by Jordan Green
The three-year suspension of the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion is not exactly the same as if the Catholic Church in the United States were to be placed on probation and warned of excommunication by the Vatican. The two churches are structured differently: The Anglican Communion is a global affiliation of churches that share a faith tradition, while the Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchy.
And yet it has to be regarded as a stunning turn of events for a church at one time synonymous with the US political elite to be demoted by a majority vote of clergy representing more socially conservative churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the issue of same-sex marriage. The Episcopal Church has given the United States 11 presidents, including Washington, FDR and George HW Bush, but over the past 60 years the church once derisively labeled the “Republican Party at prayer” has been steadily moving in a more liberal direction. Like other mainline protestant denominations in the United States, the Episcopal Church struggles to retain relevancy and faces dwindling membership, caught between rising secularization on one side and assertive conservative fundamentalism on the other.
Meanwhile, for complex reasons, many of the more demographically robust churches established through British colonialism in the global South have wound up on more conservative ground. While the churches in the global South are by no means ideologically monolithic, many feel pressure to maintain a hard line against LGBT inclusion lest they open themselves up to charges of watering down dogma and capitulating to supposed western values. And they face stiff competition from Islam, conservative Catholicism and evangelical Christianity — creeds that often promote a more pious image.
The rift between the Episcopal Church and its counterparts across the globe has been steadily brewing since the election and consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. But Michael Curry, who comes from North Carolina, is reaping the windfall of discord less than three months into his tenure as the 27th presiding bishop. Curry is making history as the first African American to be elected presiding bishop in the 227-year history of the church. Given his longstanding commitment to racial justice and reconciliation, his election strikes many Episcopalians as an expression of the church’s solidarity with the movement. And while LGBT rights was not the primary driver of Curry’s rise, his stance on the matter was no secret and certainly not a liability for him.
As bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Curry issued guidelines for the blessing of same-sex unions in 2004. And on the eve of the May 2012 primary, when North Carolina voters went to the polls to consider amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, Curry joined the bishops in the state’s other two bishops in publicly opposing the measure.
In full disclosure, I’m a member of the church, and an admirer of the presiding bishop, whom I met when he visited my worshiping community a couple years ago. Curry’s response, unwavering but gracious, to the suspension vote has only deepened my respect for him.
“We are the Episcopal Church, and we are part of the Jesus movement, and that movement work goes on, and our work goes on,” Curry said in a videotaped statement the day after the vote. “And the truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a church and a communion where all of God’s children are welcome, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people.”
Before the suspension vote was cast, Curry told his fellow clergy at Canterbury that the church’s commitment to inclusion is not a capitulation to worldly culture, but rooted in the belief that God loves everyone, and he cited the apostle Paul’s decree that through baptism in Christ the old distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female are set aside. He also spoke personally “as a descendent of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society.
“And this conjures that up again, and brings pain,” he said.
Perhaps the true vocation of Christianity is to authentically experience rejection, to be in community with the vast sea of people who have been cast out and shoved aside by the structures of power that govern the world. The reward for following a faith modeled after a rebel who was executed by the political elite of Roman-occupied Palestine must surely be something greater than ballooning membership rosters and bursting financial coffers.
Maybe this reversal is bringing the church of George Washington closer to its true calling.