I would love only to blog about the good news—I really would—like the growth of Christianity in China or the number of Muslims in countries beyond the reach of any Gospel witness who are becoming followers of Jesus through dreams and visions. But in the western world—where even historic, formerly mainline churches are becoming post-Christian—the news often isn't good.
This evening I read the news that the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina is now permitting congregations to perform same-sex blessings. (The full document is here.) This really wasn't much of a surprise. Sarah Hey at Stand Firm (who lives in that diocese) has blogged her pessimism regarding the "Bishop’s Task Force on Unity" (a task force of three conservatives and eight liberals) that was appointed to study the question of same-sex blessings. Fr. Bradley Wilson's decision to resign from the Task Force, in April 2013 (because it appeared the bishop had already made up his mind to do same sex blessings) proved to be prescient.
Nevertheless, when I read the news this evening, it hit me like a punch in the gut. This is South Carolina, after all, where same-sex unions are not recognized legally and probably one of the least likely states ever to do so. The Dean of the 4000-member Trinity Cathedral, in Columbia, the Very Rev. Timothy Jones, has issued a letter stating that he will not authorize the blessing of same-sex relationships in his congregation, but remains committed to “respectful conversation.” The rector of the almost-equally-large Christ Church, in Greenville, the Rev. Harrison McLeod, had written to his congregation almost a year ago, saying that Bp. Waldo's approval of same sex unions in the Diocese looked to be inevitable, but that he will not authorize the blessing of same-sex relationships in his congregation either.
So in a state where the legalization of same sex unions is highly unlikely, and in a diocese where two of the largest congregations in the entire Episcopal Church have said they will not bless same-sex unions, and where performing same-sex blessings is not likely to play well except to a relatively small number of activists on the issue, Bp. Waldo approves them anyway. So why did this happen? And for whom?
The significance of this action is that it puts the Diocese of Upper South Carolina on record as buying into the Episcopal Church's idolatry and slavish submission to the zeitgeist. And, however seldom the newly approved rite will be used, it gives Bishop Waldo the satisfaction that he has accomplished something that is apparently essential to his own theology and sense of justice.
I am very familiar with the justice arguments put forward by those who favor same-sex blessings--that if even one couple receives this blessing, justice has been accomplished, and it is an advance for the gospel (their gospel, that is). For the moment, my concern is not the merits of the debate, per se. My concern is for what this says about the tenability of orthodox Christianity in the Episcopal Church.
How many dioceses in the Episcopal Church currently do not bless same-sex relationships? I have not done a tally, but I suspect there are fewer than 20 out of 99 domestic U.S. dioceses that have not authorized the blessing of same sex relationships, and several of these simply have not declared their position yet. I think it is an accurate assessment that, apart from three or four notable exceptions, there is not a diocese in the Episcopal Church that is more than one episcopal election away from blessing same sex unions.
To those who have been paying attention to the course of the Episcopal Church over the past few decades, this will not come as news. But for a great many pew-sitters, the implications of this are huge. First, the reality shifted from "General Convention does a lot of crazy things, but it never amounts to anything" to "Some dioceses may be doing this, but this diocese never will. Now, all that many Episcopalians can do is say hopefully, "the Bishop may approve same sex blessings, but this parish will never do them."
However, in a Church where orthodoxy is increasingly the exception instead of the rule, and where the training of new clergy is increasingly heterodox, the fact remains that any diocese in the Episcopal Church could only be one bishop election away (and any parish only one rector search away) from doing what the Diocese of Upper South Carolina now has done.