July 19, 2006

Y’know, ever since this year’s Episcopal Church (“TEC”) General Convention I’ve been looking for a sign that someone – anyone – in my Church’s leadership will wake up and see just how truly dire its situation is. How dire? I suppose I could turn this post into a virtual cornucopia of statistics with accompanying analysis, but then I wouldn’t have any readers at all!

(For those interested, however, two examples of domestic TEC church attendance analysis – the most critical because a) that’s where TEC is based, and b) that’s where the money is – can be found here and here.)

Figures aside, it doesn’t take a genius to see that TEC, like most mainline Protestant churches, is in trouble – big trouble. Ever since the controversial 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson – a gay priest living in a committed relationship with another man – much of the Church’s energies have been focused on internal problems and controversies borne out of the growing chasm between the so-called “liberal” and “orthodox”: money squabbles, threats of legal action by bishops against parishes and priests, declining membership, aging congregations, and departing parishes. Sensing weakness in its commitment to the Gospel and its ability to maintain and enforce structure and order, foreign Anglican provinces (primarily from Africa and South America) began undertaking the ordination of American “missionary bishops” and the planting of “orthodox” Anglican parishes right under the noses of their TEC counterparts.

Since the Robinson consecration, TEC’s standing within the Anglican Communion has come under almost constant fire by its fellow provinces within the Communion – most especially, African and Asian provinces experiencing the most explosive growth – for being theologically “soft” on its commitment to traditional Church teachings, especially homosexuality and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This culminated in 2004 in the release by the Eames Commission’s Windsor Report, which, among other things, recommended that each Anglican province ratify a “covenant” that would commit them to consulting the other provinces in the Anglican Communion when making major decisions, and urge those who had contributed to Anglican disunity (read: TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada, where certain dioceses had taken to consecrating same-sex unions) to express their regret.

With all these controversies going on, I have found it hard to concentrate simply on worshipping God as an Anglican (really, an Anglo-Catholic) and an Episcopalian. Particularly, having witnessed the internal machinations of how the Church works in more than a few of its dioceses from my time of discerning my call to the priesthood and having experienced more than my share of “spiritual dryness” over the past five years, I find myself craving confident leadership with a theological backbone and an honest vision of what my Church is and where it’s going. I think this is so important now in a world so fractured that it is difficult to identify yourself as anything and seek that “quiet center” where you feel yourself as part of some greater good and whole.

As an Episcopalian, I never felt that way about our previous Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold. Anyone looking for strong statements of faith or a visionary leader could only find disappointment in Griswold’s lukewarm pluralism and theological underpinings. As David Virtue once observed:

It was at the 1998 Lambeth Conference when Griswold uttered his now famous line that he (Griswold) believed in “pluriform truths” startling the then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and causing the media to scratch its collective head and ponder what he meant.

Over time it became horribly apparent. Griswold would never settle for any one truth, or one particular interpretation of the truth, rather there were many truths, even contradictory “truths” that could and should be held together in tension, without the need to come down absolutely on any one side or the other. To hold things in tension was to live comfortably with ambiguity, even doubt. To say you knew or that Jesus was ‘the way, the truth and the life’ was to demonstrate an arrogance that he could not support or condone. What might be true for you might not be true for someone else, and one should be prepared to absorb the other truth or simply to live along side it because one might encounter the mystical ‘other’ in another person, and to miss that might be sin. Conversely, to say Jesus is the only way might be true for us as Christians but we should never suppose that God had not spoken in other ways, through other persons and we should be “humble” enough to accept that.

So, when General Convention came around this year, I was quite interested in seeing who would succeed Griswold as Presiding Bishop. Like many, I was suprised when Katherine Jefforts Schori, considered a minor candidate, was elected with no small assistance, as it turns out, from a number of “orthodox” bishops. Not knowing anything about her, I had no preconceptions as to what I could expect from her, except that from the few interviews I saw following her election I surmised that, regardless of the help she had received from that quarter, she was no friend of the “orthodox”.

But what kind of a leader was she, or could she be, I wondered?

Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened up my July 17 issue of Time Magazine and found Bishop Schori the subject of their weekly “10 Questions For” column. While most of the questions were softball tosses that dealt with her unique background (she’s multi-lingual, an oceanographer, and a licensed, instrument-rated pilot), one question and response in particular caught my attention:

Q: What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?

A: Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.

Oh really. What about better roads and more money for public education, I asked? ‘Cause for a second there, I wasn’t sure if I was reading the focus of TEC’s new Presiding Bishop or that of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You see (silly me), I always thought the focus of the Presiding Bishop ought to somehow be aligned with that of the mission of the Church (which, as I see in the Catechism on p. 855 of the Book of Common Prayer states:

Q: What is the mission of the Church?

A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

So here we are, the Church is hopelessly fractured over the issue of homosexuality, people are leaving in droves, congregations are getting grayer, mission work at the diocesan and parish level is often almost non-existent, dioceses are in financial chaos, and priests are leaving and taking their parishes with them, and what is our new Presiding Bishop’s focus? Health, eduation, and welfare.

I’m sorry, but this is about as close to the last straw as can be for this Anglo-Catholic. Even an idiot – and I don’t use that term lightly – would understand that social welfare in and of itself is NOT the mission of the Church and should NOT be the primary focus of the Church. Rather, it is the logical outpouring of love, compassion, service, and generosity inspired by the Holy Spirit of God that results when people are drawn to, and united around, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. What Schori seems to want to focus on here is not mission, but ministry. However, in terms of the Church, without the former, there’s no context for the latter. Without mission, you might as well be just another private or public social service agency among many.

For God’s sake, if she – the Presiding Bishop of TEC – doesn’t understand that, there is no hope for the Episcopal Church, and you can count me out. If Jefforts Schori really – and I mean REALLY – believes that’s what her focus and vision is and ought to be, I have a better, more practical suggestion: why not just shut down the Church’s administrative infrastructure, offices, and overhead, close all the churches, sell all the properties, then open up community centers across the U.S. and the world with the handsome profits. I say this in all seriousness. When a Church stops being a Church and becomes just another arm of the social welfare system and infrastructure, that’s when I jump ship.

Look, I know she’s new and, in a forum like Time Magazine, she may be looking to appeal to a wider audience than traditional Episcopalians like myself. However, there comes a time when even the most committed Episcopalian is looking for a sign that their leadership is aware of the issues currently tearing the Church apart and threatening its very future. In times like this, one would think its new elected leader would be sensitive to the need to share her vision for the survival and sustainable future of the body she has been elected to. To not see this articulated as her primary focus is disappointing, indeed. Make no bones about it – for this Episcopalian and many others of my stripe, Jefforts Schori is on a very short leash, and the leash is getting shorter with every passing day.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 03:05 | Comment (1)
1 Comment »
  1. Return to normal CrabAppleLane blogging

    Today marks a return to our regularly scheduled blogging. After a week’s worth of high quality entries here at CrabAppleLane, I hope my usual drivel won’t be too disappointing. I want to thank The Great White Shank of GoodBoys Nation and Dave E of Fish…

    Trackback by CrabAppleLane Blog — July 19, 2006 @ 10:20 am


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