Episcopalians and Catholics: Different Styles but Common Problems


When nearly 200 bishops of the Episcopal Church and more than 5,000 Roman Catholics from around the world held separate meetings in Baltimore recently, it was their distinctly different styles of worship and methods of discourse that were apparent.

The Episcopal bishops spent most of a week in biblical study and free though courteous debate. They then shared concerns about the direction of their church with the witty, urbane archbishop of Canterbury.

The Catholics -- an international throng of the laity drawn not by their own theologians' debates but by a longing for a simpler, transforming faith -- bowed their heads in unison over their rosary beads and prayed intently after a cardinal, three archbishops and a variety of other clergy and nuns exhorted them to deeper piety.

At the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the Episcopalians' improvised chapel was furnished handsomely. It was decorated with gold candelabra, a bishop's throne of carved wood and heraldic shields, Gothic symbols of great people and events of Christian history.

For the prayers and devotional exercises of the Catholic faithful, the Baltimore Arena became a vast, dimly lighted sanctuary where reminders of hockey games and rock concerts were never effectively expunged. Images of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by flowers, were spotlighted reminders of more serene times and places.

But under the surface of these very different gatherings, the similarities were striking. Representatives of two major branches Christianity, Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, so closely related historically and theologically, were reacting to spiritual upheavals that began in the 1960s.

At a convocation of Episcopal clergy and laity immediately preceding the bishops' meeting, the Rev. David B. Collins minced no words in describing a crisis of disillusionment among thousands of Episcopalians in the pews -- and perhaps an equal number who no longer enter their churches' doors.

"Over and over, especially during the last few years, I have heard in national church meetings any fashionable, politically correct, liberal trend in the politics of our nation referred to as the clear work of the Holy Spirit," said Father Collins, a former dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Atlanta.

"It is clearly more acceptable in the Episcopal Church to have a sexually transmitted disease than to take scripture seriously," cracked this priest, who -- his harshest critics among the more liberal bishops readily admitted -- is no lightweight. Father Collins was for six years, from 1985 to 1991, the elected president of the House of Deputies, one of the church's two national governing bodies.

Many Episcopalians, bishops included, think "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere," Father Collins said with seriousness, adding: "If Jesus is not unique, there is no Gospel. This is the theological battleground of our day, and generally speaking our church is on the wrong side."

He was stating the principal concern of a group of local Episcopal priests who issued last year what was called the Baltimore Declaration.

The document drew criticism that bordered on outrage both inside and outside the Episcopal Church because it restated what for centuries had been a fundamental tenet of the New Testament, Jesus' words reported in John's Gospel: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

The signers of the document went on to say, "While we do not presume to judge how the all-holy and all-merciful God will or will not bring to salvation those who do not hear and believe the preached Gospel, we do emphatically declare Jesus the rightful Lord and Savior of all humanity, and we embrace the Great Commission of our Lord to proclaim with evangelical fervor his Good News to the world. . . .

"We repudiate the false teaching that Jesus is merely one savior among many -- the savior of Christians but not of humankind."

The six authors of the Baltimore Declaration were excoriated in some quarters, accused of reversing recent progress in Jewish-Christian theological dialogue if not plain anti-Semitism, even though their document stated unequivocally: "All anti-Semitism in thought, word, or deed is vicious and is to be decried and condemned by Christians."

The sticking point was more subtle. It was the authors' rejection of "the inference that the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah need not be proclaimed to" the Jewish people.

This, then, was the tumultuous background for a question posed to His Grace, George Leonard Carey, the 103rd archbishop of Canterbury, who is spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans, including the Episcopalians of the United States.

He was asked by one of the U.S. bishops at the Baltimore meeting whether Christians should evangelize adherents of other religions, and specifically how Christians should "interface with" Muslims, who now outnumber Episcopalians in this country.

The archbishop replied succinctly: "We should not be coy about our Gospel. Preaching the Gospel is a mandate. Other faiths will respect our integrity. Let us come to terms with the reality, there is very much a marketplace of religions."

Later, Archbishop Carey told a story about a friend who, he said, was counseling "a very keen Christian woman whose life was in a mess." Her marriage was on the rocks; she had had a nervous breakdown. And she appeared for a counseling session wearing a sweat shirt that bore the slogan, "Christ is the answer."

His friend said to her, "Jean, I think you should scrap the idea that Christ is the answer. He never said that. He said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' I think that it is only by walking in his way that you will see your way through your problems."

Archbishop Carey -- viewed as a progressive like themselves by many of his admirers among the bishops -- seemed surprised that any Episcopalian would oppose teaching the Bible in public schools. Religious education became obligatory in England's state schools in 1944 and "overall, it's a good thing," he said.

He cautioned the U.S. bishops against being diverted from their main mission, evangelization, by becoming embroiled in the controversies over the ordination of women -- which he supports -- and over nuances of sexual morality. "Do not allow a single issue to dominate the agenda," he warned.

He concluded his principal address to the bishops with emphasis on the words from the Gospel of John that reassured supporters of the Baltimore Declaration: "Episcopal authority is not given so that we might dispense answers to every question. But it is given so that you and I might direct people to Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and life itself."

At the sports arena a few blocks away, the Marian International Conference of Baltimore was a result of the popular resurgence of religious devotion to the mother of Jesus among many Catholics around the world. The fixation on the Virgin Mary in many cultures had declined in the ecumenical climate fostered by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, with its emphasis on the scriptures shared with Christians of other faiths.

Archbishop William H. Keeler reminded the thousands attracted to the Marian conference that "a great tradition of devotion to Our Lady" predated the Vatican Council -- that it was one heritage of John Carroll, the city's first Catholic bishop, "who dedicated his cathedral and the infant diocese of Baltimore to her patronage."

Whether, for some Catholics, the centrality of Jesus Christ is diminished by their focus on Mary remains an open question and a source of uneasiness among Protestants. That the Marian conference was an outpouring of religious fervor, however, there could be little doubt.

Father Collins had said on the eve of the visit of the archbishop of Canterbury, "To me, the greatest shame of the Episcopal Church and the reason our proclamation of the Gospel appears muted at best is precisely the lack of intensity of faith. If the church lacks intensity, it means there is no faith there."

For each of these two great branches of Christianity, there were lessons in the other's Baltimore meeting.

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