Church Dividing Issues

I write this from the Maritime Center in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor where I am participating in a Coordinating Council meeting of Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). This group is the successor to the old Consultation on Church Union (COCU) and is made up of ten denominations representing some 20 million Christians:

The African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African American Episcopal Zion Church; The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; The Episcopal Church; the International Council of Community Churches; the Moravian Church; the United Methodist Church;  the Presbyterian Church (USA);  and the United Church of Christ. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a partner in mission and dialogue and the Roman Catholic Church are observers.

This conversation and relationship has been going on for more than 40 years — its twin goals being to forge a full communion relationship for joint mission including interchangeability of ministers and ministries and to stand together for racial justice in this country. Whenever The Episcopal Church would come close to pulling out of this difficult ecclesial arrangement, the argument would be that it was the only place we are able to dialogue, interact and cooperate with the Historically Black Methodist Churches — and this was seen as so important for us!

Now, even that is in jeopardy. Two of these Black churches — the AME and the AMEZ — have suspended their participation in CUIC. There are a variety of reasons too complex to go into here. But a core reason is that they have become frustrated that so much energy has gone into the “ministry task force” dealing with ecclesiological issues like ordination and sacraments and the historic episcopate and so little has gone into combatting racism — in the world, in the Church, and even within the CUIC family.

So, the Coordinating Council is working with two anti-racism consultants, taking a hard look at our common life, seeing whether or not this relationship is able to be salvaged, and if so how we might proceed. All this in preparation for a CUIC Plenary meeting to be held in January and attended by the ten Heads of Communion and seven delegates from each communion.

This is very hard work. And one of the great learnings (or reminders) in all this is that there are many “church dividing” issues out there today. We all know the ecclesial ones — like views of the papacy and bishops in historic succession, approaches to worship and especially the sacraments, interpretation and use of scripture, etc. Anglicans have learned that, whether it “should” be so or not, different understandings of human sexuality (and especially homosexuality) can be a church dividing issue.

But, particularly in the US context — where race relations have been so difficult over the centuries, complicated as it is by the horrifying history of slavery — personal and institutional racism is also a church dividing issue. If we cannot acknowledge and pay attention to that — perhaps by some kind of “truth and reconcilation commission” approach — not only will Churches Uniting in Christ prove to be a noble but failed experiement, but the entire ecumenical movement will be hampered.  

May we find a way to reclaim our original vision which states, among other things, that  “…we commit ourselves to the task of becoming a Beloved Community…(and to)…engage in a process of overcoming racism as we seek to demolish the institutional barriers which keep us from being a united Christian community that is truly catholic, truly reformed, and truly evangelical.”    

8 Responses to “Church Dividing Issues”

  1. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    i think the cocu/cuic experience is that the shared anti-racism work is extremely important–so let’s do that! the church-uniting goal of cocu did not come to fruition, and is unlikely to in that framework.

    perhaps the time is for a specific ecumenical conversation about racism in particular, as its own front-burner thing, instead of just the “along for the ride” it was with cocu/cuic?

  2. ecubishop Says:

    This may well be where we’re headed, Thomas. Thanks for this.

  3. rwk Says:

    Once again, I will go back to my particular take on this. Oneness is not institutional. We don’t need one church in form or practice. We need one church in belief. The church of Christ is one church in belief, not practice. Where do I see this in practice really? Come to my Bible study at work — upper class, lower class, black, white, hispanic, male, female, old and young all one in Christ. From janitors, senior managers, recovering alcoholics, and broken people hand in hand praying with and for one another every Wednesday from noon until one. We also come from all over the denominational map. We are in a federal government office, so I’m not certain how long our presence will be tolerated, but we’ve been blessed and sheltered so far. When we agree on the fundamentals of the Christ and His resurrection we seem to be able to look past a lot of other “adiaphora”.

    A week ago I attended a service at a protestant church overseas. In one sermon, at what will undoubtedly be my new church home when I move to that city in the coming year, I heard the cross of Christ and His death for our salvation proclaimed more than once! In just one sermon! In the Episcopal Church in that same city I have attended over a dozen services over the years and have never EVER heard the sufficiency of Christ proclaimed, nor His death, nor His resurrection or nor His coming again proclaimed from the pulpit. If it weren’t for the liturgy, it wouldn’t be there at all. The only “sin” condemned was “not being inclusive”, which was not a sin for which Christ died (that would be “cosmic child abuse”) but one which he modeled for us to be better people. In short, what I heard from the pulpit I’ve heard from Oprah and Deepak Chopra.

    Unity is based on unity of belief. Until the Episcopal Church decides what it believes and demonstrates it, there will be precious little foundation on which to build unity around except the shifting sands of recent fads in the culture, the latest “movement” and the whims of GC09. Right now it is not clear what the Episcopal Church believes because it is unwilling to say “no” to anything — except maybe taking property. The 39 Articles are merely “historical documents”. The GC06 couldn’t bring itself to “reaffirm” the most basic of Christian beliefs even as a merely symbolic gesture for conservatives. Even the House of Bishops seems to be ever trying to “nuance” it’s way on the Same Sex Blessings issue — iinstead of making a clear and bold stand. It’s as if the institution doesn’t even have the courage of it’s own convictions because it has none.

  4. ecubishop Says:

    rwk:

    It probably won’t be very helpful for us to rehearse again at great length our long-standing disagreement on much of this. Unity is both “of belief” and “institutional.” Certainly individual Christians and the church have core beliefs such as the ones to which you refer above.

    But the Church is not an association of “like minded individuals.” The Church is the Body of Christ — an organism more than an institution — and that Body is divided in ways that impede our preaching of the Gospel. Those “institutional” divisions need to be healed.

    And, the Episcopal Church (though not every Episcopalian) knows exactly what it believes. Those beliefs lead us into the kind of decisions and actions to which you often seem to disagree. It won’t do to “disrespect” those beliefs because you may not agree with where they lead us.

  5. rwk Says:

    The Episcopal Church has done more to foster division within itself and the Anglican Communion within the last decade than it has to build unity. While I respect that the liberal wing of the church is convinced of the rightness of its cause and that the “Spirit is doing a new thing” with regard to GLBT and SSB issues, they have put these issues (in my opinion) ahead of all others — clearly ahead of unity. I don’t want to see the Episcopal Church out of the AC and I don’t think that will happen, but the leadership seems tone deaf to those who disagree within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. They are convinced of the rightness of the cause and there is no turning back…regardless of the cost — and it has been costly.

    Is the church a body of “like minded individuals” or not? I am not sure your assertion that it is not holds true. I would assert at some point there has to be a unity of belief. TEC as an institution has been unable to articultate this or seems unwilling to allow others time to assent to its “new thing”. Its unwillingess to censure and in some cases, including the Presiding Bishop’s celebration of, +Spong among others indicate to me that its beliefs are no longer the centered on the core historic Christian doctrines of the death and resurrection of Christ but on a new gospel of “inclusion”.

    I am not full of bitterness and apologize if my postings sound strident — everyone has been a bit thin skinned the last few years. I have great respect for some of the leaders on the liberal side of the divide. I think +Wolf of Rhode Island is one of the few who seem to strike the right tone and could actually heal the breach. She seems very careful to avoid the condescension towards conservatives that I have heard from +Schori, +Bruno, +Robinson, +Righter and others. Unfortunately, +Wolf’s voice is not one that seems to resonate in the broader church. But having felt deeply betrayed by +Lee in Virginia, I have felt it very difficult to trust the institution despite respecting some of its leaders. Until that trust is rebuilt, it is unlikely any words or statements will lead me into an institutional unity.

    A final thought on unity. Would it not be easier for conservatives and liberals within the TEC to heal that breach — the breach is real — if we were at least both within the Anglican Communion? It would be easier to dialogue, work together and maybe one could be convinced the the other is right. On the other hand, TEC has taken a scorched earth policy to the point of +Schori demanding that future “departing congregations” be forbidden from aligning themselves, even independently, with other parts of the Anglican Communion. I contrast this attitude +Schofield’s willingness to let the handful of liberal congregations in San Joaquin stay within TEC free of lawsuits in the event the diocese attempts to leave. (I don’t want to get bogged down in whether a diocese can leave or not, I’m just trying to make the point that the attitudes are worlds apart and I find +Schofield’s more respectful of the dissenters.)

  6. ecubishop Says:

    rwk: I have never found your posts bitter, but always respectful and thoughtful.

    I guess many of us believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus is precisely about “inclusion.” The One who condescended to share our humanity that we might share His Divinity. We are “included” in this saving act by our baptism and, yes, by our attempts to live the Christian life in thanksgiving for God’s gracious, saving act.

    And…I guess we could all tell stories about conservative bishops or have (or have not) been respectful to “dissenters” and liberal ones who have (or have not) done the same thing. In Schofield’s case, it is certainly not his decision to “let” some congregations stay. Those congregations would become the diocese of San Juaquin!

  7. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    rwk says that unity is based upon belief. this is a common doctrine, especially among Protestants, but i can’t find it in my bible. my bible tends to place unity in the lap of Christ: it is in Christ that we are united, and not by our own agreement with each other. the point of organizational unity, of course, is to manifest that already existing unity to the world.

    now, rwk also says some old canards, like that the episcopal church isn’t against anything. actually, we are. we’re against racism, war, capital punishment, the oppression of the poor, sexual violence, and a whole lot else. the moral teaching of the Episcopal Church is loud and clear, but sadly ignored by those who think we don’t have one.

    the problem with what rwk says is that the groups he calls “conservative” mostly desire the right to exclude people, whether from leadership or from membership, while the “liberals” don’t. every “liberal” bishop i’ve known has gone out of his way to make sure that conservatives share in the leadership and councils of the diocese. every “liberal” congregation i’ve known has gone out of its way to make clear that conservatives can feel welcome and comfortable.

    what characterizes the “conservatives” in this debate is their desire to exclude gay people from the sacraments of ordination and marriage.

  8. rwk Says:

    ecubishop, thank you for the kind words.

    Thomas,

    I agree that we find our unity in Christ, the question becomes do we agree on who Christ is? That is what I mean when I speak of “unity of belief”. From your posts and CV Thomas, I think we are probably much closer on that issue. However, I have a distrust of this “new thing” because it has it roots in the theology of bishops who have openly rejected the most basic doctrines of the church. The leadership of the church has never repudiated those teachings or those bishops — I’d have more faith TEC if they had. There is a point at which you have to exclude. The tipping point for me was not GLBT issues — I can actually tolerate quite a bit and have quite a libertarian streak, but the GC06 stifling any effort within the church to reiterate its belief in the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ was my most bitter disappointment. It told me that the church thought this was secondary…and for me it is not.

    As a conservative, leaders like +Wolf of Rhode Island are more of a challenge to me than anything +Spong or +Robinson can do or say. This is because she certainly seems to be willing to draw a line and she does respect conservatives and just “tolerate” or condescend to them. She seems to understand this is a matter of conscience for us. My guess is, based on what I’ve read, that you too would give me some cognitive dissonance and I would hope I could do the same at least to a small degree.

    I am quite convinced TEC “stands for something”. The issues are very important. I work on many of those issues daily in my own life. Women in crisis pregnancy, third world poverty, domestic poverty etc. I’d be happy to stand with you on the issues you discussed. It is my supposition that you and I might not agree on the best policy to reach those desired ends, but that is just a supposition on my part. My point is, the church should unite first on who Christ is and then its other work in the world should flow from that.

    As for the treatment of conservatives within liberal congregations, we simply have not been in the same congregations and it wouldn’t do much good to play “dueling” anecdotes.

    I have to agree with you partially on your last point. I would only say that it should read…”part of what characterizes”. I think being GLBT is not an obstacle to ordination if the ordinand is celibate. I think sex was a gift from God created to be shared between a man and a woman within the context of marriage. Everything else is a result of our falleness. I also don’t think clergy should be divorced…period. I think that teaching is clear in Scripture but TEC discarded it. As for same sex marriage, that is something upon which we fundamentally disagree.

    God Bless You Both, RWK

    PS: I do find these discussions helpful. They will not heal the broader breach but it does make it easier for me to picture a time when there can be reconciliation.

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