Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is the Episcopal Church a Denomination?

This evocative question was put forward in a discussion among a group of the authors on the Covenant site. This is an interesting question, and it gives me a moment to reflect on some interesting developments of the Episcopal community.
The first thing that I would say is practical. From the perspective of a congregational development person and an organizational consultant, the question is largely irrelevant. Groups act like groups and organizations act sociologically and functionally as groups of people. So, congregations of 300 Episcopalians functions very much like a congregation of 300 Lutherans. I am not saying the differences are not significant, but what I am saying is that the differences have more to do with the organizations identity, stated values and common practices than how they function, organize, grow or decline. Thus, we can say from the start that this question is largely one of identity.

Of course, this question already betrays a catholic (small c”) bias and particularly that part of Anglicanism that believes that we have been and are THE church, or at least a part of the one, holy and apostolic one. This is so deeply engrained that most Episcopal leaders do not think of us as just another of the many denominations that occupy the landscape of American Christianity. Just ask any clergy person in TEC if we think we are Protestants and watch us react. I wish to add that this part of our identity or self-understanding is one of the most important contributions and successes of the Oxford Movement within TEC. This is clearly revealed in the Lambeth Quadrilateral where we state our willingness to go anywhere and work with anyone, willing to sacrifice all incidentals, to work for the day that the Church may once again be united both Catholic and Apostolic.

On the other hand, there has always been a strong strain of TEC that saw itself as Protestant and in America one of the “mainline” churches. This broad church stream fits more comprehensively into Tickle’s (The Great Emergence) idea of the social justice group of Churches. However, I would contend that even this group has much of the DNA of the more catholic view. When I have published items in the wider church where I point out the abysmal decline of our community in the past 50 years, some defender of the present progressive wing will always shoot back with something like, “I believe that the Church will do just fine and that somehow we will muddle through all the crisis we face, just as we have in the past.” This reflects denial, but it also reflects the sense that the “true church” will be upheld and sustained by God.

I believe two strong dynamics are at work, however, to change this historic view and consequently or self identity. First, is the tendency of the current majority, the progressive wing, to claim that we have always been a progressive Church. Ridiculous as this claim would appear to a 17th century separatist or an 18th century Methodist, it keeps being repeated and has become an increasing part of our identity. The drive for full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons into the life of TEC along with the desire to become a more diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic community has contributed to the repositioning of our community in the rainbow of denominations toward being a paradoxical Universalist liturgical community. I do not want you to think that by saying this that I am opposed to the efforts to keep and make TEC an open community welcoming of all people. I am just contending that the way in which our leaders, particularly our clergy, are pursuing this, is ending up looking a lot like the United Church of Christ with kneelers, a prayer book and a common chalice. Whether there is a need for such a positioned denomination may be suspect especially given the increasing decline in our membership and attendance. Perhaps we just need to wait for the thousands of new members that will flood into our denomination because of our full inclusion of all genders as has been predicted by numerous progressive leaders. Another common response by progressives is that “all mainline churches are declining.” With this, they acknowledge without realizing it that we are a denomination, or at least becoming more and more like one.

The second powerful dynamic working toward redefining us as a denomination is the state of ecumenical activities and our participation in them. Here is what I mean. The great ecumenical awakening of the 50’s and 60’s led to many attempts at organic mergers of communities. Some of the results, like the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were, and remain, relatively successful attempts. Some like the Anglican/Roman Catholic and Anglican/Lutheran dialogues have not gone very far towards union. The move toward organic and organization unity has given way steadily toward the idea of mutual recognition and “shared communion.” This is clearly a path of lesser resistance. It is also true that in our post-denominational culture even Episcopal clergy have begun to realize that our lay folks do not mind sharing communion most anywhere they go. It seems we have become a victim of our own generosity in admitting that none of us, at least mainline folks, are really the true Church and that we are willing to share.

How does this dynamic add to our re-thinking our identity more toward becoming merely a denomination? Simply put, this accommodation to others works as an abandonment of the view of the more catholic desire to actually BE one. Of course, in the long run this could reverse as decreasing mainline churches are further thrown together out of survival and necessity, but for right now this has moved us far from the spirit of the Lambeth Quadrilateral. One might even point out that the splintering and fracturing of Anglicanism in North America really points to the exact opposite of the catholic view. Put all this together and the church that once envisioned ourselves as the bridge between Catholic and Protestant is now at a mid point between Unitarian Universalist and Methodists. Things have changed.

Where the rubber will really meet the road on this comes down to our willingness to abide by the restrains requested by our brothers and sisters in the world wide Anglican Communion. There is already a tendency among Episcopalians to refer to the other Communion Churches as though they are merely forms or expressions of Anglican denominations in other countries instead of full member of the one church of which we thought we were once members.

General Convention in 2009 may give us two moments in which we will further decide that our identity rests in denominationalism more than in unity. These will be our reaction to the Anglican Covenant, and any decision to move toward the writing of same-sex liturgies, both of which I believe have a strong chance of coming about. Another way this could be done is with the election of another gay or lesbian person living in a same sex union to the Episcopate. I believe the first two highly probable and the last one largely inevitable. In any case, I will remain because there is not another denomination that attracts me, and few that retain the vision of our Lord in his priestly prayer when he bid that we would be one. A glimmer of this idea remains among us, and burns much brighter in other parts of our Communion. Let us pray that a time will come when this vision is re-kindled among us.

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