The divisions may not be those we would expect

IS the Episcopal Church tottering on the brink of schism or self-destruction, theologically and ideologically fractured, like many American religious groups, over homosexuality and other issues prominent in the nation’s culture wars? Anyone who followed the church’s convention recently, and the struggle there over confirming the election of a gay bishop openly living with his male partner, might say yes.

But a new study based on interviews with more than 2,500 Episcopalians says no. According to the study, Restoring the Ties that Bind, released at the convention, the church is indeed divided, but not in the ways widely assumed. In fact, the study claims that the church has undergone a major transformation in recent decades that is reshaping it from the grass roots up.

The lengthy report was written by William Sachs, director of research at the Episcopal Church Foundation, and Thomas Holland, who directs the Institute for Non-profit Organizations at the University of Georgia. It has been published by the foundation, a research, educational and philanthropic agency affiliated with the Episcopal Church but financially and organizationally independent of it.

Changing status

The social standing and the public roles of Episcopalians have long given their church a place in American life well beyond what might be expected from its relatively modest membership of 2.3 million. The Episcopal Church, after all, is the American offshoot of the Church of England and shares an Anglican heritage, however uneasily at the moment, with more than three dozen similar offshoots around the world.

But since the 1960s, the Episcopal Church has suffered the same losses as other mainstream denominations like Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists, that once dominated the American religious landscape. It is often noted that from 1967 to 1997, the Episcopal Church’s membership declined by 36 percent. Yet one of the eye-opening findings reported in the new study is that from 1974 to 1997, church attendance among Episcopalians increased by more than 31 percent, and financial giving also rose.

The new reality

The authors claim that focus groups and individual interviews with Episcopalians in more than 200 locations revealed not decline and stagnation in these congregations but `pervasive vitality’. Congregations were being transformed by an influx of new members quite distinct from life-long Episcopalians, the study says. These adults saw themselves as embarked on spiritual journeys. Unlike the stereotypical New Age religious seekers, however, they wanted to make these journeys within a community, and they were drawn to the historic Anglican tradition of both Eucharistic worship and room for individual questioning.

The `new reality’ among Episcopalians that the researchers describe involved a new emphasis on the spiritual rather than the institutional, and the local rather than the diocesan or national. By contrast, a century ago the Episcopal Church saw itself as a leading part of something like a national religious establishment, and the church built up its national offices accordingly. This `historic ideal of the national church’, symbolized by the fact that the church’s cathedral in Washington is known as the National Cathedral, `has largely disintegrated,’ the authors say.

Those interviewed for the study were generally quite candid in describing conflicts in the church. But those conflicts were less likely to be over theological or ideological differences than over frustration, even anger, at diocesan and national offices that were accused of not `honouring local wisdom’ and not providing the resources and guidance needed for local initiatives.

The local church

In fact, there was widespread indifference to the church’s diocesan leaders and national agencies, and little knowledge about what they actually did. When it came to the battles that have roiled the church for years over the moral legitimacy of homosexual relationships, the study suggested that many Episcopalians were less exercised about the outcome, one way or the other, than about legislative approaches, such as at the Convention, with all the attendant distracting headlines. In their view, these were matters that congregations had managed to deal with in their own, more flexible fashion.

Apart from dissatisfaction with diocesan and national leadership, these shifts in Episcopal life also had implications for congregational leadership. Lay people currently take initiatives in matters once left to the clergy. Episcopal clerics, who have often been guardians of the tradition, theological reformers, pastoral counsellors or community leaders, are now also expected to be spiritual guides for religious searchers less interested in social change or therapeutic help than in testing beliefs and spiritual practices of all kinds.

Fr Sachs and Dr Holland found plenty of anxiety and debate about Episcopal identity at the grass roots. What were the church’s core beliefs? What were its boundaries? Shouldn’t there be greater clarity about these things? In fact, there was tremendous agreement (from 95 to 99 percent of those answering a survey of thirty congregations) about three things: the centrality to congregational life of the Eucharist, of the Book of Common Prayer, and of prayer in general.

A great many Episcopalians are apparently willing to leave doctrinal questions unresolved, as long as the effort to grapple with them is rooted in traditional forms of Anglican worship and prayer, and produces a stronger spiritual community engaged in effective local outreach and good works.

National leadership

Diocesan and national Episcopal leaders, whether bishops or staff, do not come off well in this study and may well doubt whether their side of the story has been represented. Sceptical readers may complain that the authors’ subjective interpretation of interviews has not been matched with enough concrete detail and quantitative data, for example, on the religious beliefs and backgrounds of the new Episcopalians.

Certain formulations in the study, like repeatedly describing a shift `from religious institution to spiritual community’ or affirming a `dynamic view of Episcopal tradition’ or peppering the text with the term `mission’, may cloak more than they clarify.

Although both authors were unavailable for comment, at the time of writing William Andersen, executive director of the Episcopal Church Foundation, allowed that many church officials, who regularly deal with congregational conflicts, might find the study’s portrait of vitality somewhat `Pollyannish.’ He also regretted that former or inactive Episcopalians had not been interviewed. But the foundation’s work was `really meant to be a catalyst’ for further discussion, he said. By offering a quite different and provocative picture of changes within one of the nation’s most significant religious bodies, it certainly serves that purpose.

Peter Steinfels is a journalist working for the New York Times.