The problems besieging the Episcopal Church in this country are complicated because there are no readily convenient solutions. The church has moved left in recent years, and now the bull in the living room fundamentally involves elevation of acknowledged homosexual clergy to higher levels of office (as was the case with Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire).
Conservative elements of the Anglican Communion are trying to figure out ways to juxtapose rigid interpretation of Scripture against looser interpretation, with the realization that Christian Bible study has evolved over 2,000 years and will continue to do so.
How, then, does one oppose elevation of gay clergy to higher office (assuming individual nominees preach the gospel and not their lifestyles) based on certain literalist interpretations, when there may be no room for literalist interpretation?
After all, "literalist interpretation" is oxymoronic. How can one "interpret" anything that inherently requires the absence of thought? So the issue is not so much disagreeing with the idea of having gays preach as it is justifying the banning of it without appearing prejudiced and exclusionary. It would be difficult to move forward with the rest of humanity under such circumstances if one is interested in so doing or believes in it at all.
On the other hand, and not that I'm a biblical scholar (anything but, in fact), but a lot of Scripture seems fairly straightforward and not really amenable to that much intellectual machination.
So it's a really divisive conundrum, and I can appreciate the arguments on both sides. On the one hand, some people feel as if the church is leaving them and should separate from those (i.e. the Anglican Communion) who wish to impose unwanted policy. Others want the policy.
All of this is simply a prelude to an observation that my maternal grandmother once made. She predicted that the Episcopal Church was done for way back in 1979, when the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was modified to suit younger audiences. Rite 1 wasn't the same, she said, and Rite 2 was a disgraceful butchering of poetic language grossly out of proportion with previous BCP modifications.
She believed that desecration of such a masterpiece would undermine stability of the church. Maybe she was right. Nonetheless, I thought of her when someone showed me an article recently by Carla Carlisle from the Dec. 2 issue of Country Life magazine, an English staple since 1897.
(Carlisle is an American by birth and now runs a farm in Suffolk.)
She writes (in part): "With the Anglican Church in such an unhappy mess, this is probably not a good time to say anything about the Book of Common Prayer. ... I think the frenzy of theological warfare began when the church's star of constancy was demolished by the Alternative Service Book (ASB).
"Tucked in my prayer book was a clipping from The Times of a letter that John Osborne (he who wrote 'Look Back in Anger') fired off on November 17, 1979. 'Sir -- Someone once wrote of the French historian Michelet that he wrote history in a language in which it was impossible to tell the truth.
" 'Just so, the language of the Alternative Service Book is written in a style in which it is impossible to be religious.'
"The playwright rants against the 'opportunistic Philistinism' that imposed the ASB on an 'enfeebled and intimidated flock.' "
Gay issues aside, I would agree that changes to the BCP that took place in 1979 forever altered the face of the Episcopal Church. Why? Because the identity of the church became irrevocably changed. The rather ordinary language was appealing to a vast swath of churchgoers from different denominations, who brought with them a wide array of different ideas.
With these ideas came extraordinary conflict and later resolution away from the very tenets and beliefs that held the church together in the first place. Consequently, there has developed ideological disparity within the church and an identity crisis. The number of people in the U.S. who call themselves Episcopalians has plummeted in recent years, having fled the church out of frustration over exactly what it is and for what it stands.
At least that's my simplistic view of the matter. Regardless, I know that my grandmother wasn't the only one alarmed at the time when the 1979 changes to the BCP went into effect.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.