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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

The Episcopal Church offers a Model for How a Community Can Disagree and Yet Remain United Behind a Common Purpose

The Episcopal Church offers a Model
for How a Community Can Disagree
and Yet Remain United Behind a Common Purpose

By The Very Reverend Todd M. Donatelli, Dean
The Cathedral of All Souls
Asheville, North Carolina

This originally appeared on the front page of the Sunday Forum section of the Asheville Citizen-Times on November 15, 2003 and is used here with Dean Donatelli's permission.
The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire have garnered more press this summer than J Lo and Ben. Madonna would die for such publicity.

I believe the decision of the Episcopal Church this summer to affirm the election of Gene Robinson as bishop and the attention it has attained has touched something deeper than a church disagreement over a current social issue. I think it has touched the nerve about what it means to be a community, be that a national, local and/or religious community, about how we choose to live as a communal people, how we disagree, and how we decide what persons we see as 'acceptable' in our own eyes, and for some of us, acceptable in God's eyes. It touches the comprehensiveness of human understanding and experience, how we approach those 'authoritative texts' of our lives, and where we might find our common life, our common mission as a community of people.


In 16th century Europe, Christians were dividing themselves over whether one was a Protestant or a Catholic. Lines were drawn, cathedrals were ransacked, human beings were tortured and put to death. All over who really 'knew' God.

At the same time in England, the Christians there were battling over whether the English Church would be Protestant or Catholic. (Sorry to dispel the image that England's parting with Rome was merely over a royal divorce). Again, persons were tortured and killed over who was 'right' and who was 'wrong'.

Until the reign of Elizabeth. What had been a battle for either Catholicism or Protestantism became a settlement for both Protestantism and Catholicism. English theologians began to speak of a 'middle way', or via media, that would seek to incorporate the best of both religious understandings. To seek to know and experience God would demand a breadth of study, wisdom, prayer and encounter with God, not a limiting of the same.

Therefore worship would both be in the vernacular and would include the mystery of the sacraments. We would have bishops and none with a final authority over the others. The tradition of the church could constantly be reformed, discerning both where it was in error and where it had found truth. Rather than gathering around and demanding adherence to a catechism or set of beliefs, the English church would gather around common prayer and cycles of communal prayer, trusting that in those communal disciplines, truth would best be revealed.

It has been said by some that the Anglican/Episcopal tradition is not one of compromise for the sake of peace, but one of comprehensiveness for the sake of truth.

And we still are today. We Episcopalians are a tradition that includes pentecostals, charismatics, evangelicals, 'high church' (heavy emphasis on symbolism, aesthetic worship, the saints), 'low church' (heavy emphasis on hearing the Word without distraction), fundamentalists, universalists and 'all sorts and conditions' of belief. Rather than weed out types of religious tradition and experience, we find that in all of them some truth can contribute to the comprehensiveness of the whole.

A former bishop of mine once said, "At times we Episcopalians fuss and fume and fight and yet we do not throw the 'rascals' out because we have regularly found that this process of mutual engagement had lead us to deeper levels of the truth."

Authoritative Texts

It has been said by some that the Episcopal Church is abandoning the Bible for 'cultural relativism'. Instead, we have been a tradition that recognizes that with four different gospels with differing chronologies, some very conflicting historical accounts of the forming and experiences of the people of Israel, books which espouse universalism and others which espouse a strict nationalism, the most informative approach to the Bible is the looking at the text as a whole, listening for the universal themes.

Some of the most basic themes include 1) God loves us passionately; 2) From books like Hosea and stories of the prodigal son, we see that God is relentless in wooing our hearts and souls; 3) From Elijah, Isaiah, Jesus, Peter and Paul, we see the people of God forever being confronted regarding who is and who is not 'clean' or acceptable to God. We hear stories of foreign rulers, people with physical limitations, persons of other faiths, visions of 'unclean' animals, gentiles and many others who are by the people of God seen as 'unclean' being declared by God to be in fact 'clean'; 4) God is about the freeing of those who are seen as 'less than' by others, be they slaves in Egypt or slaves in America.

Throughout its life, the church has continued to listen to this confrontation, hearing God's ongoing message of inherent human dignity and relational mutuality and has changed its mind about biblically defended practices such as slavery and female subjugation.

Common Life, Common Mission

What is most lacking in much of the recent reporting on the Episcopal Church is how and where the vast majority of this community is staying together and how it has stayed together for centuries despite great difference of belief and practice.

This month the Episcopal Churches of Asheville completed their fifth Habitat for Humanity home. A couple of weeks ago, a crew of us from many of the churches were working together, some of us meeting for the first time, some were old friends. We found ourselves talking about families, personal news and Gene Robinson. While offering differing accounts of how our respective parishes were doing and our own personal wrestling, we were working together framing windows, staining doorframes and discussing how best to solve various carpentry issues. In the midst of wrestling as a church, we found common tasks that gave life to the community. In the midst of any differences we had, we allowed for creation to take place. I find in this story a model.

I am saddened to read of a priest leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. I am also aware that the almost one hundred and twenty active Episcopal clergy in this diocese, who have very differing views, are choosing to stay together and work together on common issues such as hunger, mental health, prisons, education and ministry to children and youth. I am saddened to read of about twenty-five persons starting a new congregation in the Asheville area. I am also aware that about twenty five hundred Episcopalians in the Asheville area, many with very differing views, are choosing to stay together and also work together to address the same communal issues. We understand that despite our differences, which are not unimportant, we have more to offer this community by being together. In the midst our differences, and perhaps at times because of them, more life can be generated by staying together than by separating.

America is experiencing tremendous polarization over politics, religion, education and many other issues of our common life. We are forever drawing lines regarding who is 'right' and who is 'wrong'. I believe the Episcopal Church is and can be a model of how communities can disagree in belief and practice, respect one another, and find a common purpose and mission from which all our communities are given life.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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