WHAT CAUSED THE FIVE EPISCOPAL SCHISMS?
By Ronald J. Caldwell, PhD, Professor of History, Emeritus
In investigating the background of the Episcopal Church schism in South Carolina, I have encountered several perplexing problems that do not lend themselves readily to empirical quantification. I have been pondering on these and would like your input on what you think about the most important one of them:
Why did the issue of homosexuality lead to the five diocesan votes to withdraw from the Episcopal Church when earlier highly contentious issues in the Church had not?
Around 1960, the national Episcopal Church moved to an attitude distinctly committed to the social gospel. Common parlance often calls this "liberalism." First came promotion of civil rights, namely for African-Americans, but also for other minorities. Shortly thereafter two other issues loomed large: new prayer book and ordination of women. By the 1970's the Church was committed to a significant revision of the liturgies in the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer as well as to the admission of women to holy orders in the Church. First women were allowed to be ordained priests and deacons, and later bishops. There were other smaller reforms occurring too, but the fact is that three major changes swept through the national church in a relatively short amount of time. To be sure, disgruntled communicants began leaving the Episcopal Church with the start of the social gospel movement; and new out flows occurred with each new reform. Reactionaries fled from the "liberal" Episcopal Church.
The fourth contentious issue, homosexuality, arose around 1990 with the ordinations of openly homosexual men. Through the decade of the 1990's it was a highly contested subject in the Church. Then, in 2003, the Church accepted the first openly homosexual person as a bishop, Gene Robinson.
These four reform movements were not just questions of social policy, they were also questions of theology. Traditionalists wanted to keep the focus in the Church on personal salvation, that is a vertical religion of one person and one God. They saw the social gospel as a dangerous diversion that diluted the main purpose of religion, personal salvation. The traditionalists who stayed in the Church fought a losing battle to stem the tide of the horizontal religion advocated by the social gospel movement, but to them it became a war for the very soul of the Church.
The problem at hand is why the fourth great reform movement, equal rights for homosexual persons, led to votes of five dioceses to leave the Episcopal Church while the three earlier reform movements had not. Shortly after the Robinson episode, the schisms began. Between December of 2007 and October 2012, the authoritative structures of five dioceses declared their separation from the Episcopal Church (San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Quincy, and South Carolina).
I have discussed this problem with many Episcopalians from ordinary laypeople to bishops. Here are the major theories that have appeared in attempts to answer the question:
1-Cumulative. The "traditionalists" (a.k.a. conservatives, orthodox, reactionaries) had not liked any of the reforms but had tolerated the first three, at least somewhat. It is interesting to note that three of the five diocesan schisms came from dioceses that had steadfastly refused to ordain women (San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, and Quincy). By the time the fourth great social movement occurred, the traditionalists could no longer tolerate the seemingly never ending reforms. They threw in the towel in exhaustion.
2-Sexuality. The subject of sexuality and sexual identity affect people differently than the subjects of civil rights, gender, and liturgy. Homosexuality was an issue profoundly more serious to conservatives than any of the earlier ones had been. Conservatives generally hold that God assigns gender and no one has the right to question that or to follow behavior deviating from that.
3-Combination of sexuality and female authority. In 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected the first woman to be presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the first female prelate in the Anglican Communion. Coming on the heels of the acceptance of homosexuals as bishops, it was too much for the ultra-conservatives to take. The far-right dioceses peeled off. In the early 2000s there were 12 dioceses that were solidly and predictably conservative; the majorities in 5 of those 12 voted to leave the Church.
4-Mechanism. By the early 2000's as Robinson and Jefferts Schori assumed authority, there was a presumed mechanism in place whereby dioceses could theoretically switch primatial oversight from one Anglican province to another. This had not been on the horizon during the earlier three reform movements. In the earlier cases only individuals, or groups of persons left the Church to form or join splinter group churches. This mechanism formed in the 1990's and early 2000's as conservatives sought to move outside the Episcopal Church and even set up a church to replace the Episcopal Church. One aspect of this was the Chapman Memo; another the Barfoot Memo. In South Carolina at least, and perhaps in the other four too, counter-revolutionaries gained control of the apparati of the diocese in the early 2000's and told the communicants the Episcopal Church was hopelessly in error and they could leave the Church for another primatial authority. Most communicants agreed and went along with the diocesan leadership.
Thus, where does all this leave us? I am still giving this problem a lot of thought and no doubt will continue to do so, but at this point I lean to the first theory: Cumulative. It is not that the others are wrong; on the contrary I think there is truth in all of them. But, it just seems to make more sense to me to see it as the result of a long historical process. It did not happen overnight.
I grew up in a distinctly fundamentalist and independent church. I know Southern fundamentalism very well. Although Episcopalian conservatives are not quite the same, they share much of the common mindset of the old fundamentalists. I believe I understand where the Episcopal traditionalists are coming from. And on this I would emphasize the vertical-horizontal dichotomy. Traditionalists believe very fervently that religion is all about personal salvation: one person and one God. Nothing else really matters in the great scheme of the universe. While they certainly do not avoid charity and care for others, they see the social gospel as an offshoot, that is, not the essence of the Christian religion. They see it as at least dangerous and at most heresy. In the Episcopal Church, the traditionalists, at least the most extreme groups, came to see the Episcopal Church as hopelessly lost by the early 2000's. Thus, the underlying cause of the schism, it seems to me at this point in my research, was the traditionalists' efforts to preserve their view of the pure Christian religion in the only way they knew how, to leave the Episcopal Church and link up with some other foreign elements that shared their religious sensibilities. In this process, it was the issue of homosexuality that was the trigger for this. So, it seems to me the fundamental causes of the schisms were theological. However, the underlying tension was activated in the end by the issue of homosexuality which was the wedge that pried the majorities of the five dioceses away from the Episcopal Church.
This is all, of course, theoretical conjecture. and open to all sorts of different views. I may change my mind as time goes by and I develop new understandings from the historical evidence.
I would like to know what you think. How would you address the great historical problem at hand:
Why did the issue of homosexuality lead to five diocesan moves to leave the Episcopal Church while three earlier contentious issues in the Church had not?
I invite everyone to share your thoughts with me. E-mail me at: