When I was preparing for my recent wedding at the former St. James Episcopal Cathedral, I had to search through a trunk full of old documents to discover the exact date of my baptism. To my surprise, I found the yellowed bulletin from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Rockport, Massachusetts, recording my baptism on November 11, 1973. I was a month and a half old, securing my eligibility for the title of “cradle Episcopalian,” one who was born into the noble sixteenth-century Anglican tradition.
In light of my diocese’s decision to leave the Episcopal Church this month, I find it ironic that the cover of the old bulletin proclaims: “This is the will of God: that you abstain from immorality.” The picture depicts the crucified Christ superimposed on a chalice representing the cup of sorrow that he warned his followers that they would have to drink. The text explains the significance of this image: “For disciples, as for the master, the path to glory is through suffering.”
My baptism into the Episcopal Church turned out to be a baptism into suffering in ways that my parents could not have predicted. Who could have known that by the time I was an adult, the leaders of the Episcopal Church would openly declare that they no longer believe in the authority of the Bible? Who could have imagined that the people of New Hampshire would be faced with a divorced bishop who is living in an openly sexual relationship with another man and who has been compelled to spend time in rehabilitation for his alcoholism?
When it comes to the ethics of church denominations splitting apart over doctrinal issues, I am actually very conservative. The Episcopal Church has always appealed to me based on its deep roots and love for tradition, and I deeply admire the Catholic Church for the same reasons. I have mixed feelings about the Protestant Reformation that splintered the church into so many pieces that Christians can barely recognize one another. Most of the issues that cause churches to split have never seemed credible to me, whether they revolve around baptism, spiritual gifts or the role of women (an issue that, despite some incorrect media coverage, has little to do with the current debate).
How then can I accept my diocese’s decision to leave the oversight of the Episcopal Church? One reason is that this act does not constitute “schism” or “secession” in the way that the news reports would have you believe. The Episcopal Church is part of an international body called the Anglican Communion, the majority of which is appalled by the Episcopal Church’s actions.
When the Diocese of San Joaquin decided to leave the Episcopal Church, we were actually declaring our unity with this much larger, much older tradition, and placing ourselves under the leadership of a different section of the same church. Flashy Civil War metaphors aside, this was not an act of rebellion but of submission to a larger authority—more a realignment than a schism. When the “Remain Episcopal” group preaches the importance of unity, I challenge them to clarify which group they believe should be unified. . . just the United States, or the whole world?
Of course, I also believe that the Episcopal Church’s actions are so serious that they justified our decision to leave their leadership. When Jesus preached on marriage, he made it clear that there was only one action that justified divorce: adultery or sexual immorality. It is no coincidence that this is the issue at hand in the current “divorce” in the Anglican Communion. Adultery has always been a biblical symbol for the breaking of a covenant, and the Episcopal Church, led by the adulterous V. Gene Robinson, has tragically broken its covenant with all those who insist on the authority of Scripture.
Where do we go from here? A few Sundays ago I looked at the beautiful church where I was married and tried to imagine the heartbreak of losing the building if the Episcopal Church decides to follow through on its threats to take everything that we have away from us. The Episcopal Church spends a lot of time preaching the importance of compassion and acceptance for everyone. At the very least, I hope that they will apply these values to their more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ.
Eleanor Nickel is an English professor at Fresno Pacific University. She teaches courses on literature and film.