Mainline churches

Division by Communion

One of the symbolic moments in the life of a priest is when he stands at the altar beside his bishop, or even his nation's highest bishop, and celebrates a Mass.

But Father Robert Sanders of Jacksonville recently made a tough decision. He decided that if U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold came to his parish, he wouldn't allow him to receive Holy Communion, let alone preside at the altar. This decision led logically to another. Sanders decided that he would need to break communion with Bishop John Howard of the Diocese of Florida, because he is in communion with Griswold.

"I didn't make this decision because I was angry," said Sanders. "I chose to break communion because many of our bishops are no longer teaching the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. ... It took me a long time to be convinced that our situation is as serious as it is. I tried to exhaust all of my options while staying inside the church. I finally ran out of options."

Sanders is one Episcopal priest caught in a puzzle of global proportions, facing hard decisions about his faith and career. But many others are stuck in the same predicament.

In the headlines, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and a large cast of prelates from Africa, Asia, America and elsewhere are involved in high-wire diplomacy while trying to avoid schism among the world's 77 million Anglicans. Meanwhile, legal task forces in the United States are preparing to fight over millions of dollars in pensions, endowments and property -- with the Episcopal House of Bishops on the left and the Anglican Communion Network on the right.

These clashes are about marriage, sex, salvation, biblical authority and other ancient issues of faith and practice. But these lofty debates are also affecting the down-to-earth realities of daily life for many Episcopalians, as well the faithful in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and other oldline Protestant denominations.

For the 63-year-old Sanders, it meant resigning at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, the third largest parish in the local diocese, and forming the new Christ the King Anglican Fellowship. His small flock meets in the chapel of a Baptist church.

"Everyone thinks we did what we did because of the homosexuality issue," said Sanders, referring to the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.

"It's shameful to say it, but there are plenty of people who could look the other way when we had heretics denying the lordship of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the virgin birth and all kinds of things. But now they're ready to take a stand, because they just don't like gay people. It's a dismal commentary on the state of the church that sexuality had to be the dividing line. It should have never come to this."

For Sanders, the problem was knowing when and where to draw the line. After all, Episcopalians are -- following early-church traditions -- supposed to find doctrinal unity through their bishops.

But today, there are conservative bishops who have broken communion with the progressive leadership of the U.S. Episcopal Church and others who have not. Should a conservative priest break communion with a conservative bishop because he has refused to break communion with a liberal bishop?

There are conservative bishops who do not support the ordination of women and other conservatives who do. There are liberal bishops who support the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians. There are bishops who say they believe it is acceptable to worship gods other than the God of the Bible.

What are local priests supposed to do in this maze? To whom, asked Sanders, are they supposed to turn for guidance? Many priests feel stranded.

"The bishops are supposed to be the people who are helping us defend the faith, but right now I feel like they are the source of most of the confusion," he said.

"Priests aren't supposed to have to make all of these decisions. I know that, but I reached the point where I felt that I had to act. I decided that didn't have to know all of the truth in order to decide to defend the truth that I do know, the basic truths that the church has handed down from generation to generation."

Presbyterian Divorce Ahead?

Two decades ago, the northern United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merged with the southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S. to form the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This church is not be confused with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or many others inspired by the work of a 16th Century French lawyer named John Calvin.

Presbyterians are good at creating new denominations, assemblies and agencies.

And now they need to do it again, according to Robert L. Howard, a veteran Presbyterian elder in Wichita, Kan. He believes divisions in the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are so deep that it's time to quit fighting over sex, salvation and the scriptures and get a divorce.

"The more I thought about our denominational family, the more it seemed to me -- as a lawyer -- that what we have become is a dysfunctional family corporation," he said. "What we have to do is sit down and figure out how to divide the family assets and go our separate ways."

Thus, Howard wrote a crisp proposal entitled "Gracious Separation."

It's time, he said, to create a four-year task force to oversee division of property and endowments. Seminary and college trustees would get to vote. Pension funds would be divided in proportion to the number of ministers who affiliate with two new denominations. Finally, local congregations would choose -- via super-majority votes -- which way to go, taking their buildings and assets with them. And so forth and so on.

According to Howard's vision, this would lead to one church "consisting of individuals and congregations committed to the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of the scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit to actively transform sinners into saints; and the other consisting of individuals and congregations committed to a 'progressive theology' that affirms multiple ways to salvation, the shared authority of scripture and human experience, and the belief that polity can bring unity among sinners and saints who do not share a common understanding of the Gospel."

This has drawn howls of opposition from the progressive national hierarchy, as well as moderate evangelicals. The Rev. Frank Baldwin, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, said he is especially offended by this description of liberal Presbyterian beliefs. It is also na? to think that modern Presbyterians can be sorted into only two simple camps.

"Instead, there are many issues that divide us in various ways, and at different times people line up with those with whom they differ on other matters," said Baldwin, in an online commentary. "We really need each other to think our way through thorny issues. I weep to think of the trauma the plan would cause in all of the particular churches I know if they are forced to choose one or the other of the plan's unpalatable entities. Many members will simply make their exit and leave the rest of us fighting over the bones."

But many are already voting with their feet, said Howard. The churches that became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have lost a million members since the mid-1960s. And Presbyterians are not the only people wrestling with life-and-death doctrinal issues. Other church lawyers will study Howard's proposal with professional interest.

The Anglican Communion has warned the U.S. Episcopal Church that schism is almost certain if bishop-elect V. Gene Robinson, a noncelibate gay priest, is consecrated on Nov. 2 in New Hampshire. In United Methodism, $1 million in budget cuts have claimed a third of the jobs at the Board of Church and Society. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is downsizing and reorganizing, including closing its Commission for Women.

These are hard times for old-line Protestant executives.

Presbyterians must remember, said Howard, that denominations come and go and it's easy for them to become "false idols." Leaders on both sides are fighting over concrete that is already cracking.

"We already have schism. We already have two churches and may have three or more," he said. "We can't become one body through polity and government, instead of through faith and doctrine. Polity has to serve theology and Christology and mission -- not the other way around."