THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH AND
THE END OF HISTORY
History comes to an end today, July 3, 2015, as the General Convention of the Episcopal Church gavels itself to a close. It is not history itself that is ending, of course, but a history. The epoch now closing is the age of the great democratization of the Episcopal Church. It occurred over a sixty year period, from the 1950's to today. It is appropriate that we pause for a moment and reflect on this most remarkable transformation of this great religious institution.
The first half of the twentieth century produced the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. These left two great results for the world, particularly for the United States. The first was the triumph of democracy over monarchism and totalitarianism (WWI & II); and the second was the principle that the government is directly responsible for the welfare of all of its citizens (New Deal). After 1945, American society began working out the democratic principles of freedom, equality, and justice as they applied to elements that had been denied these; and at the same time the federal government, and national institutions in general began a more direct involvement in that process. The Episcopal Church was one of those national institutions that felt the direct impact of the collusion of these two new waves.
The first rush of institutional application of democratic principles came in racial justice. President Truman integrated the U.S. armed forces in 1948; and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal" in 1954. The Civil Rights movement slowly but surely developed around the nation, especially in the racist south. The Episcopal Church awoke to the issue in 1952 when General Convention first denounced racial discrimination. In 1953, Sewanee became the last seminary to integrate. In 1955, the Diocese of South Carolina became the last diocese to admit blacks to voting in its convention. In 1956, the national council of TEC called for full integration of every level of the Church. South Carolina was the last diocese in the nation to fully merge, in 1965. In the 1960's TEC was active in funding and promoting programs to extend civil rights even as some southern Church people fled. Many individual Episcopalians joined in civil rights actions; some gave their lives doing so. In 1970 the first black diocesan bishop was consecrated, in Massachusetts. In 1989, the first black female bishop was consecrated, again in Massachusetts. In 2000, an African American was elected bishop of North Carolina. In 2015 he was overwhelmingly chosen as Presiding Bishop.
Once democracy was applied to one minority, it could not be denied to others. By the 1960's a movement arose for women to gain equal rights and treatment in the Episcopal Church. Ordination was the specific issue at hand. In 1970 GC voted down women's ordination to the priesthood, and again in 1973. In 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia by two retired bishops and one resigned bishop. The House of Bishops promptly called an emergency session to reject the ordinations. At the next GC, in 1976, however, resolutions were passed removing gender as a barrier to all ordinations and offices in the Church. The next year, the eleven of 1974 were officially recognized. The Church began putting pressure on all dioceses to move forward on the ordination of women in the face of continued resistance from three dioceses: San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, and Quincy. In South Carolina, Bishop Allison allowed four women to be ordained as priests (1984-89). Bishop Salmon also allowed women into ordination while denouncing the national Church's measures to enforce this policy (Bp Lawrence did not ordain a woman to the priesthood, but did ordain two women to the diaconate before the schism). By 2002, a quarter of all priests in TEC were women. In 2006, a woman was elected Presiding Bishop of TEC. She was also the first woman primate of one of the thirty-eight provinces of the Anglican Communion. Women now make up a third of all clergy of TEC.
The movement to extend democracy to homosexual persons began in 1975 when GC passed a resolution declaring that homosexuals have "full and equal" claim to the Church. This was extended by vote of the 1985 GC to "promote" the life of homosexuals in the Church. In 1989, an openly homosexual man was ordained a priest, thus prompting the issue at the next GC, in 1991. That GC declared sexual expression was "appropriate" only between a husband and wife, but also set up mechanisms for developing greater understanding of the issue of homosexuality. The next GC, in 1994, resolved that no person could be denied rights in the Church because of sexual orientation. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Righter, of Newark, was put on trial in a church court for ordaining to the priesthood an open and partnered man. The court found in favor of Righter and concluded that no person could be denied ordination because of sexual orientation. This effectively gave homosexuals open access to ordination in the Episcopal Church. The GC of 2000 recognized that lifelong committed relationships could be found in other than traditional heterosexual bonds. In 2003, the diocese of New Hampshire elected an open and partnered homosexual man as bishop; and this was confirmed by the House of Bishops in the GC of 2003. By 2009, GC was ready to move forward with setting up trial liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. In 2012, GC adopted the new trial liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions and also declared rights for transgendered clergy. In 2015, GC completed the democratization for homosexual persons by passing two resolutions to make a liturgy for same-sex marriage and change the canons to allow the same.
All along the way while these social movements were developing, the Church also extended democratization to many other aspects of life in the Church. Most importantly this was in the revision of the Book of Common Prayer to make it more communal and gender neutral. There were also many other smaller reforms too numerous to list here, for example allowing laypersons to administer the chalice in Communion.
To be sure there were many critics and dissenters all along in the sixty-plus years of this democratization process. Many people found they could not go along with one or more aspects of the revolutionary changes going on all around them. Splinter groups began peeling off TEC in earnest in the 1970's. The Righter trial of 1996 broke the back of the opposition faction against equality for homosexuals but resistance continued. By the time of the Robinson affair in 2003, there were twelve diocese that were staunchly and invariably "conservative" or resistant to the changes. After Robinson's affirmation in 2003 and Jefferts Schori's election as PB in 2006, four of the twelve voted by majority to leave the Episcopal Church. After the liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions and rights for transgendereds in 2012, one more voted to secede from the union, that being South Carolina. The five most conservative dioceses declared their separations from the Church. Following the votes in the GC of 2012, twelve dissenting bishops issued the "Indianapolis Statement" denouncing the resolutions and affirming their loyalty to the Anglican Communion (Salmon and Skilton signed, but Lawrence did not).
There are now seven brother dioceses left from the original twelve forming the pre-Robinson far-right wing of the Episcopal Church (Springfield, Western Louisiana, Northern Indiana, Dallas, Albany, Central Florida, and Tennessee). Yesterday they led a delegation of bishops to issue a new dissent called "The Salt Lake City Statement." This was not at all a replay of 2012. It was really fundamentally different. This time the statement, signed by twenty bishops, was much milder in tone and altogether conciliatory. It declared loyalty and commitment to TEC. Gone was the subtle threat of secession or appeal over the head of TEC to powers overseas. The remaining seven have clarified their devotion to their principles and to their Church. From yesterday's declaration, it appears most unlikely that any diocese will contemplate following the five departed brothers. In response to the Statement, the House of Bishops yesterday issued "Communion Across Difference" statement to the dissenters reaffirming the bonds of affection. Peace has come at long last.
Thus, the Episcopal Church closes the door on its greatest reform period in its long history. Some people think this revolutionary period of the last sixty years was great; some think it was disastrous. I for one think it was a natural, if long overdue, collusion of democracy and Christianity. Even so, it has come at a price. The Episcopal Church now has only about half as many members as it had fifty years ago. But, as we all know, doing the right thing is sometimes costly, but it is still the right thing to do.
So, as the Church turns a new page, where does it go from here? Is there more to be accomplished in social reform? There is none obvious. The Episcopal Church has been committed to horizontal Christianity for a long time now, and rightly so. But perhaps now it is time to steer back to a more vertical posture with renewed emphasis on evangelization. There were clear signs in the GC of the last few days of this happening. The new presiding bishop certainly radiates this. Perhaps the seven brothers could show us the way. I think now it is the right thing to do, to balance the horizontal and the vertical.
It is appropriate now to take a moment and wax a bit nostalgic as we look back on a most remarkable revolution in the life of the Episcopal Church. On this eve of Independence Day, what else should we say but thank God for the great democratic revolution of the Episcopal Church.