Editor’s Note: This is a crosspost from Beliefnet.com. It was composed by Rob Kerby, Senior Editor, Beliefnet.
The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.
The American branch of the Church of England, founded when the Vatican balked at permitting King Henry VIII to continue annulling marriages to any wife who failed to bear him sons, is in trouble.
Somehow slipping out of the headlines is a harsh reality that the denomination has been deserted in droves by an angry or ambivalent membership. Six prominent bishops are ready to take their large dioceses out of the American church and align with conservative Anglican groups in Africa and South America.
Above: Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies
“An interesting moment came at a press conference on Saturday,” reports convention attendee David Virtue, “when I asked Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, if she saw the irony in that the House of Deputies would like to see the Church Center at 815 2nd Avenue, New York, sold (it has a $37.5 million mortgage debt and needs $8.5 million to maintain yearly) while at the same time the national church spent $18 million litigating for properties, many of which will lie fallow at the end of the day.”
Above: “Church Center,” the Episcopal headquarters, up for sale.
This is no longer George Washington’s Episcopal Church – in 1776 the largest denomination in the rebellious British colonies. Membership has dropped so dramatically that today there are 20 times more Baptists than Episcopalians.
U.S. Catholics out-number the Episcopal Church 33-to-1. There are more Jews than Episcopalians. Twice as many Mormons. Even the little African Methodist Episcopal denomination — which broke away after the Civil War — has passed the Episcopalians.
Among the old mainstream denominations reporting to the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church suffered the worst loss of membership from 1992-2002 — plunging from 3.4 million members to 2.3 million for a 32 percent loss. In the NCC’s 2012 yearbook, the Episcopal Church admitted another 2.71 percent annual membership loss.
Convention attendees were told that they had spent $18 million this year suing their own local congregations — those which have protested the denomination’s policies by trying to secede. The New York hierarchy has consistently won in court – asserting that the local members signed over their buildings decades ago. As a result, some of the largest Episcopal congregations in the United States have been forced to vacate their buildings and meet elsewhere.
So now, convention delegates were told, the denomination is the proud owner of scores of empty buildings nationwide – and liable for their upkeep in a depressed real estate market where empty church buildings are less than prime property. It’s the classic “dog in a manger.” The denomination has managed to keep the buildings – for which it has little use. However, they made their point – refusing to allow the congregations which built the facilities to have any benefit after generations of sacrifice, donations and volunteerism.
“One former Episcopal priest wrote me, ‘The irony is that after all their property suits to get control of empty buildings, they now are losing their main property.’
“But this cost-cutting measure may not be enough to salvage the long term solvency of the Episcopal Church. The church is hemorrhaging money like crazy and no one seems to know how to turn off the spigot.”
“The accelerating fragmentation of the strife-torn Episcopal Church USA,” writes Christian author Charlotte Allen, “in which large parishes and entire dioceses are opting out of the church, isn’t simply about gay bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions or the election of a woman as presiding bishop. It is about the meltdown of liberal Christianity.”
“Liberal Christianity has been hailed by its boosters for 40 years as the future of the Christian church. Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, the mainline churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating.”
“On July 8, 2012, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached her brand of post-Christian religion while masquerading as a Christian bishop,” reported convention attendee Dr. Sarah Frances Ives.
“She mocked most of the crucial doctrines of the Christian faith, including the God of creation, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. She accomplishes this through her demeaning use of rhetoric. She taunts the Lord by the use of the name ‘Big Man’ and then points her finger at everyone listening and tells them that they have ‘missed the boat.’
Above: Katharine Jefferts Schori, national presiding bishop
“Jefferts Schori then proclaims that she has the answer for this. We all need the ‘act of crossing boundaries’ to become God after which our hands become a ‘sacrament of mission.’
“In this sermon, Jefferts Schori continued her mission of destroying the Christian faith through her rhetorical device of dismissive ridicule.
“Jefferts Schori leaves a wide wake of destruction behind with this sermon: the eternal triune God has been torn down, human beings are to boldly claim our place as God, and the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism have been turned into things our hands make. In other words, Jefferts Schori accepts that now humanity, animals and God are one undifferentiated blob. This is essentially a form of solipsism, the belief that self is all that is known to exist. Anyone can see that this is both pure heresy and utter nonsense.
“Episcopalians need to loudly affirm that we are created in the image of God and redeemed by the sacrifice of the Son of God, but no, we are not God ourselves and we are not erasing the boundary between God and humanity. That Jefferts Schori is encouraging humans to cross the frontier into becoming God should be immediately repudiated by all believing Christians.”
“Yesterday,” reported Angela O’Brien from the convention, “the House of Bishops of the Episcopalian Church approved a new provisional blessing for gay unions, while the full General Convention voted in favor of general acceptance for transgender clergy.
“Some Episcopalian bishops spoke out against the resolution on same-sex blessings. Bishop Bauerschmidt, of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, urged the bishops to defeat the resolution.
“The Reverend David Thurlow advocated rejecting the resolution. ‘For two thousand years the Church has had clear teaching regarding Christian marriage and Biblical norms of sexual behavior,’ he said, pointing out that ‘through previous statements and resolutions the Church has pledged itself not to make any change to this traditional teaching.’
Likewise, Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana stood against the resolution.
“The Christian world is going to understand us as having changed the nature of the sacrament of holy matrimony,” Bishop Little said. “The Christian world will look at that liturgy world and see vows, and exchange of rings, a pronouncement and a blessing and they will understand that to mean the Episcopal Church has endorsed same-sex marriage and changed a basic Christian doctrine. I do not believe that we are free to do that.”
But few observers were surprised by the transgender and same-sex resolutions.
A few years ago, the annual national Episcopal convention overwhelmingly refused even to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Beckwith has joined bishops in the dioceses of Central Florida, Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, California, and South Carolina in asking their church’s top official, the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, for permission to pull out.
Beckwith says the failure of the resolution introduced by conservatives to declare the church’s “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” was extremely disturbing.
“When a Christian church cannot bring itself to endorse a bedrock Christian theological statement repeatedly found in the New Testament, it is not a serious Christian church,” wrote Allen.
At this year’s convention, David Virtue reported: “In all the talk about same sex this and transgender that, there is absolutely no talk about sin. A psychologist friend of mine opined that talk of ‘sin’ here would be considered psychologically damaging and offensive to a lot of people, especially gays, so it is off the radar screen. ‘No sin, please; we’re Episcopalians.’
“The national Episcopal AIDS coalition is handing out free male and female condoms to all passersby. I pocketed a few just in case some folks don’t believe me.
“To keep funding for youth ministries alive, a 17-year-old girl stood up in the House of Deputies to say that the Episcopal Church could stay alive if it got into recycling. Poor kid hasn’t got a clue.”
“It must be galling to the Episcopal liberals that many of the parishes and dioceses that are pulling out are growing instead of shrinking,” noted Jay Tower. “Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas, for example, is one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country. Its 2,200 worshipers on any given Sunday are about equal to the number of active Episcopalians in many of the liberal bishops’ entire dioceses, whose churches average attendance is 80.
“One repeated theme is that the conservatives who are pulling out have no confidence in the denomination’s presiding bishop, the arch-liberal Katharine Jefferts Schori. She allows same-sex union ceremonies in her Nevada diocese and recently used the phrase ‘mother Jesus’ in a sermon.”
Why are Episcopalians leaving one of the oldest denominations in America? Perhaps that can be answered by New Hampshire’s V. Gene Robinson, the openly homosexual Episcopal bishop. When he addressed the fifth annual Planned Parenthood “prayer breakfast” April 15, 2006 in Washington, D.C., he declared that “religious people” are the enemy.
“We have allowed the Bible to be taken hostage, and it is being wielded by folks who would use it to hit us over the head,” he said. “The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexual sex but was a failure to care for the poor, the widows and the orphans. Scripture is not as plainspoken as some would have us believe.”
When the conservative Anglican diocese that serves the Fresno, California, area voted to leave the U.S. Episcopal denomination, the national denomination did as it has done in Connecticut, Virginia, Florida and Texas, it fought the diocese in court – seeking to seize all property, which includes millions of dollars worth of sanctuaries, parsonages, parish halls and college campuses.
Observer Giles Fraser says that the liberal national leadership doesn’t have a clue. Citing a vote by the diocese of Pittsburgh, led by Bishop Bob Duncan, Fraser explained: “They are sick to death of liberals telling them that ‘gay’ is OK.”
“Anglicanism is in deep trouble,” writes Fraser, “and so, too, is the Church of England. The fact that 46 members of the church’s general synod, its parliament, have written expressing their support for secessionism, bodes very ill.
“Thus far the Archbishop of Canterbury has maintained the traditional Anglican image via media with impeccable impartiality, trying to hold things together with a generous policy of being kinder to his enemies than his friends.
“But the truth is, the only people who now believe that Anglicanism can survive the current crisis in one piece are those holed up in Lambeth Palace” – the Archbishop’s luxurious headquarters in England.
“Fissures have moved through the Episcopal Church, the American arm of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, and through the Communion itself, since the church ordained V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003,” writes Neela Bannerjee in the New York Times.
Before being named bishop, Robinson deserted his wife and children to take up with a homosexual lover – something that conservative Episcopalians see as adulterous infidelity severely compounded by sexual sin and perversion – certainly enough to disqualify Robinson from any kind of leadership.
They consider the Episcopal Church’s ordination of Robinson as the “most galling proof of its rejection of biblical authority,” writes Bannerjee.
“In the last four years, the Anglican Communion, the world’s third largest Christian body, has edged closer to fracture over the issue. In the United States, several dozen individual congregations out of nearly 7,700 have split with the Episcopal Church.”
The Fresno vote was the first time an entire diocese chose to secede.
The Reverend Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, predicted a huge legal battle – since the national headquarters has vowed to hold onto any buildings of congregations leaving the denomination.
“The costs involved will bleed the Diocese of San Joaquin and the Episcopal Church, and it will lead only to bad press,” said Radner. “You have to wonder why people are wasting money doing this and yet claiming to be Christians.”
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