• Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 292 other followers

  • Blog Stats

    • 325,576 hits

Churches in Exile


It’s apparent now, from the words and statements of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, that when the institutional church is forced to choose between the interests of the institution and the interests of the church, it chooses to uphold the institution and jettison the church.

That’s simply how institutions always operate. These two “primates” have no intention of doing otherwise.

That means Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Christians will be cast adrift for the foreseeable future—because that’s how Canterbury and the PB allowed the Church’s right-wing extremists to define the terms: “us” or “them.”

Okay. Ask a Christian to choose between the institution and the church, and few of us will choose the institution.

That’s why we’re called to be laypeople. Our jobs and our faith don’t depend on the institution.

This is a much freer way to live.

Faithful people should avoid ordination unless God drags them kicking and screaming to the altar. I realize this never gets said to postulants, but it’s true. Laypeople are much freer to act on and act out the Gospel than clergy are. That freedom is worth much more than a funny collar and a funny hat.

So let us now imagine what the two, parallel U.S. provinces derived from Anglicanism will look like in 20 years.

By then, most of today’s rabble-rousers, who think the Church lives or dies on how Gay people are treated, will be dead—including me.

Episcopalians will probably have shuttered vast numbers of underperforming, undersupported churches. This is no great loss, except to the communities now enjoying them, where it will be grievous indeed. Episcopalians will be concentrated even more in the cities and on the coasts. But many of them will do great faithful work, no doubt with some sad nostalgia for the good old days before the schism. Those remaining parishes will also have some real energy, real ministry, real mission. They are the ones, presumably, being served by the decisions of today’s Archbishop and Presiding Bishop. Everyone else is pretty much told to go to hell.

U.S. “Anglicans” will not be much better off, I don’t think; they’ll have some strong parishes and some viable structures. They’ll pride themselves for having won this turn-of-the-century war for “orthodoxy” (that is, homophobia).

Never underestimate the power of fundamentalism. It’s got everything figured out and some people like it that way.

But the “Anglicans” are going to have some real problems too. After an initial burst of triumphalism, they’re going to have to start crunching numbers. They’ll have one seminary, Nashotah House, and one “school for ministry” in Pennsylvania. I don’t see Virginia Seminary swinging to the “Anglican” side, although there will be comings and goings.

They won’t have or want access to Gay and Lesbian seminarians, whose numbers are increasingly important in replacing the pool of retiring Straight clergy. Nor will the “Anglicans” have many Black folk or Mexican immigrants. White heterosexual married men with 7 years of higher education generally expect to make more money than a priest does; some always feel the call but there are reasons TEC’s clergy ranks are increasingly Lesbian, Gay and brown.

The “Anglicans” may not have numbers enough to produce the kind and quality of scholarship required to renew the church’s liturgies and worship music. Maybe they’ll rely on The Episcopal Church to produce such things, which they can then adapt to clean out all concessions to inclusiveness; but maybe TEC will start copyrighting its new liturgies, which it’s never done before.

Conservatives wax and wane just like liberals do, depending on the overall political climate in America. “Anglicans” will be viable, but I can’t see them growing enormously, because they won’t be able to compete with the independent megachurches, which aren’t tied to formal liturgies or national bureaucracies. When you put these “Anglicans” side by side with the competition, why should a conservative family choose the old, formal Prayer Book over the feel-good histrionics of megachurches and pentecostals?

Consider these findings from “Faith Communities Today 2005,” the most comprehensive survey of American religious congregations (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, you name it) ever conducted:

• Worship that is “reverent” is less attractive today than worship that is “joyful.” This undermines the growth prospects of both Episcopal and “Anglican” parishes, where reverence is the stock in trade.

• Among the mainlines, liberal congregations grow more than conservative ones do.

That last one raises a few eyebrows; liberal churches grow? Yup, and so do liberal synagogues. Reform Jews are now the largest branch in America and they’ve been ordaining women and welcoming GLBT members for years now. The Conservative synagogues have been losing members to the right and the left, so they’ve endorsed women rabbis and Gay inclusion; and last year even the Orthodox figured out a way not to condemn LGBT relationships, though it caused great consternation.

People just don’t have time to be judging each other anymore. They’ve stopped believing in it, no mattter what someone says the Bible says.

It pays to look at an earlier example of schism in the Episcopal Church. In the late 1800’s an assistant Bishop of Kentucky went to New York and participated in a Presbyterian Communion service. He was widely criticized; “Presbyterians don’t have the Apostolic Succession! (Episcopalians and Catholics care about that.) Therefore their ordinations aren’t valid! Therefore the Communion was a sham!”

This poor bishop, who went to Presbyterian Communion precisely to make the point that all Christians should be one and the Communion table open to all, thereupon resigned his episcopate and started a new denomination called the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1873.

According to the REC’s official website, the denomination’s distinctive characteristics are these: it is historically “Anglican” (but not in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury); its bishops and presbyters are ordained in the Apostolic Succession, so its sacraments are valid; the principal Sunday service is not Eucharist but Morning Prayer, during which the minister (no “priests”) wears cassock and surplice; authorized liturgies derive from the Books of Common Prayer of 1662 and 1928; and more recently, no women’s ordination; it’s anti-abortion (except if the mother’s life is “provably” in danger) and, of course, anti-Gay.

In other words, the big thing is no fancy vestments! No popery! No priests saying masses! The denomination is solidly “reformed,” as its name suggests.

What clothes the clergy wear is ultimately a silly point, but vestments do end up as reliable proxies for competing theologies; Anglicanism has always steered between being catholic and protestant, and these people want to emphasize the protestant stuff. I don’t agree, but they’re entitled to it.

But how has this worked in practical terms? Look at the numbers. In 1910 they reported 94 churches and 10,400 communicants. In 2003 they reported 142 churches and 11,281 communicants.

In other words, they report virtually no change in almost a century. They have 50 more churches and 800 more people. In this same time period, the population of the United States has approximately tripled.

The evidence suggests that theological conservatism, combined with traditional reverent worship, stays static. It doesn’t grow.

If you want to grow, you toss out the pews and install theater seating; get rid of the altar, because you’re not going to celebrate Communion anyway. Put in big-screen TV monitors (no one fumbles with Prayer Books and hymnals when it’s all on TV), plus a pop-music group with guitars and drums to sing sweetly, and then you can bang your Bible, talk a gospel of self-help and prosperity, and condemn Gay people all you want. This is the megachurch formula. It works; ask Ted Haggard.

What doesn’t work is old-style worship in old-style buildings and an anti-Gay message.

Faced with such facts, REC is now on the move. In 2005 it aligned itself with the hatefully anti-Gay Archbishop of Nigeria—and another splinter group called the Anglican Province of America, which emphasizes (drum roll please) priests in elaborate vestments saying masses and venerating Mary!

So much for that Presbyterian-leaning assistant bishop of Kentucky way back when…

Today’s “Anglicans” are going to lose their kids over the very issue their parents revolted over: homophobia.

You can’t build much of a church on racism anymore, and in 20 years’ time, anti-Gay bias is going to seem even more ridiculous than it already does. It’s going to be socially stigmatized, just like sexism and racism. That’s how the culture is already moving, and nothing in this schism can stop that.

Kids raised “Anglican” will either find their way to Episcopal churches or somewhere else; I can’t see them staying for generations in a church that embarasses them.

A church that is born out of bigotry, as the latest “Anglican” churches are being born today, will have to make some big changes to survive. They can abandon the Prayer Book; they can merge with previous waves of anti-TEC schismatics and hope that helps; they can try standing pat; they can put all their force into evangelism and attracting replacement members, which is what the Reformed Episcopalians have been trying for a decade or more.

But I believe today’s “Anglicans” will find themselves incredibly marginalized no matter what, because they won’t have a way to reinvent themselves. A church that lives by homophobia will die by it.

If now is our time of exile, in another generation it will be the Nigerian “Anglicans” and secessionists’ time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: