Now is not a happy time to be an Episcopalian, or an Anglican, or an Anglican who was until recently an Episcopalian, or any permutation thereof. After agreeing to a temporary moratorium on ordaining homosexual bishops, the Episcopal Church - the American branch of the Anglican Communion, so named because Anglican sounded treasonously English during the Revolutionary War - voted last week to lift the moratorium and begin developing a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. (Though the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop is, after the fact, claiming the vote didn't actually mean that.)
The exodus of conservative members and parishes already underway is sure to continue, along with an increase in expressions of anger, chagrin, and sadness on all sides. Oh, and there will be plenty of valuable church properties to wrestle over, too.
Although several other Protestant denominations have been agonizing over homosexuality for years now, Episcopalians seem to be tied in the tightest knots, an impression created in part because they make such great news.
I once asked an Associated Press religion reporter about what seemed to me excessive coverage of the Episcopal Church, and she pointed out that stories about that church usually involve sex, money, and power (Episcopalians make up 7 percent of the U.S. Senate, for example, though less than 2 percent of the American population), plus, just as important, Episcopalians helpfully tell reporters when and where to show up. Local dioceses have annual conventions. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the group that met last week, convenes every three years. Bishops from the entire Anglican Communion meet every ten years at Lambeth Palace in England. To get a sense of how handy this is for religion reporters, who are lucky these days to have jobs, let alone generous travel budgets, imagine trying to cover all the major developments in America's vast non-denominational universe. Where would you go? Whom would you interview? How would you know when you had done enough work to file the story? It's a whole lot easier to plan a trip to the next big church convention and report on whatever happens there.
An unfortunate consequence of the Episcopal Church's media-friendliness, and of its famously slow and involved deliberative process, is that a casual observer might easily conclude that all Episcopalians ever do is fight. Episcopalians themselves might feel this way; not being one, I will not presume to speak for them. But the Episcopal Church is not uniquely tormented by internal tensions, nor are such tensions necessarily malignant. According to philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, any institution that hopes to last must contend with conflict.
In his landmark book After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre defined a living tradition as "an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition."
This is probably not the definition most of us would use. Family traditions - annual vacation spots, holiday foods, and so on - evoke warm, fuzzy thoughts. Vacations and holidays can occasion spats, or worse, but these are (one hopes) aberrations, not essential aspects of the traditions. Institutions, including churches, that promote their traditions usually do so to communicate stability, dignity, aesthetic richness, and monetary richness, certainly nothing so unseemly as squabbling. Think of the soothing voice on television, intoning, "A tradition unlike any other â€¦ The Master's on CBS." Soft music, verdant putting greens, smiling champions - no conflict there. The scene is placid enough to make the viewer forget the Master's is a fierce competition that every contestant save one will lose.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part (at least for now) bear all the marks of dictionary-defined tradition. The Church of England is the oldest Protestant denomination in the English-speaking world, ancestor and antagonist of Methodists, English Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. The Episcopal establishment in Virginia and surrounding colonies was every bit as old and firmly rooted as the Congregational establishment in New England. From stately signs out front to elegant windows behind the priest, countless Episcopal churches exude nobility, with the overtones of high ideals and high status intended. And yet the church is embroiled in an ugly, messy, knock-down drag-out fight. As MacIntyre would have it, this, too, is a hallmark of tradition.
If that is the case, if a living tradition not only must weather arguments but in fact is a sprawling argument, then who needs tradition? Haven't Americans, with their penchant for leaving behind Old World identities, denominational ties, and boring hometowns chosen the wiser course? Not so fast. MacIntyre posits that traditions provide context and meaning for human practices while also identifying goals - goods - toward which to strive. These are things worth thinking about, and worth arguing about. People who shrink the circle of their connections until it is scarcely larger than themselves still have to find satisfying answers to these questions, but they have to do it alone.
I find it very useful to think of churches, institutions, and traditions of all sorts as historically extended, socially embodied arguments. I like any interpretive lens that incorporates history, of course, and I also like the way this formula embraces real people and their often angular opinions. I am not a theologian or a philosopher, and my brain doesn't process abstractions well. But I certainly notice a brawl, on the evening news or in the archives of the periodicals I study, and I'm driven to figure out who is arguing what, and why, and what they believe is at stake. Conflict makes institutions flex muscles they would otherwise lose to atrophy, and it forces individuals to articulate beliefs that can turn to mush beneath presumed consensus. The saying goes, "It's all over but the shouting," but as I observe history unfolding, the shouting proves that "it," the living tradition, has a ways to go.
Image of Episcopal presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in Portland, Oregon, June 6, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons.