Tag Archives: Episcopal Church

In Other News

Thanks to the DPLA, images like this are accessible to all!

The DPLA has launched, yesterday while I was too busy presenting at a conference to join in the festive announcements across the history blogosphere. The DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) is an ambitious project which casts itself as the first step toward a global, free access library that will include the fullest possible amount of material (i.e. everything not covered by copyright). It is a social leveling project as much as an intellectual endeavor, allowing students at community colleges, in poorer regions of this country and eventually the world, and all the academically disadvantaged to have access to archives at places like Harvard. Relying on a variety of charitable institutions, the DPLA in its present form is a centralizing service that allows scholars–or curious web browsers–to search across a wide range of participating institutions in a single place and be linked directly to the material in those archives. It promises be, whether or not it fulfills its utopian vision of an equal academic play field, a tremendous resource for research (even as it is also likely to thwart the efforts of young scholars trying to think up excuses to get research funding to visit Boston). A link to the DPLA can now be found enshrined on my Resources page.

In less exciting news, the church institutional continues to disgrace itself on a variety of fronts. The Episcopal Church has won a “victory” in its civil case against itself before the Virginia Supreme Court.

The panel affirmed a lower court’s decision that the 3,000-member congregation, which voted in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church, did not have the right to keep the sprawling property known as the Falls Church.

The Falls Church property is one of the country’s largest Episcopal churches and is a central landmark in downtown Falls Church.

The breakaway congregation, now called the Falls Church Anglican, has been worshiping in the Bishop O’Connell High School auditorium in Arlington County while it sought to overturn the Fairfax County Circuit Court decision from last year.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court affirmed that the property was rightly given to the mainline denomination but said some of the nearly $3 million in church coffers belongs to the Falls Church Anglican congregation.

I put “victory” in scare quotes because it hardly seems appropriate to call either side victorious when both have so miserably failed the basic standard of Christian charity and forbearance, applied particularly to this situation by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” Probably because Paul’s churches never had anything like three million dollars in its “church coffers.” If it did, maybe Paul wouldn’t have been so quick on the draw with that “to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat to you” nonsense.

The Orthodox Church global is having its own struggles. At the end of a long saga that has witnessed significantly more diligence than Catholic handling of sexual misconduct, Bishop Matthias has resigned. The head of the Chicago diocese of the Orthodox Church in America could no longer bear the odium of his sexual misconduct scandal and finally yielded to pressure from above to step down. In a deferential address–a momentary lapse from his conspiratorial theories about a liberal plot to manufacture his ouster–he expressed hope that “my stepping down will end the ordeal, allowing the diocese to move toward healing,” and asked “for everyone’s forgiveness for my failings, my mistakes and sins.” He then graciously offered to forgive everyone else, for what is not entirely clear. Maybe he forgives the woman who misunderstood his “inappropriate words that I thought were being received as humorous.” That certainly is the way this sincere apology feels: “I am sorry that my kindness and generosity to this person was viewed with suspicion and ulterior motives.” Growing up, when I made apologies like that I got slapped. I suppose being stripped of your diocese is the ecclesiastical equivalent.

In Prague, a much bigger fish has been fried by a much sexier scandal. Metropolitan Krystof, the head of the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, has stepped down after scandal broke about his lascivious life. The prelate is alleged to have had an affair with the wife of one of his priest’s and of fathering numerous illegitimate children. With all the talk of progress in Europe, it seems they are still very much medieval over there.

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Dorothy Day, the Catholic

To those who have little grasp of history, or who get their history from disreputable sources, it might seem odd for such a powerful advocate for social justice–even, arguably, for socialism–should find so comfortable a home in the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day complicates this picture by being an adult convert, removing the convenient “she was born into it” rationalization from those who see the Catholic Church as an agent for repression of the marginalized and a bastion of conservative values. Yet as those who float left politically find a friend of women and homosexuals in the Episcopal churches, the poor have traditionally found their home in the Roman Catholic Church. (In fact, it is entirely within the realm of defensible argument to suggest that the progressive nature of the Episcopal church is tied intimately to its affluence and that the conservative values of Catholics are popular values.) It should therefore surprise no one that Dorothy Day should be both an ardent Catholic and a dedicated advocate for the poor, the oppressed, and the stigmatized. The next entry will deal with the latter aspect of her life, but for now consider two quotes that show the deep Catholic influence on Day’s thought, first on the value of tradition (the great enemy of progressive philosophy) and then with respect to church.

Tradition! We scarcely know the word any more. We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them. We scorn nobility in name and in fact. We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington, all a pattern, all prospering if we are good, and going down in the world if we are bad. These are attitude the Irish, the Italian, the Lithuanian, the Slovak and all races begin to acquire in school. So they change their names, forget their birthplace, their language, and no longer listen to their mothers when they say, “When I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily.” They lose their cult and their culture and their skills, and leave their faith and folk songs and costumes and handcrafts, and try to be something which they call “an American.”

I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him, nor a body of people with whom to associate themselves. But I did not agree to this. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God.

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Ross Douthat is a Genius.

Seriously. You’ll not hear me say that very often about anyone, but in this case I think it’s justified. The ouster of Metropolitan Jonah has all the makings of a brilliant story. A high level church official, the highest actually, has been implicated in a cover up of a rape by a deranged priest. There is sex, alcohol, religion, and scandal, but all anyone can seem to talk about is an article Douthat wrote about the statistical decline of the Episcopal Church. Small newspapers in smaller midwestern towns are giving each other high fives at the downfall of the nominal Christian. Episcopal bishops repudiate the criticisms, Episcopal parishioners echo them, and Episcopal priests try to temper them. Meanwhile, emergent, missional, politically leftist, and every stripe of hipster Christian have launched an Occupy the Blogosphere movement to protest the caricature. How did Douthat do it? It has been outrageous, and I am clearly by no means immune. (I’ve even caught myself arguing in the comments of other articles with people clearly too riled to think straight.)

Considering how heated the discourse has become, a few clarifications and disclaimers seem to be retrospectively in order on my part.

The liberal-conservative continuum is a useful but not flawless tool for discussing contemporary Christianity. I endeavor to be very careful with the labels I use in describing Christian groups. A historical perspective has afforded me a wonderfully rich taxonomy with which to precisely categorize various manifestations of the faith as they have appeared repeatedly throughout history, and I am convinced that it is safe to talk about a “liberal” wing of Christianity and a “conservative” one that dominate the scene in the American religious landscape. Now there are important qualifiers there. First, only America is in view here. Talking about liberal and conservative Christianity in Africa would conjure completely different images if not, more likely, be entirely nonsensical. Second, liberal and conservative Christianity dominate but do not constitute the American religious landscape. There are many groups, some significant theologically and some powerful within small segments of society, that fall into neither group neatly. Any kind of binary system of categorizing Christianity will necessarily fall short. (Sorry, Byron Williams.)

Ambiguity is the mother of conflict. Much of the tension that has arisen in the wake of Douthat’s article has been a result of uncertainty about just what is meant by “liberal Christianity.” Some of this has been on the part of self-styled liberals misreading what is being said in an effort to serve their own agendas. Much of it has been on the part of conservatives who are so busy rejoicing in their arguments that they do not take the time to clarify them fully. Even Douthat is somewhat at fault. It has been rightly pointed out that liberal Christianity can and does thrive in ways beyond what can be measured by attendance in the Episcopal Church. Douthat, however, is very careful to limit his criticisms to institutional bodies that have embraced liberal Christianity. Thus, saying that the “spiritual but not religious” demographic (who are often embracing the label “liberal Christians”) yet grows is not to debunk Douthat but to confirm him. They are leaving the liberal churches because they have nothing left to offer. Additionally, many have complained that certain liberal church groups are continuing to grow, churches that cling to the traditional core of Christian doctrine but play free-and-loose with traditional Christian forms. Again, however, Douthat makes very sure to define liberal Christianity as theological liberalism, the marginalization (if not obliteration) of all theology and dogma in favor of left-wing social and political causes. Cf. Burklo. Churches that keep the faith and update the practice are the kind of liberal churches Douthat wants. Which leads me to…

The decline of liberal Christianity is nothing to be happy about. Douthat is careful not to gloat over the predicted demise of the Episcopal Church, and other conservative Christians should follow suit. The conservative church has always existed in order to temper the unbridled pursuit of progress as its own end, to sustain the truths which might be (and in many cases have been) discarded when they become inconvenient, and to continue the stress on holiness which has characterized God’s relationship with His people from its earliest recorded moments. What the conservative church needs to realize is that the liberal church has an important function as well. It prevents the rest of the church from embracing the fallacy that something must be done a certain way because it has always been done a certain way. It keeps the faith fresh, timely, and growing. And, perhaps most importantly, the liberal church has historically stressed social ethics as a counterpoint to the conservative church’s stress on personal ethics. Conservatives rightly have a problem with vulgarity, sexual libertinism, divorce, and substance abuse. Liberals rightly have a problem with war, poverty, oppression, and disease.

The two groups or, more appropriately, the two impulses within Christianity serve each other through their constructive tension. It is only when that tension becomes conflict that we see the kind of partisan infighting which is quickly coming to define every aspect of American life. So conservatives, put away the fireworks. The demise of a powerful liberal branch is among the worst possible outcomes for American Christianity. And liberals, there’s no reason to equate Douthat with sexists and racists. His article has the same purpose that my responses to Burklo did: to encourage the liberal branch of Christianity to recover “a religious reason for its own existence” and “consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” Because I want a strong, vibrant, liberal voice among institutional churches. Otherwise, the Southern Baptist Convention gets to set the tone of the message, and I’m not ready for that.

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Speaking of the Folly of “Progressive” Christianity

It would seem that Ross Douthat, of the New York Times has been reading my criticism of progressive Christianity’s attempt to distance itself from theology and collapse religion into social ethics because he has chosen to illustrate my theological point with some statistical data. His article specifically reviews the declining attendance in Episcopal churches and correlates it to the conscious decision on the part of the denomination to become deliberately progressive.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

And why not? After all, what do Episcopalians have now to appeal to a young, socially liberal demographic? You’re telling them, “Look, we believe what you believe,” but then you also want them to believe in the existence of an omnipotent deity which their college professors have told them is intellectual barbarism, ask them to give up an hour or two out of their precious weekends to do liturgical calisthenics (sit, kneel, stand, kneel, sit), and encourage them to give money so that the church can continue to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and marry the homosexuals (like Jesus did) out of the comfort of their altar-filled, stained-glass cathedrals. That’s a PR manager’s dream.

So while progressive Christians and secular liberals continue to laud the Episcopal Church (US) as a model for Christianity, regular old Christians are investing less and less of their time in the Episcopal and like churches. Douthat rightly observes that the problem is not a renewed emphasis on the social ramifications of the Gospel but on the emptiness that comes when you strip Christianity of everything not compatible with political liberalism, not unlike Burklo trying to taking everything “unbelievable” out of the New Testament. The truth is, and somewhere some Episcopalian must know it, that a Christianity without a full-bodied, soul-saving, pre-existing, sanctifying, dead-buried-resurrected-returning Christ is no Christianity at all. It certainly has nothing that is going to put butts in the pews and bills in the offering plate. If progressive Christianity is going to continue to have a voice in the greater faith community–and I sincerely hope that it does–it needs to realize that it has fallaciously and dogmatically married social liberalism and theological liberalism. Maybe that’s the aberrant marriage they really should be worried about.

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Episcopals are at it again

In an ongoing effort to tie up courts with lawsuits among believers, the Episcopal Church (USA) has won yet another court battle which affirms the national hierarchy’s rights to the property of local congregations who have voted to split from the denomination. It is, once again, a proud day for Christianity.

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Episcopal Church Wins, Still Manages to Lose

Following the 2003 appointment of Gene Robinson by the Episcopal Church as its first openly gay bishop, there was understandable distress among congregants causing some to “flee” the jurisdiction of the American Episcopals for more conservative climes. To the congregation occupying the oldest Episcopal church building in Georgia, the church says “good riddance” and offers this legally upheld eviction notice as a parting gift:

An historic church building in the city of Savannah belongs to the national Episcopal Church, not a breakaway congregation that left the national church following the naming of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, the Georgia Supreme Court said on Monday.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “allows (the local congregation) and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans. But it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in a 6-1 vote.

In other news, the national leadership of the Epsicopal Church has also officially ordered all the faithful to cut 1 Corinthians 6 out of their Bibles.

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