Lennox: New church leader faces tough times
A new leader took the helm of the Episcopal Church during an elaborate service in the iconic neo-Gothic Washington National Cathedral on Sunday. Episcopalians under new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry face the dire reality of demographic extinction. To put it in perspective, the Detroit-based Diocese of Michigan reported a 37 percent decline in baptized membership from 2000 to 2013.
While numerous factors have contributed to the denomination’s stunning collapse, the main schism occurred after the openly gay Gene Robinson became bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The embracing of same-sex blessings and eventually liturgical rites for gay marriage only made matters worse.
Since then, at least $42 million has been spent by the Episcopal Church in lawsuits against dissenting parishes and even entire dioceses that decided to quit rather than remain a part of the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which traces its roots to the Church of England.
Curry’s biggest challenge comes in January, when senior Anglican bishops from across the world meet to decide the fate of not just the world’s largest Protestant denomination but also the largest Christian denomination behind Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
The confab, hosted by the archbishop of Canterbury, the traditional head of the Anglican Communion, could very well recognize breakaway Episcopalians in the considerably smaller Anglican Church in North America. Not only would such a move end the Episcopal Church’s exclusive franchise as the only recognized Anglican denomination in the U.S., but it could lead to the eventual disintegration of the Anglican Communion writ large.
That’s because Anglicans in the Global South, which like Roman Catholicism are the fastest-growing churches in all of Christendom, want nothing to do with Episcopalians. So far Curry has demurred from criticizing predecessor Katharine Jefferts Schori, who made no apologizes for losing upwards of 25 percent of membership during her tenure as presiding bishop.
If the Curry-led Episcopal Church fails to make peace with dissenters then it will be further torn apart as church liberals, like Curry, fight it out against a more militant left that is more at home in Unitarianism than mainline Christianity.
This fight will get worse over the next three years, when Episcopalians could adopt a new liturgical worship that only furthers the distance between the denomination and the vast majority of Anglicans. Curry will need to waive the proverbial white flag, unless he wants to go down in history as the last presiding bishop of a truly national church.
Dennis Lennox is a freelance columnist.