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BISHOP’S REPORT

Finally the report of the House of Bishop’s theological committee is published. It is somewhat ironically entitled “Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church.”http://www.collegeforbishops.org/assets/1145/ss_document_final.pdf.

It is no surprise that it proved impossible to construct a unified statement for the guidance of the church. The committee invited a group of scholars, equally weighted on each side of the discussion and the predictable result was two reports, one from the liberal and one from the traditional camp.  I commend the Theological Committee for giving equal weight to each viewpoint.

That this contribution to the controversy comes when TEC has staked its future on the liberal side is not a cause for amazement. TEC now has a track record of acting first and seeking justification later. In an individual such behavior would be described as impulsive, the trait of an inveterate risk-taker.

Both papers are set forth in a calm and reasonable manner. No doubt the worth of each document will be judged in a partisan manner, traditionalists favoring “their paper” and liberal theirs. What strikes me is the extraordinary difference in the use of language employed. The liberal paper assumes almost lyrical tones while the traditionalist is prosaic and to the point.

For as long as I can remember liberals have been announcing that we are in a new age in which the human race has “come of age”. I shall lay aside the condescension implicit in that phrase. The liberal paper made me realize, or perhaps re-realize, just what a challenge the liberal view is to the finality of God’s redeeming work in Jesus. The claims made for the liberal position fall little short of proclaiming a second Pentecost. The whole scope of human history, of the biblical record, of the life and witness of the Church in history is to be interpreted or re-interpreted through the single lens of this new Pentecost.

One might compare this approach to that of a group of people dropped into the attic of a very old house. Before them are artifacts dating from the house’s foundation to the present day. These people examine each sample simply through the perspective of their present life and convictions An ancient iron is thought to be a door stop, a chamber pot a receptacle for business cards.

It is heady business to believe that God has chosen this moment in time and this place to announce through the Spirit a new revelation to the whole Church and to the world. Those who so do should take enormous care to couch their convictions in a manner which does not seem like a sophisticated development of “The White Mans’ Burden” and the sort of “exceptionalism” which relegated to second-class status those deemed to be inferior; Teddy Roosevelt’s Gospel. The modern version of this, surely not solely the sin of liberals, is to ascribe moral or intellectual inferiority to those who do not subscribe to one’s Cause or viewpoint. The impression that such moral condescension is aimed at Third World Christians by affluent white Americans is one to be countered and if appropriate shriven.

The burden for the writers of the traditional paper was to attempt to express a position which is inescapably “old-fashioned” and “dated” without sounding dry and heartless. In an age in which dispassionate discussion is viewed as psychologically impaired, perhaps what is needed is some of the “romantic” passion of earlier Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics?

These papers will change few minds. They are useful however in telling the contemporary American story to the rest of the Communion. It is very much an American story couched in the two languages of a divided American society, a society of at least two cultures, locked in an increasingly nasty conflict. That the writers avoided the polemic language of the American conflict is to be commended.

WHERE’S THE CAVALRY?

The predictable announcement that a majority of our Ordinaries consented to the election of a partnered lesbian as Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles has been greeted by laments that His Grace of Canterbury has not galloped to the rescue of mere Anglicans in TEC. No amount of explanations about the restricted role of primacy satisfies blame-seekers. Even some who understand the structure of the communion mutter about +Rowan’s reluctance to play the politician and fire off soundbites to encourage the ranks.

The expectations one might have of a politician or perhaps a general are heaped upon the mitred head of +Rowan Williams. Now it may well be that when the Archbishop has finished consulting with the primates and others some form of discipline will be imposed on TEC.  Such “sanctions”, the ecclesiastical version of those imposed on a rogue state. may well in effect place TEC in a special category. Yet nothing which may be done will “rescue” traditionalists in TEC. Unlike the Pope, the Archbishop can’t replace bishops, ban liturgical texts or sack the staff of seminaries.

Unless leaving for another ecclesial entity is viewed as a real option, mere Anglicans in TEC must make shift for themselves. No one is going to rescue us. No one can rescue us.

There are options we can consider to encourage fellowship and growth. The “Communion Partners Bishops” and those who signed the Anaheim Statement are in a position to give clear and courageous leadership. They must be brave enough to offer tangible assistance to those who live in heterodox dioceses. If they can’t cross borders, faithful clergy and laity can and should. The extraordinary resources of the computer age should be harnessed. Diocesan borders are not effective barriers to the internet or texting!

Our agenda should not be to hang on until we die off. If the present trends continue, TEC as an institution will soon be faced with structural collapse, as revenue and membership continues to decline. TEC has staked its future on being the church of and for the “progressive” and financially elite segment of American society. Yet that constituency is becoming more and more secularized and unchurched.

We have to demonstrate that we are as committed to social justice as any “progressive” Episcopalian. Our church has been distracted from is mission to the poor, to minorities and those who have no health care by its single-minded advocacy for one group.

We have to show that we welcome into our churches all who seek to meet Jesus. If contemporary society is fixated on labels, we must show that oneness in Christ afforded by baptism is the common identity of a Christian despite our sins and failings.

We have to summon up the courage to travel out from the safety of our church buildings and engage Americans where they gather. It is high time that we became evangelically driven rather than membership oriented. We can be utterly sure that the Trinity will inspire those of us who seem weak and marginalized in our church. +Rowan may not be able to rescue us, but God will. However we must be prepared to accept God’s gifts as He gives them. They may not be the gifts we expect!

BACK TO BASICS

Rather like wanderers on a foggy journey, who suddenly, in a break in the clouds, discover they are on the wrong path, leaders of our church are becoming aware that we are losing parishioners at an alarming rate.

I’ve noticed that even in Bishops’ Charges, given at diocesan conventions, the truth is being told. It is difficult for those admitting the crisis not to obtain comfort by noting that even Southern Baptists are in decline. We must be in trouble if we are claiming Southern Baptists as fellow travelers!

Two hundred years ago a similar moment of desperation descended upon Episcopalians. The period immediately after the Revolution signaled an enormous decline in religious affiliation. It has been suggested that only ten percent of the population were formally “churched”. Episcopalianism fared worse than most. It was even suggested that PECUSA dissolve and its members join other churches. Many Anglicans left the country after the Revolution. The whole church was tainted in the popular imagination with “Tory” sympathies. It’s first Bishop, Samuel Seabury served as a chaplain to the British Army as it moved to attack General Washington’s troops in New York. When General Convention debated including the Fourth of July as a Feast in the Prayer Book, the Presiding Bishop, William White sought unsuccessfully to have the motion “tabled” because its observance would cause discomfort to those clergy and laity who had been Loyalists.

The remarkable revival which followed was not engineered by a national policy or even diocesan initiative.  The revival, under God was driven by Evangelicals of the like of Chase and Polk and  High Church  people like Hobart and Kemper. Reading the visitation schedules of these leaders, who covered vast areas in horse and buggy along roads which were little better than tracks, in all kinds of weather exhausts and amazes. These great people didn’t subscribe to any “method” for church growth. They taught, preached and lived the life of Scripture and the Prayer Book with an unflagging enthusiasm for the Gospel and the Church. Evangelical religion and Apostolic Truth enthused these saints to take the Gospel to Rationalistic cynics and unchurched immigrants as they moved West. Advocating a patient religion anchored in the Christian Year, and the cycle of lessons, the predictable rhythm of common worship, memorable and emotive, room was made for all sorts and conditions of people.

In our present predicament a study of the great domestic missionaries of the 19th Century would enlighten and perhaps enthuse. When I feel discouraged I reach for the biography of Bishop William Hobart Hare, first Bishop to the Dakota people and then of the church in the State of South Dakota. Following him in his buggy, taking refuge in homes and boarding houses during blizzards, fighting fleas and mosquitoes in the summer, or in his latter years suffering from a frightful cancer of the face, battling for the sanctity of matrimony in Sioux Falls which had become a place where instant divorces and re-marriages could be obtained, I am humbled and inspired.

Tragically the dynamism of Evangelicals and later Catholics was sapped by the debilitating  “party” wars which followed and an eventual schism in 1873.  Enthusiasm for the Gospel and the Faith of the Prayer Book which revived the church and sent it westward and abroad transformed into internal sectarian wrangles. Despite this, TEC continued to grow and reached its highest point in the late 1950s, and then lost its nerve and its vision.  Now the decline has reached an alarming point. The late Eighteenth Century was not unlike our own day. The Age of Reason brought with it doubts and agnosticism about the central teachings of the Church. The rest of the population as many uprooted themselves and moved to new territories, mingling with waves of immigrants saw little relevance in the stuffy social conformity of Anglicanism. And then God acted in the lives of men and women who differed in their approaches to the Gospel and the nature of the Church, but who fell in love with Jesus and injected that love into the forms and structures of the Episcopal Church.

God is calling for a similar devotion now.