Editor's Note: Christopher Webber submitted this essay on Saturday, November 3, after the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted to disassociate from the Episcopal Church. Webber has written for The Episcopal Majority before. See The Conscience of a Conservative and 1984 in the Episcopal Church (which includes background information about the author).
by Christopher L. Webber
A certain madness seems at times to take hold of entire societies and turn them toward self-destruction. Such a passion seized the authorities in South Carolina in 1861 and led them to fire on Fort Sumter. Such an irrational mood took hold of Germany in 1932 and led them to follow blindly after Adolf Hitler. Such a delusion seems to have taken possession of a few dioceses and parishes of the Episcopal Church leading them to charge off into an unknown wilderness with only the negative purpose of not being part of a church in which homosexuals have equal rights.
Yet the divisions within this chaotic disarray are greater than those in the Episcopal Church itself. Do they agree on a Prayer Book, on the ordination of women, on the authority of bishops, on the nature of the Anglican Communion itself? In fact, they don’t. [See Note 1.] But never mind; they’ll figure out who they are later. It’s as if Ted Kennedy and Rush Limbaugh formed a political party dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton. What would they do if they won? This is a recipe for disaster. [Editor's note: The Common Cause Partners have their website here.]
"Here I stand. I can do no other. I will neither compromise the Faith once delivered to the saints, nor will I abandon the sheep who elected me to protect them."Thus spake Bishop Duncan after the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted almost 2-1 last week to cast itself adrift in uncharted waters. [See Note 2.] But where does he stand? Does he accept the faith once delivered to Archbishop Akinola of the Church in Nigeria where lay people have no voice in the selection of clergy leadership? Does he follow the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, in yearning for lay administration of the sacraments and a total disregard for diocesan boundaries? Does he see the ordination of women as an optional extra?
And in this new thing being created, will parishes and dioceses be permitted to come and go as various issues arise and become divisive? With new American bishops being created on impulse by bishops from various dioceses in Africa, Asia, and South America, each apparently eager to claim a share of the American pie, is there any possibility of diocesan lines or will we have a half dozen parishes in the same city with allegiance to half a dozen different foreign dioceses?
Who now will define “the faith once delivered to the saints?” Will homophobia be written into their creed, their articles of incorporation, their Prayer Book? Will tradition and reason – reason especially – be disavowed as sources of authority?
When you stand at the top of the ski run and realize that you don’t know how to ski, you can still turn back. But it takes a greater humility and sense of history than is currently at work for a leader to take his troops to the edge of the precipice and then suggest an alternative. Better to jump and die even if it turns out there’s no safety net down there than to be embarrassed in public.
Bishop Duncan may see himself as Martin Luther, but from this perspective he looks a lot more like one of those false messiahs of the past who led their sheep into the wilderness and ultimate disaster in pursuit of a mad vision of righteousness.
Note 1: In fact, the Diocese of Pittsburgh ordains women, but two other leading dissident dioceses (San Joaquin and Fort Worth) see that as apostasy. Likewise, some of the dissidents are content with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer while others see it as a work of the devil.
Note 2: The lay vote was 118-58, clergy voted 109-24 for changes to the Constitution of the Diocese (that would have to be voted again next year to take effect) that would essentially eliminate all references to the diocese's connection with the Episcopal Church and leave the Diocese free to pursue connection with some other Anglican entity.