best of my knowledge, there is no canonical requirement for a bishop to visit his parishes. In the American church, bishops have to visit every parish once every three (I think) years. Bishops (and archdeacons) only visit parishes when invited. This only makes the bishop seem more distant, if the only time you have seen him (and it is, sadly, only a him) is when he is presiding in his finest vestments in his ancient and towering cathedral.
  • The Church of England strikes me as much more heavily bureaucratic than the American church. I’m not quite sure how to illustrate that claim, but I think it has to do with Establishment and the larger size of the church relative to the population of the country.
  • On the other hand, the C of E has a pretty good system of raising up lay ministers—readers, licensed lay ministers, etc.—that some American dioceses could really learn from.

I’m sure there’s more, but those are a few that stick out. I’ve spent lots of time with the church in places like Nigeria, Sudan, China, Ecuador, and others, and know what it’s like to be in a church that challenges all my assumptions. But I don’t think I expected quite so many major differences between the American and English churches. And I’m sure there’s much more to learn in the years to come!

UPDATE: I realize I didn’t write a thing about Common Worship and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer! Will have to be a separate post altogether.

The Congress-ification of the Church

Really, I’ve said other things in my life besides “wise Latina”

Do you remember when Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court? Within minutes of her appointment, there was a raging battle over a comment she had once made about a “wise Latina.” That phrase came to dominate much of the debate over her appointment—even though it was a single phrase uttered over the course of a lengthy career as a lawyer and judge. I remember thinking at the time, “Ummm… aren’t we missing the point here? Isn’t there so much more to talk about?”

Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings came to mind recently as I reflected on the blow-up over a sermon Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached in Venezuela in May. For about two sentences, she gave a reading of Paul’s actions in a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that was unusual. Although the rest of the sermon was about the glory of God—a deeply Biblical concept—conservative Anglicans pounced and used those few sentences as an opportunity to do one of their favourite things—beat up the Presiding Bishop.

There were some people in the world who were not going to support Sotomayor’s confirmation no matter what. By blowing the “wise Latina” comment out of proportion, they gave themselves cover to do what they were already going to do—and tried to bring a few others along with them.

Similarly, there are people in the church who will never find a single redeemable feature in the tenure of Jefferts Schori. So out of all the words and sentences and paragraphs the Presiding Bishop produces, they take a handful of sentences and blow them into an imbroglio of epic proportions—just to confirm themselves in the apparent rightness of what they already believe.

This is not to say that it is not worth debating either the “wise Latina” comment or the two sentences from the Presiding Bishop’s sermon. But it is to say that when conversation comes to focus so exclusively on these tiny portions, our common life suffers because we miss the much larger picture.

I’m not saying it’s not alright to disagree in the church. Nor I am saying it’s not alright to take issue with the Presiding Bishop—I’ve done it. What I am saying, however, is that artificially restricting our focus—as we have seen in this sermon “debate”—misses the point. And this is far from the only instance of this trend. We see something similar in the common view that the only salient feature of the “African church” is its views on sexuality. We end up arguing with caricatures of our opponents, instead of the real person God has created them to be.

Christians believe that honouring and valuing the whole of what someone has to offer—the whole of who God has created them to be—is a central theological virtue. In conversation and engagement with the whole of someone, we come to see what they have to offer to and receive from our common life together. Instead, most of the time, the church seems intent on spending all of its energy on manufactured and illusory controversies, thereby neatly avoiding substantive, honest, and mutually enriching conversation.

It’s one thing when Congress does this—but the church has a much deeper, broader, and exciting calling than that. We ignore it at our peril.

Short-circuiting discernment

In First Things, Jordan Hylden takes a despairing tone towards the Episcopal Church, saying essentially, “Oh, if only conservative Anglicans could see that Episcopalians are not completely disregarding the Bible in their flight into apostasy!”

If conservative Anglicans are ever to come to a détente with liberals over the issue of homosexuality—perhaps not to agree with them, but at least to come to terms with them—it would have to involve understanding that revisionists on this issue have genuinely grappled with the authoritative text of Holy Scripture. Their persistent concern is that liberals do not do this, but rather regard Scripture as outdated and no longer authoritative for Christian faith and life in the modern world.

This is faux-pious sanctimony. Episcopalians have been doing precisely what Hylden calls for for the last decade—and it has been comprehensively denigrated and dismissed by people who disagree with the conclusions Episcopalians have come to.

At the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in 2005, the Episcopal Church was invited to make a presentation about its approach to Scripture and, specifically, how Episcopalians reconciled Scripture with the ordination of an openly gay man as bishop. That presentation was lengthy, detailed, nuanced, and showed a “genuine grappling” with “the authoritative text of Holy Scripture.” It appears no one was listening.

Hylden cites the Bible in the Life of the Church project, a similarly lengthy and nuanced effort to explore how the Bible is read across the Communion. When its report was issued at the 2012 ACC meeting, many breakaway Anglicans immediately dismissed it because it appeared to permit conclusions to be drawn that they would not like.

(Hylden also bemoans the fact that South Carolina Episcopalians who left the church were not invited to the General Convention. This ignores the fact that the diocese was part of the church at the time—and most representatives walked out of Convention early.)

I think Hylden and I would agree that the key to Christian living is a community gathered around the authoritative text of Scripture to discern where God is calling them. That is what I find in the Episcopal Church, though I have my own frustrations from time to time about parts that Episcopalians tend to over- and under-emphasize. And I particularly welcome the part in Hylden’s piece when he seems to suggest that faithful Christians can disagree about a particular issue—say, homosexuality—but still recognize each other as members of the same body of Christ.

But my real frustration is when this process of communal discernment is short-circuited by the implicit requirement that the discernment produce certain outcomes. That seems to defeat the purpose of discernment. When various people can’t get that guarantee, they tend to abandon the process and start going on about how Episcopalians have abandoned Scripture—when precisely the opposite is true.

What’s Next?

For the last generation (or more), Episcopalians have been fighting with one another over how to respond to the presence of gay and lesbian Christians in the church. This debate has mirrored one that is going on in the larger society. The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in the church and society has led some people to pronounce that the fight is over.

Whether this is true or not is a conversation for another time. (Some Protestant denominations in the United States remain resolutely opposed to moves to accomodate gay and lesbian Christians. In the Church of England, the conversation has barely begun.) The question I want to ask is this: what’s next?

What will be the next issue that the church rips itself apart over? Because if there is one lesson from history, it is that church members will always find something to fight about, from the nature of Christ to “higher criticism” of the Bible. The Baby Boom generation in the Episcopal Church has been through three major fights over a new prayer book, ordaining women, and the role of gay and lesbian Christians. Fighting and disagreement is is part and parcel of the church, because both diversity and sin are part and parcel of what it means to be human.

Given the way the world is going, it’s easy to imagine some sort of bioethical issue being the next hot-button subject. I’m not competent to judge what it might be. But I think one issue that may be quickly approaching us is assisted suicide. The issue has recently come before some state legislatures and the general public in referendums, with some success and some failures. It has all the hallmarks of a contentious issue: one in which compromise seems impossible (you either permit it or you don’t) and one which brings up questions about the “sanctity of life.”

But I’m interested in what others might think is next on the horizon. I hate to seem fatalistic about this, but the debate about so-called “open communion” at last summer’s General Convention indicates that even a group of people that largely agrees on one contentious issue can be divided on another.

Parenthetically, we might note that the fact of conflict in the church should give Christians pause and make us question whether “victory” in a church fight is really what we should be aiming for. It should also make us think about the resources in our own tradition for dealing with broken relationships and conflict. But those are all ideas that have been addressed elsewhere.