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Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Divorce The Church Should Smile Upon

I've been considering the Presiding Bishop's web cast yesterday. I watched it just before I went to bed. I hardly slept. It is not well with my soul.

I awoke this morning to find this news article from LA in my email. Jack Miles is a historian who sees the present problem in the church for what it is.

Nothing holy about it. No "battle for the very soul of the church." Certainly not about scripture, much less human sexuality.

It's about human sin: At the end of the day, it's about power. ("church governance."). One only has to spend a few minutes in the comments section of some of the conservative blogs to know this clearly.

As Miles notes, it was ever thus. And I note that history will not smile kindly on those who, today, think of themselves as the "real" Christians in this battle. It never has. Indeed, it is often most cruel to those who are paralyzed by the struggle but think of themselves as the 'moderates' or 'centrists.'

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but let the Great Divorce begin.

The Anglican Communion will survive, and The Episcopal Church - within it or without it.

But, what will any of it be worth if it has lost its soul?


Published: March 1, 2007
Los Angeles

THE decision of the global Anglican Communion to threaten the Episcopal Church, its American affiliate, with expulsion is about much more than the headline issue of homosexuality. Yes, the impending divorce has been precipitated by the decision of the Episcopal Church to consecrate a gay bishop and to allow individual congregations to decide whether or not to allow gay marriages. But as so often in religious history, the deeper issue is one of church governance. In effect, the Episcopalians left the Church of England more than two centuries ago.

The problem dates back to the time of the American Revolution, when the Church of England in America was just what that name says: it was the Church of England, merely in America. Since the 16th century, when King Henry VIII made himself, in effect, the pope of England, the English king had been the supreme church authority. Time had somewhat eroded this authority by 1776, thanks in part to the Puritan revolution in the mid-17th century. Nonetheless, the authority structure within the church remained officially monarchical.

So it was no surprise that after the newborn United States broke with the crown in the political realm, the Church of England in the United States did so in the religious realm as well, establishing a democratic form of self-governance under a “presiding bishop,” whose title echoed that of the chief executive of the new nation. The name the new church adopted — from episkopos, the ancient Greek word for bishop — signaled that its governance would be neither by pope nor by king but, as in early Christianity, by elected bishops.

British colonial history did not end in 1776, of course. As the British Empire grew, the Church of England went wherever the crown went, evolving in the process into a religious multinational, called the Anglican Communion, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury exercised a global spiritual jurisdiction. Structurally, however, the Episcopal Church, though long since reconciled with Britain, remained uneasy under this arrangement.

Why? Because the deepest rationale for the creation of the Church of England had been that church governance through separate national churches better reflected the practice of the early church than did papal governance. During its first centuries, Christianity had governed itself as separate but equal dioceses or administrative units, each coinciding with a great capital city, each headed by a bishop; the pope, at that time, was merely the bishop of Rome.

Thus, the same logic that dictated the initial creation of the Church of England dictated that, once the United States had become a separate nation, it ought not to belong any longer to the Church of England nor to the Anglican Communion as a colonial extension.

For sentimental reasons, including now fading American Anglophilia, Episcopalians and Anglicans alike tended to mute this logic. However, under the improbable stimulus of a dispute over homosexuals, the logic may be about to assert itself, with consequences that may be larger for the Anglican Communion, and in particular for the Archbishop of Canterbury, than for the Episcopal Church itself.

Numerically, the 2.3 million Episcopalians do not loom large among 77 million Anglicans. Symbolically, however, given the global importance of the United States, the departure of the Americans will leave the archbishop exposed as a quasi-colonial, quasi-papal figurehead heading a church made up, anachronistically, of Britain and her mostly African and Asian former colonies. This will be an awkward state of affairs, and portends further fissures along the same logic that underlies the impending departure of the Americans.

There is, finally, a quintessentially 21st-century implication to this quite likely split. A solid majority of American Episcopalians supports their church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. A minority disagrees, and some of these members have even sought to pull out their congregations from the Episcopal Church and affiliate with one of the Anglican churches in Africa that have been most vehemently opposed to the Episcopalians’ decisions on homosexuality.

The flip side of such threats is that, along the same lines, any British or Canadian or Australian congregations that wished to disaffiliate from their local forms of Anglicanism might well affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In fact, a few have already signaled their readiness, though in the hope of preserving Anglican unity the Episcopal Church has not encouraged them.

I pass over, for the moment, the many legal complications involved in such rearrangements, the surrendering of church property that is entailed and so forth. The broader point is that communications technology makes new forms of church organization possible, and geographically distant congregations can easily join together. Rather than voting with your feet, you may now vote with your mouse, perhaps the most amicable form of religious divorce.

A generation from now, when we look back on the breakup of the Anglican Communion and on the status of homosexuals within the churches of the world, what may we expect to see? An old proverb holds that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and at this juncture, the Author of Liberty, as a venerable American hymn names him, seems to have taken pen in hand.

Jack Miles is a senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy and a scholar in residence with the Getty Research Institute.


Bill said...

Oh my God, It’s like having someone finally turn the lights on. I have believed this for quite some time. History is a hobby of mine. Actually it’s more of an obsession. I’ve never really spoken out on this because I’m fairly new to the Episcopal Church having recently jumped the RC ship. I’ve never accepted that this is all about scripture and who is the better Christian. I’ve always known in my heart that it’s about power and it always has been.

If you want to go back to the Protestant revolution, it’s the same thing. The religious differences where an excuse for the Kings of Europe to do what they had wanted to do for quite some time. They were tired of paying tribute to Rome. Does anybody think that it was just coincidence that northern Europe became Protestant and Southern Europe went Roman Catholic. That was a gentlemen’s agreement. If you were a subject of the northern monarchs you became Protestant and the reverse for the south.

The split between Henry VIII and Rome was pure politics. Henry wanted a male heir and wasn’t going to let Rome say no. He split, took over the Church in England which then became the Church of England and the beginning of the Anglican Church.

The Episcopalian Church came about much the same way. The revolutionary war prevented the American Episcopalian priests from swearing allegiance to George. Being resourceful they went to Scotland where no such allegiance was required. That gave the American church the bishops they needed and that gave us the American Episcopal Church.

I never understood why the Episcopal Church was so afraid of schism. Schism has been the birth and rebirth of fire time and time again. Schism has been the one constant in the history of the Church.

C.B. said...

It certainly has become apparent with the Commingue "requests," the Covenant design, and the ABC's clear desire for a newly constructed communion under his authority that this is about power.

It is also about the grasping for power from within TEC in order to exert power over TEC. But I do not think this part will stop even if TEC is asked to "walk apart." A strong powerful Christian church which operates in defiance of the so called orthodox will not be tolerated easily - attempts to continue to define it as apostate, and marginalize its witness with continued talk about scriptural issues will go on. This is because as long as we exist, the reasserters may not define either God or the Gospel with impunity.

But no matter how they struggle to avoid it - this split will be known for what it is - as a realignment of the Anglican Communion in order for dissident bishops in the US, Primates and the ABC to consolidate their power using homosexuals as wedge issue.

And as time goes on, and the power dynamics become even clearer and we continue to set forth the Scriptural basis for our position the more others will see it for what it is.


Deborah Sproule said...

Thanks Bill, That's the way I've seen the birth of the Episcopal church as well. It is obvious that scripture tradition has much less to do with the current scapegoating of same sex unions, than political power of control. Politics and power always depend on control of the masses. The only difference between the King Henry model of control and the AC is that one uses proximity of homeland and the other uses personal values of love to divide and conquer. I will trust God on this course, with or without the Episcopal church aligned to the AC. I pray for Nigeria, Africa that the AC will stay connected to the Episcopal church for the sake of human rights. I pray that the Episcopal Church stays connected to the AC of Nigeria for the sake of humility. Hopefully the scapegoat group (same sex couples) can take the high road and use their America resources of wealth and charity to forgive the oppressors of Nigeria(supported and informed by some of our own here in the USA) in acts of assistance ,support and love. As pB Schori states in one of her statements after the Primate meeting, paraphrasing...'The AC has been known for acts of compassion in dismantling slavery. It is favored as a group of freedom here(Nigeria). The needs of millions here are about hunger and safety, not same sex unions. Let us in love understand one anothers needs by returning to this table in the name Christ'.

Bill said...

Clearly those who seek power see nothing but power. And so it is with the Miles article and Kaeton's response. However, I cannot avoid remarking on the fundamental dishonesty involved in just "passing over" these legal "complications". What this means, in essence, is that the property of those of us who have chosen to stay in the Episcopal Church and work for the salvation of the many souls at stake, will be required to fight for our own property to remain faithful within the Anglican Communion, in a conflict we did not start, and a cause we do not support.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wow! And what the conservative folks always complain about is that LGBT people always paint themselves as "victims."

And then, whem we don't, we're "strident" and only see "power."

But then again, you know that already.