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By The Rev. Brian Cox
November 17, 2019

The Episcopal Church as an institution is dying. The average Sunday attendance (ASA) has been declining steadily. In the last decade the ASA shows a precipitous 24.9 percent decline. ASA for 2018 is 561,281. Church closures far outnumber new church plants. Except in a few places the Episcopal Church is becoming older, grayer and smaller. The 21st century liturgical rubric seems to be “please kneel if you are able”.

At the same time the Episcopal Church as a faith community has never been more lively. Talking about a personal relationship with Jesus has become part of the mainstream. Even Bishop Curry describes us as the Episcopal version of the Jesus Movement. He openly speaks of his love for Jesus and his desire for others to love Jesus. Prayer groups and bible studies in congregations have become part of the new normal. Mission outreach on the local level hardly existed fifty years ago. Today most congregations have some form of outreach in terms of either evangelism, social service or social justice. Much of it involves financial support for parachurch ministries and/or personal involvement by church members. Short term missions which were almost unheard of in the 1980’s when we pioneered SOMA USA have also become part of the new normal.

As a sociopolitical entity much of the Episcopal Church leadership has embraced the paradigm of Progressivism. There was a time when the Episcopal Church was referred to as “the Republican Party at prayer”. Today it would probably be described as “the Socialist Party at prayer”. Support for unlimited abortion, the LGBTQ agenda, radical environmentalism, open borders and income redistribution is pretty much the mainstream of TEC elites.
Conservatives are, at best, tolerated and , at worst, pushed out of a church that prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive community. The idea that “the Episcopal Church welcomes you” should have an asterisk. If one were to admit having voted for Donald Trump one would be regarded as racist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, misogynist and a climate denier.

I love the Episcopal Church and it brings me great sadness to make these observations. I am a cradle Episcopalian and an Episcopal Priest. I spent 42 years as a pastor in five different congregations. I was nominated for bishop at least ten different times. I still have very dear friends throughout the Episcopal Church and count numerous bishops as my friends. They are Godly shepherds and care deeply about the flock. I served as the founding Director of SOMA USA which took me to places all over the Anglican Communion working with primates, bishops and church leaders for the renewal of the church. This gave me a global perspective about the nature of Anglican identity.

For twenty years I focused on being a spokesperson for traditional biblical values in marriage, family and society. But in the conversation about human sexuality I discovered that I wasn’t convincing any of the progressives and they were not changing my mind. So I made the decision to begin working for reconciliation in the national Episcopal Church between conservative evangelicals and progressive social justice leaders to see if there was some way that we could coexist without killing each other. We began with a meeting in Seattle in 1998. Dubbed the “Seattle 22” we brought together bishops, priests and lay leaders that represented the whole array of theological and sociopolitical opinion. It was funded and followed closely by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswald. One inescapable truth emerged for me after two very painful days together: to stay together it was going to be very painful and it would require living in a chaotic ecclesiastical entity. I was sobered by the reality that given the human need for clarity and definition that this was not going to be possible. As I boarded my flight to return home I knew then that a major schism would come to the Episcopal Church and that is what happened when the House of Bishops approved the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

For Conservatives there were no good options. Many left and began ACNA or other splinter groups. Others left to swim the Tiber and go to Rome. Some of us felt led by the Holy Spirit to remain in the Episcopal Church. However, it is a painful experience of simply being tolerated. I have been ordained for 44 years, was honored as a canon of the Diocese for my national and international reconciliation work and, yet, could probably not even get ordained in my own Diocese today because I still believe in the traditional value of family and human sexuality. But that is not what is most painful to me. It is something else and that something else is a principal reason why the Episcopal Church is dying. We simply do not embody the gospel message and our witness is unconvincing to the non believing world.

At the heart of the gospel message is God’s offer of reconciliation with God and one another through Jesus, through the cross. The kingdom of God means that Jesus is the King of Israel and the king of Israel has become the King of the nations. It means that the Abrahamic blessing of reconciliation first given to Israel is now for all the nations.

Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5 that the heart of the gospel is the great offer and possibility of reconciliation which is appropriated by repentance and faith. However, to proclaim that message with integrity we must embody it. What the world sees in the Episcopal Church is that we fight just like they do and that we are unable to be reconciled just like them. The schism of the Episcopal Church over human sexuality has deep and lasting spiritual implications both for TEC and ACNA as well as our relations with the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Can the Episcopal Church rise again? What is the way forward ? It must begin with our leaders and it must begin with a real heart of humility. If they are more concerned with being right than being reconciled, I suspect that our present downward spiral will continue. Our profound inability to love one another grieves the heart of God and it is presumptuous to expect God’s blessing on our efforts. Also, we must come to a recognition that the lack of reconciliation among Anglicans worldwide has deep and profound spiritual implications. We cannot think that our bitter divisions are pleasing to God because we are boldly standing for justice or boldly standing for biblical values. Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 stands as an indictment to all who are so committed to truth as they understand it at the expense of unity.

The way forward will be painful because it will require a deep change of heart on all sides before we can sit down and genuinely begin problem solving on what it means to be the Anglican Communion and the nature of Anglican identity. The key to beginning the process is the relationship between the Episcopalians and the Anglicans in the United States.

If Presiding Bishop Curry and Archbishop Foley Beach were to lead their respective entities toward a process of reconciliation it would have profound spiritual implications. This does not necessarily mean a structural or an organizational reunion but rather a profound changing of hearts toward each other and a beginning of dismantling the walls of hostility toward each other. This will not be an easy task as their respective bases will strongly resist such an undertaking. In the Episcopal Church leading Progressives are glad to be rid of the conservatives and view them as resisting the work of the Holy Spirit with marriage equality. In the Anglican Church of North America the founding leaders (many of whom were my friends) are retiring and a new generation are moving into leadership who were never part of the Episcopal Church and would see reconciliation with TEC as irrelevant. Their focus is on church growth and church planting.

There is also a need to consider the broken relationships that the Episcopal Church has with much of the Anglican Communion in the Global South. Many of my friends among the primates and bishops feel a strong hostility toward TEC because of the arrogant treatment that they have received from Western bishops who carry hostile attitudes of condescension toward African, Latin American or Asian bishops who are often better educated than their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. More and more the Global South of the Anglican Communion charts it’s way forward without reference to Canterbury, the Americans, the Canadians or the Australians. The underlying hostility is there. It might be covered over with genteel politeness but it is there. I have had to listen to it from Bishops in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

I really believe that Bishop Curry is sincere in his focus on the ministry of reconciliation. I remember a walk that we took together when I spoke to the House of Bishops during a meeting in Texas about Faith-Based Reconciliation. At the time he was Bishop of North Carolina, but even then I could tell that reconciliation was a deep passion in his heart. But it will take more than passion, it will take courage to take the road less travelled. I suspect that were he to do this that he would experience intense pressure from hardline Progressives in the church who are strongly agenda driven and will brook no compromise with those who see truth very differently than they do. Now that they control the levers of power in the institutional Episcopal Church, they have little motivation to seek reconciliation. They expect Conservatives to come around to their way of thinking or get out. In a sense the Episcopal Church is like the sinking Titanic. The band is playing and the choir is singing as the passengers scramble for the lifeboats. Some will go down with the ship convinced they were right.

Our failure to love one another embodied in the schism in which approximately 200,000 members left the Episcopal Church is a deep wound for all of us, both Conservative and Progressive Episcopalians/Anglicans and it is a wound in the global Anglican Communion. It is a wound even for ACNA that is mostly ignored. Justin Welby, despite his best efforts has been unable to bring healing to this wound.

The key to systemic change in TEC and ACNA will be a profound change of hearts leading to the possibility of constructive joint problem solving. Both entities are hurt by the divisions. Both have a vested interest in bringing healing to this deep wound. I pray that there will be courage to take the road less travelled.

The Reverend Canon Brian Cox is retired Rector of Christ the King Parish in Santa Barbara, California and presently serves as President of the Institute for Faith-Based Diplomacy

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