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OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD

Would the real Episcopal Church please stand up? I’ve been struck lately by the wide gap which seems to exist between the Episcopal Church one discovers in the parishes across the land and the Episcopal Church as she reveals herself in General Convention.

I’m almost of a mind to call the General Convention version of TEC “Oz”, and the church one finds in most places “Kansas”. Granted my impressions are largely anecdotal, but swimming around in my brain are memories of a number of surveys which have been made available during the last ten years.

I am willing to admit that there are significant parishes in urban and suburban America, largely on the East and West coasts which look a lot like “Oz”. I’ll further admit that there are a good number of diocesan centers which trot out statements in “Ozese”. Elsewhere I’ve termed that arcane language “815 Mandarin”.

At the same time there are equally significant parishes in urban and suburban America, in places like Virginia and Texas which definitely aren’t Oz, but aren’t much like the sort of communities one finds in typical TEC parishes. By typical I mean parishes which manage to recruit somewhere between seventy and one hundred and thirty active parishioners and usually support one priest. These parishes are usually but not always outside the urban and suburban sprawl of big cities. They struggle to pay their way, have little money for the sort of programs available from 815 and church publishers. Parishioners love their parish, describe the diocese as “them” and have little or no interest in the National Church unless General Convention’s actions embarrass them with the neighbors or frighten the horses. At any rate statistics show that the clergy or lay workers in such parishes are unlikely to be represented in General Convention.

One thing is certain. Most of the members of these churches resent being lectured about politics or committed to what they regard to be political actions by conventions or bishops. I’m not suggesting that such resentment is justified. It is real.

When it comes to the liturgy and hymnal they are much more likely to use Rite One at the early service and Rite Two later, unlikely to use any of the supplements and seldom willing to stray outside the offerings of the hymnal. The organ is still normally used. Youth Sundays often turn out to be opportunities for aging sixties folk to dig out the music enjoyed when Hippies reigned.

On the whole they are rather shy of ecumenical relationships, even with the Lutherans, unless cooperation comes in the shape of a few special community services or charitable endeavors. Of late they have become aware of the Anglican Communion and think it’s not a bad idea as long as it doesn’t get ideas that it can tell Americans what to do.

These typical parishes embrace all sorts and conditions of people, as they have always done as long as they don’t make a fuss about what might be thought to be an unusual lifestyle. After all young and even older people nowadays…….!! Least said, soonest mended. There may be a soup kitchen or a thrift shop run by the same few willing volunteers.

One factor is for sure. The parish will be introverted and spend nearly all of its time trying to accommodate its present members. True there will be fly blown notices around referring to such arcane things as Millennium Development, what ever that is, and major disasters will call forth sometimes extraordinary responses. Flyers and brochures about diocesan events or offerings make their way to a table or tract rack and a few take notice. The vestry from time to time discusses outreach in low and discreet tones particularly if the word “evangelism” is used.

Yet from the outside, the actual building remains a rather daunting place for those who have not been initiated into the mysteries.. The notice board is low key and perhaps hasn’t been cleaned up for years. Giant red doors bar the way into something which looks a lot like a castle, built to ward off the enemy. The parishioners are a loving lot –until one discovers the various clans and their claims –but breaking through their love into acceptance demands a good deal of self-assurance. There may be some concern that there are fewer active parishioners than there were twenty years ago. But except for that tasteless evangelical church which steals the young people with jolly activities, most of the other local churches are also weaker.

When I compare this picture of TEC with the one portrayed by General Convention, the picture by which we are accessed and judged by our neighbors, ecumenical partners and the Anglican Communion I’m amazed and puzzled. There’s nothing new in this picture. Unless the very nature of Anglicanism has changed, it will be “Kansas” which endures and “Oz” which fades away. Certainly some of the things the “General Convention” church proposes or adopts will filter down to be amended, accepted or rejected by the common sense of the laity. T’was ever thus. But what an irony that at this moment in time, TEC’s unity and membership in the wider Communion seems to stand or fall on perceptions based on a view of this church which may neither be accurate nor fair.

RECONCILIATION?

Getting away from everything was a salutary experience. For nearly four weeks I knew nothing of what was happening in the world or the church. As most of the people who live on Diamond Creek remain in that state of blissful unaware on a permanent basis, I was not alone in my eccentricity. There’s no email or television reception up the mountain unless one has a satellite dish.

So after almost a month down the mountain we came to find that the French are right: “The more things change the more they stay the same.” Even the invincible majority within TEC shows signs of insecurity. In that it now shares the experience of the minority, now lived into for over thirty years. At worst this new insecurity may merely further polarize the church. At best it may lay the groundwork for a new understanding. The majority fears losing all they have gained. The minority knows it has lost a great deal of what it had when it called the shots.

I read an email today in which the writer feared another “Port St. Lucie” solution. I wonder how many remember the Port St. Lucie meeting of the House of Bishops about thirty years ago. The year before, by the slimmest of majorities, General Convention approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and diaconate. Whether the church was right or wrong isn’t the issue. There was no consensus. In a winner take all system the winners took all. The Presiding Bishop was +John M Allin, native of Helena Arkansas, former Bishop of Mississippi, a charming, caring Southern gentleman, full of good humor who had shown bravery at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

+Jack Allin wanted to reach out to the losers. He had taken the risk of attending the traditionalist Congress of St. Louis and was refused communion when he went to the altar. Yet he was determined to reach out to the new and old “Continuing Churches” and to those who remained alienated within TEC. He managed to get the House of Bishops to endorse a “conscience clause” freeing bishops and dioceses who opposed the ordination of women from any kind of canonical sanction. The Conscience Clause was only a gesture. It wasn’t an act of General Convention. But the majority or some of the majority regarded Bishop Allin’s initiatives as a betrayal of their cause. After all if one believes that the Holy Spirit is responsible for majority decisions in General Convention, to oppose such decisions is close to being blasphemy.

Now our present Presiding Bishop and his successor are under fire for caving in at General Convention and calling for a time of inner debate and pan-communion discussions. After all the decision has been made that TEC may follow its own star. What’s to talk about?

September seems to be filled with meetings. The first will bring together our presiding bishops, the bishops of Virginia and Southwest Florida who share degrees of moderation and some Network Bishops who seem equally sure that all is up with TEC. This meeting has the endorsement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems gloomy about the prospects for Anglicanism over the next ten years. The second important meeting will bring together the growing number of younger more moderate TEC bishops who began to make themselves heard at General Convention this year. That meeting has been convened by the elder statesman bishop of Texas. Both meetings offer hope.

There will be no hope, I suggest, if these meetings get stuck on the issue of gay and lesbian inclusion and marital blessings, for that is what same-sex blessings are really all about, or on matters of territorial jurisdiction. These matters are so thoroughly “political” that they obscure the core issue and have been argued to death already.

The core issue, or one of them is all about how minority groups may be accepted, loved and enabled within TEC at a time when the majority seems invincible and triumphant. If TEC is the Church in macrocosm then its validity lies in those things which are core, necessary unto salvation and which survive the changes and chances of the ecclesiastical world over centuries. What is now isn’t for ever. Time often amends and even forgets issues upon which seemed to hang the future of everything. Anglicans used to believe in the Divine Right of Kings. Such a pity we changed our minds.

On a wider scale Anglicanism has to decide whether the majority may abide what to them is the North American minority at this moment in history. After the Second World War when England began to divest itself of Empire and was broke, TEC stepped in to Africa and elsewhere. TEC seemed to offer a pattern for autonomy among the newly emerging indigenous churches and was amazingly generous with time, talent and cash. Indeed a mini-Communion within the Communion emerged alied first to TEC and only then to Canterbury. The time came when at Lambeth Conferences the American PB sat next to Canterbury in official photographs. But now this paternal figure has, it seems to these people, been found in flagro delecto. Pain, grief, amazement and disgust has replaced hero-worship. That’s not an uncommon reaction but not always a virtuous reaction.

Nothing will change unless we really desire to listen to each other, learn from each other and find ways to embrace each other and to do that we have to visit the place where grief is felt rather than repeating over and over again our slogans. Of course this is a merely Christian project, but in these days of a politicized church, whether we are up to being Christian it is quite another matter.