By Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention will be dominated again by issues of human sexuality — specifically whether to approve trial use of a rite for blessing same-sex couples. The church suffers from a tremendous anemia, and accompanying it is a loss of the resources to do real Gospel-centered ministry: evangelism, discipleship, outreach, and mission.
As one who can sympathize with those who feel like drawing a line in the sand with leave-taking or legal battles, I have spent the better part of a year pondering if the answer is found not in one side of our divisions but in both sides. Perhaps one of the core problems is pride. Remember C.S. Lewis’s injunction, echoing St. Augustine and others? Pride alone is the source for all the darkness that looms on the face of the earth. Pride gains its nourishment from knowing it is right and the other is wrong. There is abundant pride in our church, on every side.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes powerfully in Life Together about the reality of the Church:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. … A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, if it insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter. (pp. 26-28)
We continue to live in a crisis-laden part of the greater Christian family. To ignore it, deny it, or sidestep it is foolhardy and only inflames the crisis. But to pretend that one side or the other has all the answers is to plant a flimsy flag of issue-dominated ministry in the shifting soil of pride. The answer, it seems, rests in the heart of Jesus’ last prayer before the opening of the Passion: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23). At the heart of the Gospel is making Jesus known; and at the heart of the Church’s work to make that happen is labor toward greater unity. Simple psychology points to the reality that most familial and personal dysfunction stems from the dissolution of the family. Is our dysfunctional divided family too blind to see the same?
Those of us weary and exhausted by the domination of extremists have begun to seek other ways. Of the seminaries left, at least two (Virginia Theological Seminary and Seminary of the Southwest) have begun to engage voices on all sides of the various issues and to work toward community. Some bishops, including my own here in Texas, paved the way for priests and lay people to return to the Episcopal Church. Some bishops have worked hard to strike fair legal settlements without resorting to lawsuits; others have chosen to dismiss departing clergy, rather than depose them, with the hope that they might someday return — and some have.
The horror show played out in the Diocese of Virginia is perhaps the clearest example of immovability. Forcing vibrant churches and clergy, by order of the court, to abandon their facilities and turn them over to “continuing” communities, some of which do not have the resources to sustain the facilities, exhibits a kind of relentless pride which seems to leave little middle ground or room for compromise.
Pray the wise minds and loving hearts in leadership in every place around our Anglican family — from primate to priest, from bishop to deacon, from vestry person to Sunday School teacher — will call for authentic Christian community by lowering the flag of pride and making a real place for every person at the table who will come, focused not on their own dream of the Church, but on that of our Lord: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.”
The Rev. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., is rector of St. Martin’s Church, Houston, and a member of the Living Church Foundation.