As I read articles from the "Extreme Right" in the church these days, I often struck by the dichotomy between what they say the Episcopal Church is like, and the Episcopal Church as I have experienced it. The claim usually runs that the Episcopal Church has abandoned all of the underpinnings of orthodox Christianity, including belief in the Bible as the Word of God, beliefs in the doctrines of the Trinity, Resurrection, Salvation through Jesus, etc. Quite often (as in American Anglican Council videos) the specter of James Pike is brought up as somebody who started the "slide" and then usually John Shelby Spong is cited as one who continues it.
My confusion is that I didn't know who James Pike was until I started to study the history of Episcopal splinter groups (a couple of years after seminary) and no one I personally know of in the church thinks of JS Spong as a central theologian. When I was in seminary in 2001, the popular theologians were Karl Rahner, NT Wright, Mark McIntosh and John Zizioulas - hardly a line-up of radical revisionists! The priests I know, especially the ones under 50, are more likely to be interested in Radical Orthodoxy than radical deconstruction. I have met very few Episcopalians, liberal or conservative, who are interested in the Pike/Spong type of non-theistic theology. Most people I know, no matter where they sit on the current issues that face the church, would be happy to subscribe to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral - the best general statement of traditional, expansive Anglican orthodoxy.
So where does our radical right get its picture of the Episcopal Church? I think I found part of the answer in an article in the Washington Post last week, Episcopal Churches' Breakaway in Virginia Evolved over 30 years. The last couple of paragraphs feature Rick Wright, the Assistant Pastor at Falls Church.
Many say the rift involves something deeper -- whether the Bible is the word of God, Jesus is the only way to heaven and tolerance is more important than truth. When he was a newly ordained priest almost 20 years ago, Wright said, he talked with several other priests about how to respond to a teenager who asked, "Do you really believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?"
"The rest of the priests agreed that it was a sticky question, and they felt that way because they didn't believe in it, but they didn't want to say so," he said. "That's where the Episcopal Church has been for the last 20 years. It's not where we are."
This sounds like a common disease ministers have, "Seminaritis." Priests with this malady stop reading new books outside their seminary authors shortly after school and allow their vision of the church to collapse inward into what they learned there. Wright seems to believe that his 80s seminary experience, a time when the radical work of the 60s was finally taking hold in them, reflects the state of the modern Episcopal Church.
This is not uncommon. I remember a group of young female priests a few years ago complaining about a "Women's Ministry Conference" they attended where the older (Baby Boomer) women were all complaining about how nothing had REALLY changed in the church and women were still as oppressed as they had been in the 70s. The younger women simply couldn't understand - there were women deans and bishops! (The election of both a Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies who are women seems to put a nail in the coffin of that blanket statement as well.) The older women's preconceived notions that had been formed by their difficult experiences at the time of the introduction of women to the ordained ministry made it impossible for them to see the actual progress that had been made.
The situation at Falls Church seem similar. I think the problem is that many of those on the right have isolated themselves from the church for too long - long enough for them to think their decades-old experience is still the norm. They don't really know what the average seminarian today is being taught or what the average priest is preaching and they don't care. Their remembrances are much more comfortable. Seminaritis.
As I ponder this, I reflect back on an experience at the Nashotah House bookstore this fall (One of the more conservative seminaries of the Episcopal Church). I found the four books of the St. Germaine series featured prominently. These are a wonderful series of humorous fiction by Mark Schweizer (A personal acquaintance - I celebrated the rite of Holy Matrimony for his son) about a fictional Episcopal Church and it's organist/private detective. The first book, "The Alto Wore Tweed," features a female priest who is into the edgy "Sophia Worship" stuff and embodies many of the stereotypes of the radical feminist movement within the church a decade ago. What I wondered about at the time was, "Do people who buy this here really understand this as high caricature, or do they (subconsciously) think this really is what the Episcopal Church is like outside of the small enclaves that Nashotah serves?"
I suspect that our real sin as the Episcopal Church has nothing to do with sexuality. It has to do with allowing ourselves to "ghettoize" into special-interest groups, pretending that OUR Episcopal Church was the true one, when the truth is, we ALL are the Episcopal Church. All the more shame if we allow our preconceptions, based on old data, to separate us.