Episcopal Lessons from the Baptist Wars

About ten years ago I was talking to a friend who is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of SC.  I suggested, “You may want to read the history of the Southern Baptist Convention Wars.”

He laughed, patted me on the arm and said, “Don, that will never happen to us.  We are Episcopalians!”

I so hoped that would be the case, but the events of the past week, months and years have shown that unfortunately I was correct.  Last week the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops announced that the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, has abandoned the church.   That announcement triggered an automatic response from the Diocese of South Carolina disaffiliating the diocese from the Episcopal Church.

As in any relationship, this divorce has been a long time coming.  It is a loss for congregants, for churches, for the Diocese and for the Episcopal Church.  Even more it is a loss for the larger church.

For those of us who live and move and have our being in the wild and wooly world of congregational churches, where there isn’t the security and the community of a diocese or a larger church, we took comfort in knowing that there was a stable place, a place where tradition and order and community trumped provinciality.  We hoped that there would be a place where the tent and the table was broad enough to welcome diversity.  That was our hope.

Instead, what has come to pass is what Martin Marty has called the “baptistfication” of American religion.  Everyone is becoming Baptist!  Oh, the signs might not say that, but if you read carefully, that is what this divorce is about.

It is about interpretation of scripture.  Rev. Al Zadig, rector of St, Michael’s Church said,  “For many years there has been a split coming in the Episcopal Church over the core issue of the authority of Scripture.”  That was the battle cry in the early 1980’s as fundamentalists and moderates fought for control of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Then, the battle was whether the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God.  Zadig asked,  “Do we have the freedom to rewrite the Bible to fit social trends, or do we rewrite our hearts according to the changeless word of God in Scripture? The National Episcopal Church is changing Scripture according to social norms and in doing so has changed the core of the Christian faith.”

In Baptist life, the issue was women.  Could they/should they be ordained?  Now Episcopalians’ battle of interpretation is being fought in over gays and lesbians.  Are they welcomed?  Can they be married?  Can they be ordained?  Both sides argue over the seven verses of scripture, but at the core the question is one of hermeneutics. How shall we interpret the Bible?  Are scriptures set in stone, or it is a living document that grows and changes with the world?

Historically, Baptists have said that every person has the right and the responsibility to read and interpret scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.  No one can tell another person “THIS is what this passage means!”  That is the work of the Holy Spirit.  (It can also lead to quite a bit of chaos!  Ask the Episcopalians!)

The diocese has also acted a bit Baptist in claiming local autonomy.  That is a hallmark Baptist belief—that no other group can tell a local congregation what they must believe or do.  Each congregation is autonomous.  (That is great when you are making decisions about what to do, but can be a harsh reality when trouble comes or you need help paying for the building!)

The SC Diocese has long objected to decisions made by the national church.  Now they are just saying that they are stressing their independence, their autonomy.

As a Baptist, I say “Amen!”  But what happens when a local congregation decides that they want the same autonomy?  Where does the authority lie in a church?

“You might want to read the history of the Southern Baptist Convention Wars.”  It is still good advice for my Episcopal friends.  We made so many mistakes, hurt so many institutions, destroyed so many lives, and damaged the body of Christ.  We had so hoped that others might learn from our mistakes.

But…

Prayers will be offered that a way out might be found.  We need the Episcopal Church.  But if you want to be Baptist, I know where you can find a really good one! 

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