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Ruth, Bp Curry, hope and the path ahead

Ruth, Bp Curry, hope and the path ahead


by George Clifford


Depending upon one’s age, The Episcopal Church (TEC) today is clearly not your father or grandfather’s Church (and in those days, TEC was unmistakably male dominated). Mid-twentieth century caricatures of TEC as the Republican Party at prayer now lack credibility and power, except perhaps among a nostalgic few who yearn to return to what they believe to have been TEC’s glory days. TEC, after all, was the Church to which many of the nation’s founding fathers belonged and its members in subsequent generations frequently dominated politics and business.


No more.


TEC now firmly stands for social justice, having prominently advocated for civil rights and against poverty, hunger, and the death penalty. Illustratively, a once exclusively male clergy has become fully integrated; the outgoing Presiding Bishop was the first woman to occupy that position. 1950s opposition to remarriage after divorce has become 2015 support for marriage between two consenting adults, regardless of gender. And a church that remained unbroken across the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War, implicitly tolerating slavery by not explicitly denouncing that evil, has just elected its first African-American Presiding Bishop.


Some critics believe that these changes substantially contributed to TEC’s significant decline in numbers and influence. That erroneous assessment reflects two mistakes. First, correlation is not causation. TEC’s more assertive commitment to social justice did not cause its numerical decline. Concurrent with TEC’s increased emphasis on social justice and internal ecclesial changes, society has become more secular. This trend affects most churches, not just TEC. For example, the trend is now evident among evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptists. The Roman Catholic Church has avoided declining only because new immigrants have filled its pews at a rate that exceeded the ongoing exodus of longer term US residents.


Second, to the extent that people have left TEC because of TEC’s emphasis on social justice, TEC is arguably healthier, stronger, and more Christ-like. TEC inherited from the Church of England a Christendom model of the Church that presumes everyone in a community is, by default, a Christian. In today’s globalized religious marketplace, that premise is no longer true – if it ever was. Furthermore, skeptics have long carped that some people attended church to make business contacts, gain social acceptance, etc. I no longer hear that canard; the emphasis on social justice has caused such persons, whose affiliation with TEC was more nominal than genuine, to seek more congenial fellowship elsewhere. In other words, the decades of transformation may have been like a refiner’s fire that burns away impurities, leaving behind those who are more committed to incarnating the gospel message of God’s all-inclusive mercy, love, and justice. Our central ecclesial model has shifted from the Church as the exclusive ark of salvation to the Church being God’s hands and voice at work ministering to broken people, broken structures, and a broken world.


Like a boxer training for a championship bout, TEC is getting close to its prime fighting weight. Changing metaphors, the crew is nearing the peak of its training and the decks are almost cleared for action. Some work remains to be done. Moves to empower the laity need additional effort and resources, better equipping them for mission through deeper, lifelong programs of spiritual formation. TEC’s internal reorganization needs completion, transforming TEC from a slow-moving, unresponsive bureaucracy into a nimble, electronically connected missional force.


General Convention overwhelmingly elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as TEC’s next Presiding Bishop. Bishops and deputies deeply resonated with Bishop Curry’s vision of taking Jesus to the world rather than expecting that the world will come to the church.


Bishop Curry’s election is a step in the right direction, but the journey ahead is long. And it will be difficult. Nobody, not even a person of God’s choosing, can make this journey alone. Pausing for more than a few brief self-congratulatory moments, content to allow our leaders to bear the burden of mission in this crucial time post-General Convention, will result in TEC becoming increasingly irrelevant and soon dying.


The real proof that TEC has experienced a positive transformation is what happens next. Will congregations and dioceses become more entrepreneurial? Will they prioritize people over buildings? Will they streamline structures, reduce overhead costs, and risk spending 10, 20 or an even larger percent of their time and money on local mission? Will they creatively continue to reframe and communicate the good news in ways appropriate to a post-modern, twenty-first century world? Will they see and feed the hungry, see and give drink to the thirsty, see and heal the blind, see and visit those in prison, see and clothe the naked?


Ruth tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16). The Church is Christ’s bride. Let us resolve that where TEC goes, we too will go. Like Ruth, we do not know what the future holds nor that we will always be pleased with that future. But, like Ruth, we do know that God has not brought us this far to abandon us.  And like Ruth who went unbidden to her kinsman Boaz at night, dare to risk much. TEC has become more just, more Christ-like, and more rooted in Jesus. Now, let us dare to proceed onward, to let go of things that helped us journey this far (e.g., some of our buildings and inherited theological formulas) and to grasp those things, perhaps still unknown, needed to continue our journey.


We can see in Bishop Curry and hear in his words, as well as in the lives and words of our other visionary leaders, God’s calling. I hope that we will boldly follow these leaders, emulating Ruth, who once having committed to journeying with her mother-in-law, bravely followed her advice to risk everything by going to Boaz at night.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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George Clifford

Susan Snook is correct: the Episcopal Church has not done a good job of electing women as bishops, especially as diocesan bishops. I’m guessing that the same holds for electing people of color as bishop. Thankfully, structural impediments have been removed. However, if achieving full equality is our ultimate goal, then the Church has lost its way. The Church is a means to an end (the transformation of the world) and not an end in itself. Although I’m pleased with the volume of comments in response to my article, I’m disappointed that the comments have not focused on the more important, substantive, and difficult task of how we can become fully engage in our mission.

Randall Stewart


I was very pleased with +Curry’s election. I have lived in Baltimore for most of the last 15 years, I have been to his former parish, I know how difficult parish ministry in that neighborhood is, and frankly, when I read through the candidates, he seemed to be the best qualified. That he was African-American was completely irrelevant. I think we got a good one.

Not so positive: Please, if you want to talk about dispensing with “inherited theological formulas,” have the courage of your convictions to name them. Tell us why.

The Episcopal Church is diverse, to be sure. There are a variety of opinions and perspectives that we need work on reconciling. That will not be accomplished by triumphalism of any kind, whether it be liberal, catholic, or evangelical. It will be if we listen respectfully, not only to each other, but to the faith we have inherited, to the children who we will pass our faith on to, and of course to the Spirit.

Aaron Fraustro

I am grateful for everyone’s comments especially those regarding the changes to the BCP and the liturgy. It has helped to alleviate many of my fears. I had similar experience with the Catholic Church. I attended church almost daily for over a year after a conversion experience. I knew it was not right for me either. The almost constant focus on abortion, gay marriage (against obviously), and birth control is overwhelmingly. Vatican II stripped away all the beautiful rituals of the church and left it a political action group.

Something truly bothered me about Michael Curry’s election. It was the almost constant focus on his race and about far we have come. I understand the news media’s focus on his race but it shouldn’t be our focus. A quick line about how he is the first African American presiding bishop and let’s move on. It took me a lot of digging to find anything substantial about him. I think the opening of day-cares in inner-city neighborhoods is a great idea.

Again, thank you all for your comments. I have a tendency to speak my mind on these issues as my faith is the most important thing to me. As I often say to my priest friends, “oh man, what’d I do” when making controversial statements.

Marshall Scott

Aaron, I appreciate your frustration about Bishop Curry’s election. In fact among the candidates he had served longest as bishop, and had the most parish experience before election as bishop. Historically in the Episcopal Church, we have elected bishops with more parish experience over bishops with other kinds of experience by a wide margin. (And, pace Susan, that has contributed to the continuing disparity in the election of men as bishops. The “hearts and minds” issue that Jon cites begins well before the election of a bishop.)

Prior to Convention there was discussion in the wind as to whether it would be more important for the new Presiding Bishop to be CEO in the sense of Chief Executive Officer or Chief Evangelism Officer. As it is the bishops who elect (yes, Deputies confirm, but the expectation that they might reject any of the four was remote), my thought was the new Presiding Bishop would reflect how the House of Bishops felt about that question. I think the election suggested the latter understanding of CEO; and that Bishop Curry’s charisma was what stood out as significant among the candidates.

Susan Brown Snook

I note that the author of the column is male and that 17 of the 18 comments above were written by males. Perhaps that is why no one has commented yet on the ludicrous statement that “a once exclusively male clergy has become fully integrated; the outgoing Presiding Bishop was the first woman to occupy that position.” One female Presiding Bishop does not make for a fully gender-integrated clergy. Of 109 diocesan bishops right now, a mere three are female; the Church of England will soon surpass us in numbers of women diocesan bishops. Perhaps there are equal numbers of men and women now being ordained, but the overwhelming preponderance of cardinal rectors, canons, deans, and bishops are still men. Let’s not get complacent about the stained glass ceiling.

David Allen

I can’t speak for the other men, but to this man, although I would have made the point differently, what he referred to was that there are no bars to pursuit of the priesthood, be you female, male white, Black, Latino, Asian, transgender, perhaps even physically challenged. And today, two folks who at a time in the past would not have been permitted, have reached the highest position in TEC.

AFA the CoE, would you like to have their system, a couple of select committees who do the choosing and are set by agreement to be fast-tracking women? None of which are likely to be an out & proud lesbian! Especially one who is married to another woman.

Bro David

Susan Brown Snook

It is clear, however, that there are barriers to episcopal ordination for women, in addition to barriers for high-level parish positions. I refer you to the excellent Episcopal Herald article on this subject, found here:

A quote from that article:

“Katharine Jefferts Schori’s election as Presiding Bishop nine years ago suggests that we recognize the full and equal authority of ordained women.

“However, since the consecration in 1989 of the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris (who, interestingly, was nominated by the Rev. Mary Glasspool, then a parish priest), only 20 additional women have been ordained bishops in the Episcopal Church. In the same twenty-six year period, 233 men have become bishops. That’s an 11 to 1 ratio of men to women, which is just slightly worse than the 10 to 1 ratio of the House of Bishops currently. For comparison’s sake, the Church of England has already named three women bishops this year.

“Now, the Church of England’s episcopal appointment process is different than the Episcopal Church’s election process. But even when one only looks at men and women clergy in our own Church, the disparity is still clear. And embarrassing. And it extends far beyond the episcopacy. By numerous metrics, clergy women experience a severe gender disparity: full-time compensation by position, age, and years of experience is consistently lower for women than for men.* *For more, we commend to you the Rev. Paula Nesbitt’s “Why Gender Still Matters,” found at

For the record, “Breaking the Episcopal Stained Glass Ceiling” is an important movement in our church. And “equal access to ordination as a priest” doesn’t render the other obvious inequities for women irrelevant.

Marshall Scott

Aaron, let me speak as a Deputy to one of your concerns (if not one most pressing): the General Convention directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to propose to the next Convention in 2018 a process both for revision of the BCP and revision of the Hymnal 1982. Assuming a process is approved in 2018 (not a foregone conclusion), revision would take years.

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