human behavior

The Episcopal split

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Religion & Ethics by humanb on December 18, 2006

Two of the largest, most prominent and oldest Episcopal churches in Virginia – one the former religious home of George Washington – have voted to secede from the US Anglican church, and are considering placing themselves under the leadership of the powerful archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola. At least six other conservative churches in Virginia are also expected to vote to secede and are considering new conservative leadership based in Africa, Latin America or Asia.

The impetus for secession was the consecration of the openly gay and partnered V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire three years ago. Since the consecration, approximately three dozen churches nationwide have already seceded and become affiliated with foreign conservative Anglican dioceses, and more churches are considering it.

The New York Times describes Archbishop Akinola as:

an outspoken opponent of homosexuality who supports legislation in his country that would make it illegal for gay men and lesbians to form organizations, read gay literature or eat together in a restaurant.

As well as being alarmed at the willingness of so many thousands of American Christians to submit to the leadership of an archbishop with such legislative aims, I am curious how a tide of secession of conservatives from the church will affect the long-term character of Episcopal and other Christian churches. Specifically, I wonder how the historical, continued and complex negotiations between religious and secular society will be altered by conservative secessionist behavior that suggests a long-term tabling of, if not end, to those negotiations.

Christianity has never been static. The Bible is – though even this is subject to new translations from the Hebrew and Greek in keeping with contemporary language and values. Christianity has always been a reflection to some degree of the secular values and practices of the time. Where slavery existed, the Hebrew Bible offered moral guidance on the treatment of slaves, and Christian tradition offered guidance on the necessity of their moral education and salvation. Judaism and Christianity did not introduce slavery, but they did seek to dictate the behavior of religionists with respect to it as an accepted reality of secular life.

So too with the end of slavery and the tortuous road to racial equality in America. Christianity may have lagged behind the secular abolitionists and civil rights activists, but it found its moral argument against the enslavement and segregation of men in communication and negotiation with secular society. Christianity has always and will continue to accommodate secular values for the sake of its own relevance and prominence.

Which is why, in one sense, it was such a good thing that the Episcopal Church maintained such great differences of opinion within its ranks, as the New York Times described:

For about 30 years, the Episcopal Church has been one big unhappy family. Under one roof there were female bishops and male bishops who would not ordain women. There were parishes that celebrated gay weddings and parishes that denounced them; theologians sure that Jesus was the only route to salvation, and theologians who disagreed. Now, after years of threats, the family is breaking up.

The negotiations between religious and secular society were occurring within the church itself amongst religionists who either had, or who had refused, to accommodate secular values. With such division, the church must ultimately compromise and accommodate secular values to some degree. But with the defection of conservatives to overseas Anglican communities that would tolerate no negotiation with secular society, there is less chance of moderation of strong conservative views within the American church, and less chance of moderation of liberal ones.

So what will become of the conservative Anglican church? And what will its overwhelming dominance in the developing world mean? What will such tides of secession from mainstream churches mean for the traditional negotiations between religious and secular society? I don’t know. But I do know that in a world becoming increasingly more religious outside of the West, the internal power battles of an American church are not so irrelevant as they may seem.


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  1. Club Troppo » Wednesday’s Missing Link said, on December 20, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    […] The Episcopal split – “Human Behaviour” posts on a looming split within the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church in the US, the focus of which is attitudes towards gayness.  Lucky they’ve got their priorities straight and aren’t troubling themselves too much about unimportant issues like war, poverty and injustice (well, except by perpetuating the latter). […]

  2. saint said, on December 20, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    “The impetus for secession was the consecration of the openly gay and partnered V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire three years ago. ”

    I think you may find that the impetus for the split started over thirty years ago. Gene was just a symptom of a far deeper issue.

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