By Leander Harding

As I sit as a deputy at the 79th General Convention it is clear to me that the Episcopal Church is divided. It is hard to come up with adequate language to describe the division in a way that does not diminish either side. Liberal vs. conservative is crude shorthand that doesn’t really work, but points to realities everyone acknowledges. Liberals are in a very clear majority. The division is probably more equal in the church taken as a whole. Both sides are driven by principle, a conviction that gospel essentials are in play, and a worry that compromise may involve an immoral abandonment of principle.

Amid division over essential theological and ethical teaching, what ethics should guide our conduct in the struggle? If a new marriage discipline is passed, should a conservative priest resign? If a new marriage discipline does not pass, should a liberal priest in a traditionalist diocese engage in the ecclesiastical version of civil disobedience?

I will speak for myself. As I have struggled with the division in our church, three things have been my guide: the responsibility of office; the distinction between the ethics of heaven, the ethics of earth, and the ethics of hell; and just war theory.


There was a moment in the early days of this controversy when I was very tempted to resign and either search for a cure in a more traditionalist diocese or leave the Episcopal Church altogether. I was stopped by a line from C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. Reepicheep, the valiant talking mouse, reminds the young Prince Caspian now revealed as the rightful king that “the King shall not please himself as though he were a private person.” The leader is obliged to a profound consideration of the consequences of personal choices on the people he or she serves. There are ethical choices available to the individual that are not available to the public person by reason of their office. Another name for the public person is the parson.

I was taught by  the late Dr. Gabriel Fackre to distinguish between the ethics of heaven, the ethics of earth, and the ethics of hell. Absolute nonviolence is the ethics of heaven. The Amish have an inspiring witness to it. But on earth faithful Christians have discerned that it is regrettably necessary to sometimes use force to restrain evil. Police officers are necessary. Soldiers are necessary.

Another example: Jesus very clearly forbids divorce. It is the ethic of heaven, and we are called to live by this ethic, but on earth marriages fail and all churches have made some pastoral provision for our fallen humanity, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches.

On earth we often have no entirely good choices but must choose between the lesser of two evils. Under the guidance of the ethics of heaven we must choose the best course possible, but the choices may be severely limited by the realities of a fallen world.

Then there is the ethics of hell, where the environment for ethical action has degraded to the point that no choice seems good. All life is sacred, but on the battlefield the medic must make terrible choices. In order to save one life, the medic may have to refuse to treat another.  A man may have to hand his brother over to the FBI because he has come to realize that his brother is a criminal or terrorist.

I don’t think we are in the realm of the ethics of hell in our disputes in the Episcopal Church, but it would be no great distance to get there. As it is we are very much in the realm of the ethics of earth. It is hard to see any choice that does not injure the body of Christ and threaten an already strained unity. Sobriety about the possible is not automatically an immoral compromise of principle. Such sobriety is the prerequisite for implementing the ethics of heaven under the limitations of this world.

Just war theory gives guidance for extraordinary action in extreme circumstances. I believe this theory can guide us not only in armed conflicts but in any conflict that pushes us to the place where we feel compelled by conscience to take extreme action on behalf of truth and justice.

First, we must believe that the cause is just and that any extreme act is the last possible resort and that all legal and diplomatic remedies have been exhausted. There must be a competent authority. Impulsive actions by aggrieved individuals are not licit. There must be a right intention. The intention must be to maintain the right or to restore justice. The satisfaction of humiliating an opponent is not a proper intention.

There must be proportionality between the means and the ends. The infantry captain in Vietnam who reported that he had to destroy the village in order to save it failed to discern the issue or proportionality. This principle of proportionality, of weighing the relationship between the possible costs and the possible gains, is something that needs more attention in our ecclesiastical disputes.

There must be a reasonable possibility of success. You ought not wreak havoc and have nothing to show for it. This ought to be a very sobering calculation for both camps. It is possible to bring about great destruction in a just cause that never had much chance of succeeding. It is possible to win a Pyrrhic victory.

Finally, the ultimate aim must be reconciliation. Simply to vanquish and humiliate the other side is not a proper aim. I heard the great evangelical Anglican theologian J.I. Packer give a talk about why he felt compelled to lead a breakaway movement in the Anglican Church of Canada. All the points of his talk began with r. I can now remember only the last two that he said would be imperative after separation: reengagement and reconciliation. I do not mention Packer because I counsel separation, but because it is instructive that so fierce a partisan would still held to the primacy of reconciliation as a Christian value.

I do not yet know what the results of the 79th General Convention will be. It is not yet clear to me what pressures the decisions of the convention will place on consciences on both sides of the debate. As I deal with the results, these will be the principles that guide me. I recommend them to all concerned on all sides.


About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.

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Michael F
4 years ago

Thank you for this thoughtful article. You raise a lot of good observations and principles, but I have to say that part of the division is caused by the perception that there are just two sides. There are actually many sides, but somehow two sides keep co-opting the discussion. I’m a high church, theologically orthodox moderate in the church. I’m not a liberal, and I’m not a conservative. But I’d really like to be in conversation with liberals and conservatives, and help broker meaningful pathways to unity. I’m not strongly for same-sex inclusion the sacrament of marriage, but neither do… Read more »

Mary Barrett
4 years ago

I think that the modern writings of Richard Rohr on non-duality are very useful. This type of conflict is not isolated to the Episcopal Church, and I am saddened to consider this as at the level of a just war. My father, a war hero, was in the 101st Airborne in WWII and jumped at Normandy on D-Day, was trapped at Bastogne, and lived with that trauma all his life. No wonder he always reminded his youngest daughter to not get too bogged down by the organized church created by men, but continue to seek the Spirit in all of… Read more »

Michael Morrissey
4 years ago

Leander, thank you for the article…which I am late in reading. There is the conundrum of being a presbyter of a faith tradition which is in gross violation of its own tenets and dishonest in its dealings with other provinces. There often comes a time when continued presence misleads others or leads others to question ones own moral/ethical character for staying in the relationship. Both the oath of a commissioned military officer and the one taken as a presbyter refer to the appropriate foundations of the entity to which one joins. When that entity no longer abides within its founding… Read more »