by Craig Bernthal
Most Christians in America probably don’t know much about what is happening in the Episcopal Church (TEC). It is very small in comparison with the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, or the new, “non-denominational” neighborhood churches, whose campuses dwarf small towns; and TEC is in decline, losing 32% of its membership between 1960 and 2002. After making a small recovery, its numbers are heading down again, due mainly to losses of whole churches and dioceses, which are pulling out because of deep concerns about the theological direction of the church, and in response to the consecration of gay bishop Eugene Robinson in New Hampshire. This membership decline does not bother the new presiding bishop and leader of the church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who in a New York Times Magazine interview in 2006 responded to two questions about the size of her church:
How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?“About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.”
Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children? “No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.”
Although there is no moral imperative to have children, one would like to ask Schori why not having them is an indicator of superior intelligence, education, or morality. Do people who want to have children really decide not to on the basis of environmental concerns? Schori is subtly flattering her flock, gratuitously giving moral applause to behavior that, from the beginning, was made for personal reasons. Schori seems to believe it is satisfying for young, career-oriented Episcopal women who don’t want children to be told by their presiding bishop that this makes them superior to the Catholic or Mormon proles having babies. I rather doubt that even Schori’s audience believes this.
Schori’s opinions about having kids might suggest that TEC is a rather snobbish outfit, and it has long had a country club reputation. It has generally been the home of academics, upper-middle class professionals and business men and women who take their religion in stride, along with lunch and dinner; coffee and conversation between services have been the norm, not Bible study. It has been a comfortable port for the virtual unbeliever, Bishop John Shelby Spong, the most prolific and popular writer in TEC. Yet, the Episcopal Church has always been better and more complex than that. It had an honorable place in American religious pluralism: a beautiful liturgy, fine music, and a willingness to draw on rich traditions of prayer and Benedictine spiritual formation. There were and are many serious Christians in the Episcopal Church, and unfortunately, what is happening there is symptomatic of the post-modern disease that afflicts other churches and has largely overcome universities.
With Schori in the lead, the Episcopal Church is undergoing a radical and self-congratulatory transformation. The church’s new buzzwords are tolerance and inclusivity; its understanding of man is therapeutic; its practical theology is tending toward pantheism; and its conscience is politically correct.
Schori is an ex-oceanography professor from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who became presiding bishop, in part, by championing the consecration of Gene Robinson. In response, the Episcopal Church has fractured. The Diocese of San Joaquin under its Bishop, John David Schofield split from the Episcopal Church, as did churches in Virginia, Ohio, California, and elsewhere; it appears that the dioceses of Pittsburg and Fort Worth will soon follow suit. (On the way are big property lawsuits between TEC and these more orthodox churches, which still maintain their ties to the larger Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is — so far — still part. Schori has declared that she would rather sell the property of these churches than either give it up or sell it back to the congregations.) To these ex-Episcopalians, the issue is not over gay bishops per se, but over how to read the Bible, and not just a few verses about homosexuality in Paul’s epistles but the entire Bible. On the line are basic Christian beliefs, such as the truth of the Nicene Creed.
A future of TEC can be read in two of Schori’s Easter messages. Easter is the single most important day in the Christian calendar, celebrating the rising of Jesus from the dead. It is a central tenet of Christian orthodoxy that early Christian martyrs did not go out to die for a metaphor, but that the resurrection actually happened. This historical claim, which has been subject to enormous questioning from the beginning, and especially for the last 200 years, is the essence of orthodoxy. Early on, Paul put the matter very bluntly: “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile . . . and we are of all people most to be pitied.” Even priests who have largely abandoned belief in “a literal” resurrection will, on Easter, pay lip service to the event, positioning themselves in suitably vague sermons so as not to rile either the Spongian side of the aisle or the more naïve literalists.
In her 2007 Easter message Schori did not even feel it necessary to go this far. She simply ignored the resurrection. Her three paragraph Easter message began with a celebration of spring and ecological commitment. The second paragraph celebrated the church’s effort in social programs, especially HIV and AIDS ministry. The third mentioned the generosity of a North Carolina congregation to an immigrant family. Finally, at the end, disconnected from any of the preceding content, Schori gave the formula benediction: “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
Schori’s 2008 Easter message reveals that ecology is her constant agenda. This time, the perfunctory bow to the resurrection comes up front, but only as a lead-in to another ecological message: that we can’t love God if we don’t love the creation he has made. Now this is something no Christian could disagree with, and it deserves thought. This is Schori’s most vivid sentence: “When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?” Partly in response to this eco-crime, she wants to change the rite of baptism: “We base much of our approach to loving God and our neighbors in this world on our baptismal covenant. Yet our latest prayer book was written just a bit too early to include caring for creation among those explicit baptismal promises.” Schori seems to have plans to revise The Book of Common Prayer to accommodate green politics.
My point is not that we shouldn’t be good stewards of the earth. We ought to be. The problem is that for two years running, green politics has eclipsed any mention of the whole pattern of human sin and redemption that forms the core of orthodox Christian belief. What we are seeing is the creation of a new, green religion, under the rubric of Christianity. Christianity includes Schori’s concern for the earth. The question is whether Schori’s green religion includes Christianity, with its broader sense of human sin and disability and its willingness to discuss how sin separates people from God.
The New Testament does not read, “God so tolerated the world that he sent his only begotten son.” The word is “loved.” That love did not include tolerating sinful conduct, but rather the destruction of sin as a barrier to God, so that human beings could become capable of love. By substituting tolerance and inclusivity for love, and largely ignoring sin as a problem, the Episcopal church is creating another “Christianity,” and another reality.
I am afraid the new Episcopal Church will replace the sometimes angry and urgent Jesus of the Bible, who invited his followers to take up their crosses and follow him, with an idea of general benevolence and personal holiness. Jesus will be portrayed as a pop-culture Buddha. I hope this doesn’t happen. Although a Roman Catholic, I was more involved in my wife’s Episcopal Church, over the last decade, than my own, and I learned to value the Episcopal Church’s contribution to the world. I am afraid it will turn into what Flannery O’Connor, in The Violent Bear It Away, called the church without Christ, “where the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and what’s dead stays that way.”
Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno.