Last week, the conflict among Episcopalians in South Carolina reached a new low with a court battle (and restraining order) over the right to use the seal of the Diocese of South Carolina. We used to fight over doctrine or LGBT equality, even property (of course, we still do). Now we fight over diocesan seals.
If anyone on the outside would care enough to take notice, I’m sure this would open up a whole line of jokes. I can imagine the cultured despisers in Charleston issuing bon mots over their chardonnay or whiskey, if they even pay attention any more to the internecine battles of dying institutional Christianity. I can imagine, too, how this battle might become a marketing campaign for Episcopalians (of whatever variety) who are embarking on evangelism (we’ve got the truth and the true seal!). I can imagine how generations alienated from the institutional church for all sorts of reasons including our propensity to fight among ourselves, will laugh, and ignore, and seek meaning and purpose in life elsewhere than in the good news of Jesus Christ.
What pains me about this is not the conflict, although that is very painful. What pains me most is the energy and expense spent on a battle that no one will win, energy and expense spent in a futile effort to retain the signs, seals, status, and prestige of empire. For a seal is nothing more than that—a symbol of power—used over the centuries by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to impose its will on the people. Blessed by empire, a seal tries to preserve imperial power. And that, ultimately, is what this battle is about.
We saw earlier this week at the inauguration Episcopalians praying, worshiping, kowtowing to empire, praising the president while our drones continue to destroy innocent lives in Yemen, and the poor here at home languish. We see in South Carolina last, desperate efforts by Episcopalians on all sides to grasp at and retain power, wealth, and privilege.
In South Carolina and elsewhere, the Episcopal Church, which proclaimed its commitment to restructuring and “putting everything on the table” at General Convention last year with restructuring resolutions and task forces, rejected a possible future in order to preserve a past that is long gone. What would happen if instead of speaking of “continuing dioceses” or “faithful remnants,” the Episcopal Church used these situations to experiment with new possibilities? What if we gave up the power, prestige, and wealth of the past (and present) and seek to be the people of God, the body of Christ, in new ways, no longer bound to the power and property of previous centuries? What if we imagined and dreamed a new church, new ways of being church into being? What if we let go of the past, of all that it means, and venture forth on new journeys, trying to live faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ in new ways, new ministries and new missions? What if “we had the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, … who humbled himself, even to death on the cross?”
What would happen if we gave up our power, prestige, property, and seals?