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.

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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.

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.

The hierarchical nature of the church and the good news of Jesus Christ

Nine years ago, when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, conservative Episcopalians—not to mention Anglicans elsewhere in the world—were adamant that the Presiding Bishop at the time, Frank Griswold, “do something” to prevent New Hampshire from going ahead with the consecration. Bishop Griswold replied that, as the election and confirmation process had proceeded as to canon, there was nothing he could do.

This dispute was, inter alia, a dispute about the hierarchical nature of the church. The conservatives argued there was some level of authority above New Hampshire that could reverse the diocese’s decision. There was—the General Convention, which approved Robinson’s election—but beyond that, Bishop Griswold looked at the canons of the church and said he had no higher powers to “do something.”

Fast forward to the past few months and the debate over the departure of the diocese of South Carolina from the church. Many of those same conservatives are upholding the decision by South Carolina to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. The argument is that the basic building block of the church is the diocese and a diocese has no intrinsic need to be a part of anything larger. This is why the diocese of South Carolina has declared itself to be, essentially, a free-floating ecclesial entity. (This raises questions I thought about in this post.) The liberal Episcopalians who oppose the departure say that, in fact, the church is hierarchical in nature and a diocese isn’t a diocese without reference to some larger entity, in this case The Episcopal Church, a province of the Anglican Communion.

(I am using the words “liberal” and “conservative” here with reckless abandon and as shorthand for larger and more complex positions.)

Debates over the governance structure of a church can appear to be among the most naval-gazing topics of all, fodder for lunch-time debates at seminary, General Convention sub-committees, and not much else. But as this example shows, the polity of The Episcopal Church—and, in particular, its hierarchical nature—is currently under intense scrutiny. Not only is there the South Carolina example, there is the case of the several active and retired bishops who are under investigation because they filed a brief saying that the church was not hierarchical. The House of Bishops weighed in on the nature of the church at General Convention in the summer.

Rather than being so much naval-gazing, I think the questions raised by these debates actually have something to do with the good news the church has to proclaim. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to think about hierarchy in the church, and then think about why or if it matters how hierarchical the church is.

The basic question comes down to something like this: how far up does the hierarchy of the church go? Everyone accepts the need for a bishop in a diocese. But do those bishops and those dioceses have to be part of some larger organization, like the Episcopal Church? And do those larger organizations have to be part of something larger, like the Anglican Communion? What does it mean to “be part” of something larger? What opportunities and constraints come with this?

The first thing to say is that there is a lot of hypocriscy on this issue. We’ve already seen some of this at work in the South Carolina instance. But that’s far from the only example. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that many priests and some bishops practice a kind of “open communion” in which people who are not baptized are invited to receive communion. This is in direct violation of the canons of the Episcopal Church. The teaching that baptism precedes communion was upheld by General Convention this summer. Yet it seems unlikely that anyone’s practice has changed as a result. The hierarchy of the church says one thing; clerics ignore it. Discipline for canonical violations is fine, seems to be the message, just so long as it is not for us.

Here’s another example: some of the same people who say South Carolina has to be part of something larger assert with equal vehemence that hierarchy stops at the water’s edge. That is to say, there is no hierarchy above the provincial level in the Anglican Communion. Anglicans from elsewhere in the world better not start interfering with the church. Conservatives, of course, have been happy to appeal to varying levels of hierarchy beyond The Episcopal Church in search of support for their views.

The prevailing situation, then, on the hierarchical nature of the church seems to be a hermeneutic of self-justification. This results in a condemnation of the other side and an exoneration of oneself. In a situation like this, how is one to proceed?

We might start by noting that hierarchy dates to the early church. Very quickly in the development of the church (when there were a lot more bishops, each overseeing a smaller area than they do now), a handful of cities—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantiople, and Jerusalem—came to exercise a kind of authority over Christians in other places. These were the metropolitan sees, which is why you sometimes hear a senior bishop referred to as a metropolitan. He (or she) has authority over other bishops in his (or her) area. Hierarchy has been a part of the ordering of the church catholic from an early date.

(Importantly, of course, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is not a metropolitan. He or she—as Bishop Griswold demonstrated—has no canonical authority over other bishops. But the idea of a local church belonging to something greater than itself is pretty old.)

Appeals to tradition, however, are hardly sufficient, especially when I am sure people more learned than me could quickly add complexity to my short sketch of the early church. Conversely, we might note that the claim advanced by many South Carolina supporters that a diocese is the basic building-block of the church has an intrinsic merit. Anglicans have traditionally affirmed four items as the ground for ecumenical reunion: a belief in Holy Scriptures, the creeds as a sufficient statement of faith, the dominical sacraments, and the “historic episcopate locally adapted.” This is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Clearly, those four elements of what it means to be a church are present in a single diocese. Why the need for hierarchical structures at all?

I answered that question in a previous post: a single diocese cannot perpetuate its episcopate. You need three bishops to make one bishop. That’s why groups of dioceses get together as provinces to set rules for how those three bishops will get together to do just that.

So it’s clear that hierarchy is a) part of the history of the church, b) necessary for the church as Episcopalians and Anglicans understand it, and c) a subject on which self-serving interpretations can quickly come to dominate. In a situation like this, it’s very easy to get drawn into naval-gazing.

But let’s not! There’s good news here but this post has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for the next post.

A self-declared, free-floating ecclesial entity

A majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina yesterday affirmed the diocese’s decision to withdraw from the structures of the Episcopal Church. This is not a surprising decision, though, if you’ve read previous posts here, you’ll know I find it a disappointing one.

The bishop, Mark Lawrence, says that the diocese is now, “an extra-provincial diocese within the larger Anglican Communion.” There are some formal extra-provincial dioceses in the Anglican Communion (the two dioceses in Sri Lanka, for instance) but South Carolina is not one of them. They are now a self-declared, free-floating ecclesial entity.

So here’s my question: what happens when Bishop Lawrence retires/resigns/is no longer bishop? How will the diocese replace him?

The reason the church has metropolitical structures–a hierarchy, that is–is for precisely this purpose. It takes three bishops to make one bishop. So you put groups of dioceses together–we call them “provinces” in the Anglican Communion–and they set rules for how they determine when three (or more) bishops will get together and make a new bishop.
That’s one reason why, incidentally, there have to be a minimum of four dioceses to form a province. A vacancy in one diocese does not harm the province’s ability to sustain its episcopacy.

South Carolina’s decision to be an independent ecclesial entity does not provide a path for the future of the diocese as it is now. Mark Lawrence cannot be bishop for ever. It’s hard to see how this decision can be sustainable in the long run.

While this may seem to be a quibbling point, it’s tied into a larger question about the hierarchical nature of the church, which has been simmering in the Episcopal Church lately. That question is, in turn, tied into a larger question about what the good news of Jesus Christ is. I’ll address that in a later post but for now it’s worth ruminating on what future this new entity in South Carolina sees for itself.

“So that the world may believe”

It is an often overlooked fact that Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers—”that all may be one”—is, in fact, a missional prayer: one of the next phrases in the verse is “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21) Jesus connects our unity with our witness to the world. Indeed, it seems that the pattern of relationship among believers is central to that community’s ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Why might be this be? I don’t want to make any guesses about what Jesus was thinking but it does seem to me that in our present environment, unity is a counter-cultural value. We live, as I have written, in an age of “I have no need of you”—politically, economically, socially. We are sorting ourselves into ever smaller groups of like-minded people. The presidential election, which has become more about turning out the base than winning over swing voters, is a paradigmatic example. For the church to live in unity in this context is intensely counter-cultural. This is why I think unity is missional; I want people to look at the church, see a different pattern of relationship than that which obtains in our day-to-day life, and think, “How do I become part of that?”

Unfortunately, of course, this is not quite how things work. Churches are divided within themselves, both at the congregational and denominational level. There are often good reasons for this—people of good faith can disagree on what it means to follow Jesus—but often these disagreements seem to swamp any mutual recognition that the other is a fellow member of the body of Christ.

These thoughts have come to mind in recent weeks as I have read, first, of the way in which the Episcopal Bishop of California was excluded from the consecration of the new Catholic archbishop and, second, the apparent expulsion from the Episcopal church of the bishop of South Carolina. Each of these events is the product of a long and complex chain of events, which I won’t claim to understand. Nor do I want to make it seem as if either is easy to resolve or that I’m saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along?” I am saying neither.

But at a time when the word “mission” is constantly being invoked by Episcopalians (with good reason) these events are for me moments of great sadness because they represent lost missional opportunities. When I hear people (from any number of sides in church debates) exulting at the “purity” of the church, I think they sound a lot more like members of a political party than the body of Christ. I find these news items to be deeply mournful and pray that we can have the grace to see others as equally baptized children of the same God. If we really believe in our baptism, it seems like we have no other choice.

It won’t solve all our problems—or even any of them—but I think it would make us more like a church than anything else we could do.

The Gospel of Inclusivity and The Gospel of Transformation

If you had to use one word to sum up the Gospel message, what would it be? For a fair number of people in the Episcopal Church these days, the answer seems to be “inclusive.” God’s love is an “inclusive love” we are told. God invites all people to the table. There are “no outcasts,” as a previous presiding bishop once said.

There’s a song from John Bell and the Iona Community that goes:

God welcomes all

Strangers and friends

God welcomes all

And it never ends

In my experience, this pretty much sums up a major strand of thought in the Episcopal Church today: “You’re included!”

The trouble is, this stand of thought—while highlighting something deeply true about the life and death of Christ—is not all there is to the teachings of Jesus. At some point we have to wrestle with the non-inclusive parts of Jesus’ ministry, like the story he tells about the king who sent out messengers to invite all kinds of people to a wedding. (The king is being inclusive!) When the guests arrive, the king tosses out those who are not dressed properly. “For many are called, but few are chosen,” says Jesus (Matt. 22:14). This is the same Jesus who tells us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt. 7:21)

If I had to use one word to sum up the Gospel, it might be “transformation.” This is what Jesus is getting at when he tells Nicodemus he needs to be “born again” (John 3). It is what Paul tells the Romans they need to do—“be transformed” (12:2). Arguably, it’s what the wedding guests in the Matthew 22 parable did not do. They were invited but they did not allow themselves to be transformed. Inclusion is only the first part of the Gospel message. Transformation into the new life in Christ is what’s important.

There’s something particularly ironic about the way in which this gospel of inclusivity has come to the fore in the Episcopal Church at a time when our attendance figures are only getting smaller. It’s like we’re standing there saying, “You’re included!” and people are saying, “No thanks. I’d rather not be.” After all, there are already plenty of clubs to be involved in. Why be part of the church as well?

But what if we stood out there and told people in the world, “God is going to change your life!” There are lots of people in this world who are looking for different/new/changed lives. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things are, both in people’s personal lives and with the world around us. One central strand of the Christian Gospel is to recognize that things aren’t right and then say “But we have a way to change that. Come share in the death and resurrection of Christ with us and be made a new person.”

I’m not convinced that the Gospel of Inclusivity is getting us anywhere. But I think a Gospel of Transformation might.

Church structure reform: now the work really begins

For decades, Alaskan politicians have been looking for a way to develop the state’s natural gas resources on the North Slope. In 2007, the state legislature passed a piece of legislation called AGIA (the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act) that, it was believed, would at last lead to the building of the gas pipeline to transport the gas to market.

I can’t remember if I was in the legislative gallery at the time or not (I think not) but I do remember the palpable sense of excitement and enthusiasm that surrounded AGIA. Of the 60 lawmakers in the House and Senate, exactly one voted in opposition.

I’ve been thinking about AGIA in the wake of the General Convention’s unanimous approval of a resolution that creates a committee to overhaul the structure of the church. There is that same sense of excitement and enthusiasm that I remember from AGIA. People want change and they are pinning their hopes on this committee to bring it.

So perhaps it is time for a dose of reality: the way ahead for this super committee is hugely difficult. Committee members (whomever they may end up being) have a huge amount of work to do. They have to learn the ins and outs of the current governance structure to figure out what to change or whether and how to start over. It surely makes sense that committee members also explore how other denominations govern themselves. They’ll need to think and dream about what is needed from a national church structure in the twenty-first century. And they have to do all this (and much more) in just under two years, with uncertain staff support and while all of them have jobs and lives elsewhere that are competing for their attention.

At the same time, the hundreds of deputies who passed this resolution will be headed home. The enthusiasm will naturally dissipate as they re-engage with the work of ministry in their local contexts. When actual changes begin to be proposed, there will no doubt be stout opposition from defenders of the status quo. This could be difficult to overcome if people are no longer paying close attention.

Moreover, we can’t “save” the church simply by changing its structure. We need church members who are continually open to the transforming work of God in Christ upon them, people who are agents of God’s mission in the world, people open to following in the sacrificial way of Christ. If we don’t have that—and we don’t take our focus off it—the work of the super-committee will be moot.

All of this is to say that the resolution passed by this General Convention is not the end of anything: it is the beginning of what I hope is a process that transforms the church. While leadership of that process is about to be passed to a super-committee, the process itself  needs the continued care, support, and guidance of the whole church. That’s why a group like Acts 8 is so interesting. At their meeting last night, they talked about ways to spread this passion for church reform to all levels of the church.

All that enthusiasm for AGIA? It soon passed. Before too many months, those who had voted for it were running for office against it. Mutual recrimination followed. Alaska is no closer to a natural gas pipeline than it was before AGIA passed.

Let’s make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with this resolution. Let’s stay interested and engaged in this process, in the hope that the holy way of doing business so clearly exemplified by this Convention can be carried into the important work of the next three years.

The Episcopal Church: The Diocese of Texas of the Anglican Communion

Without much surprise, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention today passed its budget for the next three years. And, as presented on Tuesday, the budget sharply cuts funding for the church’s connection to the Anglican Communion.

While I find the decision disappointing—as I have noted here and here—it was not surprising. What was heartening was that the cuts to funding the Anglican Communion Office were so notably criticized on the floor of the House of Deputies. (I missed the budget debate in the House of Bishops.) I heard one delegate make the point I have made before, namely that how can we expect dioceses to give the full asking to the churchwide budget, when the church doesn’t give the full asking to the Anglican Communion Office?

I’ve heard a couple of figures on this but it seems like the Episcopal Church is currently giving between a third and a half of the asking to the ACO. That puts the church in Diocese of Texas territory: wealthy, well-resourced (comparatively) but unwilling to share any of those resources with the other institutions of the church to which it belongs. There’s been a lot of talk at Convention about the hierarchical nature of the church: as far as General Convention is concerned, the hierarchy stops with it. You give us your money, it says to the dioceses, but we’ll keep it for ourselves. Can you blame other dioceses for saying the same thing to the church?

When we start squabbling over resources like this—pointing out how much some dioceses give but not others, arguing over apportionments, etc.—it’s a sure sign of an institution in decline. If we can no longer meet our commitments, something needs to change. I, for one, am hopeful that the new structure super-committee that has been created by this Convention can discern ways for the church to remain a full, active, and engaged member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church around the world to which we belong.

Small enough to drown in a bathtub

The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has often been quoted as saying that his goal is to get government small enough “so that it can be drowned in a bathtub.” He—like many other ideological conservatives—have a common strategy in Washington: de-fund a program/agency/department, watch it falter because of the de-funding, and then use that as proof that it doesn’t work and needs to be eliminated.

I thought of that this evening as I reflected on the Episcopal Church’s proposed budget and its cuts to Anglican Communion programs. Places like the Anglican Communion Office are sponsoring really important work for the world church: the Continuing Indaba, for instance, or the Bible in the Life of the Church project. Repeatedly, however, the Episcopal Church has turned its back on these programs and deemed them not worthy of being funded. As a result, the staff of the ACO valiantly struggle along, doing their best on the barest of shoestring budgets. Because these projects are so under-resourced, they fail to have the full impact they could. People then say they’re not working and further cuts are made.

General Convention today passed a resolution piously spouting off about its commitment to the Anglican Communion. Really, though, it seems like it wants to drown the Communion in a bathtub.