Prelude: I am in grief. The conflict between the Diocese of South Carolina and the national Episcopal church leadership has been brewing for years. The boil-over is like a bad divorce between two people who, in your mind, should have been able to work things out. You love them both and, even though you saw it coming, you keep wondering, “How did it come to this?” I wrote this post on Wednesday evening. I have sat on it for three days hoping that my grief would subside. It has not.
“I ask…on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” –John 17:20-21, NRSV
Epic Fail. It’s a junior high expression overused to meaninglessness: Dropping a pass. Spilling coffee on your laptop. Tripping in public. Yesterday an actual Epic Fail occurred. The Episcopal Church brought abandonment charges against a bishop actively trying to meet to work out differences. It was my worst day in five years as an Episcopalian.
This is where decades of disagreement over biblical interpretation and human sexuality have left us. If you are not a Christian you are probably wondering why we can’t just treat each other like Christians. If you are a Christian, and especially an Episcopalian OF ANY STRIPE, you will almost surely take issue with what I am about to write.
I write, however, as one who loves his church. Five years ago I walked away from reductionistic evangelicalism to embrace the wisdom of the ancient church, the beauty of liturgy, the soul enrichment of spiritual practice and social engagement as a force for good in the world. As someone who always rejected the small box of fundamentalism, I was enthusiastic to join a church that promised to be a big tent welcoming all to the table. You see, unlike other Christians, Episcopalians were never really a confessional church with long detailed doctrinal statements. We are a CHURCH UNITED BY OUR WILLINGNESS TO PRAY WITH THOSE WE DON’T AGREE WITH, and in what we do believe, we keep it simple – We are a creedal church (the brief Nicene Creed-a large tent with lots of room for disagreement). That room was necessary in England where one church contained Catholics, Protestants and the publicly religious.
If you are not an Episcopalian you probably have no grid in your experience for what a church united around the willingness to pray together might look like. My first Sunday in an Episcopal Church I sat with a friend who worked for our bishop. He answered for me all the usual questions about the Catholic practice and Protestant theology that characterize us. Then I asked about the political stances of the church. The friend explained that with Episcopalians agreement was not expected. Diversity of opinion was considered a strength, a charism. On one end of the spectrum we had diocese’ that pushed the envelope to bless same-sex couples and, on the other, diocese’ that did not ordain women. As someone with every inclination toward including others, reconciling those in conflict, and whose life’s ministry has been to work across boundaries in ecumenical evangelism, to say I was intrigued by this commitment to comprehensiveness was an understatement.
The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.
I have followed things in South Carolina closely, both because of my own wiring toward reconciliation and because I have CLOSE friends on both sides of this issue. I know both sides of this debate well. Both sides have operated in ways that made perfect sense to them in their context and BOTH appear duplicitous and mean spirited to the other. The series of reactions and re-reactions has resulted in broken fellowship.
I realize that there are deep wounds on both sides. I know both sides chronology of what the other side did. I also know that the other side loves God and honestly thinks they are acting in good faith. But do you catch the language? Referring to our sisters and brothers in Christ as sides is tragic. Tragic also is that, in the end, we were the ones who said, “There is a stage leaving town at sundown. Be under it.”
I fear that the “oneness” for which Jesus prayed is going to become defined for us, as in other denominations, as agreement – or at least as the willingness to give the appearance of walking in lockstep with whoever holds the keys of power. That might be the most tragic result of all.
For those not following this situation, here is what appears to have happened in the simplest terms: The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office. Did South Carolina really want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. Did the national church want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. I do not presume to read minds or motives…of either side. I merely grieve.
South Carolina is unlike the rest of the Episcopal church in many ways. But we have a long history of making room for people who push the bounds of our theology, politics and canon law. We had room for Bishop Pike who literally begged our bishops to inhibit him. We had room for Bishop Spong and his version of the old SNL Fluckers skit, “Here’s a new theology I just made up!” Now, sadly, we do not have room for a bishop and the lion’s share of his diocese, that hold a traditional view of marriage. The truth is that we have changed. We moved their cheese. Why can we not give them room to differentiate themselves?
Last night I was in a car with someone who is a key player in our institution. She is a great person who loves God and the church. I cannot describe the sinking feeling in my heart when she said, “We will be a leaner-meaner church now. One that can stop pretending and be who we are.” Well, we will be leaner- by 30,000 Episcopalians. And we will certainly be meaner as we will no longer be held in tension by opposing voices. Is it really a good thing to silence dissent? Will we be able to “be who we are?” I fear that unless who we are is redefined as “a narrow group of Progressive Puritans” then the answer is no. We have been a comprehensive church – A table with room for all. Will that still be who we are? Or is that day passing?
The saddest part of the whole thing for me is the response on the web-organs of our church. Where is the grief in these posts?
The tone on the South Carolina sites is instructive. Their tone is grief. It is not the tone of someone who took their toys and went home.
I do not judge the motives of those on either side. Although this is a very public dispute, there is surely much information that I am not privy to. It is being said that this is what South Carolina angled for all along. I can say that, if this was a conspiracy, it was the greatest conspiracy since the resurrection. I would have to believe that multiple South Carolina diocesan employees including their bishop…in public and private conversations , within and without the walls of their diocesan offices, face-to-face, over phone and text, over years, faked frustration and fear. I think there is a better explanation: We missed it. Us. Them. All of us. We missed one another. They wanted to be different to be sure, but the South Carolina Episcopalians I know wanted to be Episcopalians.
And worst of all, in the eyes of the unchurched, we have all failed in both unity and love.
The irony of all of this is that the Episcopal Church has and is becoming much more theologically orthodox over the five years I have been here. It is more progressive politically to be sure, but it is noticeably more orthodox every year. If we could only have waited another five years both sides would surely end up closer together.
But we didn’t. None of us. And that is the shame.
We could have done better. All of us. We could have assumed the best of one another. We could have refused to respond out of fear. We could have made the other make the first move…and the second…and the third. I understand why everyone made every move they made. All around people did their best. Yet today we have an…
Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Spencer Johnson, 1998.