“My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man,” Jacob said. There have been too many “smooth men” in the Episcopal Church over the years who have cared more about avoiding offense than about the truth. Give me Esau any time!
This reflection was inspired by my latest mailing from the Diocese of Massachusetts. Although I've worked as a government official and university professor for nearly twenty-five years, I continue also my even longer career as an unpaid inner-city priest. As an unsolicited extra, I receive regular mailings from the diocese announcing marriage counseling for clergy couples or the scoop on new forms of spirituality.
Bishop David Johnson was thoughtful enough to send us a copy of a letter dated November 12, 1991, from the newly formed Episcopal Synod of America. This group of bishops met in Fresno, California, after the Church's triennial General Convention—when the delegates were notoriously unable to agree upon a resolution calling for bishops and priests to be celibate outside of marriage—to set up a new structure, a missionary diocese as wide as the entire country. They declared their intention to “spread the Gospel in places where the present Episcopal leadership continues to suppress and persecute biblical Christianity.”
I must confess that, though reasonably alert to signs of God's coming kingdom, I seldom look for them within my own denomination. Thus I was not aware of the existence of the Synod. Had I known of the bishops' meeting, I might, like the sophisticates of an earlier time, have asked whether any good thing could come out of Fresno. But I would have been wrong: the “hairy men” have found their voice at last.
Proclaiming that “there are two religions in the Episcopal Church,” the bishops declared their intention of beginning new congregations and accepting transfers of existing ones from the jurisdiction of local dioceses. They insisted that, although making “no claims to moral perfection or to perfect wisdom,” they intended to “do all we can to ensure that an authentic Christian witness and biblical doctrine, morality, and order are maintained among Episcopalians.”
Along with the Synod's materials, Bishop Johnson sent us clergy the Presiding Bishop's reply. As a specialist on dysfunctional bureaucracies (after twenty-one years as a state official I now teach educational policy and politics at Boston University), especially those in serious trouble (I am completing a book on the collapse of the Communist educational system in Eastern Europe), I was fascinated to find that the official reaction of the hierarchy was precisely what organizational theory would predict.
“Those persons—lay or clergy—who ‘transferred' to a ‘missionary diocese,' “ the Presiding Bishop wrote, “would put themselves outside the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.” In short, they would be excommunicated.
One of the signs that a bureaucratic organization is in serious trouble is that its priorities become displaced from carrying out its original function to protecting the symbols, even if they have become largely meaningless, of its authority (as distinct from real power). Thus the endless empty rituals of the later Byzantine Empire or of the decayed Chinese Empire as portrayed in The Last Emperor. Thus also the insistence of American public education on its “exclusive franchise” on legitimacy even though millions of children attend nonpublic schools.
Now consider the Episcopal Church. It has long been unheard of, at least in my part of the country, for a priest or bishop to be rebuked for anything he or she might teach, including the most hair-raising forms of New Age mysticism, so long, of course, as it does not violate the norms of political correctness; “heresy” in the sense of incorrect teaching on religious matters is quite literally impossible. It appears to be equally impossible, in many dioceses, to go too far in personal irresponsibility or sexual extravagance. We tolerate, indeed we celebrate, every accommodation to the spirit of the age. Preach what you will so long as you are sincere; do what you will, so long as it feels good and is an occasion for displaying “authenticity.”
But do not dream of trespassing upon the exclusive franchise granted to each diocesan bureaucracy in its territory. That, and that alone, will make you anathema; that alone will lead to excommunication. This from a denomination that salutes shamanism and every variety of religion as “engaged in the same spiritual pilgrimage.” So long, of course, as they do not violate the exclusive franchise by claiming to be Episcopalian.
The December 1991 issue of Episcopal Life (another unsolicited mailing to the clergy) has a front-cover headline “Synod threatens schism by creating new diocese” balanced by a back-cover story describing with enthusiasm the ritual initiation of young women in a Brooklyn Episcopal parish, not into the Body of Christ or the fellowship of believers, but “into the African-American community” In the course of this ceremony, “Okomfo Aba Anun Aygeiwa, a woman priest in the Akan religion of Ghana, recited a traditional prayer ‘calling on the deities and ancestors to bless the initiates. . . .' “ Who is creating the schism?
There is, of course, every reason for a church to exercise authority. The Episcopal Church has failed to do so where it really counts: in what we teach and how we live. What is so sad is that authority is finally being invoked now only because the self-interest of church officials is at stake.
My late father, C. Leslie Glenn, “kept his hand on the Gospel plough” to the end; more than fifty years a priest, he died after conducting a service at the Washington Cathedral. The title of his book, A Scornful Wonder, and the hymn verse from which it comes, suggest an appropriate theme—and hope—for contemplation of the condition of the contemporary Church:
Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
Charles L. Glenn is Professor of Educational Policy at Boston University and one of the clergy of Church of the Holy Spirit in Boston.