Greenbelt Interfaith News

    February 1998

    Episcopalians Hold Different Views of Church's Future
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    Two weeks after Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold stood in the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral and urged Episcopalians to join in conversation with each other, the Diocese of Washington's annual convention revealed continued differences of opinion between Episcopal progressives and traditionalists over the state of the denomination.

    The convention, held in the stately though winter-chilled nave of the cathedral, brought together 210 lay and clergy delegates from around the diocese, which embraces Washington, D.C., and four Maryland counties. Bishop Ronald H. Haines, who had participated in the investiture of the Episcopal Church's new presiding bishop, led the convention's proceedings on January 23 and 24.

    In his address on January 24, Bishop Haines made clear his optimism about the future of the Episcopal Church, disputing critics who say that the denomination's declining membership demonstrates a weakness in the church. Characterizing the analysis of membership numbers as "misinformation," Bishop Haines said, "It is true that the Episcopal Church Annual lists a high of three million baptized members in 1965. The next year the alleged decline began. Note that was before prayer book revision and before hymnal revision, before women's ordination and before sexuality issues, but during the Civil Rights struggles. One simplistic interpretation would be to say that the blatant racist left."

    Bishop Haines added that it was important to emphasize the "good news" within the church, saying that this was often ignored. "Within the diocese— Rather, within the church there is a small, vocal, well-financed minority who seem committed to undermining the confidence of the faithful," he said. "Constructive criticism with suggested solutions is always helpful. Issuing creedal statements which relegate all but the signatories to the ranks of the apostate is not."

    The bishop's reference was apparently to a statement issued by a national traditionalist group last summer, but his slip of the tongue revealed that tensions also exist in the Diocese of Washington between church members who hold different views of the denomination's future.

    Much of the convention, as Bishop Haines had promised, was devoted to "good news": outreach programs to the community, successful attempts to strengthen missions within the diocese, celebratory resolutions in honor of progressives and traditionalists alike. Likewise, the booths set up in the side aisles of the cathedral gave witness to the various concerns of the diocese: religious education, charity work, spirituality, medical ethics, and evangelism.

    Among the booths was a single display devoted, it appeared, to the theme that all is not well in the denomination. Sponsored by Episcopalians United, a traditionalist group, the booth displayed articles with titles such as "Pagan Pantheon Replaces Christian Images in Episcopal Church Center Book Store" and "Local Episcopalians Affirm ‘Gay Morality': D.C. Diocese Defies National Position."

    The latter headline, from an article in The Washington Times, referred to a 1995 resolution passed by the Diocese of Washington which affirmed the principles of A Statement in Koinonia, an unofficial Episcopal document that refers to homosexuality as "morally neutral." A second resolution in 1996 also affirmed the diocese's support of this document.

    The Washington Times article was reprinted as part of a packet of information issued by Save Our Church (SOC), a diocesan organization formed in opposition to these resolutions. Last year, in order to stave off conflict, SOC member Bradley Hutt of Christ Church, Clinton, joined with the sponsor of the 1995 resolution, the Rev. Michael Hopkins of St. George's, Glenn Dale, to submit a joint resolution. That resolution, entitled, "On Community in Christ," noted that some members of the diocese were "deeply troubled" by A Statement in Koinonia and could not, "in conscience, subscribe to many of the principles it expresses." The resolution ended by saying, "We pray that the Holy Spirit will give to us a spirit of love and understanding that all may have a welcome place at the table and may share with one another in the work of Christ while seeking to address our disagreements."

    This year, the SOC members submitted three resolutions, the most important of which was a resolution entitled "On Expression of Conscience." The resolution, submitted by George L. Hooper of St. Alban's, D.C., and David R. Bickel of All Saints', Chevy Chase, read as followed:

    "Resolved, that the One Hundred Third Convention of the Diocese of Washington recognizes that some parishioners, for reasons of conscience, have legitimate theological concerns about this diocese's affirmation of A Statement in Koinonia at the One Hundredth and the One Hundred First Diocesan Conventions; and be it further resolved, that this Convention recognizes that among these concerns are that such foundational matters represented by this affirmation can be approved only after serious theological reflection by the whole church, acting through General Convention, with a written rationale citing Scripture, Tradition, and Reason; and be it further resolved, that any concerned parishioner may with impunity notify his/her rector and bishops that, as a matter of conscience, the parishioner cannot accept or honor the relevant statements made in A Statement in Koinonia."

    "Many people are searching for legitimate, formal ways to express their opinions," explained Mr. Hooper, in presenting the document. "Some of us sense a lack of tolerance for the positions we hold. . . . There is no underlying agenda."

    "Passage of this resolution . . . will help stop parishioners from leaving [the Episcopal Church] and will help maintain unity in this diocese," argued Mr. Hutt.

    John McKendrew of St. Paul's, K Street, added, "This resolution asks for tolerance."

    But others disagreed. The Rev. Albert Scariato of St. John's, Georgetown, objected to the "singling out" of the Koinonia resolutions in a resolution supposedly devoted to general matters of conscience. Father Hopkins agreed, saying that the first and third sections duplicate the intent of the resolution that he and Mr. Hutt had sponsored in 1997; he could only conclude, he said, that the intent of the 1998 resolution was to condemn A Statement in Koinonia through the resolution's central passage.

    One delegate proposed an amendment that would eliminate the central section of the resolution. The Rev. Richard Downing of St. James', Capitol Hill, drew laughter from the delegates when he supported this compromise, saying, "I think it's very Anglican."

    The convention voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amended resolution, which read as follows: "Resolved, that the One Hundred Third Convention of the Diocese of Washington recognizes that some congregants, lay or ordained, for reasons of conscience, have legitimate theological differences; and be it further resolved, that any concerned congregant, lay or ordained, may with impunity notify his/her clergy and bishops of the findings of their conscience."

    Father Hopkins afterwards described the amended resolution as unnecessary and "silly." "It seems to be saying that we have the right to speak our consciences," he said. "That's the whole point of being in the Episcopal Church."

    SOC members had mixed reactions to the passage of the amended resolution.

    "This is wonderful," said Mr. Hutt. "This shows that we have a place to stand on our consciences."

    "I was very disappointed," said Mr. Bickel. "It took the guts out of [the resolution]."

    Mr. Bickel denied that the resolution was aimed solely at the 1995 and 1996 resolutions, saying that Episcopalians should similarly receive protection if they disagree on such matters as the nature of the Holy Eucharist. What was important, he said, was to affirm that the Episcopal Church's doctrine is based on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. One delegate, though, had asked that the central passage be eliminated precisely because he did not agree with the resolution's description of how the Episcopal Church determines "foundational matters."

    The convention ended, therefore, with optimism among many church members over the future of the diocese and the denomination, but pessimism among others. Perhaps the most measured assessment of the situation was given by Bishop Theodore Schneider of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Speaking of the divisions between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, he quoted the nineteenth-century hymn, "The Church's One Foundation":

      Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed,
      By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed;
      Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, "How long?"
      And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

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    World News: Canadian Anglican Statements on Homosexuality Please Both Sides in Debate. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Amidst heated debate in the Anglican Communion over the morality of homosexual acts, Canada's bishops have issued a new statement on human sexuality that is being praised by both progressives and traditionalists. (December 1997)

    U.S. Feature: The Quiet Revolution: How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Last year, an Episcopal bishop was tried for heresy after he ordained a practicing homosexual. Recent events show that Episcopalians continue to be deeply divided over gay issues. (June 1, 1997)

    Related Link

    A Statement of Koinonia (1994)

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    © 1998 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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