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RGOD2: Can the Episcopal Church save itself?

More than 400 Episcopalians are gathering this week at the luxurious Hilton Bayfront Hotel in San Diego to pray, strategize and schmooze over gin and tonics as to how to be the Body of Christ in America in the 21st century.

The Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP) represents America’s earliest manifestation of the Prosperity Gospel. Many of the founding fathers and industrialists of America’s past were members of this small denomination. J P Morgan established its clergy pension fund and Eli Lilly endowed many churches in his home town of Indianapolis.

The Episcopal Church’s close roots with the establishment are epitomized in the granting of a small farm in lower Manhattan by Queen Anne. This bequest was to Trinity Church, Wall Street, now one of the wealthiest churches in the country and is landlord to many properties on this upscale address.

Phyllis Tickle is a futurist for the American faith community and once commented that mainstream liberal denominations like the Episcopal Church will survive 20 years from now, not because they have anything unique to offer to compete with growing Pentecostalism of mega-churches, but because they own lots of real estate. The question before the gray-haired and fat-cat congregations of the Episcopal Church gathering under the San Diego sunshine is simply: How do we use these blessings of wealth and stability in a world of great inequality and instability to proclaim God’s love? How can historical privilege be transformed into servant leadership, if at all?

Struggling to bring blessing

This gathering is not typical of the average Episcopal congregation and the effects of recession and disillusionment with organized religion in general is having its toll on shrinking church budgets, mergers and even closures.

Inner city congregations are struggling to keep their doors open and providing essential ministries to their marginalized communities. Many cannot afford a full-time seminary trained clergy leader, so other forms of lay leadership and training for ministry are being explored. Without support from membership and less reliance on the endowment of rich Episcopalians from past generations, the Church is facing its own hard choices of how it sustains its levels of community commitment, support for outreach ministries domestically and internationally, and maintains its thousands of historic properties.

Trinity Church, Wall Street is an example of how individuals and institutions shuffle along the difficult path from privilege to servant leadership. Trinity was built on the backs of the voiceless victims of America’s slave trade and for generations supported the great inequalities of this country. Today, her annual grants program gives millions of dollars away to inner-city projects as well as many HIV and women’s development programs in Africa.

A former rector of Trinity Wall Street had a very close relationship with a young priest from South Africa called Desmond Tutu and there is no doubt that without Trinity’s financial and moral support, the battle to end apartheid might have taken longer and been more violent without Trinity’s blessings. As the tragic and unimaginable events of 9/11 unfolded on live television, St. Paul’s chapel, part of Trinity’s complex, opened its doors to provide emergency relief and support to the New York Fire Department and rescuers.

Historically, these powerful churches have brought transformation to the deepest of our collective despair. Other contemporary issues like LGBT equality, same gender marriage and gun control will continue to push the Episcopal churches onto the center stage of public square debate.

The newly elected dean of Washington National Cathedral, Gary Hall, recently stepped outside the safety of his cloister to welcome LGBT couples to be married at the nation’s House of Prayer. “The National Episcopal church has authorized same gender rites of blessing and political districts of the whole Diocese of Washington now allows for same gender marriages, so what more can be said?”

There is always a risk that the church can be held hostage by more conservative donors and it will be interesting to see the effects of the calls for greater control over guns that the Episcopal Church is actively supporting. The National Cathedral has invited the Speaker of the House and Vice President to an open debate on the issues and many faith leaders across the country join with Episcopalians in wrestling with these important moral questions for our age.

Will the Episcopal Church support LGBT global equality?

The issue of LGBT equality in the USA is pretty much a done deal for Episcopalians but the issue of global equality for LGBT people is not yet decided and its implications not yet fully known.

In the past decade, the Episcopal Church was vilified by a significant portion of her sister Anglican Provinces in Africa (55 million members out of 70 million worldwide) for consecrating openly gay and partners bishops and allowing same gender marriages. The Anglican Churches of Uganda and Sudan, with great influence and alternative funding from more conservative churches in the USA, cut all ties with the Presiding Bishop and all funding from official Episcopalian sources. The Church of Uganda, like many churches in Africa, actively supports the criminalization of homosexuality in 76 countries. Half of them are in sub-Sahara Africa and half are members of the Commonwealth.

No to LGBT international funding

When I approached Trinity Wall Street to support the courageous efforts and ministry of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who was inhibited by the Church of Uganda for failing to condemn gay people, they politely declined. Not once but three times. The bishop was not in good standing with his Archbishop and to receive a grant from Trinity, Episcopal Relief and Development or United Thank Offering, the Archbishop of a Province has to approve the project.

I joked with one of the grant officers (who happens to be a Ugandan priest) “So if Dietrich Bonheoffer asked Trinity for a grant to help his church support itself against Nazi control of the churches in the 1940s and not having support from his local Archbishop - would you give him a grant?” The answer was no and Trinity’s policy and respect of Anglican polity was restated to me and Bishop Christopher.

Although the Episcopal Church has been in the front lines of global justice issues in the past as we saw in South Africa, or assisting with deep human needs as we saw at 9/11, we are not seeing the same commitment expressed by our wealthier and more prophetic congregations to the LGBT movement globally. It is partly because many of these congregations have deep and long term ties to local projects and leaders in Africa and they don’t want to strain relationships further.

Also, there is a lot of ignorance in the USA as to the real effects of LGBT criminalization and the effects of churches (including partner Anglican Provinces) actively encouraging politicians to create more draconian legislation to imprison LGBT people. One small contribution from an Episcopalian in Orange County, Colin Stewart, is seeking to educate church leaders about the personal toll this is having on millions of LGBT globally. It is ironic many of these wealthy congregations support LGBT locally and are giving funding to African provinces who are seeking their imprisonment.

An Anglican compromise?

Last summer, the Episcopal Church’s 77th General Convention passed Resolution DO71, which created an Anglican compromise to this dilemma. Whereas Anglican polity demanded local African Archbishop’s sign off on grant proposals, the main charitable bodies of the church including Episcopal Relief and Development and Trinity Church, Wall Street, the resolution allowed congregations and dioceses to enter into their own relationships with inclusive churches and non-government organizations (NGO’s) in places like Uganda and other Provinces where LGBT people are criminalized and often denied important services like HIV testing or care.

“Resolved, That this General Convention support Anglican and other ministries engaged in the intersection of rights, development and justice consistent with our mission priorities and Millennium Development Goals; and be it further Resolved, That the World Mission Committee urges funding organizations of The Episcopal Church to expand partner relationships with other Non-Governmental Organizations whose missions are consistent with the mission goals of The Episcopal Church. These new partnerships can augment our mission commitment in areas where there may be no significant Anglican presence or
where the policies and programs of a Province may be in opposition to the inclusive values of The Episcopal Church and current American foreign policy towards LGBT people.”

St. Paul’s Foundation facilitated some of the debate within the Convention and Bishop Christopher and I addressed the Standing Commission on Global Mission with support from the Diocese of California and Integrity USA. Although the resolution passed last fall and was seen as a compromise, we have yet to see any of these diocese or parishes step out and actually implement it.

The organization that could make a significant difference to moving this resolution from a nice Anglican compromise on paper to a force for servant leadership and transformation is the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes. We will be meeting individually with them this week and sharing free copies of Colin’s new book: “From Wrong’s to Gay Rights.” I am sure out of a gathering of 400+ caring thoughtful and intelligent faith leaders, the inconsistencies and the opportunities of the current policy and solution of General Convention Resolution DO71, we may have some success to gain their attention, wisdom and commitment. Pray for us.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.