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Episcopal Church Plays Russian Roulette on the Gay Issue

August 10, 2003|Charlotte Allen | Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

WASHINGTON — The Episcopal Church's confirmation last week of the openly gay Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire was hailed as a victory for the forces of inclusiveness and diversity. That may be, but it was also another step in the church's prolonged ecclesiastical suicide.

Since the late 1960s, the Episcopal Church has served as a laboratory for the proposition that Christianity must liberalize -- jettison its more demanding traditional teachings and get in step with the times -- to survive. The Episcopalians have done it all: allowed women clergy, dropped sanctions against divorce, made belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ optional. Now their bishops, who met last week in Minneapolis, have confirmed a bishop who will share the bishop's house with a male partner and have tacitly approved leaving decisions on blessing same-sex unions to local priests. During these 30-odd years of early adoption of whatever mores the avant-garde of secular society has embraced, there has been only one snag: The Episcopal Church has declined precipitously in both membership and influence. The treatment has been successful, but the patient, if not quite dead yet, looks to be dying.

Many individual Episcopalians, including the 43 bishops who voted against Robinson's confirmation and the 20 who protested afterward, are worried that their church has painted itself into a corner of trendiness. Nonetheless, the Episcopalian scramble for secular relevance at the expense of religious content proceeds apace. John Shelby Spong, former bishop of Newark, N.J., churns out books denying Jesus' virgin birth and other tenets of the Nicene Creed that are still part of the Episcopalian liturgy. Robinson himself conceded that his fellow bishops' implicit endorsement in Minneapolis of homosexual activity contravened both traditional Christian doctrine and the Bible. "Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong," he told the Washington Post. That's a big "just simply to say."

Meanwhile, the statistics are staggering. In 1965, the Episcopal Church had 3.6 million baptized members. Now, that number stands at 2.3 million, representing a loss of more than one-third. (In 1991, when the rolls of the baptized had shrunk to 2.4 million, the church changed its way of counting members to include only adults and their children who actually belonged to a parish, and it says that the numbers of those have increased slightly.) Worse still, of the Episcopal Church's approximately 7,500 parishes in the United States, 2,334 -- more than one-third -- attract fewer than 50 worshipers on Sunday mornings, not enough to support a rector on a full-time salary, according to a report issued by the church last year. Only 12% of Episcopalian churches in the country report an average Sunday attendance of more than 225 people, the minimum the church deems adequate to support church programs. The median age of worshipers is close to 60, meaning that relatively few children are being raised as active Episcopalians. That does not bode well for the next generation.

Despite the Episcopal Church's approval of the ordination of women in 1976, few women under age 35, much less young men, are seeking the priesthood, thanks to the poor job prospects for the newly ordained. The typical Episcopalian seminarian these days is a middle-aged woman whose outside career or husband's salary makes part-time ministry financially feasible. A graying clergy serves a gray (and fast-dwindling) congregation.

This downward spiral parallels the fortunes of Episcopalians' Anglican sister churches in England and Canada, as well as those of other mainline Protestant denominations that have accommodated themselves to the zeitgeist. Other areas of the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion are flourishing, however. In Southeast Asia, in the West Indies and especially in sub-Saharan Africa -- whose 39 million Anglicans outnumber the total in the United States, Canada, England and Australia combined -- the church is drawing thousands of converts and filling houses of worship. These are the churches of inclusiveness and diversity in that they represent a rainbow of peoples and cultures, all of whom are equals in their Christian faith. In urban America, immigrants from these regions fill up Episcopalian and other Christian churches that would otherwise be nearly empty on Sunday morning.

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