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Episcopal Church Plays Russian Roulette on the Gay Issue

Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

The Episcopal Church’s confirmation last week of the openly gay Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire was hailed as a victory for the forces of inclusiveness and diversity. That may be, but it was also another step in the church’s prolonged ecclesiastical suicide.

Since the late 1960s, the Episcopal Church has served as a laboratory for the proposition that Christianity must liberalize -- jettison its more demanding traditional teachings and get in step with the times -- to survive. The Episcopalians have done it all: allowed women clergy, dropped sanctions against divorce, made belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ optional. Now their bishops, who met last week in Minneapolis, have confirmed a bishop who will share the bishop’s house with a male partner and have tacitly approved leaving decisions on blessing same-sex unions to local priests. During these 30-odd years of early adoption of whatever mores the avant-garde of secular society has embraced, there has been only one snag: The Episcopal Church has declined precipitously in both membership and influence. The treatment has been successful, but the patient, if not quite dead yet, looks to be dying.

Many individual Episcopalians, including the 43 bishops who voted against Robinson’s confirmation and the 20 who protested afterward, are worried that their church has painted itself into a corner of trendiness. Nonetheless, the Episcopalian scramble for secular relevance at the expense of religious content proceeds apace. John Shelby Spong, former bishop of Newark, N.J., churns out books denying Jesus’ virgin birth and other tenets of the Nicene Creed that are still part of the Episcopalian liturgy. Robinson himself conceded that his fellow bishops’ implicit endorsement in Minneapolis of homosexual activity contravened both traditional Christian doctrine and the Bible. “Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong,” he told the Washington Post. That’s a big “just simply to say.”

Meanwhile, the statistics are staggering. In 1965, the Episcopal Church had 3.6 million baptized members. Now, that number stands at 2.3 million, representing a loss of more than one-third. (In 1991, when the rolls of the baptized had shrunk to 2.4 million, the church changed its way of counting members to include only adults and their children who actually belonged to a parish, and it says that the numbers of those have increased slightly.) Worse still, of the Episcopal Church’s approximately 7,500 parishes in the United States, 2,334 -- more than one-third -- attract fewer than 50 worshipers on Sunday mornings, not enough to support a rector on a full-time salary, according to a report issued by the church last year. Only 12% of Episcopalian churches in the country report an average Sunday attendance of more than 225 people, the minimum the church deems adequate to support church programs. The median age of worshipers is close to 60, meaning that relatively few children are being raised as active Episcopalians. That does not bode well for the next generation.

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Despite the Episcopal Church’s approval of the ordination of women in 1976, few women under age 35, much less young men, are seeking the priesthood, thanks to the poor job prospects for the newly ordained. The typical Episcopalian seminarian these days is a middle-aged woman whose outside career or husband’s salary makes part-time ministry financially feasible. A graying clergy serves a gray (and fast-dwindling) congregation.

This downward spiral parallels the fortunes of Episcopalians’ Anglican sister churches in England and Canada, as well as those of other mainline Protestant denominations that have accommodated themselves to the zeitgeist. Other areas of the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion are flourishing, however. In Southeast Asia, in the West Indies and especially in sub-Saharan Africa -- whose 39 million Anglicans outnumber the total in the United States, Canada, England and Australia combined -- the church is drawing thousands of converts and filling houses of worship. These are the churches of inclusiveness and diversity in that they represent a rainbow of peoples and cultures, all of whom are equals in their Christian faith. In urban America, immigrants from these regions fill up Episcopalian and other Christian churches that would otherwise be nearly empty on Sunday morning.

The Christian churches of Africa are growing in part because their clergy and laity appear to take Christianity seriously. They believe Jesus rose from the dead. They regard the Scriptures as divinely inspired authority rather than the culture-bound ruminations of dead Mediterraneans. Pennsylvania State University religion professor Philip Jenkins, whose new book “The Next Christendom” argues that the new center of Christianity lies in the world’s south, has closely studied African churches. He recalls: “I had someone there say to me, ‘If you don’t believe in the Bible, why did you bring it to us?’ ” Both the Old Testament and the letters of Paul of Tarsus condemn sexual activity (including homosexual activity) outside of marriage, and Jesus denounces fornication -- and even lustful thinking -- in the Gospels. Jesus also makes it clear that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman.

The Anglican bishops of Africa have staunchly defended traditional Christian teaching on sexuality. Their votes, along with those of other Third World bishops, led to the Anglican Communion’s condemnation of homosexual activity in 1998 as “incompatible with Scripture.” Jenkins notes that in many parts of Africa, Christianity competes for converts with militant Islam, which means that Christians there feel compelled to dissociate themselves from any whiff of the Western decadence that Muslims decry. From the ravages of AIDS, Africans also know firsthand the consequences of sexual promiscuity.

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Unlike the ordination of women, changing the church’s sexual teachings involves issues of sin and salvation, as far as conservatives are concerned. Anglican bishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America severed ties with the Canadian diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia after it sponsored a same-sex blessing ceremony this year. The primate of Nigeria, the Most Rev. Peter J. Akinola, has warned that a similar sanction might befall the majority of dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the United States after last week’s vote.

Episcopalians and other Americans who hope that more liberalization will save the mainline denominations might take a leaf from Akinola’s book. Episcopalian conservatives say that among the Episcopalian churches growing these days are those that decline to worship at secularist altars and have hired conservative priests who unabashedly proclaim the faith. “Only in the West do we place ourselves over God, as if God didn’t know as much as we do,” says Bruce Mason, spokesman for the conservative American Anglican Council, which is pushing for the creation of a separate hierarchical structure for Episcopalian conservatives who do not wish to sever their ties with worldwide Anglicanism.

Even if the Episcopal Church continues on its present course, it will not die tomorrow or even the next day. Some conservatives may prefer to affiliate with one of the 30 or so Episcopalian and Anglican splinter groups that have severed ties with the church over such issues as women priests. Others may become Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox or evangelical Protestants. Most are likely to stay because of the stately churches, the sonorous Prayer Book or their generations of ancestors lying buried in the churchyard. The Episcopal Church may even find a fresh new constituency of gay couples, unhappy liberal Catholics and nonreligious parents hoping that a little churchgoing will instill values in their children. Episcopalians should be forewarned, however.

“There are all kinds of empty churches that tried to attract people to attend for nonreligious reasons,” says Rodney Stark, University of Washington sociologist of religion. “People go to a church for religion, and if it’s not religion that’s being offered, they go to other places.”

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