The aftershocks from the 2006 edition of the oldline Protestant sex wars continue to rattle around through the infrastructures of churches at the local, national and global levels.
As I stressed the other day, both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and The Episcopal Church — a name that leaves it one step away from declaring itself a global body — are now essentially in the same position, a neverland called “local option.” Neither has formally abandoned 2000 years of Christian tradition on sex and marriage, but both have voted to allow regional bodies to do so without punishment. The Episcopal Church also quietly declined to formally support gay marriage, but openly proclaimed that it was opposed to all efforts to oppose gay marriage. It’s called via media.
Over at The New York Times, veteran religion scribe Laurie Goodstein produced a news feature that tried to sum up this purgatory state, this land between a clear victory for either the left or the right. Here’s the statement of her thesis:
For the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as with other mainline Protestant churches, the summertime convention season has become a painful ritual. In each church, the conservatives and the liberals are bound together like brawling conjoined twins.
The liberals dominate the power centers of the denominations — the national offices and the legislative arms. The conservatives have threatened to walk away, but most have not because they say the church is rightfully, theologically, theirs. …
Members of both churches had looked to this year’s conventions to clarify their positions on ordaining gay clergy members and blessing same-sex couples. But instead, each convention produced the kind of parliamentary doublespeak that some Episcopalians call “Anglican fudge …”
That is part of the story, but I believe she missed — probably due to lack of space — several key elements.
The conservatives do have theology on their side, but it is the theology of the past, the actual teachings of the Protestant Reformers and, on moral theology, the ancient churches of East and West. But part of their problem is that they do not have the theology of the present on their side, in large part because almost all of their denominational seminaries have for decades been solidly modernist and now postmodernist. Thus, year after year, the conservatives are losing control of the theology of the future in these national churches that are committed to evolving — or reforming — their way into a future based on majority or super-majority rule.
The establishment leaders in these oldline churches also have money on their side — sort of. They legally control the structures that affect property and pensions, although conservative congregations have won a few battles against progressive regional executives and-or bishops. These are expensive battles for people on both sides, but, in the Anglican wars, many of the bishops in old, historic cathedrals have endowment funds to tap.
In other words, they control the money of the past and will use it to defend the theology of the future.
However, the conservatives have the growing congregations — locally and globally — and, thus, tend to have healthy budgets in the here and now. Many of them are outgrowing their sanctuaries or have just built giant new facilities that their local bishops or presbyteries literally cannot afford to operate if the people in the pews (and their checkbooks) walk away.
In other words, the conservatives control — in many key zip codes — the money of the present and will use it to defend the theology of the past.
How will this play out at the local level? One of the biggest religion stories in America today is unfolding down in the Dallas area, although you would not know that by looking at the online front page of The Dallas Morning News.
It seems that the flock many hail as the single largest Episcopal congregation in the United States — when it comes to live people sitting in real pews — has decided that enough is enough and is leaving The Episcopal Church. Click here to read the story by religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss and click here to read blog commentary by Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher of the newspaper’s editorial-page staff.
As Weiss notes, the key to this story is that this massive congregation has the support of the local Episcopal bishop. They like him and he likes them. Still, the congregation has decided to leave the American church in order to show its loyalty to the larger global Anglican Communion, which, especially in the Third World, remains quite traditional in terms of doctrine and practice.
What happens next is not clear. Under the rules of the Episcopal Church, parish property does not belong to the congregation but to the diocese, which is supposed to act in accord with the national denomination’s rules. So in theory, according to some church law experts, the Dallas bishop could demand that Christ Church’s congregation no longer meet in the church campus, on Legacy Drive.
But Christ Church has the support of Dallas Bishop James Stanton, who opposed the 2003 vote that confirmed Bishop Robinson. Christ Church says it still regards the Dallas bishop as its “apostolic leader.” And Bishop Stanton said Monday that he intends to allow the congregation to continue to use the campus. “They bought it. They paid for it,” Bishop Stanton said.
National church leaders could not be reached for comment.
What this story does not dig into, yet, is the financial side of this local crisis. What is Christ Church’s building (pictured) worth? How much money has this megachurch, by Anglican standards, been paying into the diocesan budget? Can the national church afford to lose more pledges from major parishes and dioceses?
Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for a word from Canterbury. Will Archbishop Rowan Williams remain loyal (his views on moral theology are progressive) to the endowments of the past (to his theological class, so to speak) or to the churches that are experiencing growth in the present and are striving to protect their futures?
At some point, the Third World will not settle for fudge. However, what about Queen Elizabeth II?
UPDATE: Well not, it seems that even as I typed those words the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement on these issues was coming out and starting to draw attention in London, if not on this side of the pond. It appears that he will attempt a kind of “local option,” but with two different levels of ecclesiastical and doctrinal ties that bind.
Are we talking Communion vs. communion, with The Episcopal Church being the small “c” in the eyes of the majority of the world’s Anglicans? Click here to go to the Ruth Gledhill report in The Times and here for her blog, with many other key links. The headline is going to spoil a lot of lunches today in blue Episcopal zip codes: “Worldwide Anglican church to split over gay bishop.” Here are the crunch paragraphs:
… Williams is proposing a two-track Anglican Communion, with orthodox churches being accorded full, “constituent” membership and the rebel, pro-gay liberals being consigned to “associate” membership.
All provinces will be offered the chance to sign up to a “covenant” which will set out the traditional, biblical standards on which all full members of the Anglican church can agree. But it is highly unlikely that churches such as The Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican churches in Canada and New Zealand and even the Scottish Episcopal Church would be able to commit themselves fully to such a document.
In this relationship, The Episcopal Church and those who support it would have a status not unlike members of Methodist bodies, who have some historic ties to Anglicanism, but are not part of the formal structures of the global Anglican Communion.
That said, everything I wrote here still stands when it comes to money issues and legal issues. Can the Anglican Communion pay its bills without the big bucks it gets from American endowment funds? Remember that old saying: The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British get to write the resolutions.