It is unlike church hierarchies today to risk alienating anyone, especially large numbers of people, and to risk the secession of member churches and expulsion from a world-wide organization that gives them political and financial clout. It is even more unusual that decisions having those potential outcomes would be made in the name of justice. But, this past week, The Episcopal Church (TEC), the American branch of the Anglican Communion, risked all three possibilities by passing three of their own decisions that throw their doors wide open.
Three measures were approved – two on “local option”. Dioceses may, if they are inclined, now ordain gay clergy and perform same-sex unions, even to the extent of developing theological and liturgical practices for such events. Thirdly, TEC voted to support transgender rights and welcome transgenders into the fold.
If there is a downside to these actions, it is the nature of the discussion and votes – not that there was any impropriety. Many of the more conservative church representatives and Bishops of TEC who normally oppose such measures chose to be absent from the General Convention. This allowed the passage of these decisions to be much less contentious than they would have been in the past. Two things bode poorly because of this abstention, and one shines like a positive light.
The first casualty was a genuine dialogue over the issues. With the absence of the churches more conservative voices the discussions really did not serve the purpose of coming to consensus. The dialogue is necessary in order to, at the very least, allow those in the middle to rationally and theologically consider the actions and implications. There will be many in the church who are shocked and dismayed by the decisions and will miss seeing a truly open discussion occur, leaving the church open to some kind of exodus.
A second negative is that it becomes obvious that TEC is already in schism – it isn’t a risk, it is a reality. Now there will be more churches and dioceses lining up to split away from TEC claiming, and rightly so, that their voices were not heard. In reality, they can thank their local leadership for that exclusion, but they will nonetheless blame the church in general. TEC showed courage, however, in setting aside concerns about further schism in order to do what many inside and outside the church deem just and necessary. They stand as an example to all denominations caught up in the long debacle of argument and diatribe over these issues.
The positive may take a while to accomplish, but it will happen in my opinion. Not only will many who have left the wider church in the past consider coming back, but TEC stands to gain a new following from those who feel dislocated from the Catholic church. TEC is, generally, the most like the Catholic in terms of liturgy and ceremony. This appeal to the estranged will take time, of course, but the doors are flung wide open to full acceptance in many of TEC’s churches.
The door isn’t wide open in reality, though. Being “local option” means that each dioceses will decide whether they follow these practices, much like the United Church of Christ. If allowed by local actions, each church then will decide where they stand on the issues. This could result in some confusion. It will result in estranged persons, especially GLBT, doing research to find those local churches that will, in fact, throw their doors open to them. Perhaps this is as it should be.
It strikes me, however, that considering the number of people estranged and damaged by the church, there stands the risk of further harm from people assuming all churches of TEC will be open and affirming. Despite all this I, for one, applaud these actions and wish my own denomination would set aside its bickering and concern for worldly security by establishing local options at the very least. Especially where power and decision making is vested in the local church, as in the Presbyterian Church (USA), this just seems appropriate.