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Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates, and with good reason. While our catechism commits us robustly to every-member ministry and our canons require shared governance, engrained habits usually win out, especially in times of what Bishop Sean Rowe calls our church’s existential crisis. The Presiding Bishop’s gifts and priorities shape the staffing and projects of the church center and filter down to dioceses and parishes, with a relational imprimatur of sorts.

Our church has discerned that leadership must finally be passed to the next generation, one formed long after the bitter culture wars of the 1960s, without clear memories of packed Sunday schools and politicians eager to court our favor. It has chosen a remarkably talented leader, widely trusted for his honesty and diligence. His first-ballot election gives him a mandate to launch what one bishop called “the church of the future he’s been building in his basement for a decade.” He will be supported well in this work by the two officers of the House of Deputies, both younger than 50.

Rowe’s bold decision to hold the service marking his new ministry in the workaday surroundings of the small chapel at the church center instead of the splendors of Washington National Cathedral gives us a hint of other major changes still to come.

Bishop Rowe is a change agent who comfortably speaks the language of strategic planning and community organizing. Our friends in the Church of England warn us to beware of bishops with business degrees, but Rowe is also deeply loyal to the institution, raised up with love from within a struggling rural diocese he has guided into a new and more hopeful future. He knows how to make do with less and has plenty of experience in staff restructuring and clear communication. He is humble and self-effacing, and in his first address spoke constantly of putting Jesus Christ and the gospel first.

The prophet Isaiah tells a broken and exilic Israel: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isa. 58:12). The complexity of sin, judgment, and the providence of God in this portion of the history of our forbearers should become a focus of prayer and reflection for our church in this important moment.

Bishop Rowe must guide the Episcopal Church through difficult decisions about how many interim bodies we actually need and how many initiatives are best carried out on a church-wide level. We strongly support his call to mutual reconciliation, “in which we can disagree without shaming or blaming or tearing each other apart.” Every time he spoke in Louisville, his words and their subtext were sober and realistic. We should expect the Great Litany, not confetti and dance music, the next time the Convention approves diocesan mergers.

It was encouraging to see “a right beginning” of this work in the House of Deputies, as re-elected President Julia Ayala Harris took the high road in responding to attacks on her character. Several rigid and uncompromising proposals about the shape of General Convention and complex political issues were soundly defeated, despite the strong backing of the older generation of progressives who have dominated the house for nearly a half-century.

For those of us who are committed to traditional teaching and practice, this was easily the most encouraging General Convention in a generation. Many whispered to each other that they had never left a Convention feeling this heartened or this welcome.

Important resolutions proposed by the Task Force on Communion Across Difference were passed, securing protections for clergy, parishes, and dioceses to discern God’s call to ministry and for clergy to lead without being forced to violate their consciences. Canons that define prayer book memorialization as “authorized for regular use at any service in all dioceses of this Church,” and the decision that after 2027 the Book of Common Prayer will have two marriage rites, clarify that our church has two teachings on marriage, with space for leaders of differing convictions to collaborate with each other without fear of reprisal.

Opponents squashed a resolution to renew the Task Force on Communion Across Difference, but we are confident that work to build relationships across theological divides will continue, we hope with the new presiding bishop’s blessing. We rejoice in Rowe’s call for “a relational jubilee in which we can let go of the resentment, anger, and grudges that have weakened our leadership.” The Living Church stands ready to work with him and with other institutions across our church to gather supporters and lead these conversations. If the conversations at Convention are any indication, other ministries across our church will follow suit, with a willingness to fund and lead efforts for those goals that matter most to them, without placing demands on the church’s budget.

Father Clint Wilson, one of TLC’s board members, who served as a deputy from the host diocese, remarked that our “victories” in securing the passage of canons to define prayer book memorialization and to ensure conscience protections were clearly a gift from God, because they came at a time when we have so little power in the House of Deputies. Nearly all the speeches on behalf of these causes were made by friends who don’t share our understanding of marriage, but who are ready to do all they can to secure a place for us in the Episcopal Church.

The beginning of the Book of Haggai gives a similar evaluation of God’s people in that day as Bishop Rowe has in ours: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag. 1:7-9).

There is only one future: it is the worship of the God of Israel, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt. There is only one hope: humble service of the God whom Jesus taught us to call Father and through whom the Spirit was sent so that we might know this Jesus and evermore rejoice in his holy comfort. All strategies and programs are worth nothing unless they are grounded in the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this encouraging article. I really do believe we’ve taken a right step with Rowe, and I agree as a Boomer that Gen X, Millennial, and other leaders coming up in TEC will honor conscience clauses better than their seniors have done since the 1970s. Likely this comes from a deep sense of fairness and a true commitment to diversity — at the very least in a sense analogous to E.O. Wilson’s biological diversity. My Millennial children tend to have compassion for minorities and those who have been trampled upon, even if they strongly disagree with the oppressed ones. In any case, alleluia.

  2. I share your sense of encouragement on many of these developments, but I am also disappointed and concerned that the Article X revision went forward (even with the improving amendments passed on first reading). I also was hoping for the Title IV change to include memorialized prayer books in the definition of TEC doctrine. But maybe we can try again in 3 years. For many traditionalists, it’s not just a matter of being tolerated on the basis of conscience, but of being able to teach the received theology of marriage as the doctrine of the church.

  3. I left the Episcopal Church of my childhood. There are no compromises with God. The Garden of Eden is the wisdom needed to love the Lord and love our neighbors. It is unfortunate that Satan tries to get under the skin of all of God’s children. Human nature, evidenced by God’s creation is a world of boys and girls, men and women. Vive le diference!

  4. I am very cautiously hopeful but share some of Matthew’s cautions. Time will tell and God, in His mercy, will provide

  5. All of this is well and good. I made the decision not to do to others what had been done to us a LGBTQ + people. At what point will you stop allowing your “conscience” to place barriers for people who know God’s call in their lives, even when it comes to marriage? I doubt that most of you even know much less have a relationship with LGBTQ + folks who, like I have a very strong and personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my savior. I was baptized and confirmed an Episcopalian in 1965 at the age of 16. I knew God was calling me to this church What I did not realize was that I would devote four decades of my trying to be fully included. Count your blessings that you never had to do that because of at least the presumption you were straight. No one’s conscience will ever justify the suicide of a teen who lacked the strength to engage in the struggle to be where they knew God was calling them. This was never about church politics. It was always about God’s love for ALL God created.

  6. Thank you for this. I’m one of those GenXers, whose faith system is unapologetically built on the Creeds and who supports equal marriage. I hope in walking together we can nurture each other and learn from each other – all for the greater glory of God.

  7. Nathaniel W. Pierce
    It was noted on the floor of the House of Deputies that the resolutions submitted by the Task Force on Communion Across Difference drew on the 1977 House of Bishops’ magnificent statement on the importance of respecting the conscientious principles of others. To be sure, the catalyst for this statement was the 1976 decision to ordain women to the priesthood and the reality of a Presiding Bishop in office who opposed this initiative. Nevertheless, such a limited perspective ignores the historical significance of the statement. In reality it was a long overdue recognition that the House of Bishops sinned egregiously in 1917-18 when it forced the Rt. Rev. Paul Jones to resign as the Bishop of the Missionary District of Utah. And what had Bishop Jones done to deserve such a fate? He had uttered three words that upset his fellow Bishops on the eve of WWI: “War is unchristian.”

    The 1977 statement on conscience was a first step in recognizing this grievous mistake. This was followed by the 1991 GC approval of the first reading of a proposal to add Bishop Jones to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. As you rightly note above, the implementation of the 1977 statement by the 2024 GC “secur[es] protections for clergy, parishes, and dioceses to discern God’s call to ministry and for clergy to lead without being forced to violate their consciences.” I would suggest adding “and Bishops” to that sentence.

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