Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Trouble in the Anglican Heartland

David C. Steinmetz, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at The Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, N.C., wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel. It was published January 2, 2007. It doesn't include any ground-breaking news about the events in the Episcopal Church, but does provide a balanced discussion of the recent events.

Anglicans have been in Virginia since the first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607. These early Anglicans (later known in this country as Episcopalians) were Protestant Christians, whose separate existence as a church family could be traced to the English Reformation of the 16th century and the dynastic woes of Henry VIII.

Of course, not all Anglicans, then or now, consider themselves as Protestants. Some think of themselves primarily as Catholics. There are, after all, many obvious similarities between Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Both use colorful liturgies presided over by clergy wearing traditional vestments inherited from the middle ages.

But the differences are also important, especially in matters of doctrine. Roman Catholics adhere to a fairly long list of required doctrines, while Anglicans advocate a much shorter list of basic Christian beliefs. From the very beginning, Anglicans in Virginia happily tolerated a greater range of differences in faith and practice than Congregationalists in Massachusetts or Roman Catholics in Maryland.

Which doesn't mean that Anglicans felt themselves free to believe any old thing that passed through their minds. On the contrary, they recited the ancient Nicene Creed during their services as an outward and visible sign that they were committed to the core doctrines of the undivided Christian church, however imperfectly they understood or embodied them.

What it does mean is that Anglicans have always thought Christians may differ over some beliefs and practices that stand outside that common core of "mere Christianity." They may differ, sometimes sharply, without breaking off friendly relationships with each other. For Anglicans the question was never whether Christians may agree to disagree (that was a given), but how to define the limits beyond which such disagreements were no longer possible.

The current controversy over gay sex is an extension of this old debate. When the Episcopal Church in 2003 consecrated an openly gay bishop and permitted a local option on the blessing of same-sex unions, it crossed a line. The question everyone asked was what kind of line it had crossed.

Non-reproductive sex outside the boundaries of holy matrimony had been forbidden in Christian churches since the year dot. When the Episcopal Church gave it partial approval, it broke with a long tradition. Was gay sex a so-called indifferent matter about which Christians could agree to disagree? Or was it a matter of core beliefs and therefore non-negotiable?

Anglican conservatives around the world agreed with Pope Benedict XVI that gay and lesbian sexual relationships were forbidden by the common core of Christian beliefs concerning faith and morals and, therefore, were as non-negotiable as the ban on adultery, theft and murder. Liberal Anglicans (who also thought the matter embodied the non-negotiable principle of inclusiveness) nevertheless commended the issue to conservatives as an "indifferent matter" about which Christians could agree to disagree.

The conservatives did not buy it, declared the differences between them "irreconcilable," and began to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. Some parishes formed a conservative network within the Episcopal Church, while others seceded -- with or without their church property -- to align with conservative provinces in Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, or South America.

Which is why the decision of nine parishes in the Virginia Diocese -- including the large, wealthy, and historic parishes of Truro and Falls Church -- did not come as a complete surprise.

What did come as a surprise was the timing. Like divorce, withdrawal from a family of churches is supposed to be a last resort, used only when all intermediate steps to reconcile existing differences have been tried and failed. The decision of the churches in Virginia to depart bears all the marks of impatience -- or, at the very least, of the failure of the Christian virtue of hope.

No one has any right to be happy about this secession, least of all the departing congregations, who have only begun to tally up their losses.

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that schism like divorce is easier to do than to undo and a premature goodbye to one's first love may last forever.


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