By Riley B. Case
Did we miss something or did the Episcopal General Convention, meeting in mid-July, just thumb its nose at the rest of the Christian world?
The week started off with Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori declaring it is “heresy” to believe that an individual can be saved through a sinner’s prayer of repentance. In her opening address to the conference, Jefferts asserted that it is “the great Western heresy: that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”
That particular remark would wipe out most Protesants of the world, including almost all of the United Methodists. Indeed, it declares as unacceptable almost all the rest of Christianity. That is, of course, assuming that “heresy” conveys its traditional meaning as teaching opposed to the authorized doctrinal standards of the church. This is from the denomination that gave us Bishop James Pike and Bishop John Shelby Spong, real-for-sure heretics who found it difficult to affirm anything true in historic Christianity. One wonders what Schori appeals to as “authorized doctrinal standards.”
But there was more. Having put down (through the presiding bishop) Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and all who believe that persons can be born again individually and reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, the convention then set itself on a course in opposition to the stated convictions of the world-wide Anglican communion by a forthright declaration that gays and lesbians were now eligible for “any ordained ministry,” including the office of bishop (Resolution D025). Anglican archbishops across the world, meeting in special session this past February, had specifically pled with churches (notably the American and Canadian churches) to maintain a moratorium on consecrating any more openly gay bishops. This followed the uproar caused by the election of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire to bishop in 2003. That election caused a serious disruption in the relationship of Anglican provinces and spurred four American dioceses and dozens of congregations, with the encouragement of overseas bishops, to separate themselves from The Episcopal Church.
The action to approve gays and lesbians for “any ordained ministry” also revoked the self-imposed Episcopal pledge to use “restraint” in approving another bishop in a same-sex relationship. The American bishops then sought to justify the action by arguing in a letter to the Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, that the action to open all offices to gays and lesbians was not a repudiation to earlier pledges for restraint, but only a description of where the American church stood at the moment.
In response the Rt. Rev. Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, wrote in the United Kingdom’s The Times that the American bishops’ letter was “double-speak” and that the Episcopal Church’s action marked a clean break with the rest of the Anglican Communion.
But the convention was not yet through. Anglican archbishops had also pled with the Americans and Canadians not to develop prayers and liturgy for same-sex unions. Rowan Williams had specifically appealed to delegates before the Anaheim convocation: “I hope and pray there won’t be decisions in the coming days that could push us farther apart.”
But by a bishops’ vote of 104-30, the convention authorized the preparation of prayers and liturgy for same-sex unions.
And then finally, to show just how much they wished to identify themselves with far-left causes, the convention debated resolutions condemning the United States and Israel.
Special kinship. United Methodists have a special kinship with the Anglican Church. The Wesleys were Anglican until the day they died. Methodism takes much of its ritual from Anglican rituals and, of course, the Articles of Religion are taken from the Anglican Articles of Religion. We have more hymns in our hymnal by Anglicans than any other denomination (including Methodists). We need the Anglicans.
And America needs a strong Episcopal Church. The American Anglicans (they became “Episcopalian” after the Revolutionary War) were the first church in America. Even after it was decimated by the Revolutionary War because of its British connections, the Episcopal Church was still, with the Baptists, the third largest church in America.
Since then it has been the church of the presidents and of the leaders of the nation. It has been a prestigous church and a church of great wealth. It has the potential for a great spiritual impact for good.
The impact, however, has been severely compromised and the glory is more in the past than in the present. Episcopalians (at least bishops and clergy) in recent times have bought into theological and political liberalism. According to a recent study by Public Religion Research, only United Church of Christ clergy are more liberal than Episcopalians. In the survey, 72 percent of the Episcopalian clergy support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians (compared with only 32 percent of United Methodist clergy).
In the question of whether or not the Bible is inerrent, a higher percent of Episcopalian clergy said no than any other denomination.
ACNA. In June, the former Episcopal churches who have felt betrayed by a church in denial of biblical authority formed themselves into the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). A number of overseas Anglican churches have indicated they will recognize ACNA. This, of course, can only wreak more havoc in the worldwide Anglican communion for whom any kind of schism is the worst of all travesties. Meanwhile the Episcopal Church has initiated dozens of lawsuits over church properties.
So instead of being a force for spiritual stability in America, the Episcopal Church is becoming known for its infighting, its lawsuits, and its shrinking membership (in the past two years the Episcopal Church has lost nearly 4 percent of its members). From its standing as the 3rd largest denomination in America, the Episcopal Church has slipped to 15th. Its U.S. membership of 2 million pales in comparison to the 77 million Anglican members worldwide. It is now a minor player on the world scene.
And so the question is: did we miss something or did the Episcopal General Convention just disconnect itself from the rest of the Christian world? And, do the United Methodists have something to learn from this fiasco?
Riley B. Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference, assistant executive director of the Confessing Movement, and a member of the Good News Board of Directors. He is also the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon). This article was originally written for “We Confess,” the Confessing Movement’s e-mail newsletter. It was adapted and reprinted by permission.