The changes that started in the Episcopal Church in the 60s and 70s led to a widening gap between those who declared that “Justice is Orthodox Theology” and saw the need for the church to respond to issues of race, gender and sexuality in order to bring the reign of God on earth, and those who saw no need to change the traditional stances on these social issues and who wanted the church to focus on piety and preserving the status quo.
In 1976, the church decided that women could be ordained, much to the horror of traditionalists who believed that only men could properly be priests. Their horror was compounded when one of the women waiting to be ordained turned out to be lesbian. So in 1979 General Convention agreed that gays or lesbians should not be ordained – but several bishops declared that they could not in conscience agree to ban an entire class of people. For conservatives that debate was somewhat overshadowed by acceptance of the new Book of Common Prayer which moved the focus of the liturgy away from penitence and the sacrifice of the cross and more towards celebration of the resurrection.
Homosexuality was only one of the three major issues that surfaced in the that period in the mid to late 1970s but it was the least resolved. Women could be ordained (but you didn’t have to ordain one if you didn’t want to) and the 1979 Prayer Book was to be used. Whether or not gays and lesbians could and should be ordained was still disputed territory. Perhaps that was why it continued to be the issue which defined the difference between those who saw the church in the vanguard of social justice and change, and those who felt that their church was being changed into something they no longer recognized.
What was the Episcopal Church?
Feeding into the turmoil was the fact that the 1970s saw an evangelical revival in the US and a new evangelical movement had developed within the Episcopal Church, one which was well-organized and well connected with Anglicans in other parts of the Anglican Communion. For them, the ordination of gay people was a symbol of the church’s move away from Biblical values. In order to bring it back to the true gospel, they turned to influential bishops and archbishops overseas to bring the Episcopal Church to heel.
However, there is no international church law within the Anglican Communion. The fellowship of churches across the former British Empire and beyond was kept together not by formal rules but by relationships and gatherings. Bishop Desmond Tutu said of Anglicans, ‘We meet.’ Initially the only formal meeting was a gathering of bishops every ten years. Then was added a permanent secretariat and soon the Anglican Consultative Council – the only body in the Anglican Communion with a representative structure that includes lay people, and a constitution. In the 1970s, meetings of the head bishops of each church – the Primates Meeting – began to be held every couple of years.
It was this latter group that worked hardest to change the path that the Episcopal Church was taking. But they found that they had no power beyond moral persuasion. In fact, it was soon discovered that the main power tool in the Anglican Communion was rhetoric. Whoever could speak most persuasively, loudest and most frequently probably held the power. Conservatives, experiencing themselves in the minority, portrayed themselves as persecuted. They accused the Episcopal Church of turning away from the true faith and attempting to destroy anything that stood in the way of its “liberal juggernaut.” At first this debate was in the printed word, but when the internet came along everything was magnified.
Conservatives saw themselves as the guardians of the truth, progressives saw themselves as following Jesus’ example and bringing the inclusive love of God to the outcasts. No longer was it possible for someone who was an Anglican in one place to know that their beliefs would be shared in an Anglican church in another place. Liturgical changes in some countries including the US, England and New Zealand, had not been mirrored in many others who still used liturgies based on the 17th century Book of Common Prayer, whereas in others evangelical style preaching and praise music had almost eclipsed sacramental worship.
What did it mean to be Anglican when there were no longer shared orders, because women clergy were not universally accepted; there was no longer uniform worship because some Prayer Books had changed; there was no longer one view of Biblical interpretation because gays and lesbians had been ordained? Were the ones who decried female clergy and kept the old prayer books the true Anglicans? Were those who created statements defining correct faith and ethics the true Anglicans? Or were the true Anglicans the ones who said we must continue to worship together even though we disagree?
And who gets to decide?
Thoughts for discussion:
What does it mean to be ‘Anglican,’ and who gets to decide?
Are Christians called to be political activists, or live lives of quiet piety?