For several years I have watched the struggle within the Episcopalian Church. I have resisted commenting, because I am not Episcopalian. I am a Baptist minster. There is something about jumping into the middle of another family squabble that seems unmannerly, and in Charleston that is something that we dare not do!
But this morning on the front page of the Post and Courier, Jennifer Berry Hawes reported that the case is now going to court. As I read it I was reminded of a conversation I had with a former Episcopal bishop over a decade ago. The rumblings were beginning. We were finishing up breakfast when I commented, “You need to read the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is going to be replayed!” He laughed, slapped me on the back and said, “Don, that’s not going to happen! We are Episcopalians!
I wish I could say that I was wrong, but as the years have passed, I have watched as the Episcopalians have become more and more Baptist—not only in South Carolina, but across the country. Time and time again churches and dioceses have chosen to drop their polity, their way of doing church, their hierarchy in favor of the autonomy that Baptists have long treasured and endured!
I understand that! The church I serve, Providence Baptist on Daniel Island was formed out of a difficult time in Baptist life. Baptists have historically held firm to 4 freedoms—soul freedom–an individuals freedom to stand before God without an intermediary; Bible freedom–an individuals freedom to read and interpret scripture for themselves under the leadership of the Holy Spirit; church freedom—the freedom of a local church to choose thie own way; and religious freedom—the freedom from state intervention in matters of the soul. Those are historical beliefs, ideas that made Baptist “misfits,” radical. There was a sense that those freedoms were being undermined and so we departed. We left, and have voted 3 times not to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention! We know what it is like to leave. It is hard! It is messy! But it is at the core of being Baptist!
Now our Episcopalian brothers appear to desire to be Baptist! They are beginning to value local autonomy over the hierarchical structure, with local congregations choosing not to follow the diocese, with the diocese choosing not to follow the national church. So very Baptist!
At its core, however, they are engaged in a battle about hermeneutics. That is a theological word that refers to how one interprets the Bible. While many trace this current conflict back to issues around sexuality, at its core it is how you interpret scripture. When the Bible speaks against homosexuality, are those verses gospel, binding on all Christians for all time? When the Bible says that women should be quiet in church, is that authoritative? The scriptures that speak about caring for the aliens among us, selling everything and giving it to the poor—do they still apply? In short, the issue is how one interprets scripture.
It is a sticky issue! No one, no one, takes the Bible literally! No matter what they say! We all pick and choose which scriptures are “more Bible” than others! The question is how we decide! How do we decide is, dare I say it, more important that what we decide! This struggle is one which every denomination, every church, every individual Christian will have to struggle. It is one that will shape the face of Christianity. It is not fun! Ask the Baptists! It has cost us seminaries, retreat centers, congregations, relationships. It is painful!
I had so hoped that I would be wrong all those years ago, that our Episcopalian brothers and sisters could have avoided this battle! Time and the courts will decide what happens next! My guess is that we will all look a lot more “Baptist.”