|Saturday, December 23, 2006|
|Church dispute gets in the way of God's love|
|LAUREN R. STANLEY - MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE|
For the last year and a half, I have lived in South Sudan, seeing first-hand what it means to be a Christian in that divided land where death is a daily occurrence. I have served with faithful Episcopalians, trying to help the Church there move from the survival mode it endured during 21 years of civil war to self-reliance and care for its people in this time of uneasy peace.
It has not been easy for Episcopalians in Sudan for many, many years. The Church has been clinging by its very fingertips to its existence. War, famine, drought, disease, oppression -- none of those could stop the Church from proclaiming the core of the Gospel: that God loves us, now and forever.
So it has been with a heavy heart that having returned recently to the United States, I see my own Church, the one that has nurtured and nourished me for the last 15 years, the one that sent me forth as a missionary to Sudan, torn apart by arguments over sexuality and so-called biblical inerrancy.
In the week, nine parishes in the Diocese of Virginia alone have decided to leave the Episcopal Church. The leaders of those congregations claim that the national Church has erred and strayed too far from what they claim is the unvarnished and clear truth. After periods of "discernment," these congregations, totaling only 7 percent of the Diocese of Virginia, and a minute number of Episcopalians nationwide, have made big splashes in the media for leaving. Most are claiming to align themselves with African bishops, whom they believe are better, more faithful leaders.
To complicate matters, the parishes that are leaving also want to take all their property with them, some of it quite valuable. It is theirs, they claim, because they are the only ones who being true to the Scriptures.
Church law says otherwise, meaning that long, brutal legal battles in civil courts are in the offing.
Not only do their arguments not make sense, they also miss the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ they are supposed to be preaching. The departing parishes never talk about God's inclusive love, only their own exclusion of those who disagree with them.
In Sudan, as in much of Africa, we argue over Scriptures with as much vehemence as any American. But those arguments are not the ones that dominate our lives; in Sudan, we worry more -- much more -- about the survival of our people. How are we going to feed them? Educate them? Provide health care? Bring peace to a war-torn land that seems poised on the edge of yet another war?
In Sudan, we are fighting for our very lives.
In the United States, we are fighting over how to interpret words written by mere mortals centuries ago.
In Sudan, people battle hunger, disease, land mines left over from the war, militias and bandits who pull people off buses and shoot them dead in broad daylight.
In the United States, people battle over who knows the mind of Christ the best.
In Sudan, the Church leads the way in breaking down the barriers of tribalism and ethnic hatred.
In the United States, the departing parishes lead the way in throwing up barriers of hatred and homophobism.
To be clear: I know very well what it means to be in disagreement with my Church. I was born and bred to the Roman Catholic faith; even after deciding I would have to leave the Church of my birth, it took years before I had the courage to actually do so. But when I left, I did so cleanly and without attempting to take anything with me. I could not change what Rome promulgated as the faith, so I did the only thing I could to maintain my own integrity: I left behind all I knew and had been taught, even though schism is one of the worst heresies to commit in the Roman Catholic Church.
If the Episcopalians who have voted to leave feel they must do so, I honor their commitment. I know their pain, and pray that they can find holiness in another setting.
But I cannot for the life of me understand why these parishes think they can take everything with them. I cannot understand why these parishes feel it is fine to call into question the salvation of those who remain in the Church.
I cannot find any integrity in filing lawsuits. I cannot understand why those leaving have not heeded the advice of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, with whom many are aligning and who told them last year that if they were to leave, they were to do so cleanly, forsaking their pay, their pensions and their buildings.
Most of all, I cannot understand how anyone can ignore the truth of what Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee has said all along in this dispute: We could ALL be wrong.
Even the Episcopal Church in Sudan, which disagrees with actions taken in the American Church in the last three years, understands this last part. In January, the Sudanese Church said that although it condemned some actions of the American Church, it wanted both churches to continue to walk together, because we are all sinners. More important to the Sudanese was the fact that the American Church had walked with it throughout the long, deadly national civil war. Now, in its time of need, the Sudanese said, they would walk with us through our own small version of a church civil war. Because there is a chance that indeed, we could all be wrong.
Those leaving the Episcopal Church claim they must do so to survive.
They seem to forget that in many parts of the world, the Church is concerned with REAL survival.
And in those areas where REAL survival is at stake, the Gospel that is preached is one of inclusiveness and love, because only inclusiveness and love can overcome the hatred that has left millions of Sudanese dead in the last 50 years.
Hatred has no place in the Sudanese Church.
It has no place in the American Church either.
God's love -- and how that is lived out -- is the ONLY thing that counts.
The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an appointed missionary serving in the Diocese of Renk in the Episcopal Church of Sudan. She is temporarily serving in the United States.This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B6.