On my last official Sunday at the Cathedral, the Acting Dean, Neal Michell, did an interview with me during the adult education hour. Most of the questions were fun, but one question deserved a more serious answer. Here is the question and my response.
Q. You’ve seen many changes in 41 years of ministry – Bishop Hines and the Special Convention Program, a New Prayer Book, Women in leadership including ordination, a change in the church’s teachings on divorce and human sexuality, can you share with us your perspective on all this change?
First, I want to talk about how our leadership and culture have changed.
I became a member of the Church in 1958 which was the year of the greatest number of new members joining the Church. By 1965, we had 3.8 million members and then began to decline. When I joined the Episcopal Church, I would say that the majority of members were what I would call traditionalists. By this I mean that most Episcopalians were people who valued high English Culture, including and especially, the English language, the arts and music. While the Episcopal Church was never a State Church as in England, still we had an embracing attitude toward education and the arts. I like to say that we were the State Church of the educated including scientists and artists.
The leaders of the Church in those days were remarkable people who survived the Great Depression and the Second World War, often bringing out of their experience a strong determination to give back to society. They were in every way the greatest generation. Take Bishop Hines who you mentioned for example. While Bishop of Texas, he started several high quality Episcopal Schools, he launched a seminary, he oversaw the planting of over 40 new congregations, and he gave good and progressive leadership to the wider community. Like many of his fellow leaders, he believed in an active Christian engagement with society. As presiding Bishop in 1968 when many of the inner cities of America were literally on fire, he determined that the Church could not sit back in its cultural place of privilege, but rather must engage the issues confronting our society.
I believe his impulse was both necessary and courageous. He was a dynamic preacher and outspoken leader especially regarding racial equality. Unfortunately, he made several mistakes. For example, in dealing with urban issues and civil rights, he largely bypassed the already existing African-American clergy leadership in the Church. He even ended up funding radical groups and organizations in dioceses directly against the wishes of local bishops. When he realized that he had lost the confidence of his fellow Bishops, he resigned.
He was followed by Bishop John Allen, another remarkable leader. Within five years, Bishop Allen had won back the 44 dioceses of TEC that had stopped funding the national budget. While conservative on the issues of a new prayer book and women’s ordination, he oversaw the Church’s affirmative actions and implementations in both these controversial areas. He urged the Church to hold together and it largely did.
In the early 1970s, I could point to a number of outstanding leaders in TEC, not just leaders of the Church, but leaders of society. These included Bishops Hines, Allen, Bayne, Professor Massey Shepherd, and Dean Urban Homes just to name a few. I want to underscore the ability of these leaders to value intellectual conversation and engagement with culture.
Things have changed and I think not for the better. For example, as a seminarian I attended the General Convention held in Houston. I remember the hearing held on the proposed new Baptismal Rite. It started with a 20 minute presentation by a leading theologian and seminary professor on the need for changes. This was followed by a 10 minute “response” by another theologian from a different perspective. This theologian began by affirming a number of points made in the initial address, and only then did he respectfully present a differing opinion. This was followed by a panel discussion among a group of outstanding leaders and thinkers. Only then was the discussion open to deputies in the audience who could ask questions.
Compare all this to a discussion at the General Convention in 2000 over the issue of ordination of gay and lesbian persons in same-sex relationships. The initial resolution that would be taken to the floor of convention was read by the Chair of the Committee and then members of the audience were invited to give testimony limited to two minutes. Participants went to a set of microphones labeled either pro or con. I saw a seminary dean given only two minutes to speak to the Church’s theology of marriage. This was followed by a two minute personal sharing by a woman who was married to a transvestite on how accepting their local parish had been. I sat watching as a once thoughtful and intelligent community that valued substantive engagement with issues reduced itself to a community of passionate partisanship who reduced discussion to a superficial series of slogans and clichés.
Second, I want to discuss our present political climate.
In the 1970s, Forward Movement produced a short booklet on the different groups, movements and worldviews that were represented in TEC. I remember that they identified at least seven of these. The main point of the booklet was not the differences, but rather the community that could embrace such a number of differing perspectives. I would say that we were an “Embracing Community” that recognized that Christianity allowed for numerous and different worldviews and all of these contained some truth that needed to be embraced in the fullness of the Church. While I had begun as a part of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church, been active in the social action wing, and had become an active part of the Charismatic Renewal Movement, I still felt fully included in the Church’s life and listened to with respect.
As the Progressive Wing of the Church began to grow with its concern for the full inclusion of all people including race and gender, things began to change. Those who had other views and concerns began to be discounter. Since then, I have spent many years as an Episcopal clergy person being marginalized by so-called “Inclusive” people. By the mid-1990s, the Church was being divided between conservative/orthodox and progressive/liberal people. This fight was largely won by the progressive/liberal folks when Bishop Gene Robinson received consent as Bishop of New Hampshire while living in a same-sex partnered relationship. By the 2006 General Convention, progressive/liberal clergy and laity made up 70% of the House of Deputies. Since then the losers in this struggle have either left TEC or have been completely marginalized by the denomination.
In many ways, this move from an Embracing to Inclusive Community has been a bitter pill to swallow even for a social moderate like myself. In the last 10 years, we have lost 1/3 of our membership and we are now living with a number of crises created by this decline including a major financial shortfall that is leading to a major restructuring of the Church’s budget with decreasing commitment to Christian education, seminarian training, evangelism, and stewardship while increasing the salaries and support to the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies so that they can continue their “advocacy” ministry.
Of course from what I have already said, I want us to return to the kind of thoughtful and engaging community that was embracing of true diversity and stop being an agency for essentially a limited agenda of advocacy. Having said all this, you may be surprised to know that I remain hopeful. I see new leaders emerging in the House of Bishops that can provide this kind of leadership. I also think that the decline in membership and decrease in financial support have created a kairos moment that could bring about a new sense of mission and direction for TEC. My prayer is that the present crises will turn us in a more positive direction and move us toward an intentionally more embracive community.