The Virginia Episcopal schism: a wound in Christianity's heart

January 04, 2007|By Jo Bailey Wells

DURHAM, N.C. -- The news of schism in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is very sad for all Christians everywhere, regardless of denomination or persuasion. One of the wardens of The Falls Church put it well: There is a death in the family. As a part of the family - as a Christian and, moreover, as an Anglican - I am in mourning.

Last month, two of the oldest, largest and wealthiest congregations in Virginia voted to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican Province of Nigeria, with whom they share similar convictions concerning God's revelation in Scripture. The move is measured (they are remaining within the Anglican Communion) and provisional (leaving the way open, in theory, for reconciliation). Still, they propose serving under the authority of a Nigerian archbishop 5,000 miles away.

The conversations that have unfolded within the Anglican Communion since the consecration of a practicing homosexual as bishop of New Hampshire continue to be misunderstood by both liberals and conservatives. Taught by Jefferson to claim an inalienable right to liberty in all religious matters, American Anglicans on both sides seem to find defending their autonomy more urgent than defending the "communities of discernment" and "global interdependence" characteristic of Anglicanism.

The ordination of Gene Robinson was viewed in some parts of the Anglican Communion as a case of ecclesiastical imperialism by the American left. Now, the departure of some churches from the Episcopal fold is seen as a corresponding act of congregational imperialism. Even the conservatives are proving themselves liberals, in a sense, deep down: more committed to their consciences and convictions - to being "right" - than to the wider body of the church in which they find themselves.

Is it not time to stop fighting the American War of Independence? This is not an issue of whether Americans should be able to run their own affairs; it is about whether American Christians need Christians in the rest of the world to help them find ways of talking to one another. Autonomy exercised at the level of government in 1776 was liberating; autonomy exercised today by people of faith in communion together feels more like oppression.

What is at stake in the contemporary situation is not principally a view about homosexuality. What is at stake is the question of whether one small branch of American Protestants can find the generosity to continue in common life together - or whether, when faced with internal disagreement, they choose to go separate ways. Are Episcopalians more committed to their opinions than to their brothers and sisters, those to whom they are bonded in baptism, at home and abroad? I fear so, just like so many other Protestants of the last 400 years. I had thought Anglicans were different. In my distress, I recall the words of the French poet Charles P?guy describing the Day of Judgment: "What will Jesus say to us if we go to him without the others?"

Of course, members of the conservative Virginia parishes would bring to Jesus' attention the Nigerian Anglicans with whom they are affiliating. The remaining Episcopalians might point to the gay people their churches have welcomed. But it is the more costly engagement between brothers and sisters who find it hard to live together and eat together - yet continue to work together and break bread together - that constitutes the calling of the church. All parties in this crisis speak of the cost of conscience, even though the cost bears so much heavier on more impoverished communities of faith elsewhere in the world.

Whatever happened to the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, patience, gentleness? Couldn't we have waited together, perhaps cried together, certainly argued together, but kept on worshiping together for a little longer?

The Rev. Jo Bailey Wells is associate professor of the practice of Christian ministry and Bible and director of Anglican studies at Duke University's Divinity School.

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