Watching the situation in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina unfold has been deeply painful to all Episcopalians (and other Christians) who care about unity. No doubt, there's plenty of blame to go around. But the bottom line is that this situation compromises our witness and makes us look no different than a world in which will-to-power politics trumps charity and good will. We are modeling the Church of the Ugly Party for all the world to see.
In a posting entitled "For the Love of God," Bishop Dan Martins offers a summary of how things have gotten to this sad point, along with a heart-wrenching appeal to both sides in this debacle to "step back from the brink." He writes:
Tragedy is the only word to describe all of this, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate its scope. South Carolina is a strong and thriving diocese. It has consistently been a statistical anomaly in an Episcopal Church that is steadily aging and deteriorating. All eyes have indeed been on South Carolina, but for the wrong reasons. Rather than arising from suspicion and malice, the attention should be springing from envy and a desire to emulate. Its loss will be no mere statistical blip, and will probably exceed the combined numerical total of the previously departed San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Quincy, and about half of Pittsburgh. For anyone who loves the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, or just loves Jesus, this is an occasion of profound sorrow.
So here's my futility exercise.
To my beloved brothers and sisters in the Diocese of South Carolina, as you meet in convention this Saturday: For the love of God, step back from the brink. Lay aside that which is your right, in honor of him who laid aside everything for us, not counting equality with God something to be grasped. The entire Episcopal Church needs you, but none more so than we who have stood with you in witness to the revealed word of God and the tradition of "mere Anglicanism." I am begging you: Do not abandon us. Let us together be Jeremiah at the bottom of the well, bearing costly witness to God's truth. Let us together be Hosea, faithfully loving those who do not love us back, for the sake of the wholeness of the people of God.
To the Presiding Bishop: Katharine, for the love of God, step back from the brink. Rescind the announcements you have made about the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee being vacant. Give peace a chance. Create space for the seeds of future trust and love to at least lie dormant for a season in anticipation of future germination. When the Confederate dioceses formed their own church in the 1860s, the General Convention, in great wisdom, simply refused to recognize their departure, thereby greatly facilitating eventual reconciliation and avoiding the schism that other American Christian bodies experienced in the wake of the Civil War. You are renowned for your calls for nimbleness and imagination in the face of the challenges our church faces. This is the moment for you to exercise precisely that sort of leadership. The legacy of your tenure as Presiding Bishop will be written in the next three days. Will it be a legacy of juridical gridlock, or bold generosity for the sake of God's mission?
I am reduced nearly to tears, and they may yet flow.
For the love of God.
Read it all.
Fr. Robert Hendrickson at The Curate's Desk also offers important comments on this situation in a posting entitled "Abandoning Communion?" Noting the ways in which this ecclesial conflict mirrors the worst aspects of the American culture war, he writes:
It is tempting to assert our own rightness and importance when we feel most under threat. Pair this with an increasingly zero-sum mindset that has crept into the partisan language of so-called conservatives and so-called progressives and you will find a recipe for a near blasphemous inversion of Communion.
The truly conservative approach would be to find that which is good and holy in our life together and hold fast to that despite the trials of the day knowing that the passions of the day are not heated enough to overtake our shared life in Christ. The truly progressive approach would be to embrace the multitude of opinions and allow the work of the Spirit to continue among those with whom we disagree.
Yet we find ourselves at an impasse of sad proportions. I suppose what is most depressing is the utter pettiness of the entire matter. A growing diocese (the only one in the Episcopal Church) that is a founding diocese of this Church is no longer going to be part of the Episcopal Church – part of this Communion. In the name of being right both the Diocese of South Carolina and the Presiding Bishop’s office have squared off in a manner that is frighteningly banal.
I say banal because it is the same small-minded, ungracious, and undignified malaise that has taken hold of our politics, economics, and culture more broadly. It is the fruit of 50 years of zero-sum thinking that has crippled our ability to be in true Communion. We talk of the Church being counter-cultural, speaking truth to power, blah, blah, blah.
Never has the Church so looked like the dominant culture around us than in this new fight. Like those souls who found themselves on the losing side on election day, we have the ecclesiastical equivalent of people filing secession papers. Like the utter simple-mindedness of the election campaign, everything is now dismissed as either unabashedly revisionist and unholy or shamelessly retrograde and homophobic. I have heard fellow priests mocking the departing dioceses, priests, and bishops and saying, “good riddance.”
The dialogue is poisoned because our hearts have been. Faith, Hope, and Charity have all taken a back seat to being right.
Never have we been such a sad and wan facsimile of the broader culture.
Fr. Hendrickson concludes with an indictment of us all: "No one individual has abandoned Communion. We are all abandoning Communion." Read it all.
And looking at the situation from "across the pond" in the Church of Ireland, BC at Catholicity and Covenant sums it up this way:
If the polities of this world too often regard diversity and common life as contradictory experiences, the Church is called in and through communion to experience diversity (catholic, evangelical, liberal) in a common life (baptism, eucharist, prayer, Scripture, episcopate). A failure by the Church to live out diversity in a common life - communion - is not only a matter of discipline. It goes to the very heart of the Church's calling to share in the life of the Triune God and to invite the world to enter into this life. TEC v. South Carolina is not merely a matter of an ecclesial version of Blue State v. Red State. It is a failure of Church to be Church.
A while back a clergy colleague told me that ideological warfare is always ugly. Looking at what's happening with South Carolina, I can see that he was right!
Pray for the Church.