This is huge. The nation may be in the midst of a third Great Awakening.
The Washington Post gave its Dec. 4 Page One lead-story position to a deepening split in the Episcopal Church. Two Fairfax parishes with 3,000 members between them — Truro Church and The Falls Church — will vote next week whether to remain in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Other Virginia churches have held similar votes — or soon will.
At issue is the deepest sort of human emotion and inquiry (what is my faith, my church?), the disposition of $25 million in church property (who owns it, diocese or parishioners?), and considerable history. Both churches date from the 1700s; George Washington, for Heaven’s sake, was an early Falls Church vestryman. Three other northern Virginia churches have departed the 111-diocese ECUSA and the 193-parish Diocese of Virginia, the country’s largest.
What is happening in Virginia, arguably the U.S. episcopate’s ground zero, is a reflection of widening chasms in Protestantism nationwide. With parishioners turning off or departing the pews for sleep, golf, or Sunday-morning TV, U.S. Episcopal membership long has been stagnant at about 2.2 million — if not actually in decline. Rising numbers of Episcopal churches, weary of hierarchical arrogance and inflexibility, are affiliating with other federations or dissolving and starting anew. An entire California diocese — San Joaquin — soon may be the first to pull up its tent stakes and move on.
In turn, this developing schism in American Episcopalianism reflects what is happening in mainstream Protestant denominations across the landscape. As with Episcopalians, so with Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.: All have their anger and fractious controversies about scripture, doctrine, liturgy, hymnals and ordination. Congregationalists et al have resolved their disputes in gadarene plunges over the edge.
Those looking superficially at these fights — and they are fights — too often see them in political terms (the religious left, the Christian right). Political sentiment is a concomitant part of it, but hardly the whole part. These days dominant issues among Episcopalians are scripture and whether practicing homosexuals should be elevated to the bishopric. With their 2.2-million denomination getting knuckle-rappings from its parent 77-million Worldwide Anglican Communion, many Episcopalians quizzical about their church justifiably wonder whether they are leaving it or it is leaving them.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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