What just happened here? I wondered, scanning summaries of the actions at the Episcopal Church’s 79th General Convention.
It’s a triennial event that brings laypeople, priests and bishops together to hash out, more or less harmoniously, a future direction for the church.
No historic initiatives (unless you count readmitting the Episcopal Church of Cuba) or cutting-edge innovations.
Lots of compromises, apparently.
But sometimes less is truly more.
According to the Episcopal News Service, the in-house media outlet, members of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops set a new record for resolutions while also passing a $134 million budget focused on the priorities laid out by charismatic Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
Thus, it’s no surprise that some resolutions and activities focused on the environment, racial reconciliation, immigration and a response to gun violence. Bishops confessed the church’s participation in sexual harassment — and deputies will now be allowed to nurse or bottle-feed infants on the House floor.
Delegates also pledged a renewed commitment to evangelism. Recruiting new Christians (and new church members) is essential if the denomination is to grow. As the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey data illustrates, the Episcopal Church, rooted in a colonial past in which it was the establishment, trends whiter, older, more educated and more affluent than the country as a whole.
When it comes to the highly charged issues of LGBT rights and liturgical language, incremental change seemed to have been the order of the day.
While allowing wiggle room for bishops who don’t approve of same-sex marriage, the convention resolved to allow clergy to use trial marriage ceremonies for same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples without having to get the approval of their bishop.
Instead of setting a deadline for a revised prayer book by 2030, the gathering embraced a “local option” by which dioceses could encourage the creation of new liturgical texts to eventually be submitted for evaluation and review by a not-yet-appointed task force. Meanwhile, Episcopal congregations may use versions of the current eucharistic prayers that embrace “expansive language” to characterize humanity and God.
I’m old enough to remember the days when my denomination, a relatively small but disproportionately influential member of a large coalition of global Anglican bodies, seethed with controversy. For decades, dioceses and bishops fought about the ordination of women and how to accommodate those who disapproved of female priests (and then bishops). In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was heated debate over whether openly gay women and men would be ordained as priests, and later, consecrated as bishops.
That’s not even to mention battles over Prayer Book revision. The one that preceded the creation of the current version, created in 1979, must have been epic due, in part, to a revolt among the deputies and a fight over the place of the “filioque clause” controversy — the theological dispute dealing with the nature of the Trinity —in the Nicene Creed.
Almost inevitably, like a match held to a chain of firecrackers, their decisions sparked reactions here as well as abroad.
In 2009, a group of dissident parishes and clergy officially left the Episcopal Church and formed their own organization of approximately a thousand congregations in the United States and Canada, known as the Anglican Church in North America.
As church members have left, nasty property fights ensued.
Thus, it’s good news that friends who were delegates and visitors came back describing a General Convention that, while jampacked with work, was generally amicable and productive.
The Episcopal Church isn’t defined by confessional faith statements (beyond the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed). Instead, the denomination is unified by a shared prayer book, itself a repository of faith over the centuries.
Potential battles loom
But just because disputes tend to run parallel to cultural trends doesn’t mean theology can be discounted.
Writing for Religion News Service in advance of the Austin, Texas, meeting, commentator Jacob Lupfer argued that there is a “greater confrontation” looming, one that will touch the lives of millions of Christians — and may come to a head at the next Lambeth Conference, a global gathering of Anglican bishops. “Between this week’s General Convention and then, the debate about who can rightly claim to be the legitimate expression of Anglicanism will reach a fever pitch,” he predicted.
“There is a limit, in other words, to how much difference ecclesial bodies can abide before their constituents cease to be in communion with one another, organizationally or spiritually,” he added. “The onus is on Christians seeking to revise matters of faith and order to persuade the reactionary forces that the tradition can accommodate the change.”
Perhaps Lupfer’s prognosis is right and global Anglicanism is heading for a potentially decisive slugfest over who owns the Anglican brand.
Here at home, it’s equally possible that the Episcopal Church, progressive gains consolidated, is playing a waiting game, as traditionalists leave, or (to put it more brutally) age out of being a factor.
One thing is clear — the Episcopal Church, like other denominations, including the Catholic Church, which has seen a massive exodus over the past half-century, must find a way to reach not only the young, who have little apparent use for ecclesiastical bureaucracies, but middle-aged Americans disgusted by seemingly endless culture-war strife.
Choosing mutual tolerance and patience — one of my friends called the gathering “conciliatory” — over acrimony and disdain offers a glimmer of hope for denominational healing and possibly even renewal.
In an America where Christians are currently at each other’s throats, that’s got to count for something.