Episcopal debate: church should embrace differences

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“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”

This sign is a heartwarming reminder throughout the nation of a denomination called to Gospel mission.

It well represents a church that embraces people of different backgrounds and theological approaches who worship and pray together. Since we “see through a glass darkly” as humans, I hope we can continue to labor for the Gospel with fraternal affection, whatever denominational arrangement prevails.

The Episcopal Church is a multinational body that is unusual even compared to the 39 other Anglican provinces. Most Anglican provinces have remained more authoritarian, while the Episcopal Church has followed our country in becoming quite democratic, such as in creating a very important role for lay leadership. This structure does occasionally create situations that are difficult for those outside our province to understand. Not being a theologian, I can only say that the Holy Spirit seems as likely to move through a democratic process as an authoritarian one.

We in the Episcopal Church are firmly in the Anglican tradition. The Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church has been one of the most active provinces, as well as a founder of its current form, encompasses many worship traditions and honors regional differences. The “Instruments of Unity” that guide the geographic provinces are not designed to force the different regions into a mold, but to help them on their various but mutually supportive paths. Even if there were some kind of coercive ability among the provinces and their leaders, there is little will on their part to exclude the Episcopal Church. Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Advent communication that it would be “ungrateful” for anyone to push Episcopalians further.

A diocese is a unit within the province made up of individual parishes and missions. The four separatist Episcopal dioceses (out of 109) have often criticized the innovations of the Episcopal Church over the last 30 years. Outside of a few oddballs (found in any denomination), the leaders of our church have followed the Holy Spirit with a reverence for Scripture. What has changed most substantively over that time is the role of women in the clergy of our church. The desires of a few to leave have escalated as women have become bishops. Most Anglican provinces now ordain women, but such changes came slowly. The Episcopal Church is committed to honoring those who are not prepared for this new thing.

Recently, the democratic nature of our governance has led some dioceses to seek a better way to show an expression of God’s love toward homosexuals. New Hampshire elected for their bishop a well-loved local priest, Gene Robinson. Since he is a gay man, this selection has outraged many other Episcopalians. However, parishes in that diocese that are uncomfortable with his leadership are able to receive alternative oversight. Any bishop in the church is expected to ask permission for involvement in another diocese, and there is no desire that I can discern on the part of the church to push those of different beliefs toward inclusion.

Christ calls us all to be one, and every time there is schism it wounds all believers. There have been too many such breaks in the history of the Episcopal Church. There are over 20 groups in our country that lay claim to some aspect of the Anglican tradition from outside the Communion. I know that my fellow Episcopalians who voted to leave earlier this month that they voted to stay in the Anglican Communion. However, the tiny province of the Southern Cone (which does not ordain women) has received a refugee bishop before, and he is not invited to the next Communion gathering.

We are lessened by losing the voices of those with different views. My parish is blessed by individuals of every political and theological stripe, and I relished being in a diocese where the same could be said. If we become more monochromatic, we will be a poorer church. And if we need reformation, it should come from within. Members of the diocese have turned away from a church in which some of the most theologically progressive members, e.g., bishops Spong and Swing supported Bishop John-David Schofield when there were questions about his consecration. They felt that within our Anglican ideal of tradition and reason grounded in Scripture there was plenty of room for Schofield. There is much sadness in this season for our church. But an Episcopal diocese will continue in San Joaquin, and it continues to welcome you.

W. Marshall Johnston teaches ancient history and classics at Fresno Pacific University.

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