Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > July > Family Feuds
Anglican agonies demonstrate the link between long history and deep conflict.
1 of 2
Now is not a happy time to be an Episcopalian, or an Anglican, or an Anglican who was until recently an Episcopalian, or any permutation thereof. After agreeing to a temporary moratorium on ordaining homosexual bishops, the Episcopal Church - the American branch of the Anglican Communion, so named because Anglican sounded treasonously English during the Revolutionary War - voted last week to lift the moratorium and begin developing a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. (Though the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop is, after the fact, claiming the vote didn't actually mean that.)
The exodus of conservative members and parishes already underway is sure to continue, along with an increase in expressions of anger, chagrin, and sadness on all sides. Oh, and there will be plenty of valuable church properties to wrestle over, too.
Although several other Protestant denominations have been agonizing over homosexuality for years now, Episcopalians seem to be tied in the tightest knots, an impression created in part because they make such great news.
I once asked an Associated Press religion reporter about what seemed to me excessive coverage of the Episcopal Church, and she pointed out that stories about that church usually involve sex, money, and power (Episcopalians make up 7 percent of the U.S. Senate, for example, though less than 2 percent of the American population), plus, just as important, Episcopalians helpfully tell reporters when and where to show up. Local dioceses have annual conventions. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the group that met last week, convenes every three years. Bishops from the entire Anglican Communion meet every ten years at Lambeth Palace in England. To get a sense of how handy this is for religion reporters, who are lucky these days to have jobs, let alone generous travel budgets, imagine trying to cover all the major developments in America's vast non-denominational universe. Where would you go? Whom would you interview? How would you know when you had done enough work to file the story? It's a whole lot easier to plan a trip to the next big church convention and report on whatever happens there.
An unfortunate consequence of the Episcopal Church's media-friendliness, and of its famously slow and involved deliberative process, is that a casual observer might easily conclude that all Episcopalians ever do is fight. Episcopalians themselves might feel this way; not being one, I will not presume to speak for them. But the Episcopal Church is not uniquely tormented by internal tensions, nor are such tensions necessarily malignant. According to philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, any institution that hopes to last must contend with conflict.
In his landmark book After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre defined a living tradition as "an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition."
This is probably not the definition most of us would use. Family traditions - annual vacation spots, holiday foods, and so on - evoke warm, fuzzy thoughts. Vacations and holidays can occasion spats, or worse, but these are (one hopes) aberrations, not essential aspects of the traditions. Institutions, including churches, that promote their traditions usually do so to communicate stability, dignity, aesthetic richness, and monetary richness, certainly nothing so unseemly as squabbling. Think of the soothing voice on television, intoning, "A tradition unlike any other â€¦ The Master's on CBS." Soft music, verdant putting greens, smiling champions - no conflict there. The scene is placid enough to make the viewer forget the Master's is a fierce competition that every contestant save one will lose.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources