I was stunned at this news; as a general rule, revolt and Episcopalians are not words you generally find in the same sentence. There’s an almost oxymoronic ring to the phrase. It’s true that the Episcopal Church was a product of that most revolutionary of movements, the Protestant Reformation, but it was always a sort of half-hearted revolutionary. Henry VIII didn’t really want to do away with Catholicism in England; he just wanted to dump his wife and didn’t want to get the Pope’s approval to do it. What could be simpler, then, than to simply declare himself the head of the Church in England and then declare his marriage to his Catherine of Aragon null and void? No muss, no fuss, and he saved a ton of money on lawyers. Many American revolutionaries were Episcopalians as well, but when you think about it, most of them weren’t trying to be revolutionary in the sense we mean it; they were just trying to change who they paid their taxes to.
A good many Confederates were Episcopalians, when they weren’t busy trying to be something else. There’s a lot of people who’ll say that the Confederacy was a revolutionary enterprise, but frankly, I don’t think so; the problem the Confederates had was that they wanted the world to stay the way it was in 1799, when nobody questioned the need for the peculiar institution that kept money in their pockets. Reactionaries can be revolutionary, as the world saw in 1979, but what the people of the antebellum South wanted, more than anything else, was for their world to be left alone, and that wasn’t going to happen. There was no room for moonlight and magnolias in the industrializing America of the mid-nineteenth century. But I digress, as usual.
So given that Episcopalians do not appear, at first glance, to be natural revolutionaries, why then this revolt against the Church? I think it has a lot to do with the nature of religion. Religion is about ultimate things: God, life, death, truth, the meaning of existence, good and evil, and how do I, as an individual human being, lead a moral life? It is definitely not about chasing after every theological fashion that comes down the pike, nor is it about doing as one pleases as long as everyone else approves. A Christian church should try, on occasion, to put the teachings of the religion’s founder into practice. When the mob confronted the rabbi from Nazareth with a woman caught in the act of adultery and demanded to know if the rabbi thought they should stone her to death, as required in the Torah, the rabbi said that if there were any sinless men in the crowd, they should toss the first rock at her. No one did anything—no doubt there was more than one sinner in the crowd that day—and after a bit the mob just sort of drifted away, no doubt to look for a stray Red Sox fan they could pummel into the dust with a clear conscience, and more power to them, I say. That left the rabbi and the woman alone together, and the rabbi asked her if anyone had condemned her. The woman said that no, no one had, and then the rabbi told her that he wouldn’t, either, Go and sin no more.
The rabbi didn’t tell this woman that she was not a sinner, only a victim of poor self-esteem, or suffered from an addiction, or that she was leading an alternative life style, or anyone of a hundred different excuses for doing things we know we shouldn’t do but want to do anyway. The rabbi didn’t tell the woman that he didn’t condemn her so she should go hop back into the sack with the guy she got caught with; he told her to stop committing adultery.
The problem the Episcopal Church has these days is that in its desire to stay relevant to society, it has forgotten that not everything is negotiable. When a Christian church openly flouts thousands of years of Christian moral teaching because it wants to be inclusive, when it allows a man openly living in a state of sin with another man to hold a high position in its hierarchy, when it excuses and makes excuses for sinners to continue in their sin, then this church ceases to be a Christian church in any meaningful sense of the term; it is merely a place where people congregate on Sunday morning in order to avoid having to watch Tim Russert.