Episcopal or Anglican? Something schismatic this way comes

Posted: Jan 11, 2007 11:00 AM

The conflict unfolding in the Episcopal Church in Virginia typifies not only the bitter disputes plaguing Protestant denominations nationwide but also the mean ideological struggles in key sectors of the culture generally.

Aside from religion, those sectors are entertainment, politics, the academy and the press. Under various banners bearing the words conservative or liberal, battles — verily, whole wars — grind on. And the liberals tend to hold the clear advantage, as they long have.

Perhaps in the entertainment industry they are most clearly dominant: Few males in Hollywood, and practically no females, boast their conservative views of things. Not far behind is the mainstream press, which voted 92 percent for George McGovern 35 years ago and hasn’t changed much despite the challenge of talk-radio, talk-television and the Internet.

In the academy — notably in law, economics and political philosophy — conservatives have notched important gains, but the combatants fight ever on. And in politics, ideology’s ground-zero, conservatives carried the field for a generation, but now Joans of Arc Pelosi and Clinton are leading the left out of exile — pushing conservatives into what could be a long, dark night.

Which leaves religion, typified by the Episcopalians. The four most establishment denominations — Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist and Lutheran — all have squabbled internally for years over liturgies, hymnals, ordination, scripture, church doctrine and the like.

They have also squabbled over secular issues, upon which church hierarchs have seen fit to express their opinions privately or from the pulpit: abortion, homosexuality, capitalism, federal regulation, manifestoes on faddish irrelevancies, and parishioner monies for Leninist guerrillas slitting the throats of innocents in the name of a vague, deconstructed “liberation theology.”

In society, the basic debate is nature vs. nurture — heredity vs. environment, genes vs. education. In religion, as the Episcopalians are demonstrating, it’s reason vs. revelation — culture vs. scripture, interpretation vs. faith.

With about 77 million communicants, the Worldwide Anglican Communion, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, subsumes the Episcopal Church U.S.A. with about 2.2 million communicants in 111 dioceses. The largest of those dioceses is the Diocese of Virginia, until last month with about 90,000 communicants in 193 congregations (or parishes).

But in December, parishioners comprising about 7 percent of Virginia’s Episcopal communicants voted to leave the diocese and the national church to become Anglican outright — or to go one step short of a break and join an Anglican confederation within the ECUSA, pending further developments.

The breakpoint came partly with the elevation to bishop of New Hampshire of a practicing homosexual. When he entered the clergy, he had vowed (1) his loyalty to and belief in — as stipulated by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer — “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as “the Word of God,” and (2) his determination “to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church.”

Yet the homosexuality of the new bishop was less the cause of the Episcopal schism than his violation of his vow to live by a code higher than that embraced by the everyday rest of us. In ratifying his lifestyle and promoting him to bishop, did the sitting primates thereby elevate culture — cultural interpretation — over scripture?

The departing churches say, lopsidedly, yes. Next week a 30-day moratorium — ceasefire — on litigation expires, but surely litigation will come. The diocese claims ownership of all church property within its domain — even in those cases, as in Virginia, relating to churches formed before the Diocese of Virginia was a glint in its daddy’s eye. Almost certainly the coming litigation will be expensive, bitter and long.

All the while proclaiming its inclusiveness, the hierarchy will seek to palliate yet insist it owns the churches of the disaffected. The formerly Episcopal Anglicans will protest any hierarchical definition of inclusiveness that excludes them, and will wish for the hierarchy the same adherence to faith and scripture as its adherence to property — tangible and real — for which it has paid hardly anything, if anything at all.

Perhaps seemingly insignificant to others, this is schismatic war, happening in Virginia and across the landscape — and around the globe. As in other realms — entertainment, politics, the academy and the press — it derives from what people think, from their religious beliefs. And history reminds that conflict grounded in religious controversy is perhaps the most bruising and consequential of all.