The twenty-first century American church is at war - not with unrighteousness or the forces of evil, but with itself. Once a bastion of morality and faith in the world, parts of the modern church - mainline as well as evangelical - now seems more interested in defending its turf than contending with a degenerate culture and helping people to live the life of Faith.
The Episcopal Church - the 2.1 million-member American branch of the 55 million worldwide Anglican Communion - is in the beginning stages of open schism over homosexuality. The issue is not just whether the Church should tolerate or accept what was once called "deviance", but whether its leaders should be open practitioners of it. In 2004 the Episcopal Church consecrated The Rev. V. Gene Robinson as ninth bishop of the New Hampshire Diocese. The move was highly controversial because Bishop Robinson is a practicing homosexual living openly with a male lover. In public statements, the bishop has called the Bible "an outdated book" and demanded that homosexual unions should be blessed by the Church.
As a direct result of these controversial church actions, parishes all over the country have begun to consider resolutions to pull out of the Episcopal Church. Several have actually made the break. Six of these are in Northern Virginia, including historic Falls Church (of Falls Church, VA) and Truro Church (Fairfax) whose rector, The Rev. Martyn Minns, has been appointed bishop of the new Anglican District of Virginia - an association of Virginia churches joined together to realign traditional Anglicans in Virginia. The district is part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a branch of the Anglican Communion within the Church of Nigeria.
The Episcopal Church admits that approximately 115,000 members have thus far left the church over the consecration of Bishop Robinson. This might have produced only yawns in the church's national leadership except for the inconvenient fact that seceding parishes no longer send their financial assessments to the national headquarters. Most also hope to retain ownership of their properties as they leave the denomination. Under church polity, those properties belong to the denomination, not simply to a local congregation that wishes to dissociate from the national church.
The property-issue is financially non-trivial. The value of the Truro property, for instance, is estimated at $26 million. The Right Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has indicated that the denomination will not permit local congregations to take their properties with them to another denominational connection - even if that new connection is still within the worldwide Anglican Communion. Differences on these matters are almost certain to produce lawsuits in American civil courts if they continue unresolved.
The prospect of a major denomination contending with local congregations over who owns church property is not a pleasing one. The Bible admonishes Christians not to resort to civil courts in order to settle their differences. But this is a dispute over money and turf, which - as any right-thinking church official would (privately) agree - are visceral concerns of the organized church. Jesus Christ said, "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." (The Savior was poor as the proverbial church mouse.) But 2,000 years later, the Episcopal Church is squabbling over who owns million-dollar properties. (Gives you an idea of why Jesus is often depicted weeping.)
Episcopal leadership (including said Bishop Robinson) accuses the seceding congregations of creating "division" within the church, but their protests are too disingenuous by half. No separation movement would have arisen without the provocation of Bishop Robinson's in-your-face consecration and his subsequent pronouncements from the bishop's chair on blessing homosexual unions. In an article of June 4, 2007, respected religious commentator Robert Duncan notes that Bishop Robinson has, by his statements about homosexual unions, "set himself up as the ultimate authority in moral matters". Indeed, the bishop's statements directly contravene a directive issued by the Anglican Communion to the Episcopal House of Bishops. The AC gave the House of Bishops until September 30 of this year to assure church leaders that it will neither authorize same-sex blessings, nor permit the consecration of bishops living in a same-sex relationship. Thus far, those assurances have not been given - thus setting the stage for the Mother of All Turf battles within the Anglican Church.
This is not the only part of Protestant Christendom warring with itself over turf, however. Evangelical denominations have been affected by what some have called the "independent church movement" - a non-sequitur as ever was, since the fragmentation of congregations could hardly be called a "movement". The term implies an organized effort, in pursuit of some cause, by numerous participants. The formation of independent congregations - accountable to no church hierarchy and unconnected to any organized body of historical theology - is not a movement in any coherent sense. It is more correctly described as a "phenomenon".
Church after evangelical-leaning church across the country has decided to cut denominational ties and go it alone. This makes each congregation its own "denomination", and each senior pastor his own theologian-in-chief. Tall, historic "trees" of traditional theological thought are being reduced to "scrub bushes" of market-based theology designed to draw many and offend none.
When good friends, who attend an independent church, asked for clarification on a fuzzy rendition of Reformed Theology, they were told that such issues were the province of the church's leadership. ("Shut up," the leaders explained.) Attempts to square the theological circle in some independent churches have resulted in a tepid, non-confrontational theology with the consistency of dishwater. One wag tagged it "Neo Arminio Calvinism". The result is gemischtes pickles with inconsistencies galore.
Not content merely to stake out their own independent theologies, churches are contending for turf with other churches in their communities, using hand-rolled theologies, unique liturgies and worship styles as weapons. Battles for church turf have taken on the intensity of Dollar Day down at the mall. Every possible combination of theology, liturgy and worship style is being floated in the hope that some combo will be the magic bullet that produces the next megachurch. Once, Christians could enter any evangelical church and recognize the hymns and follow a familiar liturgy. That day is past. Churches say they are "seeker friendly", but the claim is risible. Every church has its own body of "contemporary" songs sung from words-only song-sheets. The visitor - "seeker" or not - is reduced to mumbling the unfamiliar songs as the praise team jives on.
Many churches have tossed traditional hymnbooks into the back storage room. Others have pitched the Bible out, too - literally and figuratively. The Scriptures that inspired Wycliffe, Huss, Latimer, Luther, Wesley and M. L. King, Jr., are no longer in the pew-racks. Instead of readings from the Bible, worshippers hear readings from The Purpose-Driven Life (by Rick Warren), from Maya Angelou's poetry, or from Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth". If John the Apostle were writing Letters to the Seven Churches today, one letter would call the American Evangelical Church "apostate" - i.e., an abandoner of the true faith. Today, it's all about marketing, sales, and turf.
But evangelical turf wars don't stop there. Local churches are well into a second decade of serious turf wars within individual congregations over those same issues of liturgy, music and worship style. In some congregations, wholesale changes in those aspects of worship have been enforced by ruthless outsiders brought in to "clean house" and create a modern worship "flavor". Disaffected members are encouraged to leave (and don't slam the door on your way out).
Once the "painful changes" - as one worship leader called them - have been instituted, some churches survey the remaining members. Mirabile dictu, the survey results show that people are "happy" with the music and worship styles. (The equivalent of drinking your own bathwater.) Music and worship "turf" is fiercely defended in those churches against any attempts to change the new order. (Felix Dzerzhinsky never defended Lenin's revolution more fiercely).
In some areas, a "traditional" church is impossible to find. Even the most modest offers to reintroduce elements of traditional worship into churches are indifferently rebuffed. Close friends of ours can find no church where the worship "style" ministers to them. Many evangelical Christians are saying their church has left them.
Other churches simply self-destruct under imperious leadership styles. A church outside Atlanta that we know well had a thriving ministry to young families. But a fierce turf war broke out between the pastor and the congregation. To quench dissent the pastor "packed" the church's governing board with his own people, asked for the resignation of a popular associate pastor (who had established and led many of the church's hands-on ministries), and told the congregation to "get over it". Some people are leaving; the church is in turmoil. (Turf über alles.)
This is a rough time to be an evangelical Christian. Main-line denomination Christians or those who care nothing about faith or "organized religion" might think this a good joke or appropriate comeuppance for upstart evangelicals who have perturbed American politics since 1980. But I believe this is a myopic view. It cannot be good for the country when a strong, beneficial societal influence for morality and personal righteousness is destabilized. In many ways it's like a solid, dependable family leaving a neighborhood where it has lived for decades. Neighbors remaining don't realize what a stabilizing influence that family was until they are gone.