Church Must Change, Episcopalians Told

Focus On God, Rather Than Man, Yale Dean Says

February 24, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The Episcopal Church has become man-centered, rather than God-centered, and it needs to change.

This was the message a visiting lecturer gave church members from St. Anne's Parish in Annapolis Saturday.

"We have become a Cheshire cat -- all smiles and nothing else," said Dr. Philip W. Turner, Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

Turner came to the church as part of St. Anne's yearlong 300th anniversary celebration. He spoke as part of a series of lectures dedicated to J. Winfree Smith, who died in 1991 after 50 years as a priest and teacher at the parish.

The visiting speaker, whoat 56 has run the gamut from establishing small parishes in the Ugandan bush country to teaching ethics at Princeton University, spoke about the identity and mission of the Episcopal Church today.

"Who are we and what ought we to be up to?" he asked an audience of about 75 people.

"The fact that we have to ask the question indicates that we have a problem," Turner told those gathered for the evening lecture and discussion. "And who we are is eventually expressed in what we're up to."

Turner described Episcopalian history as characterized by "establishmentarianism," a legacy handed down from Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, and others who believed the church's goal was to "reconstitute a nation of Christians under God".

This vision of the church's role in society has begun todisintegrate in the last 40 years as "fewer and fewer church memberswant the church to provide a moral basis of unity," Turner said. Trends such as religious pluralism, secularism and individualism have produced a sense of dislocation within the church, he said.

"The Episcopal Church is at least one-third smaller than it was 20 years ago," Turner added. "We are more socially peripheral. People are asking something different from the church."

Cranmer would have been appalled at the expectation on the part of many church members that the church should form itself according to their particular need, Turner said.

"No one wants an insensitive clod for a priest," he observed, then asked: "But is addressing ourselves to the quest for personal meaning the purpose of the church?"

Turner said his denomination hasfollowed a tendency he characterized as "left-wing," in which the church tries simply to provide "more of what people want, more enlightened social opinions, ever chasing after the newest thing in our culture."

All this, he said, makes religion "increasingly anthropocentric," or man-centered. "We are focused more on ourselves and less on God. The subject of religion has changed from God to ourselves, and main-line Protestant churches have jumped on board."

The dilemma is that "nobody wants really to raise the question of God," Turner said,but he believes the solution is to change the subject back to God.

He suggested a great reversal in focus.

"Understanding our identity and mission means asking: 'Who is God? How do we know God? How dowe come into a relationship with God?' "

One result of refocusingon God should be recognizing the Christian Church's destiny, Turner said -- "to know and love God and one another."

After studying forthree years the New Testament book of Ephesians, a letter from the Apostle Paul to the Church at Ephesus, Turner concluded that the parish exists to "participate in a growing unity in Christ and to display that" to non-believers.

The hitch in the divine drama, he said, ishuman beings.

"We are up to something vastly different. We are upto hostility."

In the death of Christ lies the solution and the hope for real unity, Turner said.

"We are forgiven, and we receive a power that is stronger than our hate."

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