A few years ago, the Episcopal Church was sorely divided over a new front in the culture war. The church had decided to make an openly gay man bishop of New Hampshire. The ins and outs of the debate are not within the scope of this post. The ramifications, however, had a direct impact on my family.
My wife grew up going to one of the oldest Episcopal Churches in the United States. It is beautiful in its own American way. She remembers, as a child, looking up and seeing one stained glass pane with a girl holding a sword. It was St. Dymphna, a saint who would be dear to her heart later in life.
The community there was tight-knit. Her mother went there for church, and when her father died, her mother married a man from the parish. The roots in the community went deep.
Whereas the higher church leadership of the Episcopal Church was more progressive and supported the New Hampshire bishop, the community at this old church was not so keen on it. They decided they wanted to leave the Episcopal communion and join a new Anglican communion that held beliefs closer to their own. Many Episcopal Churches were doing this.
Who Owns the Church?
There was only one little problem: the community that met at this old church did not actually own the building. If they wanted to leave the Episcopal Church, they had to leave it behind.
Now, you might think, “It’s just a building. Who cares?” But in the bricks were the remains of dead parents and grandparents. They had decades worth of memories of all the Sundays they spent there, getting distracted by the beauty of the architecture, baptizing babies, and eating potlucks. My wife had participated in Lessons in Carols every year.
The congregation was put in the terrible position of having to either go against their faith by staying or leave their home. You could not blame any of them if they felt abandoned by their larger communion. Was it not the leadership of the Episcopal Church that was changing church teaching?
The community fought tooth and nail. They tried to pull different angles, but in the end, they lost. They left, picked a new name, and formed a new community. I imagine some drove by the old church every now and then and saw, with some resentment, the new sign put up: “All are welcome.”
By the letter of the law, did that old, beautiful building belong to the people of the church? No. But seeing the damage it did to my wife, to my extended family, and to the community there, something clearly went wrong.
Another story from the other side of the country was also chilling. A congregation that wanted to split like my wife’s church did came to the bishop there and offered $150,000 for their building. Instead, the bishop refused and then later sold it to Muslims for $50,000.
I say that not as a slight to Muslims. I don’t mean to be xenophobic. But there is something really awful about ripping a house of worship from a community that has made it their home and handing it to people of another religion – Muslim or not.
Culture War Casualties
There is a danger in seeing every disagreement as another battle in the culture war. We can often miss the casualties in our “fight to save civilization,” or whatever other ideology we are trying to defend.
When I was moving towards converting to the Catholic Church, I would engage in heated debates with friends and family late into the night. My nephew was there at the table a few times, quiet and listening. I asked him years later what he thought about those late-night discussions. Who did he think had the better argument? What thoughts did he have?
He said it turned him off to both sides. His taste soured for Christianity itself.
Who do we lose in the culture war? How many of those congregants at my wife’s old church will never darken the door of an Episcopal one, not because of theology, but because of the Episcopal scorched-earth policy?
We must tread softly on the cultural and personal ties that make up the fabric of people’s lives – the bricks that hold the remains of their grandparents, the customs that give them meaning, the beliefs that are not perfect but that have filled their lives with significance.
By the letter of the law, we may be right. The Catechism says such and such. So it is. No Catholic should argue with that. But true Christian charity demands that in winning the argument, we try with all our Herculean might to not lose the soul.
Otherwise, while we may have a beautiful structure on our hands, it will be cold, empty, and lifeless.
©2020 Catholic Anonymous
You might like my podcast, Wisdom of Pope Francis, where I dive more deeply into what our current pope has to say about where the world is right now. Also, you might like Video Reflections on the Faith, a collection of short video meditations to encourage your faith.
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