Compared to last time around, the Christmas Eve service at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church was relatively non-eventful. There were no drunkards that required assistence. Apparently, the week after the drunk guy’s appearance at the church, Father Shelby mentioned him in a sermon. He more or less had the same point of view that I did: if there was anyone that needed Christian acceptance, it was someone that had a reason (or lack of willpower) to get drunk on Christmas Eve. He also congratulated the congregation on dealing with him, which was primarily my father the usher and my brother, who helped him find where we were in the Hymnal or Book of Common Prayer.

Once upon a time, St. Jude’s was a really up-and-coming church in the area. In fact, when we requested to move diocese the request was denied because the troubled diocese we were in needed at least one success story. We were building a new sanctuary that could actually seat more than a hundred and allowing the congregation an escape from the heat by air conditioning the breezeway. Then, rather suddenly, Father Blythe left the church for the private sector and, upon his exit, we found ourselves millions of dollars in debt. Once the shining star of the Bay, we suddenly had difficulty finding a pastor that was willing to try to wade through the financial ruin that our new building had laid upon us.

The church is not what it once was. There used to be three Christmas Eve services that were filled to the brim, but now there are two and the pews are barely more than half full. Some of it had to do with Blythe and his somewhat unpopular successor, but a lot of it trails the fate of the Episcopal Church as a whole. I never knew whether or not I would raise any children I might have as Episcopalians, but until recently it never occured to me that there may not be an Episcopal Church to raise them in.

It all began with Gene Robinson, the famously gay Bishop appointed in New England. That brought to bear a number of conflicts that had been lying underneath the surface for some time. Since that appointment, it has been one thing after another and now many of the most successful churches are threatening to break off and voting themselves out of the Episcopal hierarchy.

The press generally portrays the conflict as Liberal vs Conservative. The Liberals want the church to embrace homosexuality and recently elected a woman, Katharine Schori as the church’s Presiding Bishop. The Conservatives refuse to ordinate women, reject homosexuality, and apparently feel that they have more in common with the Nigerian Anglican Church than the Episcopal Church USA. All of this is true, but in a greater sense the staunch liberals and staunch conservatives are in a sense teaming up against the history and identity of the church as they attempt to reshape it in their own preferred image.

The ECUSA is and always has been a largely political organization rather than a theological one. To many, this is the primary weakness of the church and may well prove to be its undoing. But I don’t see it that way at all. To me, the Episcopal Church is a facilitator rather than a dictator of belief. If you believe in the Catholic tenets, then by all means become a Catholic. If you follow the evangelical march, become a Baptist. But if you don’t quite fit in anywhere else or you’re not sure where you fit in to the larger Christian community, the Episcopal Church is as good a home as you’ll find. The church was essentially founded on a rejection of the belief that any human institution can really get God right 100% of the time. That’s why we were not only given scripture and tradition, but also the ability to reason.

Unfortunately, the lack of a strong theological center has lead some groups within the church to try to make it into the church that they have long wanted to see. The conservatives want a Catholic Church without the pope and celibate priests. The liberals look around and see Christianity overrun by conservatism and want to set up a liberal church. The conservatives seek the approval of the Catholics and evangelicals while the liberals seek the approval of the seculars. Neither seem to really appreciate the church for what it is and both seek approval where they will not find it without substantially changing its identity.

I can’t honestly say that I find both sides to be “equally wrong”. By and large, my sentiments lie with the theological liberals. Until I fully appreciated the damage it was doing to the church (and that he is as intolerant of the conservatives as they are of him), I applauded Robinson’s consecration. I want women to not only serve as associate rectors, but to have their own congregations. But by and large, in their rush for social acceptability outside Christian circles, the liberal leaders have completely dispatched tradition and alienated the conservative lifeblood that a church needs to thrive. An institution needs those that seek to protect its identity even as it remains open to those that walk a different path.

The reason that there appears to be an opening for a liberal church it’s because those that have gone that route have lost their identity. The Unitarian Church merged with the Universalist Church and rather than growing its numbers have declined. Those that seek the approval of non-Christians ultimately become non-Christians, or their children do. Schiori was the Bishop of Nevada at a time when the state saw incredible growth, but the church’s numbers remained stagnant. People like me, that embrace the amendment of theological tradition, are the ones that don’t show up to church week in and week out. Those that want to protect the institution, to keep it in stasis, are the most reliable when it comes to preserving its identity.

Yet the Episcopal Church is one of the relatively few that allows anyone baptized to eat the bread and drink the wine. What the conservatives sometimes overlook is that the Episcopalian tradition is one of acceptance and growth, both spiritual and intellectual. The Episcopal Church is a political, and to a degree democratic, organization. It’s simply not a church where you get to tell other people what to do or believe. For people like me, that means that we have to hold back when our congregations do not approve of the changes that we would like to see made. For the conservatives, it means that it is New Hampshire and not Mississippi that gets to decide who the Bishop of New Hampshire is going to be.

I hope that this all gets straightened out in the years to come. There have been some encouraging signs. Schiori has backed off a bit and sees her first duty as to protect the institution (rather than remake as she would like). The Archbishop of Canterbury has stepped in and has also declared this to be a priority. The ball is in the conservatives’ court now. I can’t say that I’m a fan of their idea of joining the Nigerian branch, but at least that would keep them in the larger Anglican community and a part of being an Episcopalian is accepting the decisions of others within the community.

Category: Church

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2 Responses to An Episcopalian’s Lament

  1. Hit Coffee » Abandoned by Church says:

    […] rch

    Filed under: Church — Webmaster @ 12:35 pm

    As far as Will’s post earlier, one of the oddest and frankly frightening things that can happen to a person has recently happe […]

  2. Hit Coffee » Christmas 2007 says:

    […] e he retired. No drunkards at the Christmas Eve service this year and again the pews were half-full. After over two decades of church attendance, I discovered that the service goes by a lot faste […]

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