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The Rambling Episcopal Nonsense of Diana Butler Bass

The Rambling Episcopal Nonsense of Diana Butler Bass

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue
June 9, 2010

Diana Butler Bass who describes herself as a former Methodist and now an Episcopalian has written a piece on the Episcopal Culture Wars in Beliefnet and also in the Huffington Post. In the article, she says that the split between The Episcopal Church and orthodox Anglicans is not over the gay issue nor is it over the exegesis of scripture, but something else, namely that the tides are pulling most ecclesiastical boats toward bottom-up versions of faith, "something which will come as a surprise to all of you."

VOL has taken a long hard look at Ms. Butler's claims. We believe that she is not only not in touch with Anglican reality, we think she might actually be consulting a Ouija board or Tarot card palm reader for her understanding and guidance on Anglican issues.

The title of her piece is: Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori: Anglican Smack-Down

BASS: Like most Christians, I don't pay attention to missives from church leaders. This week, however, dueling pastoral letters issued for Pentecost from Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, caught my attention--because one so rarely witnesses a first-class theological smack down between tea-drinking Anglican primates.

VOL: Ms. Bass ought to pay attention because the Episcopal Church she belongs to will probably be out of business by 2050 unless it radically turns back to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, a gospel to which PB Jefferts Schori no longer (if she ever) subscribes. Secondly, she and the Archbishop of Canterbury have had previous face offs, but none as publicly. The last one occurred in Jamaica, which your correspondent personally witnessed. It wasn't a pretty sight. A more private face off occurred in Alexandria, Egypt, among the Primates (archbishops) to which the press was not invited (inside the room). A number of orthodox press including this writer, were later told about it in detail by two archbishops - one from Africa the other from Latin America.

BASS: Unless you've been sleeping in a cave, you are probably aware that the Episcopal Church (of which I am a member) has been arguing about the role of LGBT persons in the church. Along with the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church has opened itself toward full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians. Here in North America, this has caused some defections (fewer than at first predicted), some legal suits (most have been settled in favor of the Episcopal Church), monetary fallout (hard to separate from general economic downturn), and bad feelings (which, sadly enough, remain).

VOL: No, Ms. Bass, we have not been sleeping in a cave and yes, pansexuality began being argued about when Dr. Louie Crew began his long slow personal march to full acceptance of sodomy more than 40 years ago along with his founding of the organization known as Integrity, a much misused word for a benighted behavior.

The defections you talk about are now well over 100,000. More than 800 congregations now form a distinct separate Anglican province in the US. They continue to grow as TEC slowly collapses. The economic fallout is only part of the general "economic downturn". The fuller truth is that tens of thousands of ECUSAN's have left taking their money with them and forming new parishes. For the record, the new Anglican Province in North America is experiencing no financial problems, neither indeed are AMiA or CANA. Furthermore, your so-called "bad feelings" don't even begin to touch the depth of anger, betrayal, loss, depositions (firings) of clergy and bishops, and financial hardship that have resulted from the actions of Mrs. Jefferts Schori. You just don't get it.

BASS: But what is most surprising--and I regularly hear this from bishops, clergy, and congregational lay leaders--is that things are much less tense in the Episcopal Church now than they have been in recent years. Folks are moving ahead in their local parishes, doing the sorts of things that Episcopalians are pretty good at doing--creating beautiful worship, praying together, and feeding hungry people.

VOL: Wrong. If things are less tense, it is because most of the orthodox have left The Episcopal Church and are not the slightest bit interested any more in engaging it over pansexuality and bad theology. They are about as much interested in engaging Jefferts Schori as they are in engaging Bishop Jack Spong's 12 heretical theses. Four orthodox dioceses have left TEC and more might yet follow. Things don't stay at fever pitch forever, but don't think for a moment that tensions have declined. There are some 50 parishes in legal limbo with four dioceses fighting for their properties. That is hardly "less tense". It is the calm before the legal storm. The Supreme Court of the United States may yet hear arguments on the validity of The Dennis Canon.

BASS: Despite that fact that the Episcopalians are bumpily journeying into a renewed future, some other Anglicans--mostly in Africa--are pretty mad that we've included our gay and lesbian friends and relatives in our churches. Large communities of Anglicans in places like Uganda (the same Uganda that recently tried to pass a death-penalty law for gay people) and Malawi (the same Malawi that recently sentenced a gay couple who wanted to marry to 14-years hard labor) are seriously unhappy with American Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans.

VOL: Yup, the Africans are mad because they think that sodomy will destroy your soul. Why should they not warn American Episcopalians, (whose colonial behavior days are over) that they risk jeopardizing their souls for a behavior that killed my brother-in-law and a number of friends I once had. Speaking of Uganda, Ms. Bass, perhaps you have forgotten the story of the Martyrs of Uganda, a group of Ugandan Christians (Roman Catholics and Anglicans) who were murdered by Mwanga II, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, between 1885 and 1887. They laid down their lives rather than to be sodomized by a king.

The Ugandan parliament is still considering the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 and nothing has been concluded. Let us be clear that two Western pan-Anglican gay groups - Integrity USA and Changing Attitude (UK) -- have made repeated allegations about violence towards gays in Nigeria (incited, they say, by orthodox Anglicans) that have proven false. VOL exposed one of their leaders, Davis Mac-Iyalla, a Nigerian Anglican Gay activist, of acting as a homosexual predator during his tour of US seminaries. He was roundly condemned by his pro-gay minder for his bad behavior.

Furthermore, The Church of Uganda upholds the sanctity of life and does not support the death penalty proposed in the bill. The irony should not be missed that those who engage in risky sexual behaviors expose men and women to HIV-AIDS often leading such persons to a gruesome death. The Ugandan church has been clear in its stand. Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi has said repeatedly that the position of the Church of Uganda is that, in Christ, people and their sexual desires are redeemed, and restored to God's original intent. Repentance and obedience to Scripture are the gateway to the redemption of marriage and family and the transformation of society. (Position Paper on Scripture, Authority, and Human Sexuality, May 2005).

BASS: And this leads us to the Pentecost pastoral letters.

While (somewhat ironically) attending a conference in Washington, DC, entitled "Building Bridges," Rowan Williams sent out his Pentecost letter to Anglicans worldwide which, after saying a lot of nice things about missions and diversity, pulls rank and proclaims that he's going to kick people off important committees whose national churches have violated a controversial document called the Anglican Covenant. This includes the Canadians (who let gay Christians get married) and the Americans (who recently ordained a lesbian bishop in Los Angeles) and some Africans (who ordained some Americans who were splitting churches in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania).

In response, Katharine Jefferts Schori essentially, but in a nice sort of Anglican way, accused Williams of being a theological dictator--or, as she says in understated fashion, "Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism." For non-Anglicans, trust me, those are fightin' words. This is not a conservative/liberal argument (both Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori are theologically liberal). This is a fight between rival versions of Anglicanism--a quarrel extending to the beginning of Anglicanism that has replayed itself periodically through the centuries down to our own time.

VOL: You want to talk about "theological dictators", Ms. Bass? No one has been more dictatorial, high-handed, mean spirited, canon law breaking than Katharine Jefferts Schori. She declared Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan guilty, deposed him and then had a mock trial. She has deposed nearly a dozen other bishops and spent endless hours forcing bishops to go after parishes that leave TEC threatening them if they do not obey her. Just ask the Bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence. EVERY bishop lives in mortal fear of Jefferts Schori and her legal pit bull attorney David Booth Beers on property issues. Even if some liberal bishops want to settle amicably, she will not permit it.

Ask Bishop Gary Lillibridge of the Diocese of West Texas, a Communion Partner bishop who is contemplating suing the largest parish in West Texas, Christ Church in San Antonio, if it decides to leave TEC. You can be sure that Mrs. Jefferts Schori will apply the appropriate thumb screws to Lillibridge should he decide to waver on the issue. This should not surprise us as the Presiding Bishop herself has told us that there is a new sheriff in town. And Lillibridge is supposed to be one of the nice guys. And yes, if the parish is taken over and cannot be maintained for lack of persons and money, she has said it can be sold for a saloon rather than to godly Anglicans who still have a faith to proclaim.

BASS: Rowan Williams' letter articulates "top-down Anglicanism," a version of the faith that is hierarchical, bishop-centered, concerned with organizational control, and authoritarian. It is an old vision that vests the identity of the church in a chain of authority in the hands of ecclesiastical guardians who agree on "a coherent Anglican identity" and then enforce the boundaries of that identity through legal means. This version of Anglicanism stretches back through the Middle Ages and relates to similar forms of Christianity as found in Roman Catholicism and some forms of Eastern Orthodoxy.

VOL: The Anglican Communion has always been top down and will be so till the Second Coming. The "ecclesiastical guardians" are bishops who are specifically sworn to uphold the faith once delivered against all heresies that infiltrate the church. Ms Bass should read more church history. It is not an "old vision," it is THE vision. It has not changed and never will. Furthermore the attitudes and theology of Africans are much more in line with the attitudes of 1st Century AD Jewish converts to Christianity than to post-modern views of Christianity that undermine its core teachings held by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

BASS: Katharine Jefferts Schori's letter speaks for "bottom-up Anglicanism," a version of the faith that is democratic, parish-based, mission-oriented, and (even) revolutionary. It is also an old vision, one that vests the identity of the church in local communities of Anglicans at prayer, who adapt their way of life and liturgy according to the needs of Christian mission. This version of Anglicanism is rooted in both the ancient Celtic traditions of English Christianity and the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury circa 600.

VOL: If Ms. Bass believes Ms. Jefferts Schori wants a "bottom-up Anglicanism", then perhaps she can explain to all of us how her top heavy hand of running TEC like her own personal fiefdom, inhibiting and deposing dozens of priests and a number of bishops who disagree with her about the nature of the faith that she swore to uphold, but has not done so, is "bottom-up". If it is "bottom up Anglicanism", it is with an iron boot aimed at numerous Episcopal bottoms. There is nothing remotely democratic in the way she runs TEC. It is my way or the highway and hundreds of Episcopalians have felt her boot. Ms Bass should interview Archbishop Robert Duncan.

BASS: As history unfolded, different cultures have picked up on one or the other of these two streams--for example, the British church remains primarily hierarchical (even referring to their bishops as "My Lord Bishop"); while the American church is primarily democratic ("God alone is the Lord"). The Ugandan church is authoritarian; while the South African church is revolutionary. The Anglicans in Sydney, Australia, are boundary-oriented and communally closed; while most other Anglicans in Australia are liturgically-oriented and open (the Anglicans in Darwin, Australia are so open that their cathedral doesn't even have walls).

VOL: The Episcopal Church and Ms Jefferts Schori have repeatedly said that it is a part of, and wants to remain a part of the Anglican Communion and accepts the Archbishop of Canterbury's primus inter pares role as chief defender of the faith. It is the actions of TEC that are causing the tension and inviting schism, not the orthodox faithful.

BASS: At its best, Anglicanism manages the polarities between these tensions--often creating locally innovative expressions of a church that is both hierarchical and democratic, bishop and parish centered, bounded and liturgically open at the same time. Over the centuries, this has been called the Anglican art of comprehension, or the via media (the "middle way"). But once every few hundred years, the tensions explode. This is one of those times.

VOL: The via media has nothing to do with these "innovative expressions of the church". Via Media focuses on the theologies, structures and forms of worship representing a middle ground, or via media, between Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism; a perspective that came to be highly influential in later theories of Anglican identity. Ms Bass is dead wrong about the nature and purpose of via media. Furthermore "local innovative expressions of church" do not include embracing sodomy and ordaining a divorced homosexual and a non celibate lesbian to the episcopacy. Try selling that to Augustine, Ridley or Cranmer.

BASS: The argument isn't really about gay and lesbian people nor is it about, as some people claim, the Bible or orthodoxy. Rather, the argument reprises the oldest conflict within Anglicanism--What kind of Anglicans are we to be? How do we relate to the world and culture around us? And very specifically now: What kind of Anglicans are we to be in the 21st century? And how to we relate to the plurality of cultures in which we find ourselves?

VOL: Rubbish. It is primarily about the authority of Scripture as it interprets for us the place of sexuality in human relationships, sexuality that is clearly defined in Scripture and from which there can be no departure or deviation without serious spiritual consequences. Furthermore the deviation from Scripture on human sexual behavior is causing havoc in the Global South which faces a militant Islam that mocks Christianity over its embrace of sodomy.

BASS: Set in this frame, this isn't just an Anglican argument. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants of all sorts, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims are having the same arguments within their varying traditions and cultures. What kind of religious faith are we to practice in the 21st century? And how do we relate to the plurality of cultures in which we each find ourselves?

For what it is worth, the river of history does not seem to be on the side of hierarchical church control; rather, history seems to be moving in a the direction of what Thomas Friedman might call "flat church." The tides are pulling most ecclesiastical boats toward bottom-up versions of faith. Hierarchical church control is, as Harvey Cox argues in his book The Future of Faith, a "rearguard attempt to stem a more sweeping tidal change" toward a new experiential, inclusive, and liberationist view of God and faith.

VOL: The problem of culture is grossly overblown (see C. S. Lewis, An experiment in Criticism). I have personally worshipped my Lord in more than a dozen different cultures over the course of more than 35 years of knockabout journalism. I can tell you that culture is largely irrelevant. You may worship in multiple languages, but the form of service, the hymns and liturgy and the beliefs expressed from the pulpit are much the same as one will hear in an orthodox Anglican church in London, Oxford or Abuja or in an orthodox Episcopal parish in South Carolina. All of which makes for the genius of Anglicanism. The coherence and co-inherence (see Charles Williams) of Anglicanism is precisely its uniformity of beliefs revealed in the Prayer Book and Holy Scripture.

BASS: Despite their smack down, I think that Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori might actually agree on the fundamental questions of identity, mission, and 21st century change. I also suspect that Rowan Williams would secretly find the "sweeping tidal change" more spiritually interesting than trying to keep the Anglican institutional ship afloat in the waters. But he thinks that he's in charge--and he'll be captain of his Titanic until the last.

As for me, I kinda like this American Episcopal river raft. Better for navigating strong currents.

VOL: Actually Rowan Williams and Jefferts Schori ARE closer together and therein lies the problem. Unfortunately, Williams swore to uphold the faith reflected by the vast majority of Anglicans - 80% of Anglicans who make up some 61 million in the Communion and in such resolutions as Lambeth 1:10 and that has Jefferts Schori in a snit. She wants him to bend to post-modern Western versions of Anglicanism that embrace homosexuality. While Williams would like to do just that he is mindful that the vast majority if Anglicans don't want him to. Therein lies the dilemma and perhaps his future as the Anglican Communion's leader.

---Diana Butler Bass is a commentator and scholar in American religion. She is the author of seven books including A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperOne, 2009).

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