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Why didn’t the Episcopal Church split after the election of a gay bishop?

Why didn’t the Episcopal Church split after the election of a gay bishop?

The 2003 election Bishop Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop set off an internal debate within the Episcopal Church caused Professor Mathew Sheep, Business Professor at Illinois State University,  to ask how the church would respond and how it was that the Episcopal Church held together.

Illinois State University magazine:

…a number of members within several conservative dioceses and parishes to leave the church.

In the end the church retained about 90 percent of its membership, including many conservatives who opposed Robinson’s consecration as bishop. How did Episcopalian leaders and members reconcile their church’s identity with such a momentous change?

For the past decade, Illinois State Business Professor Mathew Sheep has worked with four other researchers from across the United States to study how the church viewed itself during this period. Their study has been accepted for publication in the Academy of Management Journal.

What the team found was that, rather than organizational identity being a fixed set of descriptions of the organization, it is instead a set of dialectical tensions that people attempt to balance or navigate every day in the way they talk about identity. In other words, organizations can stretch their identity—a concept the researchers called organizational identity elasticity—to allow for major changes.

Sheep studied the church over ten years starting in 2004.

That actually is one of the major differences in how people theorize organizational identity. And all these differences are good. Some people theorize organizational identity as very a priori. In other words, you come up with these preconceived notions of identity categories. Then you group organizations more or less quantitatively into these categories or groups.

Another way to look at identity is social construction. Identity is what people say it is. It’s really not being enacted in everyday life unless this is the way people actually talk about identity and construct the identity of their organization. So how are they doing that? And that is a social construction, which is a dynamic thing. It’s not a given. It’s contested. And it’s negotiated. And sometimes it has to be re-established periodically and changed periodically….

…It was a description of the way they saw the different ways … and what we eventually— from that and other interviews—theorized as elasticity. Those who would view it as prophetic would be taking the more inclusive, expansive view of identity as, “This is who we can be.” Interestingly they would also link it back to, “This who is we have always been. This is just part of our journey. This is just part of the trajectory of our identity.” Identity is not a stagnant state. It’s a moving stream, so to speak. So if they can think of it as who we are now and this is who we are becoming, but it’s not really inconsistent with who we have always really been at its foundation, then that is what they mean by this is of a prophetic sort of stance.

Those who would say, “It’s drifting into oblivion,” they would be saying, “It’s not a good path to take. It’s not a part of who we are. Therefore, it is a departure from who we have been.” And therefore that’s the way they would be constructing it.


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Robert Button

It is somewhat amusing to read the dire predictions of imminent doom for The Episcopal Church. The same things being said today were shouted in 2003. And in 1993, 1983, 1973 – all the way back to 1961 when I became an Episcopalian. This isn’t new. Every time the Church moves forward we are told that these progressive steps will spell our demise. Prayer book revision and ordination of women were supposed to kill The Episcopal Church. Now we are told same sex weddings will be our doom. Do we have work to do? Yes we do. But just note that according to conservative extremists the sky has been falling for decades.

Bill Paul

Hmmm. Seems to be the images and metaphors in use have been of strained, impaired, tense, torn, and acrimonius *relationships* and this prediction has been borne out as accurate, as your own post, and hundreds of others, shows. Alleging that your opponents predicted cosmic catastrophy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and, really, doesn’t help mend the fissures and fractures IMHO
– Thank you for your comments; this makes 4 for this thread for today – Rosalind Hughes, ed.

Bill Paul

3 really as one was obviously split in transmission.

Bill Paul

Plain to see how the PB had moved and was moving (using wrong but effective canon re Duncan, not getting public disavowal, 3 most senior bishops to agree, half of all entitled to vote etc. And bec we have no judiciary to see that canons are followed.

Prof Christopher Seitz

Loyal opposition. Like the ‘Liberal Party’ in UK. Only a third of its size.

This ‘loyal opposition’ stakes out its principled account of the erstwhile TEC. It argues in opposition to the line taken by the majority, and makes its views available in a ‘friend of the court’ brief (as has the majority).

For this ‘opposition’ is it brought before a Title IV disciplinary committee and told it must not do that on penalty of abandonment charges, and the diocese handed over to a ‘provisional bishop.’ The successors of this ‘loyal opposition’ are put on strict notice.

The political democracy analogy is probably false anyway. Does anyone believe that 5 or so bishops are going to organize themselves and seek enlargement at the next bi-election? No. They have been put in a minority holding tank and put on notice. General Convention 2015 says they shall make provision, and make provision they shall.

What I find curious is resistance to this idea being the new TEC reality. What try to decorate it with ‘loyal opposition’ ideas that you don’t really believe, and that my good friend George Sumner does not believe. The remaining conservatives are in a tiny minority and cannot change their status through any fresh whatever…the progressives have prevailed and that verdict is not corrigible.

Certainly many, many people at this site have the courage of their convictions and indeed know that it is only a matter of a small time before whatever minority is gone and replaced.

Ann Fontaine

Those who were deposed left the Episcopal Church and many tried to take the buildings with them – that is not what I would call loyal.

Prof Christopher Seitz

My comment had nothing to do with SC.

It had to do with the ‘loyal opposition’ of sitting TEC Bishops. In consequence, they were disciplined under Title IV and told to cease and desist or there would be ‘abandonment’ charges against them. The ‘conciliation’ event in Richmond brought them to heel.

And their successors were put on notice.

– Thank you for your comments; this makes 4 for this thread for today – Rosalind Hughes, ed.

Bill Paul

Not so. Mark Lawrence tried to stay and, it’s documentable, action was taken against him which triggered the resolution which was put in place because of, plain to see.

Prof Christopher Seitz

“The decades-long battle is over. The progressive side has prevailed.” “…in our own church, our new situation is the battle’s end.” “A religious minority within their denomination.”

His is a plea for some form of existence within the new TEC. The coming months will show whether and if that plea is heard, and whether it will be possible to maintain a conservative witness vis-a-vis same-sex marriage. How will 054 make its force felt on the ground?

Harry M. Merryman

I believe that Sumner *is* describing what might be called a “loyal opposition” that constitutes a “minority within their denomination.” The “battle’s end” to which he refers is simply democracy at work. It is common in a democratic institution for the majority’s viewpoint to “prevail.” Those in the minority may continue to be opposed to that viewpoint, but remain loyal to the institution and the democratic process. Mature actors in both the majority and minority understand this and work to foster ongoing dialogue and engagement in the midst of strongly-held differences. Helpfully, this is what Sumner seems to be suggesting. Others seem to be peddling pessimism and distrust. It might be good for them to remember an axiom in human relations: you often elicit the responses you expect or guard against.

With regard to the possibility of maintaining a “conservative witness vis-à-vis same-sex marriage,” I suspect it may depend on what form that “witness” takes. Everyone within a democratic institution is expected to conduct themselves according to the democratically-derived will of the institution, both in letter and in spirit. This does not preclude the minority from expressing its point-of-view, however. Again, it seems to me that Sumner is trying to establish a constructive framework for such expression. Of course, that may be too positive for some who believe that the sky has fallen.

christopher seitz

Sorry, I thought my comment was reasonably clear as a response to “Loyal opposition means working within the institution to change it.”

Harry M. Merryman

>“Sadly, the new TEC will shut out what you call ‘loyal opposition.’ See now the recent essayby George Sumner in The Living Church.”<

If the first sentence is meant to summarize the sentiments of the essay referenced in the second, it is a gross mischaracterization. While I have many problems with Bishop-elect Sumner’s conservative theology and orthodoxy, he does not seem to be focused on a “sad” state of affairs. Rather, he seems to be describing the possibilities for a positive and constructive conservative-progressive dialogue within TEC.

Sadly, some conservative brethren seem more inclined to discouragement and a narrative that stresses “all is lost” or “woe are we” sentiments. Perhaps they should read the Bishop-elect’s essay more carefully and be led by its spirit of hopeful engagement.

William (Bill) Paul III

And didn’t Sumner say something (I forget the exact phrase) about offering a ‘serious” or ‘sober’ reflection. IMHO Professor Seitz (whom I don’t know personally) consistently has done just that, offered a sober and principled reading of the times, on the blogs, including this one and this particular series of posts, and as part as ACI. If his clear-sighted account of things has the ring of a lament, well that should be understandable, it’s part of the prophetic tradition, we all know, which is something the progressive side tends to claim as their own.

Prof Christopher Seitz

Sumner is not describing what you call a ‘loyal opposition’ — ‘our new situation is the battle’s end…we have ended one chapter of our church’s life…the progressive side has prevailed.’

TLC is soliciting responses, so by all means suggest that a ‘loyal opposition’ ought to be revived. But I doubt you mean that. ‘Prevailing’ is a hard bell to un-ring.

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