Thursday, December 4, 2008

The State of the Church

I probably have no business telling the Episcopal Church what to do, but when I read the story about the split in the church over the issue of gay tolerance in the hierarchy, I felt as if I was reading a story about a schism in a family that I once knew well, and I was both saddened and heartened by it.

Although I was nominally raised in the Episcopal Church, baptized as an infant and did the whole confirmation shtick when I was fourteen or so, I think my parents saw it more as a part of our education and the role religion holds in our society than as a worship service and devotion to a supernatural being. I attended on my own for a while, and there was a period of about eight months when I lived in Michigan that I was involved with the local Episcopal parish because I was a friend of the priest and his wife. I had already become a convinced Quaker, but since there was no local meeting, spending a Sunday morning with friends and nice music was better than sitting at home in the middle of a Michigan winter. But I knew deep inside — going all the way back to my year at St. George’s, which is affiliated with the Episcopal church and had mandatory chapel — that as a gay man I was not especially at home there. I had never been told by anyone in the church that I was not welcome, but I just knew that being open about my orientation would not be greeted with celebration, so my departure from the rolls of the congregation was a voluntary choice, especially knowing that the Quakers, who had been so supportive of me in my quest for Conscientious Objector status, were also supportive of gay and lesbian Friends and even witnessed their marriages.

Now that the Episcopal Church is finally catching up with some of the more progressive churches and synagogues, the conservatives are setting out on their own. Lead by dioceses in Africa and more conservative dioceses in the United States, they are holding tight to what they consider to be the “traditional” interpretation of the bible’s teachings — and echoing their Roman Catholic cousins in the bargain. (In case you’re not familiar with the history of the Episcopal/Anglican church, it is the result of King Henry VIII’s separation from Rome when he wanted to change wives yet again. He set up his own Church of England with all of the rites and sacraments of the Catholic church with a few changes; priests could marry and divorce was not an offense that merited excommunication. The joke is that the Episcopal Church is Catholic Lite: all the ritual, one-third the guilt.)

If I still belonged to the church, I would wish the conservative secessionists well and let them go. I see no point in forcing them to accept the natural progress that comes with the times, and if they don’t want to treat gays and lesbians as equal members of their congregation, then I really don’t want to have them around; it would be uncomfortable for both of us. I’m sorry to see them go; they’re missing an opportunity to learn first-hand what Jesus was talking about when he said to love thy neighbor as thyself, regardless of who that neighbor loves and lives with. But I am also encouraged that instead of destroying an institution that I once viewed with affection — and still can recite some of the comfortable words of the ceremonies — the church may survive its own divorce… one of the reasons that the church was founded on in the first place.

Finally, I’m reminded of a line from Inherit the Wind that could be useful to the members of both sides when they reflect on the separation and wonder why they have moved so far apart. “All motion is relative. Perhaps it is you who have moved away… by standing still.”