The Episcopal Church of the United States is, by numbers, a small and shrinking appendage of international Christianity. Still, Episcopalians traditionally have played a prominent role in high American social and political strata – which is one reason why it was a momentous and perhaps worrisome development this month when the American church effectively was placed on probation by the international Anglican Communion.
The largest reason for the dispute between Episcopalians and international Anglicans remains as it has been for years: Anglicans hold fast to traditional teachings about marriage (one man, one woman), while the national Episcopal Church is now “all in” for marrying homosexuals and is otherwise particularly obsessed with outreach to those with non-traditional “gender identities.”
The sanctions imposed on Episcopalians by the Anglicans fall one step shy of formal disunion – but there are no visible signs that any ultimate rapprochement is likely, or even possible. Neither side is likely to budge, which means that when the three-years of sanctions are completed, it would be no surprise to see a formal separation.
I say: Get on with it, already. Rather than use the three years solely for what are likely to be fruitless efforts to find common ground, leaders on both sides should operate on dual tracks – one a last-gasp attempt at reconciliation; the other a concerted, well-constructed exploration of, and planning for, the details of disunion. It will surely require massive work to unravel legal thickets and property disputes – and, far more important, both sides ought to make careful provision for more traditionalist Episcopalians so they will have venues for and recourse to continued communion with Anglicans even as their liberal American brethren go their own way.
Granted, this may sound like discordant advice. At a time when leaders of various denominations are making strenuous efforts at ecumenical action and at finding common ground, it may seem counterproductive to urge the dissolution of a centuries-old denominational alignment.
Yet that analysis would be too facile. It fails to appreciate that one of the most consistent markers of Protestantism, very much unlike Catholicism, is that it is a decentralized movement that often has featured spin-off movement after spin-off movement, new denomination after new denomination – all, usually, with far less rancor after the splits than before.
Presbyterians may think Episcopalians are misguided in certain practices and emphases, and Lutherans may feel likewise about Methodists. But all co-exist with mutual respect and without serious animus. All seem to see their differences as representatives of different means toward the same basic end, which is ultimate and eternal communion with the Almighty.
Each branch of Protestantism thus provides a means to reach people who might not otherwise, through another denomination, find a path to God. Each branch therefore serves a slightly different role, each one performing a valuable service for the proverbial Body of Christ.
And that is where this week’s readings come in. The most obvious connection is with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, featuring the famous passages about how the usefulness of each part of the body – eye, hand, feet, and even “less respectable members” of the corpus – mirrors the utility of each individual’s skills or gifts for the greater cause of Christ.
If each branch of the faith does Christ’s work (as attested in this week’s Gospel reading from Luke) of bringing “good news to the poor… release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind… [and to] let the oppressed go free,” then it matters little if their modes of worship are different or their doctrinal understandings differ in some respects.
With all that said, however, this should not be read as an assertion that doctrines and practices don’t matter, or that some practices may be so violative of teachings so central that traducements thereof will dangerously denature the very meaning of Christianity. (This week’s other readings, from Nehemiah and from the 19th Psalm, dramatically and eloquently emphasizing the importance of hearing, understanding, and living into God’s law, and should remind us that there are indeed some parts of the faith that are or should be non-negotiable.)
For some of us, the traditional understanding of marriage is just such a non-negotiable doctrine. That is all the more reason, not less, for churches that disagree on such fundamental matters to stop trying to hold together that which cannot adhere.
We know we are fallible humans. We should therefore know that our understandings can sometimes be mistaken, even where God intends to be clear. If we are wrong, and another conglomeration of Christians legitimately gets right what we do wrong, then it is good that they have the freedom to pursue their understanding. If we are right and they would keep us from doing the right, it is good that we are free from them.
But either way, we must understand that God reaches different people in different ways, because different people have different ways of hearing. As Paul’s letter says, we each have different gifts. If it takes a separation of denominations for those gifts to be more fully exercised for the sake of God’s kingdom, the separation can be not a bad thing but a good one.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.