Just before Holy Week we found out that our retired eighth bishop of Albany, Daniel Herzog, was resigning his orders in the Episcopal Church and transferring to the Anglican Church in North America. During Holy Week we found out that the recently retired ninth bishop of Albany, William Love, was also resigning his orders in the Episcopal Church and transferring to the ACNA. Just after Easter we have learned that our beloved Sisters of Saint Mary, Eastern Province, have also decamped for the ACNA. We have lost a handful of other clergy and a couple of congregations so far. There will likely be more to leave, but I can say that having lived through the separation of both the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Diocese of South Carolina there was an energy for separation in those cases that I do not find in the Diocese of Albany.
Mostly the diocese is made up of small struggling churches in towns whose glory days were nearly a century ago. The controversies of the church fly above the nitty gritty of parish life in these demographically declining communities where the challenges are the pastoral care of aging flocks and the care of beautiful but aging buildings. These congregations are often criticized for having an “edifice complex.” This is the current term of abuse for Christian brothers and sisters who have borne the brunt of the battle in the heat of the day and been faithful stewards of village churches where generations have met God in the words of the Scripture and the sacraments of Christ. Most of the people care more about their brothers and sisters with whom they have shared decades of Christian life and more about their ancestral places of worship than they do about bishops, conventions, and resolutions.
I can only speak for myself, but my sense is that those who are leaving are not leaving because of a single issue but because they have become convinced that the Episcopal Church no longer has as its organizing center Jesus Christ as he is encountered in the Scriptures. The oft repeated phrase, “There is more that unites us than divides us,” rings hollow to them. I confess that often it rings hollow to me as well. One of the penalties of polarization is that you begin to base your judgment of those on the other side on speculation and not familiarity as increasingly birds of angry feather flock together.
Here are some moments that have caused me to grieve over the church I still love and which I have served for forty years. When Gene Robinson was elected a bishop and the controversy over same-sex blessing began to roil the church, the diocesan bishop came to make his annual visitation in the historic parish where I was rector. I was well known as theologically conservative but not a fan of separation. The bishop asked me for advice, and I advised him to spend the next year touring the diocese inviting the help of other clergy and lay teachers to share with him teaching and preaching on the catholic creeds. The more traditional minded clergy and people needed reassurance that the disagreement was a disagreement within the household of faith and not the opening proposal for a new religion. The suggestion was greeted with stunned silence. I never heard any more about it.
Readers of The Living Church will remember the “Teaching Jesus” initiative that was the result of an exchange of letters between me and the editors. It came to nothing, and the written responses from across the aisle were in my view disappointing. The answer appeared to be that we cannot in good conscience focus just on Jesus; other issues must be brought in; interfaith sensitivities, sensitivities about sexual and racial identities must be acknowledged. Well and good, but can we not focus on Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen from the dead, present in the Spirit and coming again, just for a moment, just for a season until we recover our solidarity in Christ on the level ground at the foot of the cross? Having renewed our solidarity in Christ we might be able to face disputes as fellow sinners redeemed by the blood of the savior. The answer appears to be no.
Mere Christianity, to use C. S. Lewis’s phrase, does not appear to be enough. I say appear to be. I do not know for sure, but nothing I hear or read reassures me, and the official agenda of the church seems to me to routinely mistake things temporal for things eternal, more like a political action plan than an eternal gospel.
What would help in this moment would be to hear from unexpected corners a robust confession of Jesus Christ as the only begotten one who by the Holy Spirit brings the Father to us and by the Holy Spirit brings us to the Father in and through his own body the Church, so that in him, the one and only mediator, we find our unity with God and with each other. What would help right now is to hear that Jesus Christ is enough in and of himself. The center of the church is not a mean between any two theological positions. The center of the church is Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. I strain to hear a clear, simple word about him. Perhaps I am hard of hearing. Of your charity would you speak up?
The Roman Catholic theologian Robert Imbelli has spoken of the decapitated body of Christ. If we cannot somehow together find him who is our head, I do not see how it will be possible to keep the body together. This is I think as true for a congregation as it is for a diocese or a denomination. I see nothing more worth doing in the present moment than to say a simple and clear word about Him who is our life and our hope.
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany