As Episcopal Church leaders prepare to elect a new presiding bishop and vote on a “special liturgy” for same-sex marriage ceremonies and organizational changes to the 1.8 million-member denomination, not all are in agreement over the health and future of one of the nation’s oldest Christian faiths.
Some understandable soul-searching has taken place in the wake of the church losing half its membership since 1966, 12 percent in the past nine years alone. The denomination’s progressive stances are blamed for much of the exodus by conservatives, while other clergy say the church is going through needed “pruning” as it becomes more inclusive to reflect today’s society.
The Rev. W. Frank Allen of Radnor, Pennsylvania, is one of 800 lower-house delegates coming to Salt Lake City for the movement’s triennial General Convention beginning Monday. He is pleased the denomination accommodates a diverse following of worshippers.
“I think that our church is poised for some real growth,” said the Rev. Allen, rector of 300-year-old St. David’s Episcopal Church in the Philadelphia suburb. “Sociologically and theologically, we’re open we have people at all ends of the spectrum. Spiritually you can have (Episcopal) churches that are very high church, with lots of ceremony, incense and bells; other times you don’t know that you’re in a church.”
His own flock at St. David’s is flourishing: Membership totals 3,300, of which between 650 and 700 attend one of multiple worship services each Sunday. St. David’s first church, constructed in a year by the Welsh-immigrant farmers who tamed Radnor’s fields, still hosts three of those weekly sessions; the other meetings are in a new chapel on a 40-acre campus.
Four hours south of St. David’s, in Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Charles Alley leads the 600-member St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. An average of 270 attend worship each Sunday, he said. Although the parish counts its history in decades, not centuries, the congregation remains vibrant, even if its rector is a bit anxious about recent trends in the parent church.
“There is a certain flavor of chaos” in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Alley said. He said “a lack of consistency” between the church’s constitution and laws, called canons, and the way leaders are operating is confusing and somewhat “intentional, to get a certain agenda accomplished.”
The Rev. Alley believes the Episcopal Church, which voted to ordain women as priests in 1976 and installed its first openly homosexual bishop in 2004, may be “so interested in being relevant (that) in many ways we’ve rendered ourselves irrelevant as a church.”
The Rev. Robert W. Prichard, a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria who has written and published two editions of an Episcopal Church history, says this year’s meeting finds the church at a crossroads following a decade of dissension, departures and even litigation. He hopes the Salt Lake City event will help the church move beyond battles over sexuality and present a church that’s more attractive to nonmembers.
Of the dozens of resolutions up for voting at the meeting, the first 10 are products of the “Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” a three-year effort to come up with ways to reform the denomination’s structures, governance and administration.
Elesha Coffman a Dubuque Theological Seminary professor and author of a book on mainline Protestantism, agrees the church’s convention comes at a critical moment. The Episcopal Church, Coffman noted, “is like the rest of the mainline only more so — more wealthy, more educated, more politically powerful, more socially prominent, and now more troubled.”
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