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The modern Episcopal Church is the oddest of churches: scrupulous about maintaining tradition in matters of worship and dress, feverish about rejecting tradition when a given religious belief contradicts the spirit of the times.

The Episcopal descent into spiritual incoherence is one of the more remarkable religious occurrences of the late twentieth century. At its triennial General Convention, held in Philadelphia this July, the church came close to scraping bottom. Much of the secular media praised the Convention as moderate. The calm that indeed prevailed was due mostly to the inability of traditionalists to feel astonishment at anything such a gathering might produce. In recent years, Episcopalians have seen it all: bishops proudly ordaining active homosexuals and an official church court declaring (with more than a tinge of satisfaction) that no discernible doctrine prohibits such a practice; general apathy toward moral issues such as abortion that engage other Christians; disrespect for scriptural authority; sluggishness in evangelizing; the trial and conviction of the national church treasurer on charges of embezzling $2.1 million to support herself and her Episcopal priest-husband; bishops implicated in adultery; seminary approval of homosexual living arrangements for students; a major East Coast diocese riven by the style and agenda of its radical bishop. Unsurprisingly, membership in America’s formerly most prestigious church has fallen by a third since 1965.

In Philadelphia this year, the familiar pattern of swinging with the times continued. A call to authorize liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions failed by a single vote, and the church went on to apologize for shaming and mistreating homosexuals. Huge majorities in both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies rammed through a canonical change intended to force women’s ordination (a practice the Episcopal Church adopted only twenty-one years ago) on any diocese or parish backward enough to object. Near the end of Convention, the Episcopal gay-rights organization Integrity rejoiced over such achievements. “We’ve won,” boasted Bishop Joe Morris Doss of New Jersey (the same bishop whose behavior has divided his flock into pro-Doss and anti-Doss factions).

Outgoing Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, while hymning his commitment to “a church where there is respect and room for everyone,” got in a few well-placed licks at the traditionalists. In the church’s “struggles around sexuality,” Browning brooded, “we have been diverted by fear and, let me name it, by hate. And I have wondered if this diversion does not come from the evil from which we pray daily for God’s deliverance.” Browning eschewed the word “homophobia,” but the members of the Convention knew precisely what he meant to imply: continued resistance to gay rights shames and demeans the church.

This sally proved too much for Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota, the lone dissenter from the ecclesial court’s decision last year that “core doctrine” in the Episcopal Church does not forbid the ordination of noncelibate gays. Fairfield said he felt “hurt and offended and further marginalized” by Browning’s remarks. Some forty fellow bishops, out of two hundred present, rose to their feet in support of Fairfield. One of these stingingly accused Browning of violating his own first principle of inclusivity.

The next presiding bishop, who takes over in January, is a man of gentler mien and softer tongue than Browning. However, Bishop Frank T. Griswold III of Chicago holds approximately the same convictions as his predecessor on what seem to nontraditionalists the great issues of the day, gay rights foremost among them. Newspaper accounts of Griswold’s election portrayed him as a “moderate” and “centrist,” rather than a liberal. These encomia chiefly show how far and how fast the Episcopal center has moved to the left. “What may be called the liberationist agenda or human rights agenda has entered the mainstream of the Episcopal Church,” as the Anglican theologian Peter Toon observes. “The major casualty has been biblical faith and morality . . . . At the next Convention the center will be where the left is today . . . . Those who are right of center in 1997 will be the extreme right in 2000, fighting to keep some recognition in the church of both traditional sexual morality and biblical names for God.”

True enough, in the election for presiding bishop, Griswold prevailed by only 110-96 over Herbert Thompson of Southern Ohio”a bishop who, though hardly a right-wing traditionalist, generally sides with the traditionalists on moral issues. But the conservative bishops now number fewer than fifty, and the rest of Thompson’s support came from self-described “liberals” for reasons of friendship (Thompson is genial), race (he is black), or just unhappiness, as one bishop put it, “with the machine” of the Episcopal bureaucracy.

What happened on the floor of this year’s General Convention may prove far less interesting than what happened outside, where traditionalists of various stripes began to link arms. The resistance movement, the evangelical-catholic underground, coalesced well in advance of Convention, arguing for a scriptural view of the church’s obligations: gospel proclamation, conversion, and a renewed emphasis on sin, without which the concept of redemption loses meaning. When Convention voted for coercion of the four dioceses where women priests remain unwelcome, one traditionalist observed, “I think we should all be grateful for the clarity which this vote gives to all traditional Anglicans. At least we know what our rights are: We have the right to remain silent.” (An impressive number of women priests argued against enforcing conformity on women’s ordination. Opponents of the practice published a letter commending their charity.)

Immediately after Convention adjourned, traditionalists assembled at the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Philadelphia suburbs. Convoked by the Episcopal Synod of America (an eight-year-old network of traditionalists), the meeting quickly produced the “Good Shepherd Statement.” Arguing that the Episcopal Church’s writ runs less far than the church might suppose, the Statement declares that “The Seventy-Second General Convention has passed judgment upon itself,” refusing “to uphold orthodox doctrine and restore godly discipline, while acting to persecute the faithful.” Without quitting the national church formally, the Synod declares “the emergence of an orthodox Province within the Anglican Communion in America,” one to be run on principles very different from Bishop Browning’s.

In the emerging province, however much presiding bishops and conventions may threaten or cajole, the all-male priesthood will be faithfully preserved, and scriptural standards for ordination and matrimony will be maintained. The province is theological, not geographical (though it rests, practically speaking, on the four non-women-ordaining dioceses: Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Illinois; San Joaquin, California; and Eau Claire, Wisconsin). The province may plant new congregations under the noses of liberal bishops. As occasion requires, its own bishops will take under their protective wings traditionalist parishes outside their geographical jurisdictions, while the province means to limit, politely but firmly, the money contributed by its members to the national church. (This last practice, more than any other, may rouse the ire of the establishment; the official Episcopal Church, already struggling with budget cuts, can ill afford more.)

There is no model anywhere in Christian history for such an undertaking as the new province. But it may work better than skeptics think. The Anglo-Catholics who preponderate in the Synod have allied themselves with friendly non-Catholics who, even if they defend women’s ordination, understand the extent of the national church’s departure from the faith. These non-catholics have themselves joined together as the American Anglican Council, and near Convention’s end, their president, Bishop James M. Stanton of Dallas, pledged to “maintain communion with those bishops who, on the basis of their conscience, cannot ordain or license women to serve in the priesthood under their oversight.” Talking over the bishops’ heads to Episcopalians unwilling to abandon the historic moral teaching and standards of Christianity, Stanton said, “We will not abandon you, or our determination to guard the faith once delivered to the saints.” He quoted approvingly a young woman who had testified at an open hearing on sexuality questions: “I will stay in the church, but I will not go against God’s Word.”

Confusion will for a time beset and envelop Episcopalianism. Clarity is on the way, even so. A “suburb of dissent” (W. H. Auden’s phrase) has been planted inside the established city of the Episcopal Church. The new development could be swallowed up by weeds, or it could spread joyfully, invigoratingly beyond the city limits, coming eventually to overshadow the city itself. One thing is plain: Well before Philadelphia, the contemporary Episcopal Church’s style and relationships had become stumbling blocks rather than aids to conversion and witness; something had to change dramatically. Now it has.

William Murchison , who attended the 1991, 1994, and 1997 General Conventions, is writing a book about the present condition of the Episcopal Church.

Image by Kenneth C. Zirkel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped