A while ago–perhaps a year or more–Dean Kevin Martin of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas visited the Diocese of Tennessee and gave a presentation about evangelism at one of our congregations. During his presentation, Dean Kevin made several important observations that have recently been highlighted for me.
First, he noted that most people know very little about the Episcopal Church. Indeed, most people know very little about any church. It is often particularly hard for Episcopalians to consider the fact that the goings on in our church do not draw the attention of everyone else (except for quite a few journalists). His argument was that most people with a negative view of The Episcopal Church, whether because of our liturgy, or culture war issues, were usually not non-Christians, but were instead Christians who had been formed in traditions hostile to the Episcopal Church in some way. Point taken. For non-Christians, or those who have spent a very long time away from church, the association most have with The Episcopal Church is that “it is a safe place.” They expect that it’s somewhere they can go and worship and not be assaulted in some way, spiritually or emotionally.
This perception is a good thing. It’s not just a good thing for those from non-Christian backgrounds, but often for those from Christian backgrounds that are more overtly vocal about the lives of individual members. This seems to be the case for Mrs. Abby Johnson the former Planned Parenthood director who has made news by resigning her job after watching a video of an abortion prompted a change in her views. You see, Mrs. Johnson is a former Southern Baptist who found the Episcopal Church when it was made clear that her involvement in planned parenthood meant she was not welcome in Southern Baptist Churches. The fact that Mrs. Johnson was able to feel welcome and be involved in the life of a local Episcopal Church is something that I believe we should feel proud of.
In contrast to some other traditions that have attempted to ensure that the visible church is made up of only of the pure, Anglicanism has instead seen itself as being open to all the people–to being a place where people can come and hear the Gospel and have their lives transformed. This paradigm difference could be expressed in the contemporary world by the difference between different placement of the “three b’s”, believe-behave-belong.
Many congregations that operate out of the model of the believers church, place the order this way:
Other traditions place the order differently, as did the sub-apostolic church, which seems to have emphasized the behave, believe, belong order in many situations.
In contrast, what many people engaged in reaching out to our non-religious contemporaries are finding is that a more effective (and, I would argue, in many ways more biblical) model is this:
Ideally, this is what the Episcopal Church’s traditionally “welcoming” attitude allows to take place. It may have been the initial response Mrs. Johnson received when she began attending the local Episcopal Church. However, as GetReligion has noted, now that Johnson’s opinions on abortion have changed and she has become pro-life, some members of her congregation seem to be reacting negatively to her. The details of the story are still murky, and I don’t want to draw conclusions about what is actually happening–congregational conflict, especially when the media gets involved, can be very hairy and full of miscommunication, innuendo and assumption.
However, regardless of the details of what is or isn’t happening, it is clear that Johnson no longer feels as welcome at her congregation as she did before:
Now she is facing a different kind of music at her parish, St. Francis Episcopal in nearby College Station, the home of Texas A&M University. Whereas clergy and parishioners welcomed her as a Planned Parenthood employee, now they are buttonholing her after Sunday services.
“Now that I have taken this stand, some of the people there are not accepting of that,” she told The Washington Times. “People have told me they disagree with my choice. One of the things I’ve been told is that as Episcopalians, we embrace our differences and disagreements. While I agree with that, I am not sure I can go to a place where I don’t feel I am welcome.” [GR]
This is a shame, and as positive as it is that we in the Episcopal Church are still seen as a safe place for people to come and hear the Gospel, I think that this situation is illustrative of the negative side of that. Because The Episcopal Church has not been one to have folks sign on the dotted line before they can belong and gained a reputation as a church where “you don’t have to check your brain at the door,” there are some within the Episcopal Church who see it as the anti-whateverfundamentalisttraditiontheyarerunningfrom. As a result, there are folks within the Episcopal Church who assume the church’s position equates to their political or culture war position. In other words, as much as some folks have run from traditions that have been in bed with the Republican party, they are willing to sell the soul of their church to the DNC at a discount rate. The freedom for individual choice they so admire only seems to cut one way, and it displays an ignorance of what the Episcopal Church has actually said on any given matter, to say nothing of an ignorance (or down right rejection) of what the broader great tradition of Christianity has to say.
The Episcopal Church is confused about abortion–or at least many of her members are–just as it is many other issues at the moment. The official position of TEC is that abortion always has a tragic dimension as it entails the ending of a human life. At the same time TEC has stated that there shouldn’t be restrictions on access to abortion, and has emphasized the importance of individual choice and the formation of individual conscience on the matter. The Episcopal Church has attempted to walk a fine line in the matters, and I believe the statements of General Convention have largely succeeded in both upholding Christian teaching about human life and also recognizing that life sometimes entails tragic situations. While as a pro-life person I would quibble on a few points (and am leery of language that sees family planning as an obligation… that smacks of 1950’s protestant perfectionism to me), by and large the statements of General Convention have been well structureed. It’s a shame that more people haven’t actually read them. (it’s also a shame that the executive council of the Episcopal Church would affiliate the church with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization whose commitments are opposed to these same convention resolutions, but that’s another story).
An archive of the official resolutions of General Convention on the issue of abortion is available here. This is one of the most recent statements about abortion in general, from the 1994 General Convention:
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church reaffirms resolution C047 from the 69th General Convention, which states:
All human life is sacred from its inception until death. The Church takes seriously its obligation to help form the consciences of its members concerning this sacredness. Human life, therefore, should be initiated only advisedly and in full accord with this understanding of the power to conceive and give birth which is bestowed by God. It is the responsibility of our congregations to assist their members in becoming informed concerning the spiritual and physiological aspects of sex and sexuality.
The Book of Common Prayer affirms that “the birth of a child is a joyous and solemn occasion in the life of a family. It is also an occasion for rejoicing in the Christian community” (p. 440). As Christians we also affirm responsible family planning.
We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community.
While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.
In those cases where an abortion is being considered, members of this Church are urged to seek the dictates of their conscience in prayer, to seek the advice and counsel of members of the Christian community and where appropriate, the sacramental life of this Church.
Whenever members of this Church are consulted with regard to a problem pregnancy, they are to explore, with grave seriousness, with the person or persons seeking advice and counsel, as alternatives to abortion, other positive courses of action, including, but not limited to, the following possibilities: the parents raising the child; another family member raising the child; making the child available for adoption.
It is the responsibility of members of this Church, especially the clergy, to become aware of local agencies and resources which will assist those faced with problem pregnancies.
We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem. We therefore express our deep conviction that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding abortions must take special care to see that the individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored as the position of this Church; and be it further
Resolved, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church express its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.
The tragedy of this situation, with Mrs. Johnson feeling excluded now that she has come to a pro-life position, is that, TEC is not “pro-abortion” at all, nor should any Christian organization be. Instead, it seems that she’s become the victim of people who desire the Episcopal Church to be the anti-whatevertheydon’tlikeaboutconservativeschurch. This, sadly, could be an example of one of the ways that a strength has turned into a weakness.