Open Hearted, Open Minded Christianity
by The Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno and The Reverend Bryan Jones
In recent years the Episcopal Church has acted from a firm foundation of biblical, historic faith, not on "whatever the liberal elements of secular society deem permissible or politically correct" as contended by Charlotte Allen in her diatribe against the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, "Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins" (Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 9, 2006).
Episcopalians seek to follow Jesus' own understanding of scripture when he identified two commandments from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" as greater than any other portions of Scripture (Matthew 22:36-40). We believe that the central biblical mandates are clear: to love, welcome, and include all people into an egalitarian Christian fellowship, in which "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). It is in these overarching commandments and central mandates from the Bible as a whole that we find the authority of Scripture. We do not look for that authority in any handful of scattered, isolated passages selectively gathered to rationalize intolerance, cruelty or unfairness.
This basic call of God in Christ leads Christians in each age to new awareness of still unresolved divisions and unaddressed exclusions in the Church and in society. In our own times, this dynamic has led the Episcopal Church and many other American churches into conflicts over injustice and oppression against people of color, the poor, and immigrants, as well as over the equality of women and the full humanity of gay and lesbian people.
Our current conflicts are real but should not be overblown. Out of more than 7,000 congregations nationwide fewer than 150 have sought to leave the Episcopal Church. Out of 111 dioceses, seven are seeking ecclesiastical oversight from someone other than our newly elected Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, while making it clear that they do not wish to leave the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church is open to all people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Within the broad parameters of essential Christian conviction and practice, it celebrates a diversity of opinions and positions on many issues. We are bound together by common prayer and shared worship, so we have no need to impose uniformity in thought and doctrine. At our best we are open-hearted and open-minded followers of Christ. We democratically elect our bishops, priests, and lay leaders at all levels of the church. We respect each person's right to conscience. We know our understanding is limited and often mistaken but we strive together to hear God's voice in Scripture, in the tradition of the Church and in our God-given capacities to think and feel, to reflect and to learn.
In her article, Charlotte Allen paints a picture of the Episcopal Church in particular and the American religious landscape in general that is simplistic and inaccurate. In her view churches can be neatly divided into denominations which are declining because of their liberalism and denominations which are growing because they are conservative. Reality, as usual, is a bit more complex. The Episcopal Church was never simply "the Republican Party at prayer." It always has been and still is home to people who are both theologically and politically conservative, moderate and liberal. It is the church of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, but also of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a life long active Episcopalian whose social conscience was formed by the Episcopal schools of his youth. Even the Southern Baptists are more diverse than their commonly assigned caricature. The last three Baptist Presidents were named Truman, Carter and Clinton.
Declining Church membership and attendance is a broader phenomenon as well. The Southern Baptist Convention now publicly worries that its plateaued membership numbers and declining baptism rates augur future decline. Some recent studies reveal that attendance has started to decline in evangelical congregations and conservative mega churches as well. It is true that the overall membership of the Episcopal Church has declined since the 1960's. But it also true that a majority of its dioceses experienced increases in their active members (communicants) between 1993 and 2003. For example here in California the "liberal" diocese of Los Angeles and the "conservative" diocese of San Joaquin grew at nearly equal rates. (13.9% with 1,018 new communicants for San Joaquin and 12% with 5,869 new communicants for Los Angeles.)
Christianity in North America is moving through a great historic transition which may have first expressed itself among mainline denominations, but is not stopping there. We have moved into an era where, regardless of nominal identifications, only a minority of Americans are active, church-going Christians of any stripe. The rivers of societal sanctions and cultural norms no longer flow through church doors depositing people in the pews. Today the majority of Americans no longer fear either social ostracism or eternal damnation when they choose not to go church. The palpable tone of hostile resentment in so many public voices of American Christianity today arises out of grief at the passing of that socially conventional church. But we are convinced that its passing is all to the good. Too often the motivation of religious fear bore the bitter fruit of anxious lives and judgmental communities, hardly the joyous fruits of the Spirit which the poetry of St. Paul sings praises to (Galatians 5:22-23). Far better for churches of any size to be filled with people who have consciously chosen to sing praises faithfully and gratefully towards the loving God they find there.
And while we are at it, let's sing a few praises for Katherine Jefferts Schori, newly elected as the first woman Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Her ministry continues to embody what Christian churches in the 21st century should be about. Her vision for the Church calls us beyond the current disputes to Christ's call to comfort the mourning, feed the hungry, and preach good news to the poor.
Every week in tens of thousands of churches, including Episcopal congregations, people are quietly living into that vision by caring for their neighbors. A recent study from the University of Chicago revealed that presently 50% of Americans report they have fewer than three people in their lives they can confide in. Twenty-five percent report they have no one to confide in at all. In such unprecedented social isolation, loneliness may be the hunger and poverty that is shared most often by people at all levels of our society. Although we make no claims that it is the only place where a life different from this can be found, we know the local Episcopal congregation offers a blessed alternative. There you will find a faith community where people know and care for each other; respect differences, and share the presence of God, whose love passes all our understanding.
J. Jon Bruno is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Bryan Jones is Rector of St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Long Beach.
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