Jun 22, 2006

How Many Episcopalians Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb?

Ten. One to change the light bulb and 9 to discuss how much better the old one was.

I'm old enough to remember the angst caused by revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, as well as the pitched battles over the decision to ordain women. I've always thought the Episcopal Church did an admirable job of straddling the line between forward, social momentum and regressive bickering.

Once again Anglicans are roiling with the changes that would allow them to keep pace with modernity. The recent appointment of a woman, the Right Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, to the post of Presiding Bishop of the US is the latest daring move for a Church internally at odds with its notorious tolerance. From Salon:

Jefferts Schori, a former oceanographer, was considered a long shot for the position by most church experts: Although she's a fairly mainstream liberal, her gender made it unlikely that the church would choose to be stirred up at a moment when it seemed to require smoothing over and calming down.

The Episcopal Church -- the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, with 77 million members -- had already outraged conservatives three years ago by electing the openly gay Right Rev. Gene Robinson to head the Diocese of New Hampshire. Conservative African Anglicans joined with reactionary American Episcopalians, threatening to pull out of the Communion entirely if the enfranchisement of gay Christians was not stopped. There were name-calling, backstabbing, breakaway parishes, fights over property and thundering sermons about "abomination" and deviance. "The battle is about the authority of Scripture," proclaimed conservative American Bishop Robert Duncan. "It's about the basics of Christian faith ... The issues have to do with sexuality and morality, but at the very heart of it is whether Scripture can be trusted."

The eponymous blogger at That's Not Christian offers this oh-so-gentle reminder to those who would cling to ideas of Biblical inerrancy in their battle against the legitimization of gay lifestyles.

The Old Testament contains several verses written by men who opposed homosexuality (and biblical literalists believe that every word written by these men was inspired by God)–but not in terms of restricting gay marriage or gay bishops or gay soldiers or gay whatnot. The only Old Testament prescription for handling gay people is "stoning unto death".

And there are several other groups of people, including adulterers and rebellious children, that Old Testament writers advised stoning unto death. In "Biblical days", stoning was the capital punishment of choice, though there were several lesser-known methods of punishment for the authorites to use as desired, such as "poisoning the womb" of women...

That last is actually a method of abortion, which underscores as well anything the level of hypocrisy called for by rigid fundamentalism.

I spent a good deal of my youth in a very moderate Episcopal Church. The Assistant Priest, who was charged with the responsibility of shaping our adolescent minds, was a bit of a lefty and had done a stint as a touring folk singer. He began one youth group meeting by telling us what he'd learned his first day of seminary. He snatched a Bible from the shelf and dropped it on the floor. He pointed at it and announced, "The Bible did not arrive that way." The holy scripture, he taught us, had many authors, and, while inspired by God, was flawed and internally contradictory. Not even the begats are consistent, he told us, with some listings skipping entire generations. "The thing that makes me nervous about fundamentalists," he used to say, "Is that I've never met people who were so sure that they were right and everybody else was wrong."

My opinions of the American Episcopal Church are largely shaped by the progressive attitudes I encountered in formative years spent under its tutelage. So it is painful to watch them lurch and limp into the future; alternating brave innovations with craven reversals.

This Friday PBS will air a new series, "Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason," exploring the role of religion in a modern, culturally diverse world. Says Moyers:

The chaotic events of the world have fueled a yearning for certainty, and fundamentalism is nothing if not certain -- it offers propositions that can be affixed as bumper stickers; it gives people sound bites to which they can assent. It's a life jacket in a stormy sea, solid ground in the earthquake of life.

Furthermore, if you believe a sacred text is literally the word of God, you don't need any other proof. And you don't want to waste time with people who disagree with you. You know God's mind -- who are they to stand in your way? Around the world, fundamentalism is waging war against the imagination -- against creativity, freedom (freedom of the mind, above all), and against the tolerance that is necessary if people of different beliefs are to live together.

It is the challenge of all humanity to juggle contradictions and the Episcopal Church has proved itself to be skilled at doing so. If history is any guide they will continue along the bumpy path of growth and change; seeking a contemplative and mature faith over a reactionary one.

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