Location, Location, Location, Location (1997)

Four Camps In The Episcopal Church

It’s the cardinal rule of real estate and it’s also true in Episcopal Church politics.

When push comes to shove, almost everything depends on location, location, location, location. How someone views the state and the future of the Church usually depends on the Zip Code in which an Episcopalian’s kneeler is located.

Consider these four symbolic cases.

Episcopalian No. 1 lives in the Southwest. His bishop supports evangelical causes and can quote chapter and verse from recent papal encyclicals. The diocese has taken a strong stand in defense of traditional Christian teachings on the sacrament of marriage and has proclaimed that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone.

Episcopalian No. 2 lives out West. Her vestry has told the diocese that it will do everything it can to defend the catholic faith and biblical morality. The diocesan bishop — flying in “stealth” mode — has managed to keep from taking a stand. At this point, the bishop is being fair to churches on both the left and right.

Episcopalian No. 3 loves his parish. However, it is located in a Midwestern diocese that strongly supports the national church hierarchy. His bishop publicly supported Bishop Walter Righter and signed on the bottom line for Bishop Jack Spong. The bishop has, privately, told this priest that his parish will have to start opening its checkbook or be demoted to mission status. The priest has called the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.

Episcopalian No. 4 is active in her Old South parish, but shuddered when her children came home from a youth group meeting talking about Gaia theory and environmental spirituality. Then the parish formed an Integrity chapter. Whenever she and her husband talk to the rector, they hear that their views matter — but nothing ever happens. Meanwhile, there is no other Episcopal parish in town. The Charismatic Episcopal Church, however, may start a mission.

Whenever these four conservative Episcopalians bump into each other — at national meetings or on the Internet — they agree that something has to be done to defend traditional doctrine in the Episcopal Church. They all agree that times are tough. But they never can agree on what course of action to take and they keep getting mad at each other.

Episcopalian No. 1 gets upset when Episcopalian No. 4 talks about joining another church. Whatever happened to her faith in God’s power? Why is she so negative? Why can’t her family stay where they are — like missionaries — and find valid ministries they could support? Or Episcopalian No. 3 gets mad at Episcopalian No. 2 and keeps insisting that it’s time for radical, risky actions at the national level. Why can’t people understand what it’s like to realize that your bishop is about to lower the boom?

And so forth and so on — world without end. Amen.

These days, being in communion with orthodox Christianity is all a matter of location. It seems to matter little if the brand name on their local church sign is the same. In the media, the civil war within the Episcopal Church and in other old-line Protestant bodies appears to be a clash between two groups — liberals and conservatives. But the reality is more complex, and more painful, than that.

One fault line, four camps

Truth is, events in these declining churches are now being shaped by another fact: that the strategic roles played by bishops and other regional leaders make it easier for some to stay, while others feel pressured to leave. Conceding that progressives control most of the national high ground, such as seminaries and bureaucracies, the result is a pattern of four camps on the orthodox side of liberal denominations. This is especially true for conservative Episcopalians.

This is, after all, the Episcopal Church, and much depends on the attitudes and beliefs of the local diocesan bishop.

I am using the word “orthodox” in a very specific way. In his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter says that modern America contains two basic religious world views — orthodox and progressive. The orthodox say that there are eternal, transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree. To quote Hunter, they tend to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

The problem is that this fault line runs through the pews, pulpits and campuses of every major religious group in modern American religious life. Today, notes Hunter, an Orthodox Jew will have more in common, in public-square debates over morality, with a Southern Baptist than with a Reform Jew. A conservative Roman Catholic has more in common, morally, with an Assemblies of God pastor than with theologians at modernist Catholic schools. An orthodox Episcopal bishop will have more in common with, let’s say, the founder of the Charismatic Episcopal Church than with John Spong.

So, why do orthodox Episcopalians spend so much time arguing with each other?

The answer: Location, location, location, location. They live in one of four very different “camps.”

Camp I: Orthodox people, worshiping in orthodox parishes, with an orthodox diocesan bishop. We’ll simply call this the “orthodox” camp.

Camp II: Orthodox people, worshiping in orthodox parishes, with a diocesan who is either a “stealth” bishop or a progressive who is still behaving in a charitable manner. Call it the “tolerant” camp.

Camp III: Orthodox people, worshiping in orthodox parishes, with a hostile diocesan bishop. Call it the “hostile” camp.

Camp IV: Orthodox people, worshiping in progressive or apathetic parishes, with a hostile bishop. Call it the “abandoned” camp.

The Jim Pinto case

Right now, the Episcopal ship is losing most of its orthodox members in the “hostile” and “abandoned” camps. But there are exceptions — such as the case of Father Jim Pinto in Alabama. It may help to look more closely at Pinto’s case, since some orthodox Episcopal leaders fear that he is a sign of things to come.

Back in 1977, Pinto was working as a bartender and shacked up with his girlfriend when his life was changed by a soul-shaking conversion experience. So he quit his job, got married and went to tell his local bishop that God wanted him to become an Episcopal priest. Since Pinto lived in northern New Jersey, that meant visiting Spong. “I told him all about the miracles that God had done in my life,” said Pinto. “He looked at me and, I’ll never forget it, he said: ‘I believed like you do when I was a little boy. But I grew up.”’

Pinto found another diocese, but he never forgot Spong’s warning that he wouldn’t be at home in the Episcopal Church.

A few months ago, this evangelical, pro-life priest and most of his interracial church near Birmingham decided it was time to go. Christ Church is located in an impoverished neighborhood and had 30 members when Pinto arrived in 1980. Today, it has 300-plus members. The Diocese of Alabama kept the church’s buildings, of course.

What caught many off guard was the setting for this story. It isn’t news when a traditionalist exits a liberal diocese. This one jumped ship in the Bible Belt, in a Camp II or “tolerant” diocese. Why did Pinto and his flock flee to the Charismatic Episcopal Church?

It all came down to mission work, evangelism and Communion, he said.

Week after week, he found himself trying to explain why the Gospel preached in his church differs so radically from that proclaimed by progressives such as Spong. After all, the Episcopal Church is one church, one Communion, gathered at one altar. Still, it’s hard to make painful choices about local realities — such as paychecks and property laws — based on decisions at national conventions. But, sooner or later, everyone will face choices. At the moment, many local churches are like airplanes, said Pinto. Even if the planes work fine, and most of the pilots are trustworthy, thousands of passengers remain at risk.

“The problem is with the air-traffic controllers, with the people who run the whole Episcopal Church,” he said. “They no longer seem to care when planes keep crashing into each other or flying into mountains. … Things are out of control because the people in the planes can’t trust the people in the control tower.”

Pinto’s decision made many conservative Episcopalians mad — again. Many said he jumped too soon. Others repeated variations on a familiar old-line theme: schism is worse than heresy.

These debates will continue behind the scenes in Philadelphia, and other future meetings. Some will continue to stress hope and others holiness. The pain only increases as the ecclesiastical pie shrinks. More and more people in “orthodox” regions are being affected by events in “progressive” regions. People camped in “orthodox” regions are being touched by the decisions of those in “hostile” regions.

The more who flee, the greater the pain of those who remain — no matter what camp they live in. The question that will not go away is this: Will the leaders who work in “orthodox” diocesan offices and in powerful parishes in “tolerant” dioceses find a way to keep hope alive, and altars available, in the “hostile” and “abandoned” camps? The American Anglican Council is the latest group being pressed for an answer.

Meanwhile, the clock in ticking.

How loud? That depends, yes, on where one is kneeling.

Prof. Terry Mattingly teaches communications at Milligan College in Northeast Tennessee and writes the syndicated column “On Religion” for Scripps Howard News Service. Parts of this analysis appeared in Mattingly’s columns.


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