The 75th
GENERAL CONVENTION 2006
June 13-21, Columbus,Ohio

 

 

The anatomy of schism: A battle of biblical tyranny
By John Kater

September 19, 2003 [Every Voice Network] In some ways, the threat of schism over the election of a gay bishop is like nothing the Church has ever seen before. The response isn't just larger and more organized. It's also global. This October, 38 worldwide primates -- from Africa, Asia, South America, the West Indies, and Australia -- will travel to Lambeth Palace to discuss threats of schism with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

"The Internet has made all the difference," says the Rev. John Kater, professor of ministry development at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. "Thirty years ago it would have taken African Christians weeks or months to even hear what happened at General Convention, and another six months to have a response. Now it's done instantly. It's much easier to organize because we have websites, chat rooms, and instant emails." In the face of potential schism, the art of conflict management often requires giving each other lots of time and space. But that's no longer an option.

"One of the ways it worked before is that people just stayed out of each other's way," says Kater. "It used to be that there were high church and low church dioceses, and the high church (people) would say, 'Oh, those awful people in Virginia!' But now they have to read their listservs. People are in each other's face in a different way."

Further, now that the conflict has gone global, the mistakes of history are becoming painfully obvious -- especially when it comes to the matter of biblical interpretation, which underlies the current crisis.

Some church historians are now saying that over the past 30 years, Episcopalians haven't done a very good job teaching the Anglican position on scripture, and have allowed many people to come into the Church thinking that fundamentalism is part of Anglicanism.

The current uproar, according to Kater, is the latest version of a conflict that dates back to the English Reformation, when there were two schools of thought. One took a literalist approach to scripture, the other allowed for interpretation. The literalists left the Church and became Puritans, while the others remained as Anglicans.

"I argue that the current crisis demonstrates an un-Anglican approach to Scripture, one that has enormous popularity among 21st century Anglicans, to some extent in this country and also in other places," he says.

"The situation in Africa and Asia has more to do with missionaries who took the distorted or truncated view of Anglicanism to (those continents). What they taught was not the fullness of the Anglican tradition."

It is not uncommon for people to quote Richard Hooker, the formative 16th-century Anglican theologian who insisted that the Bible must be interpreted. And it is not uncommon for them to receive this response: "We weren't taught Hooker, we were taught the Bible."

Cultural imperialism played a significant role in the distribution of faux Anglicanism. "The Anglicanism they were taught was not Anglican tradition, but the kind of colonial Anglicanism considered to be appropriate for colonized people," says Kater.

"Partly as a means of colonial control, that kind of fundamentalism has shaped Anglicanism in those parts of the world during the 20th and 21st centuries. What we're seeing there is the result of flawed evangelism. People were taught not to interpret scripture, but to obey scripture -- it was part of the whole colonial baggage."

The large, organized, global response is a 21st century phenomenon. But certain aspects are similar to the Church's 19th century schism.

So far, at least eight dioceses have called special conventions to consider leaving the Episcopal Church. In several of those dioceses, counter conventions are being held by supporters of both the denomination and the decision to confirm Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Church. While General Convention voted strongly for Robinson and the acknowledgement of same-sex blessings, the opposition has been vocal, and the stress has affected even those churches where the Robinson decision was applauded.

Most experts agree that the last time the Church experienced this degree of conflict was during the Civil War, when 11 southern dioceses withdrew to form an independent Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Church had its own constitution, canon law, and prayer book, which were patterned on those of the Episcopal Church.

Four years later, however, all the southern dioceses rejoined the Church. "Because so many of the southern and northern bishops were friends, because the northern church refused to accept the schism as permanent and still began the roll call with Alabama at its General Conventions of 1862 and 1865, and because the presiding bishop of the northern Church was the southern sympathizer John Henry Hopkins, reconciliation occurred with remarkable smoothness," writes David Holmes in A Brief History of the Episcopal Church.

The 19th century schism centered on biblical interpretation. "This is a classic debate that went on over slavery," says Speed Leas, conflict management specialist at the Alban Institute and author of Moving Your Church through Conflict. "Does God approve of this? Does it fit in with our fundamental world principle? To what degree can we be open to progressive revelation, or say that maybe God made a mistake in putting this in the Bible?"

Flash forward to the 21st century, where biblical interpretation still stokes heated emotions. Last week, for example, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith, Bishop of the Diocese of Connecticut, addressed more than 350 parishioners at St. David's Church in Gales Ferry.

The evening opened with a reading from the Gospel of Matthew by the Rt. Rev. James Curry, the bishop suffragan, which emphasized that the two supreme commandments are to love God and each other. Bishop Smith believes this New
Testament scripture is more relevant to the current crisis than Old Testament injunctions against homosexuality, but many angry parishioners refused to accept that biblical interpretation was intended to change with the times.

Theologian and author, the Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, is quite clear about the conflict.

"The issue here is not homosexuality but hermeneutics, or how to interpret scripture," he says. "All over the Bible it says that homosexuality is a sin, no question about it. So if it is a sin according to scripture, then how do we deal with it?"

The answers can be found in his enlightening essay "Homosexuality and the Bible", included in his book "Homosexuality and Christian Faith", which presents short pieces from some of the nation's most prominent church leaders -- Protestant and Catholic, mainline and evangelical -- who address the fundamental moral imperative about homosexuality.

As Wink writes, the Bible clearly sanctioned slavery, and is rife with sexism, patriarchalism, violence, and homophobia. The way out is not to deny this, but to develop an interpretive theory "that judges even Scripture in the light of the revelation in Jesus. What Jesus gives us is a critique of domination in all its forms, a critique that can be turned on the Bible itself. The Bible thus contains the principles of its own correction. We are freed from bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as a witness to the Word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book."

Reflecting upon possible schism in the Episcopal Church, Wink is reminded of the example of the United Church of Canada, known for its ability to tackle tough social issues. Fears that the Church would split arose in the 1930s, when it ordained its first female minister. But the Church not only survived, it grew.

A half-century later fears of schism reappeared, this time over the issue of ordaining homosexual ministers. In 1988 at their General Council, after much heated debate, the Church passed a resolution that allowed all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to be considered for ministry.

"About 10 percent of their members walked out," says Wink. "But they found that having gotten rid of that 10 percent that was always nagging and avoiding dealing with the real issues, they were in a much better position to deal with other controversial issues."

Though it makes a certain sense, this idea is anathema to many Episcopalians.. That's because, historically, Anglicans tend to prefer order to social justice. Kater, who wrote his dissertation on this topic, says that the Episcopal Church has been the most progressive mainstream denomination in almost every social movement: labor, civil rights, antiwar.

"But in each case, we came late to those movements because issues of justice get raised only when there is a threat to order," he says. "It became incredibly involved in the civil rights movement, but only after things were falling apart."

When push comes to shove, however, Episcopalians historically have overcome their instinctive love of order to adopt the strongest stances on justice issues of any mainstream denomination. And despite the time it takes for that shift to happen, on the last three justice issues of the past century -- civil rights, women's ordination, and now human sexuality issues -- the Church has been the first denomination to actually take the step of being out front on these controversial justice issues.

The initial cost of such leadership is the predictable threat of schism from conservatives. But this threat should always be viewed in the context of Anglican history. The truth is that the Church has split many times before, and not just the four-year division over slavery, according to Kater.

In 17th century England, King James II, a Roman Catholic, tried to move the Church toward Rome. But in 1688, William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops refused the king's order to read his declaration of toleration in all churches, precipitating the first internal schism of Anglican history, which lasted about one hundred years.

In the United States in 1873, a group of clergy and laity withdrew from the Episcopal Church because they disagreed with certain sacramental and ritualistic practices, and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church, which continues to this day.

In the 20th century during the era of seismic social change -- civil rights, antiwar, women's movements -- many people left the Episcopal Church. Kater, who'd then been a priest for four years, actually left the country in 1970.

"I was so disillusioned, I thought the Church had gone to hell in a hand basket," he says. "But I changed my mind, and realized the Church could be an effective instrument of justice." Though the Church is smaller now, he believes it is vastly improved.

"People are much more learned about what it means to be a Christian. There's a difference between being a good citizen and a good Christian. My own feeling is that the smaller Church that has emerged is much more authentic and has more integrity, rather than the unconscious social Christianity that prevailed before we really faced the justice issues."

As October approaches, the Church is suspended in limbo. People on both sides are waiting for the outcome of the meeting of conservatives in Plano -- but particularly for the results of the Lambeth summit.

Experts say that Archbishop Williams doesn't have much authority. A new province of the Episcopal Church in the United States could be established, says Kater, and the Archbishop of Canterbury could declare himself in communion with it. But he can't intrude on issues of jurisdiction, or such legalities as how church property is owned.

A majority of the international primates are more conservative than their American counterparts. But at least one African archbishop thinks differently. The Most Reverend Winston Njongonkulu Ndungane, Archbishop of Cape Town and Primate of Southern Africa, recently chided his fellow African bishops for their rigidity over homosexuality, focusing on a narrow literalist view instead of a world view.

"There is an attempt to divert us from the major life and death issues in the world," he told "The Guardian" of London. "There is a woman waiting to be stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria and yet we are not hearing any fuss from the leadership of the Church there about that.

"People are going hungry across the world, the Israelis are building a fence around the Palestinians, HIV/AIDS is a global emergency... these are major, urgent, issues which should be a priority for the Church and we must not lose our focus on that."

Wink, a former Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C., also takes the global view.

"I think in 50 years we'll look back and say, 'How in the world did we get so worked up over that whole business of homosexuality, while the world was facing things like global warming, a possible ozone hole, pesticide poisoning, and water scarcity.' All these issues are literally threatening the future of humanity, and here we are at each other's throats over something Jesus doesn't even mention.

"Are you sure that God isn't calling us to deal with issues that could destroy humanity? Wouldn't it be a good idea to cancel these meetings, and get to work on issues that are really important?"

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