Another departs the empty church

The year is 2012, as the joke goes, and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Yes, mainline Protestant conservatives have struggled trying to draw their doctrinal lines. After all, they may be ordered to cross them. Then what? No one has stated the problem more poignantly than Thomas Reeves, in "The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity."

"Millions of mainline Christians have spent all or much of their lives worshipping in the same congregation, and in many cases their ancestors also belonged," said the historian, a traditionalist Episcopal activist for two decades. "For better or worse, their faith is intimately linked with a specific denomination and a particular building within that tradition. To be cast from it could be personally devastating."

Reeves called his final chapter "Renewing the Mainline." The paperback edition comes out soon and he said he isn't making any changes -- even though he escaped into Roman Catholicism on July 31. His conversion came days after the Episcopal Church's 72nd General Convention, which ordered traditionalist dioceses to begin ordaining women and rejected pleas to allow conservative parishes to freely form sacramental ties with sympathetic bishops. The convention also allowed dioceses to extend insurance coverage to clergy and lay "domestic partners," declined to forbid same-sex unions and elected as its next presiding bishop a key progressive on issues of sex and liturgy.

The irony is that the famous historian exited just as the tiny Episcopal Synod boldly informed the Anglican Communion that it was starting an autonomous North American province to shelter those who reject recent doctrinal innovations. The conservative American Anglican Council pledged to stand with the synod. The AAC includes many that support the ordination of women, but believe the synod should not be crushed.

This will soon lead to legal battles over millions of dollars worth of buildings and endowments. Meanwhile, it is only a year until Anglican bishops hold their once-a-decade global Lambeth Conference in Canterbury -- a setting in which conservative Third World voices could speak out.

While many continue to try to use positive, optimistic language, key leaders have made clear how the two camps view each other's doctrines and demands.

The synod's executive director said the General Convention has "passed judgment upon itself" and "become the Unchurch." National church's leaders, added Father Samuel Edwards, now promote a worldview "derived from the kingdom of sin and death" and, instead of presenting the church as the bride of Christ, appear anxious to model something "off the rack at Frederick's of Gomorrah."

In his swan song, Presiding Bishop Edmond said his church has been sidetracked on sex because of "fear, and -- let me name it -- by hate. And I have wondered if this diversion does not come from the evil from which we pray daily for God's deliverance." Once, "biblical literalism" was used to justify slavery and sexism, he said. Now, conservatives use "the Bible to create prejudices against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters."

Reeves has seen and heard enough. "The key was the lack of tolerance. We have been banned in our own church," he said. "I decided that it was time to go. ... We were drowning and we've been lifted safely into the bark of Peter and we're extremely grateful."

The crucial question is not how the establishment will react to the synod. The question is whether Episcopal conservatives are truly serious and will hold their ground, when the legal wars begin. Reeves is convinced it would be better for Anglo-Catholics to simply swim the Tiber, rather than become another high-church splinter.

"I know Roman Catholicism has its problems, today. But you are not dealing with anarchy," said Reeves, who lives in the progressive Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee. "There are rules. There is authority. You can defend the catechism and know you are not alone. ... I don't have to be ashamed about being a Catholic, anymore. I'm through hiding."