NEW YORK — The new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who is being formally installed today at the National Cathedral in Washington, says his denomination must work to bolster moral fiber and to strengthen the wider causes of peace and justice in the world.
The task, said the Rt. Rev. Edmond Lee Browning, is to bring nurturing, healing and hope to a "troubled, dangerous and broken world."
In American society, he said, the general level of morality has plunged sharply and the church must move vigorously to counter the trend.
"It's very serious," he said in an interview after his election last fall at the denomination's triennial convention in Anaheim. "We've been in a moral decline for a number of years.
"More than at any time in our history, there's been a tremendous erosion of a sense of values."
He said that along with widespread pornography, weakened marriages, television violence and sex, and "Rambo"-type movies exalting brute power, has come a self-centered modern focus on "me."
"It's all-pervasive," he said. "The sense of obligation to community, to family and to society is lacking. It's a narrow mind-set. The church needs to address the condition. We have a lot of work to do in this area."
Browning, 56, a genial, unpretentious Texan of easy humor and keen convictions is the 24th primate of a broadly inclusive church embracing Protestant and Roman Catholic elements. He is to head the denomination for 12 years.
He takes the reins from the Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, a courtly Mississippian who steered a moderate, conciliatory course, allaying much of the ferment in the late 1970s that resulted from the denomination's revamping of its historic, widely influential Book of Common Prayer and admitting women to the priesthood.
While Browning frequently has been termed a liberal, he discredits labels, seeing himself as pastorally attentive to the diverse elements in the church. He plans "listening" for much of his first year.
"My whole approach is open dialogue with everyone," he said.
However, Browning has made clear he intends to exercise his heftier "pulpit" in battling racism, the arms race, unemployment and poverty--to be "a voice for the voiceless."
"The church must reach out in behalf of the well-being of all kinds of people," he said. "It is to enable them to be what God intended them to be."
That duty, he emphasized, demands both "pastorally sensitive" nurturing of individuals in their varied situations and needs, as well as a "prophetic ministry" of word and actions against social ills at home and abroad.
"The scandal of increasing hunger among the poor of our country is intolerable during a time of so-called prosperity," he said.
He termed deployment of nuclear weapons "inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ," and criticized U.S. military intervention in Central America, saying the region's suffering stems from "poverty and injustice," not communism.
He denounced the "brutality of apartheid" in South Africa and praised the "courageous leadership" of Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu against that system. Tutu is among many church notables scheduled to be at Browning's installation.
The Episcopal Church, numbering about 3 million, is the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion of 28 national branches totaling about 70 million people.
The U.S. church has packed an influence out of proportion to its size, both in American history and in inter-church affairs, because of its Protestant-Catholic breadth and its inclusiveness of rich and powerful, weak and poor.
"We've been far more influential in society than our numbers," Browning said, but he emphasized, "We're no longer a white, middle-class church."
Browning said he planned to follow Allin's practice of meeting regularly with Episcopal members of Congress to discuss the church's position on various issues.
"My hope is early in the year to be introduced into that scene and have the opportunity to establish that relationship," he said. "I see real possibilities in that area."
A firm backer of ecumenical movement for Christian unity, he said it was "the Lord's mandate. We are moving in some very dramatic ways in that area."
Browning, bishop of Hawaii for the last nine years, was born in Corpus Christi, Tex. He served parishes there and in Eagle Pass, Tex., before becoming a mission priest in Okinawa and later bishop there.
Afterward, he was bishop-in-charge of American churches in Europe, and then head of world missions at Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, before becoming Hawaii's bishop. He and his wife, Patricia, have a daughter and four sons.