By Jordan Hylden
In a recent interview with John Mumford, national director of Vineyard Churches in the U.K. and Ireland, Archbishop Justin Welby comes across as a very good communicator, humble yet confident, and as a man whose hope and vision originates from one person: Jesus. I’ve been told by someone who knows him well that he spends more time in prayer and Bible study than any priest she’s ever known.
Here’s what stuck with me most, in relation to our own church. In a violent world full of suspicion and fear, Archbishop Welby says, we in the church must be a people of peace. Being a people of peace won’t “mean we all agree, [but] it means we love each other when we don’t agree.”
He adds: “If you look back at some of the arguments we’ve had over the last few weeks and months here in the Church of England, it is poison to the mind of those who are outside the church. It anesthetizes them against the Gospel.”
Substitute the Church of England in the last few months for the Episcopal Church for the past many years, and I couldn’t think of a more apt description of where we are as a church today. Karl Marx once said that history always repeats itself, as it were, twice — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. That line’s occurred to me often while reading the news about the secession of the Diocese of South Carolina, and the looming black cloud of yet more lawsuits on top of the millions we’ve already spent, against a diocese that was one of the only growth spots in the entire church but felt pushed out the door. This again? Must we keep repeating ourselves until there’s nothing left but a pile of old empty buildings?
I wish to God it weren’t so, but apparently it is. Our presiding bishop delivered a sermon to the Episcopal Church’s remnant people in South Carolina Jan. 26, and she began with a story about a local man who had made the mistake of flying his glider too close to a nuclear power plant. It was an honest mistake, but for his sins the local constabulary decided to put this septuagenarian in a tiny and crowded jail cell for over a day. He was, understandably, upset. See the analogy yet? Well, here it is, with the all the subtlety of a baseball bat: “I tell you that story because it’s indicative of attitudes we’ve seen here and in many other places. Somebody decides he knows the law, and oversteps whatever authority he may have to dictate the fate of others who may in fact be obeying the law, and often a law for which this local tyrant is not the judge. It’s not too far from that kind of attitude to citizens’ militias deciding to patrol their towns or the Mexican border for unwelcome visitors. It’s not terribly far from the state of mind evidenced in school shootings, or in those who want to arm school children, or the terrorism that takes oil workers hostage.”
Yes, she went there. Our presiding bishop saw fit to allude to a “local tyrant” (no specific names, you understand) and to compare him with backwoods militias, terrorists, and the murderers of children in schools.
Really? Must we treat one another this way? This is what Archbishop Welby calls “poison” to people outside; this is what anesthetizes people against the gospel. Yes, there are important disagreements and issues at stake. Yes, there’s enough blame to go around. But let’s not compare each other to terrorists and serial murderers. Let’s at least start there.
In this vein, a few of us intermittent Covenant bloggers helped put together a petition about South Carolina. We think, basically, that if we’re going to start loving each other as a church across our many divisions, a good place to start would be by not suing one another. We also think (or at least I think) that the House of Bishops has the opportunity at its March meeting to start changing course. Why must our entire church be hijacked by this?
If you agree, please sign and spread the word. We have attracted more than 200 signatures, including many from left, right, and center such as the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, the Rev. Robert Hendrickson, the Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells, the Rev. Russell Levenson, the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, and the Rev. Tobias Haller.
One comment from a signatory that stuck out to me, from Ms. Sarah Raven in Connecticut: “I am deeply committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church. Not just because it is morally right but also because I am a bisexual woman. That being said, just because I may disagree with some of the thoughts and feelings of some of the folks in the Diocese of South Carolina, I still love them as my brothers and sisters in Christ and it deeply pains me that we may forever break our bonds of affection.”
Hear, hear. First comes Christian charity. After that comes everything else. Let’s be a people of peace.
The Rev. Jordan Hylden, a transitional deacon from the Diocese of North Dakota, is a doctoral candidate in theology at Duke Divinity School.