Explaining the Episcopalians

CanterburyNuke1 01I thought that I would, for obvious reasons, let the whole Anglican warfare thing rest for a few days. However, all good things must come to an end.

After all, some of the most powerful forces in American journalism have, in the past week, paused to tell us what it was all about. A few readers have sent me the links to these analysis stories and I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring them.

So let’s start with a personal confession by yours truly, one linked to an important summary section of Laurie Goodstein’s essay, “A Divide, and Maybe a Divorce,” in The New York Times. One of the nation’s top Godbeat professionals writes:

The liberals insist that what defines Anglicanism is theological diversity, and the conservatives claim Anglicanism requires a commitment to doctrine. The liberals are saying, “Can’t we all just get along,” while the conservatives are saying, “Can’t we all just get in line?”

Hardly a Christian spectacle, the rivalry has been more like a log-rolling contest where the conservatives and the liberals are battling to push each other off a spinning log, while trying to make it look as if their adversaries voluntarily jumped. Now, with the ultimatum, the liberals may need a lot of deft footwork to stay on the log.

Passions run so high that on the more than 150 Anglican blogging sites, the name-calling is vicious. The conservatives call their liberal colleagues “Episcopagans,” apostates and revisionists, and refer to themselves as the “guardians of the faith.” Liberal bloggers hurl epithets like “ChristiaNazis” and “Neo-con Anglicans.”

Let’s unpack that first Goodstein paragraph a bit, because I am convinced that the liberals and the conservatives are — in terms of history — both right, to some degree.

Anglicanism is built on a compromise between the worship and doctrinal approaches of ancient Christianity and the Reformation. Thus, it is accurate to say that some edgy diversity has always been part of the Anglican package, with Rome and Geneva wrestling for the same altars.

However, the conservatives are right to say that there are doctrinal commitments in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Click here to look over a few.

The question, of course, is: Who has the power to decree when the method of the great Anglican Compromise has gone too far? Who gets to draw the theological line? Who says that a bishop has to be a theist? Who says that sex outside of marriage is sin? Who says that the Ten Commandments are more than suggestions?

Is heresy even possible? Is it possible for an Episcopalian to go to far and, in historical terms, be an apostate?

It is in this context that I must confess I have used the term “Episcopagans” in print. However, it is a sign of Anglican diversity that I have only applied this loaded label to people who are, well, both practicing Episcopalians and practicing pagans.

midsummerdruidsSo I am a literalist in this case. Here is the context of my 2004 use of the term. Or try this link for an old GetReligion post that includes some URLs that are still active.

Our story begins with a liturgy entitled “A Women’s Eucharist: A Celebration of the Divine Feminine,” posted among the online offerings of the Episcopal Church Office of Women’s Ministries. Digital sleuths easily connected this rite to Tuatha de Brighid, a “Clan of modern Druids.” Then before insiders could say “Episcopagans,” critics found links between its use of milk, honey and raisin cakes and Asherah, Astarte and rituals banned in the biblical book of Hosea.

As a rule, rites connected to Baal are frowned on in Christian churches.

The Internet trail led to the Rev. William Melnyk and his wife, the Rev. Glyn Ruppe-Melnyk, in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. In Druid circles, he is “Oakwyse” and she is “Glispa.” Soon, Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison, Jr., agreed to discipline the Melnyks — who publicly repented.

It was crucial to avoid a “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” response, the bishop told the media. “I will not allow this situation to turn into a witch-hunt of any sort.”

A bishop does not, after all, have to hunt witches when he has already found his druids.

To be honest, I do not know how that mini-drama played out, because there were several plot twists after I wrote those words. I think Father Melnyk repented of his repentance, resigned as a priest and became a full-time Druid. Does anyone know?

You get the point, I hope. Perhaps Goodstein is wrong when she assumes that liberal and conservative Anglicans are merely shouting nasty accusations at each other? In her piece, she says that the potential schism in the Anglican Communion resembles the battles over slavery that divided churches in the North and the South. That’s the wrong image. This battle is global and actually focuses on the redefinition and the defense of classical, creedal, sacramental teachings in the church. This is the latest round in the battle between premodern Christianity and modernity (not to mention postmodernity).

Can you have a Communion that contains Wiccans and Evangelicals, post-Theists and Charismatics and, to salute the battles of old, hard-shell Calvinists and Anglo-Catholics? Who gets to draw the lines that include or exclude any of these Episcopalians?

Anyway, read the Times piece and respond, if you wish. And there have been similar efforts at NPR, a low-key Q&A at the Los Angeles Times and an analysis by Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press that ends with this sobering statement, which notes that some issues may even transcend doctrine:

Whatever the Episcopal House of Bishops decides over the next seven months, the church can easily survive without the communion. The 2.3 million-member U.S. denomination is relatively small, but it is affluent — and well situated to continue its missions with other Christians overseas.

In fact, the Anglican Communion itself might suffer more from any broken ties.

A significant chunk of its budget comes from the U.S. church.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I was taken aback when Goodstein wrote that “Many Episcopalians say that until the outcries began four years ago, they had never heard of the Anglican Communion.” Er, did they think that “Episcopalianism” arose autochthonously in the U.S.?

    To use a Russell Baker line, this passage “can only mean one of eighteen different things, and when we consider all the eighteen possibilities, not one of them makes sense.”

    Oh, and if anyone asks, that is not a nuke. That is Bishop De Wolf turning in his grave.

  • http://www.standfirminfaith.com Greg Griffith

    Bill Melnyk is a pagan priest, again operating under the name “Oakwyse.” You can revisit some online conversations with him here. The last we heard he is still a Druid “priest.”

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Is heresy even possible? Is it possible for an Episcopalian to go to far and, in historical terms, be an apostate?”

    They can cancel their subscription to the New York Times.

  • evagrius

    Well perhaps the debate is between those who have no idea what the ancient creeds mean and those who think that merely repeating the ancient creeds over and over again is understanding them.

  • Irenaeus

    First, this is a beautiful phrase: “…Rome and Geneva wrestling for the same altars.”

    Second, the last selection from the reporter discussing how this would be bad for non-US Anglicans, since they depend on US support, is asinine. Purely asinine. I remember a few years ago when Griswold (I think) broached the possibility of withholding $$$ from African Anglicans if they didn’t fall in line, and an African bishop reacting rather incredulously: “Money? They think it’s a matter of money?”

    Remember, when we can’t say “silver and gold have I none,” neither can we say, “Rise up and walk.”

  • http://www.universityclub.com wrigley peterborough

    In re: Conservative Anglicans. I just had a conversation with a bloke who attends The Falls Church, and who also voted to separate from the diocese of Virginia. Having been to the Falls Church, I’m aware that many of its members, while they may be conservative, aren’t Anglican at all. I asked this friend if he could give me a rough estimate of how many of the members at Truro and the Falls Church are card carrying Anglicans, e.g., subscribe to the 39 Articles, etc. His response was that he’d hazard the guess that under 40% of the membership are “real” Anglicans. The rest are anabaptistic pietists (yes, the Falls Church doesn’t insist on infant baptism) who are itching to scrap with “liberal” Christians. Seems to me that what’s going on in the Anglican tent is a vast melee between conservatives and liberals, neither of whom are really Anglican.

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  • Martha

    “In her piece, she says that the potential schism in the Anglican Communion resembles the battles over slavery that divided churches in the north and the south. That’s the wrong image.”

    Not to mention that, if TEC is the virtuous North in this battle, that makes the African bishops the slavery-defending South. Yeah – kind of mind-boggling, there.

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  • Adam Greenwood

    Again we see the false evenhandedness of the MSM. Episcopagan and Christianazi aren’t equivalent, since some episcopalians really do embrace paganism, while I’m pretty sure the Nigerians aren’t strutting around in SS regalia.

  • Michael

    while I’m pretty sure the Nigerians aren’t strutting around in SS regalia.

    The gay Nigerians who could go to prison for even talking to another gay person may disagree, given the role Anglicans have played in getting the law passed. Even Muslims have taken a more moderate view than the most powerful Anglican in Africa.

    Still, calling anyone Nazi seems overt-the-top, although the Episcopagan is snarky and nasty as well.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Michael:

    But I am sure you would approve of its use in the rare cases when someone is describing a person who is both a pagan priest and an Episcopal priest, or a person who is creating liturgies that blend pagan rites and references with Christian?

  • Michael

    Oh, I think it’s pretty snarky regardless. But it was in the context of a column and not actual news, so snarky sells copy.

  • Robert

    What most outsiders do not understand about the Anglican communion is that members of the communion recognize the priests of the other members. An episcopalian priest can go to Australia, England or Africa and officiate marriages and the eucharist. The people who ratified Gene Robinson knew this and knew that it was going against the majority of crisis. They blithely said all well be well. They continue to say all will be well. Wherein fact the episcopal church is “circling the drain,” losing membership at 2% per year, spending their endowments at a prodigious rate. This is in contrast to the African church which is exploding (not imploding) but which the TEC treats with contempt.

    Maybe the druids can help the TEC leadership with their mantra. “All will be well, all will be well….”

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  • http://costly-grace.blogspot.com Robert

    should read “going against the majority of the communion and causing this crisis.”

    All very disheartening. In order to get away from this depressing news, I started a blog looking at Bonhoeffer’s book Cost of Discipleship. Take a look:

    costly-grace.blogspot.com

  • Jerry

    > liturgies that blend pagan rites and references with Christian?

    Looking at the history of Christianity, that has happened quite a bit. See, for example, http://www.twpt.com/christianpagan.htm

    Too often, coverage of issues such as this ignores the larger context. This battle to define what religion means is going on at least in Christianity as a whole and in Islam.

    And I wish there was more context about how well the sides truly believed in the Sermon on the Mount. It seems words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible are often ignored by everyone.

  • Craig Goodrich

    Can you have a Communion that contains Wiccans and Evangelicals …

    Well, I suppose you can, just as in theory you could have a Garden Club including retired suburban ladies and bikers in “Nuke and Pave” t-shirts. But calling it a “garden club” would be a stretch.

    … hard-shell Calvinists and Anglo-Catholics?

    That would be more like organic eco-freaks and high-tech agricultural types; there would be endless arguments, but it’s still a garden club.

    Michael:

    … Episcopagan is snarky and nasty as well.

    Mmmpf. When we have not only the Oakwyse business, but Spong’s well-known views (and he remains, of course, a bishop in ECUSA), Swing’s support of the United Religions business and various sorts of near-orgiastic “disco masses”, the extensive Episcopal Bookstore collection of New Age and Sophia nonsense, and so on, it seems to me that the only appropriate response to this is to point out that truth is an absolute defense against the charge of libel.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I find “Episcopagan” confusing, since I am used to associating with neo-pagans who use for those they consider too ritualistic. Or something.

  • Bluesdaddy

    “The 2.3 million-member U.S. denomination is relatively small, but it is affluent…”

    But what isn’t explored is the extent to which the ECUSA’s attitude over the last 40 years has made it smaller and less “affluent” then it once was. According to Truro Church’s website, the ECUSA has lost 38% of it’s membership since 1965 – over 1.3 million members. This is a continuing downward spiral for them to shows no end. If a split should occur, they will hemorrhage members AND money at an even greater rate. There may be some deep liberal pockets, but probably not nearly deep enough to eventually salvage the sinking ship.

  • Martha

    I did find this quote from Mr. Kater interesting: ““The strength of the reaction by conservatives around homosexuality is partly because of a sense of offense around the ordination of women,” he said.”

    Hmmm – 111 dioceses in the Episcopal Church, 108 allow women to be ordained to the priesthood, 3 are non-compliant.

    Wow – there sure must be a *huge* number of members in those 3 dioceses if they could manage to raise opposition in numbers equal to the numbers in the other 108 dioceses!

  • http://opine-editorials.blogspot.com/index.html Fitz

    I believe the left flatters itself when it paints this divide as more philosophically deep than it really is. Of coarse there are flakey baby boomers running around the various denominations practicing aromatherapy. This is not the source of the schism.

    The base of the divide lies in the sexual revolution and the strident nature of feminists (read: radical gender egalitarians) to overthrow the entire Christian sexual ethic. Conservatives at home and abroad realize that this ethic is Gods True Will for mankind as well as a reasonable, humane and achievable set of standards.

    Those precise standards are what the sexual revolution is so bent on overthrowing permanently.

    The Anglican Communion is simply grist for a mill that has NO regard for Christianity.
    A mere means to an end.

  • Jerry

    > radical gender egalitarians) to overthrow the entire Christian sexual ethic.

    You know, I’m not really sure what the ‘entire
    Christian sexual ethic’ is that so-called radical
    gender egalitarians are trying to overthrow. This seems to conflate being in favor of full equal rights for women and sexual ethics.

    > Conservatives at home and abroad realize that this ethic is Gods True Will

    Liberals have a different view of what “God’s True Will” for mankind is, of course. That presumes that ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ are a simple label that applies to many people. The reality is that economic conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives all tend to inhabit what is typically called conservative. But the gulf between anti-government libertarians and social conservatives is very, very large.

  • http://feminine-genius.typepad.com gsk

    Jerry: do you think there’s a distinction between equal dignity for men and women and a feminism that insists that equality means access to abortion as a human right? If church doctrine rejects so called reproductive freedom according to secular standards, does that deny women equal “rights”?

    Just trying to understand your standard.

  • Michael Tischuk

    Maybe I’ve read the wrong history books, but I believe the Anglican Church was not born to establish middle ground between the reformation and the traditional catholic church, rather it was born out of a desire for King Henry the 8th to divorce his wife, whic ended up his many wives so he could bear a son. This gave us what Luther gave us, a state religion, and this century, we are blessed with seeing the long term affects of that idea. Catholics honor Thomas Moore, because he stood up to the bully king and his ego, may we all learn the lesson that King Henry failed, that we should respect God’s will over our own egos.

  • Jerry

    GSK, my definition of equal rights means not only equal dignity but equal treatment in the law (CF Islam), equal pay for equal work, equal rights for child custody. I don’t personally consider abortion an equal rights issue.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    How do these “neocons” differ from “paleocon Anglicans”?
    Does this mean that it is now acceptable usage to call any liberals I dislike “neoliberals”?
    Is anyone still going to insist that “neoconservative” means anything other than as a sneer? For the love of G_d, I have seen the label pinned on Buckley, who is surely the icon of “paleoconservatism”. (He has also been denounced as a “libertarian”, which would surprise every libertarian I know.)
    And, Robert, I thought that “all will be well” was quoted from St.Julian of Norwich. Maybe she was “really” part of that wonderful “Celtic Church” which the newagers contrast with that awful Roman Church.

  • http://feminine-genius.typepad.com gsk

    Jerry: how about all-male priesthood? Is that an equal rights issue or something that religions are allowed to broker? Just wondering.

  • Jerry

    GSK, personally I think it’s up to each religious group to decide on their own issues of who can serve in the priesthood. If the leaders of a church get too far out of step with the zeitgeist, they will lose members, influence and might die out. Of course, if some members of a group disagree with the leadership, they are free to try to win a change of direction.

    In that regard, I’ve been watching with some interest the changing influence of traditional churches, mega churches, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and other groups.

    Sometimes I wonder what developments reporters are missing because they’re focused on the struggles inside traditional or even mega churches.

    I suspect but have no proof that there is a fundamental change just starting in the religious and spiritual life of the United States. One of the reasons I’m here is to see if there is any evidence for this belief.

  • http://opine-editorials.blogspot.com/ Fitz

    You know, I’m not really sure what the ‘entire
    Christian sexual ethic’ is that so-called radical
    gender egalitarians are trying to overthrow. This seems to conflate being in favor of full equal rights for women and sexual ethics.

    Well Jerry, I don’t want to treat you as in need of remedial schooling. This type of thing falls under the heading of “mere Christianity” however.

    It included proscriptions against fornication, divorce, adultery, pornography, homosexuality and an acceptance of duties that come with being incarnate within bodies god designed.

    Sex within marriage only, and a reverence for new life.

    In this way our society is structured to bring men and women together, teaching them the importance of sexual restraint early in life, helping create a world of marriage mindedness and courtship; all helping create a real and operative practical culture fit for human thriving and the protection of innocence.

    As far as those who “want to overthrow” this understanding one must simply be honest enough to witness the destruction it over the last 40 years.

  • tmatt

    Hey BluesDaddy:

    On the issue of TEC $…

    Endowment means never having to say that you’re sorry.

  • Kathy

    Isn’t there any room for those of us who are struggling with the metaphors of Christianity (let’s say, who might be reading Walter Wink’s The Human Being, or Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity) and still want to remain in the Church? I’ve been in a place where I was comfortable with the 39 articles, then where I was comfortable with the creeds, and now, in a place where I’m comfortable with neither. I’m not sure at the moment what I think of the Trinity. I’m sure Jesus is my Lord, but I’m not sure what it means to say he’s divine. If this makes me an Episcopagan, so be it. I think it makes me Jacob.

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  • Jerry

    Fitz,

    Your Christian sexual ethic list is not one that would be accepted by all Christians: divorce being the primary point. And having an organizational requirement for sexual purity does not seem to affect the numbers of clergy who violate their duties as promised by them to God.

    My primary point is that there is no obvious relationship between sexual ethics and equality between the sexes. Woman and men living equally could hold those views you espoused. Men and women living in unequal relationships might hold the opposite opinions.

    I happen to believe that gender equality will help end the sexual double-standard which allows boys to ‘sow their wild oats’ and punishes girls for doing the same.

  • Michael T

    Will, I don’t know what you mean by ‘broker’ in regards to an all male priesthood. One either believes the Holy Spirit influences and guides the leaders of the Church and establishes God’s doctrine through those officials, or one does not trust the Church. If you don’t believe in the influence of the Holy Spirit through the Church, then you should not belong to the HUMAN body that describes itself as the Church. I certainly would not be a Catholic if I didn’t think that God is trying to talk to me through faulty human beings that God in his high wisdom has decided to put over me. Being a member of a Church is like being married, a sacrament that demands a for better or worse attitude. I do not see any futility in the natural suffering that should result from such an arrangement, but I do see how that result conflicts with our own natures to control as much as possible in our lives as we see fit.

  • http://opine-editorials.blogspot.com/ Fitz

    Your Christian sexual ethic list is not one that would be accepted by all Christians: divorce being the primary point.

    False- Every Christian Church regards divorce as wrong. They may not be as doctrinaire as some in forbidding it in all circumstances, but they do not regard it as morally innocuous and readily concede that we don’t take the institution of marriage nearly as seriously as we ought to.

    And having an organizational requirement for sexual purity does not seem to affect the numbers of clergy who violate their duties as promised by them to God.

    Uh- What? Is this some sort of silly cheap shot? I think it does by the way. But regardless the organizational requirement I refer to brings men and women together and helps them stay together for the betterment of themselves, their children, and the whole society.

    My primary point is that there is no obvious relationship between sexual ethics and equality between the sexes. Woman and men living equally could hold those views you espoused. Men and women living in unequal relationships might hold the opposite opinions.

    I can’t imagine what you even mean by “equality” in this context. Chances are you are referring to the very radical drive for androgyny that was the point of my original post.

    I happen to believe that gender equality will help end the sexual double-standard which allows boys to ‘sow their wild oats’ and punishes girls for doing the same.

    As if this particular “double standard’ (NOTE: one expressly rejected by the Christian Sexual Ethic)is some great injustice in the scope of things. You go ahead and slay such dragons. I on the other hand will continue to be more concerned with 70% illegitimacy rates, 50% divorce rates and 1.5 million abortions per year.

  • http://feminine-genius.typepad.com gsk

    You show your idealism by saying that “gender equity” will end the double-standard for the good. Evidence clearly shows that gender equity (as pursued by those who blame religion for the inequity) ends up by allowing everyone to “sow oats” equally, primarily to the demise of women and children, but ultimately to the demise of all.

    You could say, “hey, that’s not the kind of gender equity I meant,” but it rings hollow. Everyone is called to purity and the sexual ethic, whether lived or flouted, is essential, as promoted by the “conservative” churches.

  • Jerry

    Our hosts have been very indulgent in allowing this discussion to stray far from the purpose of this blog so I’ll only make one more post.

    Uh- What? Is this some sort of silly cheap shot? I think it does by the way. But regardless the organizational requirement I refer to brings men and women together and helps them stay together for the betterment of themselves, their children, and the whole society.

    I worded that comment badly. It would have been better if I had said that my remarks were about what actually goes on in the Church versus the theory. For example,

    Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significently higher than for other faith groups, and for Atheists and Agnostics.

    according to a study I found looking around. That study illustrates that there is a fundamental structural problem with religion today since following a faith does not lead to behaviors that people espouse as desirable. To say it more directly, believing that divorce is wrong in the eyes of God does not affect the divorce rate.

    gender equity (as pursued by those who blame religion for the inequity)
    I’m not amongst those who blame religion for the inequality. The root cause in my judgment lies elsewhere.

  • http://methodius.blogspot.com Steve Hayes

    Back in the 1960s, when i was an Anglican, I looked at what today appear to be called “conservatives” and “liberals” (back then I described them as “pietists” and “social activists”) and found I agreed and disagreed with both. I thought they were right in what they affirmed, and wrong in what they denied, and especially in denying each other.

    I found the answer to my question in Fr Alexander Schmemann’s book For the life of the world and eventually decided that the Anglican train was not going in the direction I wanted to go, and jumped.

    Today I see those tendencies exaggerated to an almost unimaginable degree. To say that each side needs the other is almost unimaginable. They have become caricatures. I wonder if they can even inhabit the same universe.