I was glad to read the recent “Word to the Church” unanimously adopted by the House of Bishops at the conclusion of their retreat held at Camp Allen. Such unanimity is a rare phenomenon for our church is divided between largely right of center laity – the proverbial person in the pew and even not a few priest at the altar and bishop on his cathedra- and those who exercise authority among us.
After the defections of the first decade of the twenty-first century we are a much more homogenous group that at any time since TEC organized itself. This makes getting unanimous or nearly unanimous votes easier to obtain among our bishops. To be able to comment on the state of affairs in the nation, with its accompanying polemics, deep partisan divisions and ad hominem attacks without blushing or perhaps being wiped out by thunderbolts indicates that the days of war are largely gone from among us. Much credit must rightly go to our new Presiding Bishop who, despite a serious illness, has directed the church’s attention towards reconciliation and evangelism. His Easter message bids us to believe that Jesus died and rose again and that the resurrection is not a myth but rather the sure hope for all people. (My cavil is that I don’t believe the myth that Christians can create the coming Kingdom by our love. We can and should announce the Kingdom and seek to create a more caring world, but the Kingdom will come “like a thief in the night” as God alone decrees.)
This leads me to my point. When Harry Truman was President, he turned to the then Presiding Bishop to head a Civil Rights Commission. Even then, at the height of our numerical strength, we numbered around 3000,000 members. Among those parishioners were members of Congress, judges, ambassadors, governors and other prominent citizens, in disproportionate number to our actual strength. In short, we had influence. Today we are less than half the strength and our influence has dwindled.
We tend to function as if we still had a ready hearing. But who listens? As we have shrunk, we have become the more partisan. The conservative party at prayer has become the progressive movement in church. Our General Convention adopts a huge number of resolutions on political and social matters unheard or read by the powers that be. Our largely right of center laity either bristles at or ignores these resolutions. Thus when our General Convention or in this case our House of Bishops has a non-partisan, objective “word” for our church and hopefully through Episcopalians to the nation, who listens, who hears? In large part we have squandered the utility of our national pulpit because we haven’t the discipline to give objective moral guidance to the church and nation, or we simply assume that our political opinions are gospel. (Conservative denominations make the same untroubled assumption.) Separation of Church and State thus becomes a legal fiction as “culture”, or rather “cultures” inseparably connected to national dogmas, shape the manner in which Church, or the churches, frame the content of the the Christian Faith.
The bishops had something to say, something a troubled nation needs to hear. I hope that message gets a wide hearing in our congregations. I really do. But I fear that if our bishops wish to regain their moral authority they must prove that they have forsaken the recent past, a past in which they engaged in church politics as divisive as that which we witness daily in the media. Yes, we have lost our own sisters and brothers to separated churches, but we have lost many more because they were caught in the middle, and saw much passion and little love as congregations, dioceses and the church divided and fought. If they had a voice now,surely they would cry, “Physician, heal thyself.”