Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Walking together...or walking alone??

This is the first blog posting in over a week, and I promised myself that i would not let this thing go stale, but I could see the green fuzzies starting to make their way onto this mess from a block away, so I figured I'd better post something before it completely goes the way of all things.

The Episcopal Church, of which I am a member will be having their triennial General Convention in Columbus Ohio from June 13-21, 2006. This will be the 75th Convention of the ECUSA in its history, and what may be one of the most important GC's ever. Among the usual debate and legislative activity about liturgy, social justice, music, vestments, and the tedious but very necessary job of hearing committee reports and deliberating over the budget, this General Convention will be special because a new Presiding Bishop will be elected. The Presiding Bishop or PB is the chief pastor of the Episcopal Church, and a fellow primate of the Anglican Communion, a confederation of 38 autonomous churches around the world that share in a common Anglican theology.

A little background information: The mother church of Anglicanism is the Church of England which was formed by King Henry VIII partly because the Roman Catholic Church would not grant him a divorce, but also because he wanted more control over how the Church was run in England. From this beginning, the Anglican Communion sprung forth into a world-wide loosely governed group of churches that spans the globe with 77 million people who call themselves Anglicans. The heads of these 38 churches are called Primates, and they all have equal status and rank. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the head of the Church of England is considered to be the primus inter pares, or first among equals due to the C of E being the mother church. Each church in the Communion is autonomous, in that they are independent and stand on their own. No church in the Communion can legally interfere with the way another church does its business, and any pronouncements or decisions that come from the various Anglican Communion consultative bodies have advisory or suggestive authority only. In short, any church in the Communion can choose to follow the decisions made by those bodies or disregard them. I won't go into all the nuances and minutiae of how all this works, but I will post links to the Anglican Communion and ECUSA web sites at the end of this piece.

Back to the ECUSA. Every nine years, the Church in General Convention elects a new Presiding Bishop who will take over the reins of the Church, and with General Convention, decides on the direction the ECUSA takes in the future regarding a whole load of different topics. ECUSA traditionally tends to skew liberal in its theology. The basic theology of Anglicanism can be found in a document called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral It is a document that outlines the minimal amount of beliefs that Episcopalians and Anglicans must subscribe to while allowing for personal interpretation for the "non-critical" issues. There's a lot of flexibility in the Quadrilateral which is one of the things that makes the Episcopal Church unique. People who may hold vastly different views on ordination of women, for example, can still worship together, take communion from the same priest, and generally fellowship with one another while still engaging in debate over their differences. Such a document allows for diversity in opinions and views.

However many conservative Anglicans think that the openness and freedom of belief that is part and parcel of the Episcopal Church is one of the things that is causing the problems the ECUSA are currently facing. While conservatives tend to differ with each other on some issues, they all think that the ECUSA needs to get back to a more orthodox view on such issues as: sin; redemption through the Body and Blood of Christ; the divinity of Christ; the nature of the Trinity; etc. And, I can understand where they have a legitimate point. One of the problems of having such an open church is that many people who have very radical beliefs can get into positions of authority and teach things that others find disturbing. We have had bishops in the church that all but disavow Christ's deity; question the necessity of Christ's death and resurrection as the only way of salvation; and even do not believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ. These are core beliefs of Christianity, and in my opinion, one cannot believe in these teachings and still call himself a Christian. Many conservatives do not believe that women should be ordained to the clergy of the Episcopal Church even though the Church made it legal to ordain women in 1976. Many conservatives think the EC should become more like the Catholic Church from which it sprang. The current issue that has folks locking horns these days is the role of homosexuals in the church. Liberals in the church contend that gays and lesbians have a vital role to play in the church because Jesus never said anything about homosexuality in the Gospels, and while they do not promote sexual promiscuity, those gays and lesbians in committed relationships should be allowed to be married in the church, and also serve the church in an ordained capacity. Conservatives see gay marriage as a threat to heterosexual marriage, do not feel that committed gay relationships should be on the same level as heterosexual marriage and would have no problem with gay clergy...as long as they stay celibate.

Much of this debate has been on simmer over the years, but came to a boil in 2003 when the General Convention confirmed the election of V.Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a committed relationship as the Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Conservative Episcopalians decried this decision as a moral disaster. They claimed that by this action the ECUSA has sealed its fate as a legitimate Christian church. They believe that with this decision, ECUSA has chosen to walk apart from the rest of the communion by their continued departure from the "faith once deliver to the saints." By their thinking, this "innovation" has alienated the ECUSA from the greater Anglican Communion who with the exception of a handful of Western provinces has taken the position that non-celibate homosexuals should not be allowed to be ordained. Of the 77 million people that call themselves Anglicans, two-thirds of them are based in African and Asian provinces whose Primates were trained by English Evangelicals who hold a much more orthodox view of Christianity. These Primates have accused the ECUSA of endangering the Communion to the point of schism. Conservative ECUSA leaders of both the lay and clergy orders, led by Bishop Robert Duncan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh immediately formed an organization called the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes otherwise known as the Anglican Communion Network in an effort to 1) Provide a safe haven for those congregations that do not share the values of the ECUSA, and also 2) Create an Orthodox Anglican alternative province in the United States with the ultimate goal of replacing the ECUSA as the official representation in the USA. A growing handful of local parishes who disgree with the Robinson election as well as the general liberal direction of the ECUSA have disavowed their Episcopal affiliation and have become Network parishes and have either left the Church completely or are locked in court battles over the disposal of parish property, which by law belongs to the ECUSA and is held in trust through their respective dioceses. Whole congregations have been divided over this issue. African, Asian and South American Bishops have swooped in to the US to offer disgruntled parishes membership in their Dioceses, despite the rule mandating that bishops respect the authority of each others office as chief pastors of their dioceses, by NOT interfering in their affairs. A document known as the Windsor Report was developed as a result of a Primates Meeting that occurred in Ireland in 2004. This report, among other things, requested that the ECUSA stop ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians, and also to refrain from blessing committed same-sex unions. It also called for the ECUSA to apologize to the Communion for the "pain and suffering" brought on the Communion by the Robinson confirmation. It also asked Bishops to respect each others borders and not interfere with each others affairs. Remember, I said that actions of the Communion are not binding, etched in stone rules. The ECUSA has the right to disregard anything the AC says. However, if they do this, the price to pay will be enormous. And because the only official action the ECUSA can take on any issue is decided by General Convention, what will happen in the next few weeks can be the first and possibily the biggest factor as to whether the Episcopal Church chooses to walk with or apart from the Anglican Communion.

Helpful Links:

The Anglican Communion
Anglicans Online
Unofficial General Convention 2006 Page
Official General Convention 2006 Page
American Anglican Council
Via Media USA

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