Is the Episcopal Church’s impeding schism really about the theological rift that sprung up after the consecration of its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire?
Or, is the brouhaha really about a church in battle with itself about how to be financially solvent and theologically relevant in today’s competitive religious marketplace?
Last weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted in favor of separating from the national church over theological beliefs on homosexuality.
“What we’re trying to do is state clearly in the United States for the authority of Scripture,” Bishop Robert W. Duncan of Pittsburgh said after the vote. The vote was necessary, because the more liberal bishops now in the majority in the national Church "have hijacked my church, and that’s how most of the people here feel.”
Duncan, a former seminary classmate of Robinson's, is also the current moderator of the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), a theologically conservative network of diocese and parishes working toward realignment by passing anti-gay initiatives. And Duncan has been using the “authority of Scripture” argument to fight his battle.
But “authority of Scripture” doesn’t hold weight here because the Episcopal Church has always been challenged on this issue.
In the 1970's, the argument for authority of Scripture came up with the ordination of women – and so, too, did the threat of a schism. But in 1989, the Church consecrated its first female bishop – Barbara C. Harris. And conservatives like Duncan were not only theologically outraged, but also racially challenged because Harris is African American.
Just last year, gasps of both exhilaration and exasperation reverberated throughout the Anglican Communion when it was announced that Katharine Jefferts Schori would be the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA. Schori not only supports gay unions, but she also backed the holy consecration of Robinson.
All this is not surprise, however, since the Episcopal Church has a history of taking the moral high ground on social justice issues.
On the theological rift concerning American slavery, the Episcopal Church rebuked the Bible’s literal interpretation, arguing that slavery violated the spirit of the Bible.
Boston's Old North Church, which played an active role in the American Revolution, served as a beacon for Paul Revere’s “midnight ride.”
The Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Cumberland, Md., was a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
And both Trinity Parish on Wall Street, and St. Paul's Chapel, which George Washington once attended, has become the spiritual center of Ground Zero since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The Episcopal Church prides itself on being an inclusive worshiping body. It even launched a national ad campaign stating, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” and “ We’re Here For You” to promote its message.
Its message is not for everyone.
But National Episcopal AIDS Coalition co-chair Bruce Garner got the message. In his acceptance speech for the first Faith in Action Award presented by the Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network in November 2004, Garner offered this admonition:
“The signs that identify parishes of the Episcopal Church bear the slogan, ‘The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.’ Well, sometimes, probably most of the time, that slogan is true. Too many times however, that slogan is true with a qualification or two: The Episcopal Church welcomes you ‘if’ or ‘perhaps’ or ‘as long as’ or maybe even ‘unless.’ These qualifiers might include, unless you are just a little too gay or as long as you don’t look too ill with HIV or even as long as you have the proper clothes.”
But the Episcopal Church’s real issue is not Bishop V. Gene Robinson at all. And Robinson said so in the pages of the Concord Monitor: “I think for a long time white men have ruled the world. With the emergence of people of color, the emergence of the women's movement, with the emergence of gay and lesbian folk standing up, … I think it's a threat to the way things have always been with white men being in charge."
And with the changing demographics, both nationally and globally, of this ecclesial body, the Church’s once upon a time ruling “Frozen Chosen,” whose anti-gay initiatives had a stranglehold on the Church’s governing future, find that their efforts to maintain a respected voice among its constituents is like that of today’s Republican Party – dead on arrival.
In David D Kirkpatrick’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Evangelical Crackup,” he wrote: “A younger generation of evangelical pastors are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. ... The result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health, and poverty – problems, unlike abortion, and same-sex marriage, where the left and right compete to present the best answers.”
While many would like to believe that the financial crisis in the Episcopal Church is brought on by secessionist congregations battling with liberal bishops endorsing sodomy, the church's coffers were bare prior to Robinson’s consecration. And the reason? Decline in its membership over four decades; the rise of its Third World bishops from countries in Africa, South America, and Asia; and its egregious act of inhospitality and exclusion of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.
Using Robinson as the reason for the church’s problem is the problem.