Who Cares about the Episcopal Civil War?

The general convention of the Episcopal Church ended last month in Anaheim, Calif., with a whimper, despite these rather staggering announcements: it would, after years of internal battling, continue to elevate gay priests to bishops, and it would consider blessing same-sex unions in the states that allow gays and lesbians to marry. The convention—and these announcements—received a fair amount of obligatory coverage, but the news cycle quickly moved on. In the wake of that coverage I received the following e-mail from an editor: "I've been following this story and trying, without success, to think of an interesting line of argument. It's been in the news a lot lately." Right. It's hard to think of an interesting story about the Episcopal Church in America because what happens within the Episcopal Church is—frankly, and with deep apologies to all my Episcopalian friends—just not that interesting.

After years of dominance, Episcopalians have become a minority religion in America. There are just 2.4 million Episcopalians in the United States, down from 3.5 million in 2001—a 31 percent falloff. (The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide church that has 80 million members.) By comparison, there are 8 million nondenominational Christians (a low estimate), up from 2.5 million—an explosion of 220 percent over the same period. Thanks to the Great Awakenings and the waves of immigration over the past hundred years there are exponentially more Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists in America than Episcopalians. There are also—surprisingly—more Mormons, more Pentecostals, and slightly more Jews. (This last is especially interesting because at the height of 20th-century anti-Semitism, American Jews who wanted access to the highest levels of status and power would sometimes become Episcopalian. One wonders whether they would have done so had they known that they were switching from one shrinking minority religion to another.) According to the latest data from the American Religious Identification Survey, more people belong to cults and emerging religions than to the Episcopal Church.

Not only are Episcopalians less numerous than they used to be, their cultural and social power has been diluted as well. Our country was at least partially founded by Anglicans. America was colonized by the British at a time when the Church of England was, in effect, a national church. Thus many of the colonizers were Anglican, and the colonies were, too. Anglicanism became the established religion of Virginia in 1610, of lower New York in 1693, of Maryland in 1702, of South Carolina in 1706, and eventually a number of other Southern and mid-Atlantic states. (The Puritans in New England, always rebels, countered the Anglican juggernaut by claiming Congregationalism as their official church—and during the American Revolution sent many of the nascent nation's prominent Anglicans fleeing to Canada for their lives.) Only after the Revolution did the states agree to separate their governments from religion—an agreement reflected in Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Still, the Anglicans continued to wield enormous influence. Thirty one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence belonged to the Church of England, as did 21 of the 39 signers of the Constitution. George Washington was an Anglican.

This reversal of Episcopal fortune is due largely to well-known demographic shifts—the shrinking of the mainline Protestant denominations; the growth of evangelical and nondenominational churches, as well as in the number of people who declare themselves "unaffiliated." But the Episcopal Church has had its own unique troubles above and beyond the encroachment of those other sects. After three centuries as the church of the WASP establishment in America, it started to make news in 2003 when it elevated to bishop of New Hampshire an openly gay priest named Gene Robinson. The denomination suffered a massive identity crisis, with a majority of dioceses and parishes (openly or silently or unenthusiastically) supporting Robinson's promotion and a vocal minority opposing it. The grief of its members and clergy over the schism was both authentic and enduring. A colleague who is Episcopalian describes the rift thus: "Here we have the faith of the Founding Fathers, the religion that is the purest representation of old-line American power and money, tearing itself apart before our very eyes over … homosexuality. How embarrassing! How publicly humiliating—this for a faith and culture that abhors nothing more than public humiliation."

In one of the most byzantine organizational maneuvers ever wrought, the conservative opposition then regrouped under the leadership of a few conservative African bishops—still Anglican, still part of the global church, but no longer officially connected to the Americans. (This would be like a Girl Scout troop in Connecticut reestablishing itself as an outpost of Les Guides de France.) Skirmishes erupted over real estate: Did the property of a breakaway parish or diocese belong to the American church? Or the new church led by the Africans? This was important, of course, because some of that church property was quite old and worth a lot of money. Finally in December, the breakaway group, calling itself the Anglican Church in North America, declared its independence and elected an American bishop as its leader.

Following the story was difficult—a little bit like reading a Russian novel where you can't remember anyone's name. You had to keep flipping back to the beginning to figure out who did what to whom. And the climax, the establishment of a church of dissenters, was really very undramatic: America is and has always been an Eden for breakaway religious groups. There are at least 70 different kinds of Baptist in America, each group claiming its own theological truth, and at least two major factions of Lutherans. In the end, number of actual people who have seceded from the Episcopal Church is about 100,000. They would, in other words, fill Wembley Stadium—something Michael Jackson managed to do 10 times over.

Certainly, when the Episcopalians support—or seem to be supporting—gay marriage, it says something important about who we are as a nation and where we are going. But interest from the press is more prurient than that. Reporters haven't covered the similar battles within the Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran denominations with the same zeal, and the fact that the United Church of Christ (which has its roots in those early Puritan congregations) already ordains and promotes gay clerics and performs same-sex unions merits little attention. (Though, to be fair, those churches have also managed to keep themselves intact.) The Episcopalians matter because, small and fractious as they are, they represent the apex of WASP culture—the honorable, formal, Greatest Generation values of a bygone age. (And because, despite their dwindling numbers, they still hold more than $4 billion in investments—not including real estate—according to a 2007 Episcopal Church fact sheet. They could, in other words, fund Obama's new education initiative.) FDR, Gerald Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush have all been Episcopalians. Watching the Episcopalians fight amongst themselves is like watching a boozy family brawl at a genteel country club. Onlookers continue to hope that someone—grandpa or junior—will finally say what he's really thinking and make a headline. Or that someone will step in and dramatically reconcile the warring factions, thus making the family happy once again. No such luck. Like most families, the Episcopal Church prefers to potter along. They fight, they patch things up (or not), they move on. In this saga, as in all stories about families, the drama is in questions of identity and affiliation as the world continues to change—and not in carefully worded resolutions coming out of a general convention.