Features

A reluctant bride

National | Episcopalians seem headed for a same-denomination divorce over same-sex marriage-but the real issue boils down to this: Does the ECUSA take the Bible seriously?

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

Chicago-based Episcopal renewal leader Todd Wetzel often tells audiences: "In no church services is more Scripture used than in the Episcopal Church-but less likely to be understood and taken seriously." His generalization doesn't encompass every member and congregation in the 2.4-million-member denomination, but it helps explain why the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) is being torn by its worst crisis of faith since its forbears came ashore at Jamestown, Va., in 1607. It's no secret the church has lost more than a third of its members since the late 1960s. Controversies over Prayer Book revisions and the ordination of women took a toll. But the latest situation has become so serious it not only threatens to end in a major schism, but it also has endangered the church's standing as one of the 38 independent member provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and it is causing turmoil throughout the communion. By ecclesiastical agreement, a bishop isn't supposed to trespass onto another's province. But at the urging of ECUSA evangelicals, archbishops of two conservative provinces abroad-Rwanda in Africa and Singapore-based Southeast Asia-have taken steps to set up a missionary province on U.S. soil so that Episcopalians faithful to Scripture and Anglican tradition can find supportive leadership and more biblically compatible venues for worship, nurture, and evangelistic outreach. Furious at the incursion, ECUSA's ruling liberal establishment, based in New York City, vows it will never accept such an arrangement. As in some other mainline denominations, although the underlying issue is biblical authority, the main surface issue in the current Episcopal/Anglican crisis is homosexuality: Can bishops ordain open homosexuals, and can priests perform same-sex unions? Both practices have been going on for years among some of the church's 100 dioceses and nearly 140 active bishops. No church laws forbid the practices, and since liberals control the denomination's policy-making structures, none is in sight. With little advance fanfare, ECUSA conservatives in 1998 took their case to the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, a once-every-10-years assembly of all of the world's Anglican bishops and archbishops or primates. But not without first quietly lobbying their brethren in southern hemisphere countries, where Anglican growth has surged in the last 50 years. The bulk of the world's estimated 50 to 70 million Anglicans live in these countries. Most of the African and Asian prelates are theologically conservative, and many hold earned doctorates in theology (few ECUSA bishops do). Already alarmed by trends in the U.S. church, mirrored to some extent in the Church of England, key primates and bishops readily agreed to make sure Lambeth spoke loudly and clearly on the side of the Bible. Liberals, caught off guard at Canterbury, were unable to muzzle the Africans and Asians. By an overwhelming vote of 540 to 70, with 45 abstentions, Lambeth adopted a resolution that (1) upheld the Bible's teaching of faithfulness in a lifelong marriage between a man and woman, and the rightfulness of abstinence for the unmarried; (2) committed the church to minister to homosexuals, recognizing "God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships"; (3) rejected homosexual practice "as incompatible with Scripture"; and (4) could "not advise the legitimizing of same-sex unions or the ordination of those involved in such unions." The decree rested on the basic Lambeth premise that Scripture is the primary authority for Anglicans and the "rule and ultimate standard of faith and practice," a tenet that was reaffirmed in another resolution. To demonstrate it meant business, the Lambeth assembly also authorized the Primates' Meeting (the global council of Anglican archbishops) to intervene "in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces, and [to give] guidelines on the limits of Anglican diversity in submission to the sovereign authority of Holy Scripture and in loyalty to our Anglican tradition." The bishops at Lambeth clearly had ECUSA in their cross-hairs. Following Lambeth, livid ECUSA bishops and dioceses almost immediately began repudiating the sexuality resolution. They declared they would continue to ordain non-celibate homosexuals and approve same-sex unions. In all, some 70 U.S. bishops signed an anti-Lambeth statement. Meanwhile, ECUSA's most controversial prelate, Bishop John Spong of Newark (now retired), had lobbed a gasoline bomb into the flames. His book, 12 Theses, was released just ahead of Lambeth. Promoted as a basis for a new reformation, it jettisoned theism, the virgin birth, divinity, and resurrection of Christ, the miracles, the biblical account of creation and man's fall, the reality of prayer, and the authority of the Bible for moral law. Wrote Bishop Spong: "The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed." More than 40 active and retired bishops affiliated with the American Anglican Council (AAC), an unofficial conservative alliance in ECUSA, signed a statement disassociating themselves from the Spong views. But ECUSA's House of Bishops officially took no action and offered no guidance to people in the pews. Amid the swirl of tension and controversy, growing numbers of conservative congregations in "hostile" dioceses began withholding funds as a matter of conscience. In retaliation, officials often barred the churches from taking part in diocesan conventions, and they excluded their pastors from leadership positions. Increasingly, congregations also began informing "revisionist" bishops who rejected biblical authority and the Lambeth mandates they no longer were welcome to preach, preside at confirmations, or make other official visits. In some cases, such bishops permitted dissident parishes to invite a conservative bishop from another diocese to come and preside at special events. But it was different elsewhere. For example, in Philadelphia, Bishop Charles Bennison forbade such "fly-in" visits by other prelates. In several cities, bishops evicted dissident congregations from church property. In the months following Lambeth, U.S. conservatives appealed to the Anglican primates to invoke the "exceptional emergency" clause and confront ECUSA's leadership about the open repudiation of biblical norms. First Promise, a South Carolina-based group that claims more than 1,000 members, including nearly 250 clergy, petitioned primates in Africa to start a new province in North America. On both issues, the Americans were asked to wait until all 38 primates could meet in Portugal in March. Throughout the saga, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, titular head of the Anglican Communion, struggled to keep the lid on the controversy and hold the communion together. He sometimes seemed to waver on both sides of issues; in the end, his pleas to cool it tended to favor the liberals. Against his explicit wishes, the primates from Rwanda and Southeast Asia broke ranks and with four other bishops consecrated two American conservatives as bishops in Singapore on Jan. 29 (WORLD, Feb. 12): John H. Rodgers, 69, New Testament scholar and retired evangelical seminary dean, and Charles H. Murphy III, 51, rector of the 700-member All Saints Episcopal Church in Pawleys Island, S.C., and head of First Promise. But there was little for the conservatives to cheer about when the primates at the end of March released the report of their deliberations in Oporto, Portugal. After underlining the priority of evangelism and the authority of Scripture for Anglicans, the paper acknowledged that differences of opinion exist among provinces and churches regarding homosexuality. However, it downplayed these differences and called for unity, honesty, and mutual respect in dealing with them. It also recognized the freedom to call one another to account-but within limits. Only a formal and public repudiation of the Lambeth Quadrilateral (the Bible, sacraments, creeds, and the historic episcopate), it said, would place a diocese or province outside the Anglican communion. In other words, the statement seemed to say, ECUSA cannot be kicked out for its practices and theological waywardness. The statement went on to warn that public repudiation of the Lambeth resolution on sexuality indeed has caused "great concern" among many in the communion and threatens its unity. Don't do it again, it urged. On the issue of the consecrations in Singapore, it sided with Archbishop Carey, who said they were "irregular," performed without appropriate consultation. Discussion among the primates of the three provinces involved must take place before they can be "regularized," the statement said. Reaction came almost immediately, including from an important prelate: Archbishop Harry Goodhew of the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, an evangelical stronghold. Four of his bishops joined in the response. It is "unacceptable" to treat same-sex relationships as a matter of regional differences unrelated to the church's integrity, they said. They faulted the statement for paying tribute to Scripture but failing to apply it to the issue at hand. Missing from the paper, they said, is "any real pressure to reverse or at least halt practices previously believed by the church to be spiritually destructive." Furthermore, they noted, it doesn't say anything about "the pastoral oversight and care of those who cannot accept the ministry of bishops who support same-sex unions and the ordination of practicing homosexuals and lesbians." As for the two consecrations, "we are troubled that an action, albeit somewhat irregular, prompted by desperation over many years, is criticized while the adoption of unbiblical and sub-Christian sexual ethics is allowed to be considered as a matter which does not challenge the integrity of the church." Suggesting the Portugal statement may have "failed the church," Archbishop Goodhew and his bishops served notice they will "pursue this matter with colleagues around the world to determine what might be an appropriate response from those who uphold ... Christian moral teaching." Two primates at the meeting hinted off the record to a reporter that liberal American and British bureaucrats at Anglican headquarters in London seemed well prepared to control the outcome to Archbishop Carey's liking. Immediately following the Portugal meeting, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, ECUSA's primate, traveled to Southern California for a five-day retreat with more than 100 ECUSA bishops. The homosexuality issue in the church and the turmoil it has caused was a key discussion topic. Afterward, he told reporters that differences remained and bishops who have been ordaining homosexuals as priests will continue to do so. He saw little hope that the two newly consecrated bishops will be regularized by ECUSA. They eventually "could very well be the beginning of another breakaway church," he said. For now, they have been allowed to continue as priests, not bishops, in their old dioceses, he added. Bishop Rodgers agreed it's "unlikely" Bishop Griswold will recognize his and Bishop Murphy's ministry. "Recognition by our respective primates is sufficient for us to continue," he told WORLD. So far, he added, only about a dozen congregations, some of them independent, are under their jurisdiction, but others are in process. He said he hopes ECUSA will permit departing churches to leave with their property to avoid court battles. Just ahead is ECUSA's next triennial General Convention in July in Denver. Liberals had hoped to push through a measure formalizing what is now de facto "local option" for dioceses and bishops regarding same-sex unions and ordination of homosexuals. The liberal House of Deputies (lay and clergy representatives) will pass it, Bishop Rodgers predicts, but the House of Bishops will defeat it. Bishop Griswold knows it will be unacceptable to the Anglican primates, he suggests. It would be in open violation of both the Lambeth resolution and the Portugal statement to go on record churchwide approving what Lambeth disapproved. In any event, he adds, he expects things to come to a head at the latest by next March when the primates meet again. But, he emphasizes, "the deeper issue is not human sexuality." Instead, "it is the authority of Scripture, its proper interpretation, and its application to the culture." As Todd Wetzel might say: "It's time for Episcopalians to start taking the Bible seriously." Methodists on both sides of gay boy scouts issue
Two United Methodist Church agencies presented opposing briefs in the Boy Scouts vs. Dale case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court April 26. The UMC men's commission sides with the Boy Scouts of America, which is seeking to overturn a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that prohibits it from denying membership to homosexual boys and leadership roles to homosexual men. Private organizations have a constitutional right to set their own criteria for membership and leadership, the commission's leaders contend. However, the church's Board of Church and Society supports the pro-homosexual position. In support of its stand, the board cites two passages from the UMC Book of Discipline: "We insist that all persons regardless of age, gender, national status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured" and "Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons." Since its founding in 1910, more than 87 million youths and adults have been involved in the Scouts. Churches sponsor 62 percent of Boy Scout troops, which account for 55 percent of all boys in Scouting. UMC congregations, mostly through their men's organizations, sponsor more troops than any other denomination: 11,738, with nearly 422,000 boys. If the Supreme Court upholds the New Jersey decision, and the Scouts comply, many churches may end their sponsorship, commission leaders warn. Religious groups that have filed briefs favoring the Scouts include the National Catholic Commission on Scouting, the Mormon church, the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod, and the National Council of Young Israel. On the other side are the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (N.J.). Methodists' pro-castro fundraising account turned over to national council
After six weeks of raising money for the legal expenses of the father of 6-year-old Elián Gonzalez ("a little over $50,000 so far"), the Washington-based United Methodist Board of Church and Society on April 19 turned over the fund's bank account to the National Council of Churches to administer. Agency officials, smarting from controversy over the fund, said church rulebook technicalities forced the action.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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