George Will spoke to Bishop Bob Duncan and declared in his syndicated column that he is a kind of modern day Martin Luther. Episcopalians from around the country wrote letters to their editors saying "not so fast."
Will rehashes some of the old talking points:
It is not the secessionists such as Bishop Duncan who are, as critics charge, obsessed with homosexuality. The Episcopal Church's leadership is latitudinarian -- tolerant to the point of incoherence, Bishop Duncan and kindred spirits think -- about clergy who deviate from traditional church teachings concerning such core doctrines as the divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the path to salvation. But the national church insists on the ordination of openly gay clergy and on blessing same-sex unions.
In the 1960s, Bishop James Pike of California, who urged the church to jettison such "theological baggage" as the doctrines of Original Sin and the Trinity, was the last active bishop disciplined for theological reasons. Bishop Duncan doubts whether Bishop Pike would be disciplined today....
The Anglican communion once was a "via media," a middle way, between Catholicism and Protestantism. Now, Bishop Duncan says, the national leadership of the Episcopal Church thinks of itself as a bridge between Protestantism and the culture.
Episcopalians did not take Will's column lying down. Here is a sampling of some of the letters we've seen.
Dianne Eldridge of Murraysville, PA wrote to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
I read George F. Will's "A Cautionary Tale" (Oct. 20) with complete amazement. Mr. Will seems to have consigned the entire Episcopal Church of the United States to the category of " 'progressive' politics cloaked -- very thinly -- in piety." Apparently he bases his uninformed opinion on an interview with Robert Duncan, the recently deposed Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh. It's good to know that we can all be summarily dismissed with this glib statement: "It [the church] celebrates an 'inclusiveness' that includes fewer and fewer members."
I have a question for Mr. Will: If progressive is an evil in your eyes, can you show me the chapter and verse in the Bible describing Jesus, the foundation of our beliefs, as regressive? I also wonder how it is that Mr. Will knows all this about the Episcopal Church: personal experience, reading the newspapers, word of mouth? If from personal experience, I regret that his parish did not take seriously the second great commandment: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." If his experience is not personal, then I deeply regret his writing of a propaganda piece, which leaves me wondering if his other columns are as uninformed as this one.
On the other side of the Commonwealth, Christine Whitmore Papa of Stroudsburg, PA, wrote to the Pocono Record:
Yes, there has been a loss of membership, but new people are joining: just yesterday at my Stroudsburg church I met three new members.
Yes, in my native England, Anglican churchgoers may be fewer than before, but Mr. Will doesn't mention that the boom in Catholic worshippers is due to the recent huge influx of Polish Catholics.
Is it necessarily "evidence of spiritual vigor" when a diocese leaves the Episcopal Church, sincere as a departing bishop may be? Doesn't it also take "spiritual vigor" to rise above dissension?
Those 650 bishops at the Lambeth Conference differed, often widely, in their views. Yet from reports of their meetings it seems they were able to discuss, and then set aside, their differences, and focus on prayer, meditation, and all that unites them as Anglicans.
Mr. Will says "The Episcopal Church... today... is 'progressive' politics cloaked — very thinly — in piety." No church is perfect, of course, and our leaders can be as flawed as any others, religious or secular. But in the pews I see believers of various backgrounds, drawn together by a desire to seek God and live as much as possible in the spirit of Jesus. While fostering tradition and keeping core Christian doctrines (we say the Nicene Creed weekly), the Episcopal Church has room for various understandings of what the Christian life means for us today.
Two Cathedral deans weighed in. The Very Rev. John P. Downey, Dean of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Erie, PA said,
George Will's column about the "inclusiveness" of the Episcopal Church (Erie Times Oct. 20), was a simplistic attempt to describe some of the troubles that the church is undergoing.
Numerical decline in membership has been experienced by all the historic mainline denominations in the United States for many reasons. These include decline in birth rate among their members and other demographic shifts, more honest and accurate record keeping, and a well-financed effort to weaken these churches by exploiting the cultural tensions they will inevitably have because of their democratic structures.
Along with these is the reality that the conventional churchgoing of past generations is increasingly marginal in our current culture.
As for the pitfalls of "inclusiveness," let me say that I know well what it feels like to be excluded for religious or other reasons.
The pain is deep and lasting. However, I can only imagine the further reaches of that pain for women and minorities of various kinds.
The Episcopal Church is far from perfect, but I will gladly live with the risks and even the well-intentioned errors of "inclusiveness," than the damaging effects of exclusiveness.
The Very Rev. Dr. Benjamin Shambaugh, Dean of The Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, Maine wrote to the Portland Press Herald:
As a member of the clergy, I have heard it said that "pastors should preach about what they know and not about subjects they don't."
After reading George Will's diatribe against The Episcopal Church, I would say the same about journalists. The Episcopal Church I know and have served as a priest for 20 years is not "more devoted to culture than to Christ" but exactly the opposite.
When the Episcopal Church seeks to welcome all the baptized to all of its sacraments, empower women, serve the poor or advocate for justice, it is doing these things not to be politically correct or to give into the culture, but rather to give culture glimmers of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Scripture and by Christ himself.
Grounded in deep respect for Scripture, the great Anglican traditions of worship and teaching and God-given reason, the Episcopal Church strives to be about what Jesus was about and do what Jesus would do.
It is not the Episcopal Church but rather the religious right that has become more devoted to culture (and one political party) than to Christ.
And Ben Garren wrote to the same paper:
A few points on George Will's Oct. 21 piece ("Traditional Anglicans channel Martin Luther in modern-day schism"):
First, Luther had no intention of leaving the Roman Catholic Church, only of reforming it.
The pope and the German monarchy lied to Luther, offering him a safe hearing while planning to murder him.
The Most Rev. Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh has specifically decided to leave the Episcopal Church, having not the stomach to follow Christ and sit at a table with those society deems to be unworthy.
He has been given a fair and honest hearing according to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and has been deposed.
Second, Bishop James Pike, the "last active bishop disciplined for theological reasons," was a man who had gone through much family trauma that had left him mentally unstable and no longer able to give proper pastoral care.
Third, "Via Media" does not refer to a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism but a middle way between affective and speculative spiritual methods.
Fourth, the liberal social justice movement of the Anglican Church stems from the Oxford Movement of the 1850s and a return to Incarnation Theology. It has its roots in the Gospels and early church fathers and mothers.
Finally, The Episcopal Church is seeing no more decline than conservative Christian denominations -- so it is rather difficult to say that the reason for decline is that The Episcopal Church has decided to include the disenfranchised in its ranks instead of excluding them.
Did someone you know speak up for the Episcopal Church in your local paper? Tell us in the comments below.