Who do you say I am?

Episcopal priests discuss conflicts in their church

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Just before he died, former President Gerald Ford expressed concern that his beloved Episcopal Church might be facing a schism. Ford, who was eulogized as a healer, was painfully aware of the conflict going on in the Episcopalian Church over sexual issues. Consider the following three recent developments:

Nine Episcopal churches in Virginia are planning to leave the Episcopal Church in the United States and come under the oversight of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, in part because of the consecration of Gene Robinson, a gay priest, as bishop.

Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi of the Anglican Church of Uganda informed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that he and other bishops from dioceses south of the equator "cannot sit together with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori" [the only woman archbishop in the Anglican Communion] at the church meeting that took place in Tanzania, Feb. 14-19.

The Episcopal Church has threatened to begin litigation against congregations that try to take church property with them if they leave the denomination.

The cause of the controversies seems to be a conflict over issues of sexuality: First, when 11 women were ordained in Philadelphia in 1974; second when Gene Robinson-an openly gay man in a committed relationship-was consecrated a bishop in 2003; and third when Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected in 2004 as Presiding Bishop of Episcopal Church USA.

Three Oak Park and River Forest Episcopal clergy, however, think there are even deeper fissures at work. Rev. Richard Emrich, for example, believes the underlying conflict is really over power. The "Mason-Dixon Line" for the Anglican Communion-of which Episcopal Church USA is a member-tends to be the equator, i.e. churches south of the equator tend to be more conservative while American and European churches are more liberal.

Nations north of the equator, meanwhile, have been the colonizers, while the peoples south of the equator have been the colonized. Money has tended to flow from north to south, principally from the U.S., and along with it influence. That, said Emrich, who is the pastor of Christ Church in River Forest, makes people on the receiving end uncomfortable in the long run.

"Inevitably you have some ambitious people who come to power in the Third World branches of the Anglican Communion, and they've never had an opportunity to beat up on the Episcopal Church before," he said. "So when Bishop Robinson was consecrated, it gave them a wonderful opportunity to hammer the Episcopal Church. People like Bishop Akinola have seen the consecration of Bishop Robinson as an opportunity for getting power."

Identity crisis

"We see this very differently," said Rev. Paris Coffey, pastor of St. Christopher in Oak Park, "and we're in the same deanery, so you can see how difficult it is to talk about how the whole church sees the issue."

Coffey believes that, at it's core, the issue is identity. To explain, she told a personal story. When she was a teenager in a conservative Presbyterian church, she was "kicked out" of the congregation for arguing about the doctrine of predestination. When she tried out an Episcopal church, she discovered that "not only were the questions tolerated, they were welcomed and encouraged." She said, "My great love of the Anglican Church, since my introduction to it, was the great freedom for many diverse opinions to be held in one community, understanding that the gospel was larger than any single issue."

Rev. Shawn Schreiner, the Priest in Charge at Grace Episcopal in Oak Park, agrees with Coffey. "What's at stake is what it means to be an Anglican. For over 500 years, we have said that to be part of the Anglican Church, you can bring a lot of theological perspectives. The movement right now personally feels like they are trying to make us more of a confessional church."

What Schreiner means by a confessional church is a church built on the foundation of a statement or confession of what it believes. Coffey explained that, historically, theological agreement has not been the glue that held Anglicans together. "I've always said that if you want to know what we believe, come and pray with us. What we hold in common is the Book of Common Prayer. No matter what Anglican church you go into, anywhere around the world, the language spoken might be different, but you would recognize the [structure of the] liturgy."

All three priests agreed that many Anglicans south of the equator and conservatives here in the North are trying replace the liturgy with a literal interpretation of the Bible as the test of what it means to be orthodox.

Tripod of faith

Emrich used the image-traditional for Anglicans-of a three-legged stool. The three legs that support the seat are Scripture, Tradition and Reason. While most Anglicans accept the authority of the Bible as God's Word, they interpret it according to the light provided by the church's tradition and reason-or experience.

Coffey explained that where she thinks conservatives are threatening Anglican identity is equating the authority of the Bible with the interpretation of it. She said she accepts the authority of Scripture just as much as Bishop Akinola. What he seems to not understand is that loyalty to one interpretation of the Bible is not the same as accepting its authority.

The problem with the three-legged stool is that at times some in the church will put more weight on one leg than on the other two. All three-Emrich, Coffey and Schreiner-agree that Bishop Akinola and like-minded Anglican conservatives are putting too much weight on the leg of Scripture. The conservatives respond that the liberals have been putting too much weight on the leg of reason and tradition.

"From some perspectives," said Schreiner, "the Episcopal Church has gone too far in terms of women's ordination and the consecration of a bishop who is in a committed relationship. I'm a gay person in the church, and I feel like we didn't go far enough. Many of us feel like we bent over backwards [to accommodate the conservatives] even to the disadvantage and exclusion of gays and lesbians in the church."

What Schreiner laments is that LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) voices were not even invited to participate in the theological discussions held in the worldwide Anglican Communion. She hastened to add that that is not true of Episcopal Church USA. Her partner, in fact, works for the Chicago Diocese.

Schreiner also resists over-generalizing about the north/south division. She said many Africans are members of Grace where she serves, and they certainly know about her orientation. Schreiner's partner, who has a lot of contact with Africans as a representative of the diocese, warns about the danger of anyone speaking for the whole church and says there are a variety of views, even in Africa.

More important issues

Coffey worries that the intense focus on sexual issues is distracting the Anglican Communion from far more pressing problems. She puts lifestyle, money, energy, environment, how we treat each other, the throw-away society, wastefulness, the growing inequality between rich and poor, homelessness, hunger, disease and health care above whether or not to consecrate a gay man as priorities for the Church.

Schreiner and Coffey conclude that the conflict in the Episcopal Church-and in the larger Anglican Communion-is grounded in the demand of conservatives that adherence to their understanding of the truth be the test of who is an Anglican and who is not. Neither is looking for a fight and both pray that a kind of "e pluribus unum" (out of many, one) will prevail. Both, however, are willing to hold their theological ground.

"Suddenly, it feels like we're trying to redescribe what it is to be an Anglican," said Schreiner. "For me the great fear is that it changes our identity. Having said that, if we were to be kicked out of the Anglican Church, then so be it."

Likewise, Coffey asserted her commitment, standing firm for the truth as she sees it. "I'm proud of the Episcopal Church for the stand that it made at the convention, upholding the consecration of Bishop Robinson. I think it's a mistake to put the church above what God invites."

"The church," responded Emrich firmly, "is what God invites." Although he thinks history will probably show that ordaining women and consecrating Robinson were the right things to do, he also believes they were done prematurely and in the wrong way. "The church is more important than that," he said. "In its ancient wisdom, the wheels have always turned very slowly, and there's a reason for that. If you get ahead of the culture too far, it hurts the church."

Clearly the three priests are not always on the same page. Emrich is more conservative in his ecclesiastical thinking than Coffey and Schreiner, but is probably more liberal than his colleagues when it comes to the authority of the Bible. In spite of their differences-or perhaps because of them-the three seem to respect and even have affection for each other.

They say, in effect, "We're not always on the same page, but we are always in the same book: the Book of Common Prayer."

According to Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, church officials have told Episcopal Church USA that they must modify their position on consecrating gay bishops and performing same-sex marriages by this September.

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