The Episcopal Church ‘Takes a Flying Leap’ into Controversies Old and New  

In her closing sermon at the 77th Triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis this week, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori invited the Church to “take a flying leap into the future!” It was perhaps an unfortunate Freudian misuse of a colloquialism that generally means something along the lines of “piss off,” which Jefferts Schori mixed with invitations to “step out there on this narrow ledge of safety”—images which, however much the denomination’s presiding bishop intended as encouragement to reach out to those on the margins of the Church and society, nonetheless spoke to what is seen by some as the continuing precariousness of a Church that was once at the very center of American spiritual and political life. Indeed, in a hyperbolic and largely inaccurate opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Jay Akasie described Jefferts Schori as a “secretive and authoritative… potentate” leading the denomination over a cliff. Well, then…

As has been the case since women were granted unrestricted access to the full life of the Church in the 1970s, and through the long debates over the rights of lesbian and gay Episcopalians through the intervening years, controversy at this year’s General Convention centered primarily on resolutions related to sexuality, gender, and identity. At the center of this were resolutions ensuring access to all aspects of the Church for transgender persons (D002 and D019) and providing liturgical rites for the blessing of same-gender relationships (A049). No small number of commentators in both the blogosphere and conventional news organizations (however more thoughtful,and factual, they might have been than Akasie in presenting their opinions) were quick to link the passage of these resolutions to the continuing numerical decline of the Episcopal Church and Mainline Protestantism more generally.

Specifying Transgender Inclusion

In the case of transgender persons, the Church amended its canons to state that:

No one shall be denied rights, status, or access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disabilities, or age…

“Gender identity and expression” was likewise added to the Church’s canon on discernment to ministry, ensuring that transgender people would have the opportunity to pursue lay and ordained ministries throughout the Church.

The revised language, which had been rejected by the bishops of the Church in the 2009 General Convention, is intended not only to ensure access to ordained ministry for transgender women and men of good standing in the Church, but also to make explicit the Episcopal Church’s intention to “deepen their understanding and widen their welcome” to transgender people and their families.

The Rev. Cameron Partridge, Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University, who attended the General Convention on behalf of the advocacy group TransEpiscopal, said the conversation this year was very different from that at the 2009 gathering, when the House of Bishops failed to concur with the House of Deputies’ vote to amend the canons. Then, the bishops had proposed an alternate revision that removed all social categories from the canons and, instead, ensured access to the full life of the Church and its ministries to “all the baptized.” The deputies did not concur with the proposed revision, and the resolution ultimately failed.

“Nobody thought that the bishops’ suggested revision to ‘all the baptized’ [at the 2009 General Convention] came from any malice,” he said. “I think they were genuinely trying to be helpful. But, sometimes that ‘all’ can be vague when we want to not have to deal with something, and it was really important to be specific.”

“In sharing our stories,” said Partridge, who testified with a number of transgender Episcopalians and their advocates before the deputies and bishops, “we were really trying to be very specific” about the experiences of transgender people in the Church. This experience, he said, “is something that we really need to name at this time in the Church. We just believed this was important in reflecting not only our own lives but also the lives of people who had gone before us in creating the non-discrimination canon. We didn’t want any of that language to go away.”

Splitting Nuptial Hairs or Splintering the Church?

The liturgy for the blessing of same-gender relationships approved at General Convention represents a significant step forward on a matter that has much defined the Episcopal Church—for good and for ill, depending on one’s perspective—in recent decades. Developers of the new liturgy and the associated resolution were at some pains to distinguish the blessing of lifelong covenants between same-gender partners from the marriage liturgy in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and to situate its implementation across the Church within “a much richer theological conversation about marriage,” says the Reverend Jay Emerson Johnson, an Episcopal priest and a theologian at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, who chaired a task force that crafted part of the resolution.

“In many ways, the liturgy just approved for the blessing of a lifelong covenant contains many of the same elements as the liturgy for celebrating a marriage in the Book of Common Prayer—declaration of intention, the exchange of vows, exchanging rings or other tokens, et cetera,” Johnson explained. “The liturgy, however, is not called ‘marriage’ and the presiding minister does not pronounce the couple as ‘married.’ While this seems like splitting hairs, it does reflect the current —though I would say tenuous—position of the Episcopal Church that ‘marriage’ is still reserved to describe the covenant between a man and a woman.”

The same-gender blessing liturgy, then, represents the furthering of a discussion of the theology of marriage that Johnson believes “will contribute to a broader push for full marriage equality for all couples in the very near future.” It is this direction that troubled more traditionalist Episcopalians, among them South Carolina bishop Mark J. Lawrence, who joined deputies from the diocese in “differentiating themselves” from the actions of the voting bodies by leaving the General Convention. (Note to Mr. Askie: No evidence of anyone “storming out” is to be found in reports from the South Carolina bishop and deputies themselves or those who attended to their concerns, even when they disagreed, as the group announced its decision to leave.)

On Sunday, July 15, Lawrence issued a pastoral letter to members of the Diocese of South Carolina in which he explained that the approved blessings would not be made available in the diocese—an option for any bishop made plain in the resolution’s provision for “conscientious objection” by “any bishop, priest, deacon, or lay person” to the blessing of same-gender relationships. In his objection, Lawrence wrote, “Such rites are not only contrary to the canons of this diocese and to the judgment of your bishop, but more importantly I believe they are contrary to the teaching of Holy Scripture; to two thousand years of Christian practice; as well as to our created nature.”

Lawrence’s pastoral letter does raise questions that speak to its continuing relationship within the Episcopal Church. “What does being faithful to Jesus Christ look like for this diocese at this time?” he asks. “How are we called to live and be and act? In this present context, how do we make Biblical Anglicans for a Global Age?” But an earlier statement about the “differentiation” from the actions of the General Convention insisted that “our action is not to be construed as a departure from the Episcopal Church.”

Opening the Doors Too Far?

The approval of a number of other resolutions unrelated to gender, sexuality, and relationships drew little media attention but nonetheless stirred controversy in the wider Episcopal and Christian cosmos as the General Convention came to a close. Chief among these is a resolution (C029) that a task force be created to study so-called “open communion”—the practice of allowing access to consecrated bread and wine used in the Eucharistic rite to all of “the People of God” rather than only to those who have been baptized.

The intent of open communion is to make clear the welcome and inclusion of all those attending a worship service. Though the practice has grounding in Christian New Testament teachings, it more commonly arises as a matter of practical pastoral concern. Testimony in support of open communion highlighted the struggles of clergy wishing to support the spiritual engagement of unbaptized members of and visitors to their churches. The value of the practice in evangelism was likewise stressed. Nedi Rivera, provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon, insisted in arguing for a separate resolution to remove baptism as a requirement for communion (which was not approved), “We believe it essential [that] our Liturgy reflect the unconditional hospitality our Lord employed for his mission.”

But others see the open communion conversation indication of a further erosion of the distinctiveness of the denomination and Christianity in general under pressure from secular culture and the ongoing threat to institutional sustainability. In one of a series of articles in the Anglican Theological Review exploring open communion in advance of General Convention, Thomas H. Breidenthal, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, framed questions of welcome, evangelism, and Christian identity this way:

If the eucharist is, indeed, a table set in the wilderness, and we are all gathered around it like homeless people gathered around an open fire, then what is to distinguish us from other outsiders who may happen to gather with us?

Breidenthal goes on to suggest that the movement toward open communion, rather than being about generous welcome in itself, “may hide another agenda, namely to preserve and grow the Church as a human community that simply has its own survival in view.”

The commission to be appointed under the approved resolution will be charged with studying the relationship between baptismal and eucharistic theologies and proposing an amendment to the Church’s canons, if it determines such revision is necessary, for the next General Convention, to be held in Salt Lake City in 2015.

To be sure, though actions related to sexuality and gender identity garner far more attention within and outside the Church, a revision to canons on sacramental theology and practice of a Church formed out of the Reformation tradition (a tradition noted for its refusal of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church on grounds that only baptism and eucharist were “ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel”) is a potentially huge deal, marking as it could a fundamental deviation from a normative Protestant theology.

Such a move would likely have the ironic effect of scrambling alliances among Episcopal progressives and traditionalists, as many in both camps would describe themselves as “conservative” regarding the biblical and theological roots of the Church, however different their interpretations of scripture and tradition might be. Diminishing the sacramental role of baptism, which is the practical if not doctrinal effect of open communion, would significantly distinguish the Episcopal Church among most mainline Protestant denominations. As with other controversial—for some, “prophetic”—actions in the denomination, it is impossible to know whether opening communion would encourage newcomers or turn away existing members, but it is certainly an issue worth following.

The End is Where?

It goes almost without saying that mainline Protestantism is in an extended period of at least numerical, if not spiritual, decline, and many commentators have taken the occasion of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church—still an important symbol of normative American religiosity—to mark the beginning of the End Times for liberal Christianity and perhaps religion in general. Others have strained mightily to see glimmers of hope even in the confusion and controversy that swirls such gatherings. We of course have no idea how it will all play out.

However, within the nearly five hundred resolutions brought before the deputies and bishops at General Convention, emerging theologies mingled with ancient traditions. New practices encouraged some and rankled others. Resolutions that may seem trivial today took their place alongside matters of seemingly greater immediate import. And, both formally and informally, the structure of the Episcopal Church, and with it American Christianity, continued its evolution toward something no one may recognize in generations ahead. What is remarkable about the process overall is that, at a time when confidence in organized religion continues to slide, all of this was laid out in public, part of an institutional architecture in place in Reformation Protestantism well before Digital Age calls for “transparency” came into vogue.

It’s messy stuff, apparently, this sorting out of how to be a human community in relationship to God and all of creation. But, as the buzz throughout the aftermath of the Episcopal Church’s triennial spiritual sausage-making festival makes clear, it’s a religion commentator’s dream. More importantly, it gives all of us a ringside seat at what may be the end of American liberal Christianity or its sputtering new beginning. I suspect that the Presiding Bishop, as some of her defenders have done over the weekend, might suggest that those who see more nefarious, conspiratorial projects at work in the often unwieldy challenge of navigating the ship of faith across the roiling waters of time and culture can take a flying leap.