The Episcopal Church in Crisis

by Tucker Carlson

The Week Standard, October 13, 1997


At the bottom of a stairwell at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., a large oil painting leans against what appears to be a broken shopping cart. The portrait is filthy an badly scratched, its gilt frame smashed at the edges. Wipe the dust away and it is still possible to read the name inscribed on the brass plaque beneath: Robert Treat Paine, President of the Board, 1898-1910. Paine's portrait sits next to that of his contemporary, George Zabriskie Gray, who was dean of the seminary until he died in 1889. Both men were once well known and highly regarded in the Episcopal Church as scholars, theologians, and preachers. It has been a long time since the portrait of either one graced the walls of the Episcopal Divinity School.

It's probably just as well: One suspects that neither men would know what to make of the school these days. How would Robert Paine, famous during his lifetime for such works as "How to Repress Pauperism and Street Begging" and '"The Importance of Stopping Outdoor Relief to Chronic or Hereditary Beggars," have responded to the new EDS curriculum, with courses like "Critical Issues in Feminist Liberation Theology" and its subsection, "Reading in Queer Theology"? What would George Gray, who regularly railed against "departure from the church's teaching, or any other perversion," have thought of the school's latest internet phone directory, which proudly contains the photographs of the gay partners of faculty and students along with their addresses in campus housing?

You don't have to be a 19th-century theologian to notice that a lot has changed at EDS, and the Episcopal Church generally. For 300 years, the Episcopal Church in America was known primarily by the prominence of its members. A quarter of U.S presidents, half of the chief justices of the Supreme Court, the Vanderbilts, the Mellons, the Astors, Jefferson Davis, Fiorelo La Guardia, Nat King Cole - all were Episcopalians. Though it has always been one of the smallest Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church was long one of the richest and most industrious, building the country's most attractive churches and finest secondary school system, all the while sending missionaries to virtually every country on earth.

The Episcopal Church used to be impressive. It isn't any more. Membership has dropped steep]y, from a historic high of almost 3.5 million in l966 to fewer than 2.4 million today, and falling. (There are by contrast 15 million Southern Baptists and close to 9 million Methodists.) Worse, America's most famous Episcopalian are no longer J. P. Morgan and James Fenimore Cooper, but people like David Johnson, who was bishop of Massachusetts when he killed himself two years ago after it was revealed that he had been having affairs with a number of his employees. Or like William Lloyd Andries, a middle-aged priest from New York who was pictured in photographs that ran in Penthouse last year having sex with his 25-year old Brazilian "husband" while wearing clerical garb. According to witnesses, Andries, sometimes dressed as Marilyn Monroe, regularly hosted orgies on the altar of his church in Brooklyn.

What has happened to the Episcopal Church? FitzSimons Allison, the retired bishop of South Carolina, has a plausible theory. Episcopalianism is as close to a national religion as anything America has ever had, Allison argues. No other denomination, Allison, says, "could quite be the unofficial church for the culture. As the rest of America has become post-Christian, it has been very difficult for the Episcopal Church to disentangle itself from the culture."

The culture - or at least the culture of the upper-middle-class eastern WASPs who have run the Episcopal Church - has for decades, tended toward a brand of fuzzy, guilt-inspired leftism. In the 1930s, the Witness, the flagship journal of progressive Episcopalianism, threw its support behind the Soviet purge trials. In the l960s, the national church gave millions to a series of racial identity groups, some of them violent. In the I99Os, Edmund Browning, then the head of the denomination, publicly congratulated President Clinton for his support of Partial-birth abortion.

The latest, perhaps most insidious, enthusiasm to overtake the church has been something called "pastoral theology." Developed in the 1940s, pastoral theology encourages priests to act as counselors to their parishioners. In theory, it is not an unreasonable idea. Priests, after all, spend a lot of their time in the company of the sick, the bereaved, and the confused, and there is nothing wrong with teaching them how to better comfort and communicate with, for instance, AIDS patients or alcoholics. But there are important distinctions between being a Christian cleric and being a social worker, and pastoral education has all but erased them. Successful priests, explains the EDS catalog in its section on "pastoral studies," must possess a "self knowledge and knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the dynamics of human behavior, aS well as knowledge of and sensitivity to, the needs and problems of the world and the institutions within which ministry takes place." It's hard to know exactly what any of this means, since, unlike Biblical theology, the "institutions within which ministry' takes place" change from day to day. What is certain is that EDS, like many other seminaries, now offers considerably more courses in pastoral theology than in the New Testament. The result has been that, in many parts of the church, Christianity has ceased being a means to transcend the temporal world and become instead a method used to counsel people in distress; a vehicle for personal growth: Christianity as therapy session.

Consider the career of IsabeI Carter Hayward, a self-described socialist, feminist, lesbian, "womanist" theologian, whose life and work mirror recent trends in the Episcopal Church. A former debutante from North Carolina who was one of the first female Episcopal priests, Hayward is now a professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School and perhaps the best known member of the church's growing feminist- liberation theology movement. Hayward is noted for her outbursts of melodramatic indignation, which are usually aimed at the church. Several years ago, for instance, she declared she would no longer capitalize the name of her own religion. "Using the lowercase 'c' with reference to 'christian,", 'Heyward writes in an entirely representative passage from her latest book, "is a spiritual, intellectual, and political discipline for me as a member of a religious tradition so arrogant and abusive historically in relation to women, children, and nonruling class men; lesbians, gay/bisexual/transgendered/sexual nonconformists; Jews, Muslims, wicca, and practitioners of other religions traditions; persons whose cultural/racial/ethnic origins are other than European; and all other-than-human members of creation."

Heyward's theology, when it extends beyond slogans, can hardly be characterized as Christian. The Trinity, which is the central article of the faith in which she was ordained a priest, is dismissed in one of her books as a homophilial/homoerotic image of relations between male (father/son)."Heyward rejects the divinity of Christ out of hand. Instead, she says, "I have been led to Sophia/wisdom, to Christa/community, to Hagar the slave woman, to Jephthah's daughter," all post Christian goddesses now popular among certain feminist theologians.

Talk like this infuriates orthodox Episcopalians. "It's not only heresy, it's apostasy, and dishonest apostasy," says FitzSimons Allison. "If somebody doesn't believe in God, and leaves the Episcopal Church, then they're an honest person. But if you stay, it's like being in the Rotary Club and not believing in service. It's simply dishonorable."

It's also silly on its face (Hagar the slave woman?), which makes Heyward's attempts at straightforward theology less threatening than they might be if she were able to think coherently. But Heyward is more than just a lousy theologian. She's also a "survivor," "someone in recovery," a woman embarked on "psychospiritual passages" out of anorexia, bulimia, alcoholism, masochistic fantasies, cigarette smoking, and childhood sexual abuse. This last trauma came to light when Heyward experienced in a dream a "recovered memory" of having been "orally sodomized by Jeff, the yardman" 40 years before. In the mid l980s, Heyward took her many troubles to a psychiatrist, a fellow lesbian, with whom she promptly fell in love. Rebuffed, Heyward stalked the poor woman for months, writing her reams of creepy poetry ("How can I speak to you of love/my therapist") and demanding a meeting.

Pretty embarrassing stuff. Or at least it would be for an ordinary person. As an Episcopal priest in recovery, Heyward felt empowered to write a book about the experience. (In Heyward's version, the stalked shrink took all the blame.) The most amazing of all, however, was that a lot of people read it. The book was published by Harper Collins and went into paperback.

The moral, of course, is that there is a huge market among Episcopalians for trendy packaged as religion. In the mailroom at the Episcopal Divinity School, the most liberal of the church's 11 seminaries, the "Support Groups/Counselling bulletin board is crammed with notices advertising every conceivable variety of navel-gazing: a weekend retreat for lesbian couples, tarot-card instruction, yoga classes, a ceremony led by a local "artist, mask maker, ritualist and performer" to celebrate "rhythms in nature," as well as the by-now familiar classes in "stress management and wellness." An ad for one workshop, placed next to a "Planned Parenthood Needs Volunteers" flyer, offers advice for "coping, managing and thriving when a spouse has Adult Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Adult Attention Deficiency Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)." For those who pay attention too carefully, there are also "Anger Management Groups" designed to help participants "get a handle on temper and other feelings."

If all this sounds like the product of a collective mid-life crisis, it shouldn't be surprising. The average Episcopal seminarian these days is close to mid-life, with the majority entering divinity school past the age of 35. For many, going to seminary is merely another form of self- discovery, often undertaken after a divorce. "I'm looking at the Hebrew Bible in terms of self esteem," says one middle-aged student at the Episcopal Divinity School, by way of explaining what she has been doing for the past two years.

Whenever two or more Episcopalians gather, there's apt to be talk about this (keep in mind that it was an Episcopalian, John Bradshaw, who came up with the concept of an "inner child"), and not all of it is harmlessly pathetic. In 1995, Ellen Cooke, the denomination's chief treasurer, was indicted after it was discovered that she had stolen $2.2 million from the national church, using most of the money to buy jewelry and a new summer house. Before her trial, Cooke consulted a female priest for counseling. The priest, Cooke explained in a statement, "has helped me acknowledge the pain, abuse, and powerlessness I have felt during the years I worked as a lay woman on a senior level in the Church headquarters." In other words, sexism made her do it.

Even a jury could see through an excuse like that, and Cooke is now doing five years in a federal prison in West Virginia. Episcopalians, on the other hand remain easy marks for the abuse excuse. Earlier this year, the Rev. Chester LaRue, rector of St. John's in Brooklyn, was arrested and charged with selling cocaine out of his church. When police arrived at St John's,

LaRue was seated at his desk, writing a sermon and smoking crack. LaRue was at least the second rector of St. John's to have met an unseemly end, having replaced the former rector, George Hoch who was murdered by his gay lover in Atlantic City in the l980s. At about the same time LeRue was arrested, two other Episcopal priests in Brooklyn were also brought up on charges, one for tax fraud, the other, by the church, for sexual misconduct. Coming as they did on the heals of Marilyn Monroe impersonator William Lloyd Andries, these scandals raised questions about the church's oversight of its priests in Brooklyn. Before long, the man in charge of overseeing those priests, Bishop Orris G. Walker Jr, came forward to explain that, contrary to appearances, he had not been negligent in his duties. Just the opposite, in fact. "One of my sins is I'm a workaholic," Walker said. "I need to take some time for me." Fellow priests were impressed. " It's the most courageous thing he could have don," the Rev Sara Louis Krantz told Newsday.

The main idea behind pastoral theology is that priests should help their parishioners feel good about themselves. This is fine, except that much of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is specifically designed to make people feel bad about themselves - to wake them from their self-satisfied languor and stir them into behaving differently, better. God is quoted at length in the Bible making difficult, even frightening, demands. Supporters of pastoral theology have a strategy for maintaining wellness in the face of these less-than-affirming passages: Just ignore them.

This spring, newsletter produced by the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, a group funded by the church, described a troubling incident that took place in the Episcopal Diocese of California. According to the newsletter, brochures distributed by the Marin AIDS Interfaith Network had been defaced, made "corrupt" by a mysterious group of "hate-mongers'. What had the hat-mongers done to the brochures? Nothing less than altered them "to include Old Testament Scripture condemning the gay and lesbian community." Imagine that, huffed the Episcopalians: quoting the Bible. Talk about hateful.

The long-standing debate over homosexuals in the church has unfolded along similar lines, a theological dispute that, in the pro-gay camp at least, has contained few references to actual theology. For the last 20 years, gay Episcopalians have argued, often eloquently, for the right to be ordained as priests and to have their unions blessed as marriages by the church. For gays, the first battle has been all but won. Although the issue has not yet officially been resolved by the church's governing body, virtually every Episcopal diocese in the country has openly non celibate homosexuals service as priests. It is the second question - gay marriage - that now bitterly divides the church.

People have been arguing about gay marriage for a long time in the Episcopal Church, but that doesn't mean its supporters have reached a consensus on what exactly gay marriage is. Even the basic questions remain unanswered, beginning with the most obvious one: Should gay marriage be a lifelong, monogamous union between two people? Otis Charles, the former Episcopal bishop of Utah and one of the most visible and politically active gays in the church, can speak forever about homosexuality as a civil rights issue. Ask him if gay marriages should be monogamous and he stumbles. "We need to develop an ethical sensibility that comes out of the gay sensibility," he says. In other words: probably not monogamous, no.

After a while it's hard not to conclude that the push for gay marriage in the Episcopal Church is more a political quest than a religious one. Louie Crews, founder of the Episcopal gay group Integrity, doesn't disagree. Getting the church to recognize homosexual marriages, he says, is just the first step on the long road to sexual emancipation. The next civil right to be established in the Episcopal Church, he predicts, will be the right to be married to more than one person simultaneously. "Threesomes and foursomes will have to push for their own agenda," Crew says, sounding tired. "That's not my battle. You can't do all of it at once."

How much farther can the Episcopal Church go before the whole enterprise comes tumbling down, tasteful stone churches and all? Probably not much. At least six groups of former Episcopalians have already split to form their own, more traditional denominations. Countless other church members have fled Catholicism or to the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is growing evidence that for those who have stayed, encounter-group theology simply isn't as compelling as the kind that used to mention God. According to a study by journalist robert England, the Diocese of Newark, N.J., has seen its churches empty since the arrival of celebrated Episcopal heretic Bishop Shelby Spong almost 20 years ago. (Spong has argued that St Paul, author of unequivocally anti-homosexuality statements in the New Testament, was himself secretly gay.) Under Spong's leadership, the diocese has lost close to 40 percent of its membership, twice the attrition rate of the church nationally, and has been forced to close 17 churches.

Nothing of the kind of happening in Africa and Asia, where the Anglican Church (of which the Episcopal Church is part) has never been stronger. Anglican leaders in the Third World tend to be conservative; some have already threatened to break ties with the Episcopal Church unless the Episcopalians start acting like Christians. At some point, the Episcopalians may have to start paying attention, for they are vastly outnumbered. As Roger Boltz, administrative director of the American Anglican Council, a theologically orthodox group working to reform the Episcopal Church, points out: 'There are more Anglicans in church on Sunday in Nigeria than there are in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and England combined." In the end, multiculturalism may be salvation of the religion that the world still, and falsely, equates with white America.

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