It’s a confusing time to be a member of the Episcopal Church. More than two decades of bickering over a range of theological issues, notably the question of whether openly gay and lesbian people may be ordained as priests and bishops, has left one of America’s oldest denominations splintered.
Over the past eight years, the ordinations of gay and lesbian priests as bishops has prompted strong objections from traditionalists, and some bishops have gone as far as schism -- leaving the Episcopal Church for an array of more conservative Anglican groups.
Into this situation comes the Rev. Gregory Brewer, who recently was elected bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida, based in Orlando. Brewer, who was pastor of Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City, has big shoes to fill. He will succeed the Rt. Rev. John Howe, who is retiring in March.
Howe has been a stalwart of the traditionalist wing of the Episcopal Church, and his voice – unwavering yet charitable toward those who disagreed with him – has wielded influence far beyond Orlando.
Howe lobbied for policies that would allow conservative dioceses like his to have a measure of independence, remaining within the Episcopal Church as a kind of loyal opposition. He was willing to talk with those he disagreed with, including Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. Howe’s approach earned respect and kept most of the traditionalists in his diocese pacified.
The controversy about the role of gays and lesbians in the church has proved nearly insoluble among mainline Protestant churches that have been debating it actively since the 1980s. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have within the past year loosened their policies to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians in some situations. The fallout has been predictable: Significant minorities of congregations – especially large and wealthy congregations – are planning to leave.
Traditionalists defend themselves against charges of bigotry toward gays by pointing out that there are clear biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. That is true, although they have a tough time explaining why they are much more lenient about divorce, which the Bible forbids in equally clear terms. But that’s a discussion for another day.
The trend in American society is clearly toward wide acceptance of gays and lesbians, but whether you agree with Howe’s views or not, his example of firm principles, held without rancor, is something I wish we saw more of in all sectors of society.
Brewer’s positions seem aligned with Howe’s, and he has ties to Central Florida, so he may succeed in holding together the consensus Howe forged. But the pressures toward conformity to Episcopal policy or toward schism may get worse.
Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina, who, like Howe, tried to strike an independent stance, was charged by the Episcopal Church with “abandonment,” that is, of leaving the denomination in all but name. Lawrence was cleared of the charges last month, but the national leadership of the church clearly does not trust the dissenters.
And the traditionalist wing continues to look for any excuse to leave. Some were unhappy when Howe decided not to take his diocese out of the church. Several congregations went ahead and split anyway.
It could be asked what difference it makes if the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant groups splinter into insignificance. Studies suggest that denominational identity matters much less to people these days than even a generation ago. Claiming to be Methodist or Presbyterian just doesn’t seem to mean as much.
But these churches still matter because of the historical role they have played in American society. They are national bodies that still represent a cooperative form of belief and governance that should be a model for the rest of society. For those reasons alone, they are worth holding together.
That’s why we should wish Bishop-elect Brewer well, along with those of good will in the Episcopal Church’s national leadership. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland.