BEAUFORT, SC: Split in church is tragically real, thanks to two opposing messages

david at david at
Tue Jan 27 17:18:29 EST 2009

BEAUFORT, SC: Split in church is tragically real, thanks to two opposing messages

by Suzanne Schwank
The Beaufort Gazette 
January 25, 2009M

Recent opinion pieces published in the Gazette about divisions in the Episcopal Church reveal more than intended.

One writes that only "four bishops" have left the church and that "the

vast majority of Episcopal churches" don't want to leave. This is the

Episcopal Church's oft repeated mantra -- division in the church is numerically minor, therefore wildly overblown. This rhetoric fuels the crisis it seeks to deny. It isn't helpful to claim that there is some smoke but no fire when there are flames everywhere.

It's not simply four bishops but four dioceses that have left following arduous discernment processes that spanned two annual conventions. While only a small percentage of individual parishes have left, it's a "figure's lie and liar's figure" argument.

The denomination's membership has dropped by double digits annually in the last decade. By 2007, the average Sunday attendance had fallen to 103, the median attendance to only 69 people.

In contrast, parishes that have left include The Falls Church in Virginia, with 2,000 attending on Sunday. Departed Christ Church in Plano, Texas, alone has Sunday attendance of 2,200-plus, which equals the combined number attending all parishes in the Diocese of Nevada (whose Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori, was elected the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop in 2006).

That any have left the Episcopal Church is remarkable and reveals the depth of anguish because, in Anglican terms, they had nowhere to go. Without an alternative U.S. province, departing parishes have landed under bishops around the globe.

The cause of their anguish is the Episcopal Church's 60-year inexorable march away from the authority of scripture and the apostolic Christian faith, climaxing in the 2003 and 2006 conventions. Delegates rejected a resolution affirming John 14:6 (in which Jesus states, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me") and elected Jefferts-Schori, who denies that Christ is the only way to salvation.

The church's innovations have also sparked a conflagration that is engulfing Anglicanism worldwide. Events too numerous to list here reveal a global realignment that can easily tip toward a final schism of the Anglican Communion, the world's third largest Christian body.

This is a tragedy -- one not helped by a refusal to call it so.

A previous writer illuminates the crux of the crisis when he cites Jesus' words to the adulterous woman, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." That he should not see the irony in selecting this particular verse (as an argument that the church should supposedly model itself after Jesus and not condemn the "openly gay" but rather allow them to be ordained) speaks volumes about the irreparable gulf between the two kinds of "gospel" now preached and lived out in the Episcopal Church.

One is the old, old story -- the gospel of transformation. I'm not OK and you're not OK, both cause and effect of separation from God. Christ died for our sin to restore the relationship. Christ is risen. Through a personal relationship with him, we are being transformed and empowered to "go and sin no more." Concurrent with this gospel is the belief that the Bible is the revealed Word of God.

The other is a gospel of affirmation. I'm OK, you're OK. At its logical conclusion -- articulated by Jefferts-Schori -- Jesus is the path to God for those of the "Christian tradition," but other "spiritual paths" also lead to God since there is no need for an atoning death. This "gospel" is a recent innovation and is made possible by a belief that the Bible is words about God, its relevance limited by cultural and historical error.

Of the two, this gospel naturally sounds more palatable. But the point is not which we'd prefer. The point is which is true. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

In the gospel of transformation, Jesus' mercy toward the adulterous woman cannot be separated from

his command (not suggestion) to "go and sin no more," a command rendered achievable through the indwelling Holy Spirit who would come after Jesus' death and resurrection. The Bible clearly defines homosexual behavior as a sin and Jesus himself affirmed that God created human sexuality and marriage for the purpose of union between a man and a woman. But the Episcopal Church's general conventions have essentially "voted" that homosexual behavior is not a sin.

A previous writer entreats us to live out God's command to love others, but this is precisely the point. If it's true that homosexual behavior is sin in the eyes of God, and we fail to teach this, and fail to proclaim that transformation into a life of holiness is offered in Christ Jesus, then we have not loved the other. We have perpetrated a cruelty. The inclusive Episcopal Church assists in this cruelty by consistently deriding and excluding the witness of Christians who self-identify as ex-gay and who give powerful testimony to the reality of transformation through Christ.

Of 75 parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina, all but a handful preach and live the gospel of transformation, and this is the only diocese growing faster than its demographics. That these two things are connected seems self-evident.

Only God knows the future, but let us acknowledge the fire ignited because two groups preach opposing messages, one of which must be a cruel lie.

Can one church contain both? The previous writers argue that it can, but their actions say otherwise. The dynamic, growing Parish Church of St. Helena preaches and lives out the gospel of transformation, but these two men have found it necessary to form an alternative (St. Mark's Chapel), presumably to pursue a different "gospel."

----Schwank is chairwoman of the Department of Faith Formation in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and is immediate past member of the Standing Committee of the Diocese

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