EPISCOPAL COURAGE: The Right Things for the Right Reasons

Arthur's Journal on God & Politics
What Does It Mean to be Christian in America?
A God of War
Apocalypse & End Times
Biblical Literalism
Christ Path
Conformity & Orthodoxy
Fear, Shame & Guilt
God & Politics
Goodness, Morality & Sin
Heresy & Heretics
History, Mystery & Doubt
Kindergarten Religion
Mental Spiritual Constructs
Mystical Christianity
Mythical Proportions
Passion of The Christ ...
Someone Else's Magic

EPISCOPAL COURAGE: The Right Things for the Right Reasons


Recently at it’s national convention, The Episcopal Church of the United States approved the ordination of an openly gay bishop, bringing upon itself not only the wrath of those who voted contrary to the majority of those representing congregations all over the country, but of the worldwide Anglican communion itself.

Anticipating and not surprised by most of the criticism from non-Episcopal sources, I was however struck by the intensity of criticism from within the ECUSA itself.

Having united with a local Episcopal congregation fairly recently myself (1999), I did not do so out of some epiphany that the Episcopal church had a doctrine or belief system totally in harmony with my own or one much closer to truth with a capital T. I did so out of a desire to integrate my family with a spiritual congregation in a community into which my wife and I had recently moved.

My wife and I found the local Episcopal congregation absolutely warm and embracing. Our little congregation is known somewhat as one of the most conservative parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia (Washington). Our average Sunday morning attendance is less than 20 souls. My wife and I, in our 50’s, are literally the youngest actively participating members of the congregation.

Of those who actively participate, I would estimate the average age to be 75 years. Perhaps that is why I was recently elected as the Senior Warden – the youngest person with sufficient energy to do so. In 1999 we were embraced, loved and repeatedly encouraged to return. When we did, I found that they were in need of a back-up organist and I was able to fill that role. The Ladies guild needed youthful energy and my wife was scooped up and put to work.

Later on, my wife and I were invited to participate in a program of discernment with the idea that our youth might be put to greater use by involving us in a ministerial capacity. Perhaps one or both of us could begin a program of training to be able to step in when the time arrived as future replacements for our priests. Both of us, in fact, were authorized as preachers with tasking of giving a monthly sermon.

This alone gave tremendous relief to our priests, who were originally called out of the congregation some 15 years ago when the parish lost its traditionally trained and ordained Episcopal priest. We have two priests in our congregation, one male and the other female. The presence of a female priest is a reminder that the Episcopal Church has a history of courage in dealing with change. Our female priest is in her 60’s, employed in the community and busier than she ought to be with church duties, family obligations and full-time employment.

Our male priest will be 83 this week and is in declining health. This congregation has already suffered the consequences of Episcopal courage, having lost several families in the last ten years as a result of the appointment of an openly gay priest to a position within the diocese.

That event is the reason why attendance dropped down to the less-than-20 Sunday attendance. Those who left the parish were couples of the same generation that makes up the remaining congregation. When your number of active participants drops from the 30’s to the 20s you have in fact lost 1/3 of your congregation to Episcopal courage and its radical departure from traditional Christian conservatism.

The week following the national convention, I convened a Bishop’s Committee meeting to deal with our usual and routine parish business. Expecting some reaction to the action of the National Convention and publicity around it, I was surprised to encounter what seemed a majority opinion of either support or tolerance for the national decision.

Our Bishop’s committee is small and, as I have said, consists almost entirely of folks of a conservative generation. Yet, those who voiced an opinion voiced essentially the sentiment of the non-judgmental.

Regarding homosexuality, these folks have never “been there; done that”, yet what I heard from them for the most part was an expression of reverence for personal choices and a trust that such issues were between God and the individual. Having taken issue many times with those who proclaim a literal Bible and espouse their own private interpretations of Bible verses in condemnation of those who do not conform, I expected to hear that sort of thing among these, the oldest of our church-goers -but was mistaken.

I’m fairly certain that privately, most or all of us who disagree with a gay lifestyle have personal and meaningful reasons for doing so. They are, however, personal reasons of disagreement and do not have place in a religious context as reasons of condemnation. We have no justification if we act as accusers of those whom we deem to be not up to our own standards of “righteousness.”

Righteousness in fact is neither a scripturally nor traditionally defined concept that contains a rigid and uniform code of conformity. But Goodness for the sake of Goodness might very well be.

To focus on being righteous is to focus on and glorify one's self at the expense of the universal applicability of Jesus’ life and teaching. If Jesus could declare to a mortal caught in breath-taking sin,

“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more,”

where do any of us have the right to go beyond that pattern?

In attempting to do so, we ultimately find ourselves trying to dictate morality to God. We expect God to support our humanly weak judgmental thinking and leave ourselves vulnerable to a moment when perhaps somehow God reveals that we are wrong. A lifelong judgmental Christian faces an immense shock at the prospect of discovering that God has always been a God of Compassion and not a God of judgmental morality.

Worse, should such a discovery occur at the supposed bar of judgment when our actions are up for review, we could come up against an awful knowledge that we have completed our mortal lives doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

The ECUSA has done the right thing for the right reasons, never going into an endorsement of a gay lifestyle, yet recognizing that judgment and condemnation, if judgment an condemnation is part of being God, is left to a Heavenly Father who knows his own will.

There’s a conservative movement within ECUSA to separate itself in protest out of righteous indignation. Their words of reasoning are conservative and judgmental – an almost ignorant assumption that God Himself is conservative in nature, punitively judgmental and obsessed with the details of morality.

The assumption, spoken or left unsaid, is that God does endorse weak and narrow human perception and in so doing, also endorses disharmony and separation. This seems to presuppose an all-or-nothing, either-or, supreme and omnipotent creator who delights in blind obedience and who is willing to be bound by mortal condemners when they assign to themselves the wisdom of condemnation.

These self-righteous dissenting leaders may be more sincere than am I who find myself openly critical of their choices. I risk being narrow and judgmental myself if I condemn their actions and erroneously assign to myself wisdom in condemnation.

So I won't go so far in my indignation as to condemn, but I will disagree. I am best advised to follow the example in my own congregation, which has already lost 1/3 of its membership in rebellion against a decision of religious policy reached by our community’s spiritual leadership.

Interesting that according to scripture, should one chose to read Bible verses as literally inerrant, God also lost 1/3 to rebellion and disagreement with His policy. I wonder about that scriptural 1/3. Have we any evidence that ultimately they were justified and vindicated by some authority higher than God?

The American Christian is a journal based in Bay Center, Washington. 
Copyright 2005-2009 The SwanDeer Project
Send all e-mail to aruger at gmail dot com