Who Does It Hit?

MonkI just have to say something good about the Episcopal Church. Not only are most of their leaders rational and open-minded people, but they are also willing to make a stand for what they believe. Yes, a broad generalization, but let me explain.

The Episcopal Church has a “colorful” history. It is basically the Church of England on American soil. Most of the colorful-ness I mentioned comes from the Church of England, though.

For a very long time, over 1,000 years, England was a Catholic country. The priests and bishops of England were directed by and answered to the Pope in Rome. Even legally, members of the clergy could appeal to the Pope on many matters for judgment instead of their own country’s monarch.

Around 1500 when the protestant movement began in Germany, a similar yet quite different movement was happening in England. The Lollards believed that the clergy were not the end-all and be-all of faith and that the laity, the common person, through their own piety, ought to have considerable say in their own matters of spirituality.

This was all very nice, but fairly meaningless until a certain guy named Henry, the King of England, wanted a divorce, but could not get one through the Catholic Church. Interestingly, he was very into being Catholic. He tried for some time to strike a bargain with the Pope yet eventually failed. He then gathered up all sorts of ancient documentation showing that the King is actually the spiritual leader instead of a foreign Pope, then went to work claiming the churches of England as his own. Soon thereafter, he broke any connections between members of the clergy and the Pope, forcing them instead to report to him. So the Pope excommunicated him, separating him for all eternity from the body of Christ.

Naughty Henry. It’s easy to like him for doing all that. And the Lollard movement amongst the people helped make it all possible. It’s not likely he would have succeeded if the people were not wanting this radical separation. And he took advantage of this brilliantly. Unfortunately, he also went on to execute priests that wouldn’t do what he said, shut down most all the monasteries, and claimed all the land and money for himself. This left the poor with a much more difficult time finding food, basically destroyed all the hospitals of the day, and ruined many libraries and institutions of knowledge, craft and art.

But the Church of England was born. And Henry really did like Catholicism. So he made certain the Catholic traditions remained within the Church of England and also made certain that none of these barbaric Protestants would have any say.

Interestingly, a subsequent monarch returned the Church of England to Roman control. Bloody Mary that was, who did quite a bit of killing of people who didn’t like changing back. That is, until the next monarch arrived to snatch the Church of England back from Rome. Poor Elizabeth got herself excommunicated by the Pope, too. And all of this in less than 100 years…

Besides all that, the Church of England is fairly well known for it’s liberal and enlightened stance on many issues. Subsequent years involved many reconciliations with Protestants and splinter groups that transformed the church into a very unique institution.

When the United States declared its independence from England, members of the Church of England were left somewhat in the lurch over here on American ground. If you were a priest or bishop in the Church of England you had to swear allegiance to the English Crown which put you a little at odds with the modern going-ons of the time. So they formed the Episcopal Church which eventually worked in “communion” with the Church of England. Over the years since the initial split during the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church has become even more directly tied to the Church of England.

Always, religious institutions have been political as well as spiritual. I suppose you really can’t help it when you have such profound influence over a large group of people. Even today, the Church of England can create English law, through the approval of the monarch and the parliament, and has its own legal courts.

The Episcopal Church here in the United States also has a governing body. They have taken a somewhat different approach, however. Whereas the Church of England has some very well defined hierarchies and the people within these hierarchies tend to utilize the power granted by their position, the Episcopal Church was set up more on an equal peer basis, tending to make all the major decisions in a committee.

Which brings me to today. For some time the Episcopal Church has ordained women as priests and bishops. I believe that even today in the Church of England you can put forth a motion to remove a woman bishop from authority over your parish. Then here’s where we go a little crazy…

In the 1970’s the Episcopal Church voted to allow women to become ordained priests and bishops. The Church of England followed suit in the 1990’s. In 2003 the Episcopal Church ordained the first gay man as a bishop. And in 2007, the Church of England issues an ultimatum to the Episcopal Church that they must stop this practice and submit themselves to a “parallel” body of governing themselves appointed by Church of England primates.

Today, the Episcopal Church told the Church of England that they had declared their independence from them some time ago and that they have no intention of being subjected to a governing body appointed by the Church of England.

According to the New York Times:

They said they had a “deep longing� to remain part of the Communion, but were unwilling to compromise the Episcopal Church’s autonomy and its commitment to full equality for all people, including gay men and lesbians.

“If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision,� the bishops said in a statement released late Tuesday night.

I have nothing short of a large hurrah for the Episcopal Church’s decision to stand their ground in matters they have considered honestly, intelligently and openly. They are so committed to their decision that they are risking the fragmentation of their church even within the United States. Although a definitive minority, the more conservative elements of the Episcopal Church have previously threatened to leave the body of the church and were instrumental in encouraging the Church of England to issue their ultimatum in an attempt to see their viewpoint gain more weight within the Episcopal Church.

One of the primary leaders of this internal skirmish is Bishop Robert Duncan. After hearing what his church leadership had to say today, “I’m really thinking through what all this means.�