State of the Episcopal Church

Diana Butler Bass
Church Historian
Wednesday, December 6, 2006; 3:00 PM

A dispute with national leadership about the installation of a gay bishop has congregations across the country voting to leave the Episcopal Church.

Historian Diana Butler Bass was online Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. to discuss the reasons behind the split and the possible outcomes for the church.

A transcript follows.

Butler Bass holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of six books on American religious practice. Her latest book is "Christianity for the Rest of Us" (Harper, 2006), and she is currently working on "Episcopalians in America" (Columbia University Press, 2007). She was a senior research fellow at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., and is now a senior fellow at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral.


Diana Butler Bass: As an introduction to the chat, it may help folks to know that I am both a church historian and an independent researcher in contemporary American religion. My Ph.D. is from Duke University, where I wrote a prize-winning dissertation (published by Oxford University Press) about evangelical religion in the Episcopal Church in 19th-century America. My most recent book, "Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith," was a Lilly Endowment-funded study of mainline Protestant vitality and it was just named one of the best books of the year by Publishers' Weekly.

I am not an Episcopal priest, nor do I work for the Episcopal Church in any official capacity at the present time. I am an active lay-person -- my family and I are members of the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C.

So, my answers to questions posed come from both my historical knowledge and contemporary expertise -- and they are my own opinions, not that of any institution, congregation or diocese.


Sykesville, Md.: As an Episcopalian, I am appalled to hear that anyone wants to join forces with someone who advocates jailing people simply for being gay or bisexual.

That is Orwellian in my view. As in, "All animals are equal. Some are more equal than others."

Maybe that is because I am female, and women have historically been the scapegoat for religions anyway. Now that it's being grudgingly acknowledged that we are human beings too, its sad to see the hunt continuing for a smaller community to bully.

Diana Butler Bass: As a Christian, I equally worry about scapegoating. Scapegoating tends to occur in history when people fear change and when communities think the world is chaotic and needs to be re-ordered by eliminating the source of sin.

Your comments bring to mind the story about St. Paul and the boat. Paul was on a missionary journey when the ship in which he was traveling encountered a storm at sea. The terrified crew blamed Paul and his "foreign god" for the storm. To appease their own gods, they tossed Paul and his party overboard!

Too often Christians toss overboard those whom they think have a "foreign god," in order to calm the storm of change when they real response in the storm should be "all hands on deck"!


University Park, Md.: Are the physical plants and real estate occupied by Episcopal churches all owned by the diocese to which they belong, or does this vary by parish? What can we look forward to as far as litigation over these valuable assets?

Diana Butler Bass: I'm not a lawyer or historian of cannon law. My understanding is that both Virginia and Maryland have upheld the contention that the Episcopal Church holds the property of congregations -- and congregations bear property in trust for the larger body. Most court cases, in all mainline denominations, have resulted in the larger body retaining property rights in the case of schism.


Capitol Hill: As an Episcopalian who empathizes with the position of the conservatives in the Church, but who attends a socially liberal parish, I am disgusted with the leadership on both sides. But perhaps more so with the liberal leadership since they hold such a majority in the General Convention body, and have been thumbing their noses at conservatives for quite some time. It is the seeming lack of accommodation for conservative parishes on a National level which I think is hardheaded and hypocritical. I hear a great deal of rhetoric about appeals for healing, but when push comes to shove, I think many Church leaders would be happy to show conservatives the door (as long as they leave their property behind). I find it fascinating that my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Chane, who has been very forward on where he stands in this matter, has found a way to accommodate one of the richest parishes in his Diocese - All Saints Chevy Chase - to keep them happy. He is allowing another more conservative retired bishop to provide pastoral oversight for them. I wonder what Bp. Chane would do if a smaller, poorer parish asked for the same benefits. Is the All Saints case a sign of hope for accommodation, or just another rich squeaky wheel getting the oil?

Diana Butler Bass: Your comments are interesting to me. I do not believe that there are only two sides in this dispute -- I can identify five distinct groups of Episcopalians.

Yes, there are two parties in tension: Old-line liberals and radicalized conservatives. This is the fight we most often read about in the media. However, you point out a third possibility, a centrist party that is trying to navigate between the two extremes (Bishop Peter Lee in Virginia would represent the centrists). From my own research, you are right. The extremes aren't the whole story.

However, there are two additional groups, and these two are far less noticed. I refer to these groups (they don't have a clear "party" identity) as "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives." These two groups tend to see "issues" like this one as secondary concerns to the practice of Christian faith and are more concerned with things like the practice of hospitality, living forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, learning to pray, feeding the hungry, caring for the environment, and maintaining the Anglican practice of comprehensiveness (being a church of the "middle way"). They may lean slightly left or slightly right on "issues," but reject partisan solutions to theological problems. Both progressive pilgrims and emergent conservatives are far more interested in unity than uniformity; and they appreciate diversity in their congregations as a sign of God's dream for humanity to live in peace.

From observing (and knowing him a bit), I think Bp. Chane is more of a progressive pilgrims than an old-line liberal. And I think he is trying very hard to embody this alternative position in the diocese of Washington.

If the centrists, the progressive pilgrims, and emergent conservatives can come together and offer their distinctive spiritual gifts in the midst of this conflict, I think the Episcopal Church may be able to move forward.


Mayfield, Ky.: Ms. Bass: Do you have an idea of why the Episcopal parishes and/or dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church are leaning towards going to a bishop outside the U.S.? There are groups in the U.S. who adhere to the Biblical teachings of the traditional Episcopal Church, such as the ACC, ACA, and the APCK. Thanks for taking my question.

Diana Butler Bass: I actually don't! You would think it would be easier to join one of these groups (or the Reformed Episcopal Church) than going to all the trouble of reaching to Africa.


Poolesville: I will start out by explicitly saying I am an evangelical Anglican, who has left his local parish and now attend a small, independent Anglo-Catholic parish in Montgomery County, Md., but still feel brokenhearted, lost and adrift by the movement of the Church away from "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."

I'm interested in further explanation of the current strife being "politics, not theology..." as quoted in the article.

From the politics standpoint, the "liberals" do certainly control the levers, but consider the issues of Woman's Ordinations and now acceptance of homosexuality as Holy Spirit inspired new revelation. So it seems that even the political victors won't generally apply political language.

Either way, I suspect they will be Pyrrhic victories, leaving trust funds (e.g., Trinity Wall St) and beautiful cathedrals, but ever smaller memberships, and rejection by orthodox Christian bodies.

I have to say it is a -painful, sorrowful- thing to finally have to decide between one's soul and the local parish, but there is only one choice to make.

Diana Butler Bass: To quote the former president, I feel your pain. A lot of people are in pain right now. Including me, even though I love my local parish; I love the Episcopal Church; and I love Anglicanism. It is painful when Christians have a public fight like this.

My argument relates to my answer to "Capitol Hill." I think that two parties in the Episcopal Church, the Old-line liberals and the Radicalized Conservatives have politicized their particular visions of Christianity into a winner-takes-all strategy of making all Episcopalians agree with their views. From a historical perspective, since 1945, there has been a well-documented, increasing politicization of all of American religion into hardened positions. It is those two groups that are involved right now in political hardball and are trying to drag the rest of us into their argument.

I do, however, think there are some significant groups of Episcopalians -- the centrists, the progressive pilgrims, and the emergent conservatives -- who are attempting to resist politicization in the church and are trying to reground the church on spiritual practice and Christian (and Anglican) traditions. I think this middling-groups (not exactly parties) are working very hard to have a genuine theological discussion (or even argument...arguments are okay in theology...without arguing in the right ways, theology wouldn't even exist!) in the din. So, while some people are concerned about Christian life and theological vision, most of the loudest voices are from partisan combatants. Politics is drowning out theology.


Washington, D.C.: Could you please explain the relevance of a schism within the Episcopalian Church. I understand why this would be a big deal in the Catholic church because it purports to be the one true single and universal church. My understanding is that protestant religions are based on the idea that people should follow the dictates of their consciences and not the dictates of church hierarchy. Is the Episcopal religion different from other protestant religions in a way that makes a schism more significant?

Diana Butler Bass: The history of Anglicanism (the older tradition of which the Episcopal Church is a part) is a long attempt to avoid schism. Throughout Anglicanism's first century, in the 1500s, England raged between extremes of Roman Catholicism and extreme Protestantism in a violent series of religious and political reversals that left the nation -- and the nation's church -- exhausted.

Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian who is credited with ending this theological strife, helped the English Church envision itself as a "middle way" between Catholic and Protestant, a church that would be Catholic in its worship and sensibilities and Protestant in its theology. This is known as the Anglican via media and this vision undergirds and defines Anglican piety and spiritual temperament.

Only a few times in Anglican history has this spirit been badly violated (one time being during the 1600s with the Puritan victory in the English Civil Wars); otherwise, Anglicans and Episcopalians go A LONG WAY to avoid schism on the basis of their devotion to the church as a via media.


Capitol Hill: Hi Diana -- Many of the U.S. dioceses and congregations that are threatening to split off from the U.S. Episcopal church are citing the Gene Robinson's installation as bishop as the precipitating factor, followed by Kathryn Schori's selection as presiding bishop. But isn't it true that for many of these detractors, the real issue goes back to unresolved tensions over the ordination of women, and that Schori's selection is perhaps even more deeply offensive to them than Robinson?

Diana Butler Bass: Capitol Hill, you pay attention to historical trends! The exact same parishes and dioceses who are stressed by Gene's election were also extremely upset about the ordination of women in the 1970s. I believe that your analysis is largely correct. The current cry for schism has been around for some thirty years and found new traction with the New Hampshire election and around the arguments regarding gay and lesbian persons in the church.

However, there exists a small number of conservative women priests who insist that the two issues are separate.

If the radicalized conservatives form a separate denomination, I wonder if they will allow women clergy? I think they might divide into pro-women's ordination and anti-women's ordination conservative factions.

Without the spiritual vision of the via media, how can they hope to create a stable, spiritually sustaining institution?


Richmond, Va.: Ms Bass,

Do those who might place themselves under the authority of African bishops understand the profound cultural differences they may encounter? It seems that an impulsive move could have unintended consequences.

Diana Butler Bass: I think not.


Carrboro, N.C.: I strongly disagree with your claim that the "old-line liberals" are using a "winner-takes-all strategy" to force their views on everyone in a way that is comparable to the "Radicalized Conservatives." This is a false equivalence.

There's a big difference between seeking to limit who New Hampshire can select as a bishop (a "winner takes all" approach) and allowing New Hampshire to make its own choice (a "live and let live" approach).

The liberals are willing to let people make up their minds. The conservatives insist on everyone agreeing with them.

Diana Butler Bass: Thanks, Carrboro (I used to live in your area!). I know that it may well be difficult for "old line liberals" to see that their views have had a hardening effect on the church. But, and I say this as someone who is deeply sympathetic with their position, I think that some policies and attitudes of my liberal friends have helped to make this situation worse than it may otherwise have been.

Liberalism does have the fundamental position that individuals should make up their own minds. But, on occasion, liberal enthusiasm (hubris, perhaps?) seems to others that people are free mostly to agree with liberals...

I think liberals need to examine this shortfall in their own spirituality honestly.


Fairfax, Va.: Maybe this isn't a popular position to take, but I for one am looking forward to a split. I do not want to be a member of a church that discriminates against the gay community, or any community. I want to go to church with people who think that way too.

Diana Butler Bass: Fairfax, a lot of conservatives think that the slight decrease in church attendance this year is the result of people like themselves protesting Gene Robinson's election. I suspect that a fair percentage comes from folks like yourself who are protesting the other side, too.

Thanks for posting. Yours is an important voice.


Baltimore: What is your take on the election of Katherine Jefferts Schiori to Presiding Bishop? I do believe she is the best person and would have been delighted at any other time. However, her election seems to be a slap in the face to those who want to take the church on a conservative/traditionalist path. How did she get elected? Is it the death knell for acceptance by the conservative/traditional diocese worldwide? Is it salt in the wound?

Diana Butler Bass: From conversations with friends of mine in the House of Bishops, they elected KJS because the Holy Spirit directed them to do so.

I wish that some of the conservatives would talk with her. She is a very spiritual person with a profound sense of mission, one who is open to all sorts of innovative ideas regarding church structure, evangelism, and social justice. She's one of those progressive pilgrim types--if only the politicized extremes could give her a chance to live into her call and very distinctive gifts.

To Workingham UK: I think Rowan Williams is one of the most creative post-modern theologians in the world and one of the most authentically spiritual Christian leaders today. I wonder if the old structures of the Church of England--and the global Anglican Communion--can change to accept his leadership? Rather than expecting RW to conform to a dying set of institution structures?


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Bass,

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that Jesus covered all of this with one simple command: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." When I saw other denominations using theology to justify their bigotry, I was disgusted. Now when I see Episcopal churches doing the same I am truly saddened. It amazes me that there are Christians who really believe that if Jesus reappeared today and gave a sermon where he listed all the things that are wrong with our society, that gay bishops and priests would be No. 1 on his list. Forget thousands of children dying of preventable diseases every day, hundreds of thousands of human beings erased by genocide and starvation in Africa, poverty and lack of health care for people in this country. I certainly respect everyone's right to an opinion. I just don't understand how a person could feel this way and call themselves a Christian. But then again, who am I to judge.

Diana Butler Bass: Thank you. I replied to Poolesville by talking about pain. You articulate my pain very well. I joined the Episcopal Church in 1980 for the exact reasons you articulate here. My heart is breaking that the church that taught me so much about loving my neighbor is devolving (in certain quarters at least) into partisan politics, hate mongering, scapegoating, spiritual and verbal violence.

I'm having trouble seeing Jesus these days. And for that, especially this Christmas, I'm very sad.


Diana Butler Bass: Thank you to everyone who participated today. I wish you a blessed Advent. And remember: Advent is about waiting, waiting to see God, waiting for the blessedness of peace.

Perhaps the Episcopal Church must be, for the time being, an Advent Church.


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