Thursday, July 10, 2014

Anglican conflict survival guide: Simplistic templates vs. actual history (South Carolina edition)


Terry Mattingly has written a helpful piece at GetReligion about the ongoing conflict within the Anglican Communion, which is hitting home here in South Carolina this week, providing a wealth of historical background which the secular press often overlooks in the interest of advancing a simplistic template in which homosexuality is the inevitable common denominator.

Of particular historical interest to the South Carolina case is a 1992 incident involving then Bishop FitzSimons Allison, which Mattingly would later recount in a 1999 article for "On Religion."
It’s been seven years since Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison faced the fact that some of his fellow bishops worship a different god than he does.

The symbolic moment came during an Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in Kanuga, N.C., as members met in small groups to discuss graceful ways to settle their differences on the Bible, worship and sex. The question for the day was: “Why are we dysfunctional?”

“I said the answer was simple – apostasy,” said Allison, a dignified South Carolinian who has a doctorate in Anglican history from Oxford University. “Some of the other bishops looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Many Episcopalians, he explained at the time, have embraced the work of theologians such as Carter Heyward, a lesbian priest, seminary professor and author of books such as “Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God.” Allison asked the bishops how they would deal with those who say they serve a god that is “older and greater” than the God of the Bible.

Some of the bishops said they either shared this belief or could not condemn it.

When the time came to celebrate the Eucharist, Allison knew what he had to do in this particular circle of bishops. He declined to share the bread and the wine, but didn’t publicize his act of conscience.
Obviously, everything in the simplistic template is present in this story, including the writings of "a lesbian priest." But, for Bishop Allison, the "apostasy" at the root of his church's dysfunction did not revolve around sexuality, but idolatry: the worship of "a god that is 'older and greater' than the God of the Bible." The connection between "exchang[ing] the truth of God for a lie and worship[ing] and serv[ing] the creature rather than the Creator" and the slide into sexual deviancy (cf. Romans 1:18-32) was there even at that time, but the catalyst for Allison's decision to refuse communion with the wayward bishops was the former, not the latter.

In the ongoing conflict within the Anglican Communion in general, and in South Carolina in particular, the disease which must be cured is idolatry. Deviant sexuality is merely a symptom.

Mattingly makes favorable mention of an Associated Press article on the South Carolina trial which, he says, at least starts out on the right note.
ST. GEORGE, S.C. – About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina are in court this week, trying to keep their name, seal and $500 million in land and buildings after they broke away from the national denomination in a wide-ranging theological dispute.

The breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, said it had to leave the national church not just because of the ordination of gays, but a series of decisions it says show national Episcopalians have lost their way in the teachings of Jesus and salvation.
That's fair enough. However, I wish Mattingly would also have cited the article's final two paragraphs, in which a reputed "professor of religion" makes an outrageous and cynical statement.
The secession by South Carolina Episcopalians is ironic, said Frank Kirkpatrick, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and author of “The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible and Authority are Dividing the Faithful.” While church leaders 150 years ago defended slavery on Biblical grounds, some of those breaking away from the national church body over homosexuality and marriage prefer to accept the authority of conservative African bishops rather than U.S. bishops who support the ordination of gays, he said.

“The arguments you hear about seceding from the Episcopal Church sound remarkably similar to the arguments you heard in 1860-61 from the secessionists in South Carolina who wanted to split away from the Union,” Kirkpatrick said.
This kind of nonsense fits well with the artificial narrative which the national Episcopal Church would like to impose on the story, but it does not fit with the actual facts.

To begin with, the Diocese of South Carolina was hardly at the forefront of any movement for "secession" from the Episcopal Church. Bishop Allison's early salvo notwithstanding, the diocese was, if anything, late to the game when it came to disaffiliating from the national body. Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Quincy, and a host of individual parishes in various locations had already bailed long before South Carolina even considered the possibility. Among all the entities which have disaffiliated, South Carolina stands alone as the one ecclesiastical body which literally bent over backward trying to find some way to remain connected before the leadership of the national church made continued affiliation impossible.

It should go without saying, of course, that the issue which brought matters to a head was not homosexuality, but the truth of the Gospel and worship of the one true God. Is the god who is worshiped and proclaimed by the Episcopal Church at the national level the same God, revealed in his Son Jesus Christ, who is worshiped and proclaimed in the parishes, missions, and pulpits of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina?

Even moreso than on that day in 1992 when Bishop Allison performed his silent act of conscience, the answer can only be a resounding NO!

What, then, is the rationale behind Professor Kirkpatrick's statement? The sad fact is, a boilerplate statement like this needs no rationale. It is nothing more than a bunch of thoughtless words thrown together to dazzle a secular press eager to portray simple believers in the most negative light possible. It scores high for shock value, but its only practical effect is to add bearing false witness to the national church's ever growing ledger of transgressions.