“Harvesting the Fruits: Ecumenical Autumn, Not Ecumenical Winter”
The Very Rev’d Thomas Ferguson, PhD
5. PART 2:
In this part of our time together, I would like to look at some of the issues which are dividing our communions – maybe not the classic faith & order ones, but those that have always been there, and maybe those that the ecumenical movement has not found a way to address over the past century; along with some issues which are newer and have emerged in past decades.
As we prepare to look at these questions, I remind us all of a text which has been an important one for me in thinking about what is church dividing. It comes from H. Richard Niebuhr's classic, Social Sources of American Denominationalism:
“Denominationalism in Christian Church is an acknowledged hypocrisy. It is a compromise made far too lightly, between Christianity and the world. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste system of society.”
The accommodation of Christianity to the caste system of society. These words have resonated for me because I find them to be true, particularly in our American context, and that the ecumenical movement, despite all its successes, has not managed to change that reality.
Lest we think any of the issues or concerns we will be talking about in this session are particularly modern ones, recall that Niebuhr's work was first published in 1929.
This is what I hope to do here: realizing one cannot do justice to these issues, and this is not meant to be complete or exhaustive. And this is not just a thought experiment; it is something that has been a major component of the Episcopal Church's dialogue with the United Methodist Church, to begin to model how we might start looking at some of the issues we'll be exploring today, one which I think the ecumenical movement as a whole needs to become more involved in.
A. Race and Racism
Let's take one of the oldest issues which divides American Christians: race and racism. The question of racism is one which pervades all American religions in some way, given the way that race has played out in our broader history. Again, this is part of the way in which churches respond to and adapt to the broader cultural environment. Race has been an important component in the history of the United States; naturally and logically it has also been something which has affected the churches in the United States.
This dynamic has played itself out historically in two ways: one is the way in which race has divided Christians one from the other. The second is how racism has divided churches internally.
Let's take the second one first: how race has divided churches internally. After the American Revolution, each Christian denomination had to come to grips with the question of race and slavery. Some, such as Quakers and Unitarians, largely supported abolition. Some changed their system to accommodate to slavery: for instance, early Methodism initially forbade slaveowners as members, until eventually changing those rules to allow for slaveholders to be members. Others took a middle ground, accepting it as the law of the land and having both slaveholding and abolitionist elements within their churches.
But race very quickly became a church dividing question; for example, the different choices made by Abasalom Jones and Richard Allen. Both were members of St George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia when told to go sit in the slave gallery by the white members. Both left. Allen did not believe African Americans would be treated equally in white churches, and so formed a separate denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Jones instead formed St Thomas Church and was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1804, becoming the first African American ordained in ANY predominantly white denomination in the US. However, there was a catch: St Thomas Church and Fr Jones were given voice, but not vote, in the diocese of Pennsylvania.
Thus racism was a cause of division: originally within the Methodist tradition, resulting in the formation of predominantly black Methodist denominations. A similar process would occur with Baptist and Reformed traditions, with predominantly African American Presbyterian and Baptist churches formed, often the direct result of discrimination from the original, predominantly white church.
In addition, race and racism would also result in schisms within religious traditions. The Southern Baptist Convention broke off over slavery and slaveholding. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, as did the Presbyterians. The Episcopal Church did not split over slavery prior to the Civil War, but did split over secession, with the former of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States.
Concurrently, within some predominantly white denominations, there was the phenomenon of separate and unequal jurisdictions for African Americans. Denominations would create non-geographic jurisdictions for African American congregations; this would, in fact, be a condition of merger in 1939 between the Northern and Southern branches of the Methodist Church, that all African American congregations be grouped into a separate, non-geographic jurisdiction separate from white churches. A proposal for a similar non-geographic diocese for African Americans would be proposed (and defeated) in every General Convention of the Episcopal Church up until the year 1940.
These divisions have taken a long time to heal in some cases; the different branches of the Presbyterian Church, for instance, did not reunite until 1982. The internal divisions are in many cases still present, though the de facto segregation is no longer official policy.
Questions of race and racism thus have had a long and pernicious history. And the reality is that they are still with us today: the Episcopal Church and the ELCA are overwhelmingly white churches. The Roman Catholic Church is more diverse, specifically with regard to Hispanic/Latino ministries, but still counts only 3% of its members as African American. The most segregated place in America remains Sunday morning. The racism of our past continues to shape our churches today.
B. Class Consciousness:
Issues of social class have also been church dividing, though it is at times a bit more difficult to lay out exactly how this dynamic has played itself out. Less so in formal theological documents, but one which comes up often in letters, diaries, and other correspondence.
Example: Anglican-Methodist relations in the 1780s and 1790s. Members of the Methodist societies tended to draw perhaps disproportionately from what we would call middle class and working class families in the UK and in America – though of course there were well-to-do Methodists and working class Anglicans, we are talking about overall trends here.
Let's take the two founders of Methodism and Anglicanism in the USA as examples of this divide:
Francis Asbury was the son of what we would now call a landscaper or day laborer, and Francis himself was apprenticed at a chape-maker, someone who made buckles and other small metallic things. He joined a Methodist society at age 16, never had any formal theological training, and became a lay preacher. John Wesley set aside Thomas Coke as a “superintendent” for the colonies, and sent him over to ordain Asbury. Asbury insisted that American Methodists gathered at their organizing conference choose their presiding officer. Thomas Coke, a gentleman, priest of the Church of England, and graduate of Oxford, simply assumed he would preside. The Conference selected Asbury, a man with no formal training, son of a day laborer, himself a journeyman laborer.
William White was born into a wealthy, landed family. His grandfather has been mayor of Philadelphia. He attended the University of Pennsylvania. His brother in law was Robert Morris, a signer of the declaration of Independence and one of the wealthiest men in the colonies.
The two men came from different backgrounds and different social standings, and they were well aware of the differences themselves.
This trajectory would play itself out over the course of most of the 19th century: the Episcopal Church would tend to skew towards upper middle class, while the Methodist Church would skew more towards broadly middle class. The Episcopal Church would demand high educational standards, including Greek and Latin, which would make ordination unattainable for some.
There is a similar dynamic at times with Roman Catholicism in the 19th and 20th centuries, eliciting visceral reaction from white Protestants in this country. Catholicism in the 19th century was caricatured as predominantly poor, immigrant, and urban. As Ken Burns pointed out in his most recent documentary on Prohibition, the Temperance movement itself was infused with nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and racist overtones. White, rural Protestants saw alcoholism as a scourge brought by foreigners in their Catholic Churches in the cities. Catholics were for years derided as being somehow un-American; tyranny and papacy were seen to be contrary to freedom and America. When the first Roman Catholic was nominated for the presidency, Governor Al Smith of New York in 1928, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross as his campaign train rolled by. Most people may not have known the first thing about transubstantiation. It was in reality a myriad of other issues which divided Catholics and non-Catholics in reality.
We all may be a little tired of hearing it, but we live in an age of globalization: the world is a much smaller place. How does that impact us as churches?
° Because several of our churches are global churches. The Roman Catholic Church is an international body, the largest Christian communion in the world, scattered across hundreds of countries and cultures. The Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation are close behind – the second and third largest and most widespread Christian communions. We are global churches in a global world.
° Globalization affects the way our churches handle conflict. The ordination of women and the ordination of gay and lesbian persons in the church is an apt example. In both the LWF and the Anglican Communion, different member churches have made different decisions on the ordination of women. Because of globalization, specifically advancement in communications technology, what may have taken months or perhaps even years to trickle to the end of our communions now takes minutes. This has sped up the pace of conflict.
° Globalization has also laid bare some of the nascent and simmering conflict that was waiting to come out into the open.
° We are reaping the winds of post-colonialism. The center of Christianity is shifting to Asia and Africa, and away from Europe and North America, in terms of numbers and in terms of vitality. African Anglicans, indeed, have proclaimed the United States a mission field, in need of re-evangelization. I happen to agree with them on that one, though for different reasons. These effects of post-colonialism have implications for our understandings of our churches as part of global communions. Having told many people a generation or two ago that they were heathen and in need of the Gospel, these same persons in Asia and Africa resent that the West, at times, seems to be telling them they are mistaken again.
Gender is another major church dividing issue, specifically the place and role of women in leadership in the church. Like race, this issue has not only divided churches, but also been internally-church dividing.
In 1976, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada both agreed to permit the ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood. This had a ripple effect in ecumenical conversations; the Polish National Catholic Church suspended its intercommunion and interchangeability of clergy in 1978. The Orthodox Churches announced they would continue their theological dialogue with Anglicans, but no longer with a goal of unity, but rather for deeper mutual understanding. The Roman Catholic Church has continued in its dialogues with those churches that ordain women, while at the same time reaffirming and in fact clarifying and strengthening the understanding of its own inability to permit the ordination of women. Yet, at the same time acknowledging how this is a church dividing issue, the Catholic Church set up a Pastoral Provision in 1980 in the United States to allow for Episcopal priests who could not accept the ordination of women to be ordained in the Catholic Church. More recently, the Vatican has approved the formation of an Ordinariate for Anglicans, to allow for entire groups or congregations to be received into full ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church. Within the Catholic Church, despite the clarification of the church's ability to ordain women to the priesthood, this continues to be a source of tension and conflict in Europe and North America both internally within the Roman Catholic Church, as well as between the Catholic Church and its ecumenical partners.
6. Human Sexuality
Human sexuality has become a church dividing issue in a similar way: that this is not only a church dividing issue between Christian communions, but a church dividing issue within churches.
Thus, for instance, the Russian Orthodox Church suspended all bilateral dialogues and cooperation with the Episcopal Church after the consecration of an openly gay man in a committed partnership, Gene Robinson, as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Not only that, the Russian Orthodox Church later refused to meet with a delegation from the National Council of Churches which had an Episcopal bishop in the delegation. This is ironic, since the Bishop in question was one implacably opposed to the ordination of gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church. The Roman Catholic Church has continued its dialogues with Anglicans, even those Anglicans which have ordained gay and lesbian persons to the ministry, despite the reaffirmation in the Catholic Church that openly gay persons may not serve in the priesthood. I was sitting next to Archbishop William Levada in 2003 at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church when the House of Deputies consented to the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop-elect of New Hampshire. I turned to him and said, “I hope this does not mean that our churches will not remain in dialogue. I think we need this dialogue more than ever.” Archbishop Levada replied, “When you one church dividing issue, and you have made the commitment to remain in dialogue, does it matter how many you have?”
The matter was also church-dividing within the family. There are currently four entire dioceses which are trying to secede from the Episcopal Church over the question of human sexuality. A number of member provinces of the Anglican Communion have declared themselves in varying degrees of “impaired communion” with the Episcopal Church. Representatives of the Episcopal Church have been removed from the international ecumenical dialogues of the Anglican Communion; for me, this is personal. I was appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to serve on the International Anglican-Orthodox dialogue; in 2010 I was removed from this dialogue.
The ELCA is in some ways in the same place as the Episcopal Church was a few years ago: struggling internally with synods and congregations opposed to the decisions made at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, while at the same time dealing with other LWF members who are adamantly opposed to the decisions to ordain gay and lesbian persons as pastors and to permit same sex blessings.
6. Conclusion to Part 2
Feel better? I once gave a lecture on race and racism in American religion, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “I didn't come here to have you just make us all feel bad.” I thanked her, because that was exactly my intention. For far too long Christianity in America has ignored what are really church dividing issues.
In the end, however, we don’t need to feel bad: this is not where the story ends. I think the ecumenical movement needs to address some of the issues mentioned in this section as part of its renewal and rebirth.