A Mad Old Aunt

At its triennial General Convention, which concluded July 12, the Episcopal Church significantly increased its distance from mainstream Christianity and its own parent body, the global Anglican Communion.

Two resolutions, D019 and D002, which endorse transsexualism in the life of the church and the ordination process, both passed by large majorities at the Convention. These make a person’s “gender identity” a matter of that person’s “inner sense of being male or female, or something more complex,” regardless of whether that person is actually male or female. 

Resolution D019 goes on to assert the prerogatives of persons in the Episcopal Church to express this inner sense of their maleness or femaleness (or something more complex) in whatever ways they choose. One assumes the framers of this resolution have in mind practices like “cross-dressing” or the surgical removal or augmentation of their genitals to resemble the genitals of the gender that they aren’t, but feel themselves to be.

As Christians, we are all about freedom. Few would question an individual’s freedom to identify with whatever gender he pleases, or his freedom to express that identification as he sees fit – weird though it may seem to many. But here’s the rub: by decreeing this sort of transsexualism to be no obstacle to any ministry, ordained or lay, within the Episcopal Church – in effect clearing the way for transsexual Sunday school teachers, priests, and bishops – General Convention is saying that this kind of transsexualism is compatible with the Christian form of life. The Convention cited no scripture to justify either transsexual resolution, although supporters wore buttons reading “All means all.”

Similarly, as expected, General Convention passed Resolution A049, authorizing gay marriage in the Episcopal Church. Commending a liturgical resource entitled I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing, the Convention claimed to be responding to an “urgent pastoral need” for gay marriage, expressed by congregations of the Episcopal Church. Some found perplexing the Convention’s further recommendation that the new liturgical resources be administered under the authority of Episcopal bishops, with a process of review in place, so that Episcopal gay marriage would be “in keeping with Anglican theological and liturgical tradition.” 

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that the new gay-marriage service will in any case NOT be in keeping with Anglican theological and liturgical tradition. Why? Precisely because it is a new gay-marriage service. Regardless, it will be available for general use in the Episcopal Church on the first Sunday of Advent, 2012.

A049 was amended, to the relief of some, to make it clear that no one will ever be penalized for conscientious disagreement with the Episcopal Church on this issue. The conscience clause reads as follows: “…no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of her or her conscientious objection to or support for the 77th General Convention’s action with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex relationships…” Pretty broad-minded, eh? Hold that thought.

A number of delegates and commentators remarked on the wide margins with which all three gender and sexuality resolutions passed. Conservatives chalked it up to the mass exodus of mainstream Christians from Episcopal churches, which have seen attendance decline by almost 25% over the past decade. Liberals, however, expressed their hope that this newest phase of Episcopal inclusivity would make up for those declines. 

The bishop of Massachussetts, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Shaw, was quoted as exhorting the Convention in these words, “Our diocese has had significant growth recently, in thanks to including all people.” Observers, though, were having trouble squaring Shaw’s statement with the latest available figures for his diocese, which show a 12% decline in average Sunday attendance since 2007.

But almost as perplexing was the need for these resolutions to begin with. If Episcopal dioceses, like bishop Shaw’s, are already “including all people,” as they certainly seem to be, given the great proportion of transgendered clergy and laypeople roving around General Convention, voting for resolutions, then it’s difficult to see the need for this explicit revision of the rules to begin with. 

If the past is any guide, the explicit revision of the rules is not for the sake of including transsexuals; it’s for excluding traditionalists. “But wait!” you say, “Did you not just quote to us a conscience clause?” This year’s explicit revisers of the rules have learned an important lesson in the furor that flowed in the wake of General Convention’s approval of the ordination of women, way back in 1976. The bishops back then also provided conscientious objectors with assurances. In fact, those assurances from 1976 will sound familiar to readers of this article. The bishops said then:

“No Bishop, Priest, or Lay Person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support of the sixty-fifth General Convention’s actions with regard to the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopate.”

In other words: Traditionalists, there’s no need to worry, we’ve got you covered! Until we don’t. Fast forward to General Convention, 1997, Resolution A053:

“…the provisions of the canons of the General Convention, insofar as they may relate to the ordination of women and the licensing and deployment of women clergy, are mandatory; and during the next triennium each Diocese where women do not have full access to ordination and where ordained women are not permitted to carry out their full ministries shall develop and implement a process to implement fully… [the ordination of women].”

So much for conscientious objection. It’s all fine until it isn’t. The revisers of the rules about “transsexual inclusion” have learned from their forbearers in the Church’s tussle over the ordination of women. And what few traditionalists are left in the Episcopal Church should have learned a lesson too. The assurances of the Episcopal Church’s national leadership are not worth the paper they are written on.

So what’s the prognosis? Pretty grim, I’m afraid. But every cloud has a silver lining. If the Episcopal Church keeps declining at its current rate, within twenty years there will be no one left to harass traditionalists, because there will be no one left. Full stop. It’s more likely, though, that as the Episcopal Church’s membership approaches the x-axis, the decline will slow, asymptotically approaching zero as it tends to infinity, but never quite reaching it.

The result? I predict that the Episcopal Church will become a kind of high-church, syncretic Unitarianism and, of course, that it will continue its sprint to the margins of coherence. Until they forget about the Episcopal Church altogether, other Christians and society more broadly, will look at the once proud denomination like a demented old aunt: tolerated and indulged for the sake of who she once was, and because she is high-born and rich, but an increasingly irritating embarrassment to anyone who remains long in her company.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.