Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Episcopal Church as Chimera

This reflection was stimulated in no small part by this reflective poem by Mark Harris on his blog, Praeludium.

In my first CPE residency the children’s hospital I served received a pair of conjoined twins – two boys, joined from breastbone to ankle, sharing a third leg between them, and with fully integrated circulatory systems. One child had a weak heart. The other child had poor kidneys. The parents were told it was only a matter of time. The children could not be separated, and one child or the other would, sooner or later, have a catastrophic organ failure. As the circulatory systems could not be separated, when one died so would the other. I was not the primary chaplain, but I was the chaplain on call when the children died. Mother held the two children as best she could. Father stood by, quiet and sorrowful. Staff were attentive, watching lines of fluid and lines on monitors. I don’t remember exactly which organ failed first, and it really didn’t matter. Within an hour after one child died, so did the other. The parents mourned. I prayed. The staff carried on, sad but purposeful.

In her appeal to the House of Deputies about Resolution B033, Presiding Bishop-elect Katherine Jefferts Schori described the divisions within the Episcopal Church as two churches, joined like conjoined twins. “Ethically, one cannot proceed to separate two conjoined twins until one is reasonably certain both can survive on their own and live full lives.” She went on to say, "I don't think we're certain that the two offspring are capable of living separately and healthily.” But, sadly, there are those – there were those at General Convention – who call for separation now, believing that theirs is “the twin who will live.”

This image troubles me. For one thing, the “conjoined twins” metaphor presumes that reconciliation is, ultimately, not possible. Conjoined twins are sometimes separated, and sometimes live lives conjoined. They never become one.

I wish to take another position: that for all our divisions we are one body, and not two persons whose interconnected bodies may be separable with enough time, care, and nurture of strength. We have heard about persons who are medical chimeras: fraternal twins at conception who, at some very early point during the process of gestation, integrate. At birth and for life there is only one person; but testing may demonstrate two distinct sets of genes in different parts of that person’s one body. I recently saw rerun on the Discovery Health Channel “I Am My Own Twin,” telling the story of two women who each discovered herself to be a chimera through a series of medical tests.

I think this is a more accurate metaphor for the Episcopal Church, at least as many of us have seen it who see ourselves as moderates. Yes, there have been two (and probably more) strains of the Christian tradition living in our body. For most folks this was largely invisible. That is, because folks were focused primarily on their own parish or their own diocese, these differences were not seen, or at least not noticed. Clergy and some in organizations of common interest were aware of the different strains (some of us remember the old Evangelical and Catholic Mission, and on the other hand Associated Parishes), but few actually thought about leaving the Episcopal Church, and none thought about taking chunks of the Church with them.

That did change, to some extent, between 1970 and 1980. Between the revision of the Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women as deacons and priests some did leave to form new bodies. Those groups did leave – there were even a few property disputes – and did proclaim themselves as “true” or “orthodox” or “continuing” Anglicans. They were small, and so focused on their differences with the decisions of the Episcopal Church that once they were actually out of the Episcopal Church they discovered that they couldn’t agree with each other. They are still with us today. Indeed, there have been conversations with ACN about including those folks into some proposed future “orthodox Anglican” province. However, to this point they have been small and divided.

In fact this movement remains small and divided. Admittedly, the current scene is different: the thought of bishops taking both their episcopate and their dioceses out of the Episcopal Church is new. However, the movement remains relatively small. I have seen numbers as high as 70,000 – not an insignificant number, but between 4 and 5 per cent of the Episcopal Church. Those numbers do not take into account too clearly congregations within Network dioceses that want to remain in the Episcopal Church, and it's uncertain how they take into account congregations within non-Network dioceses that may want to leave; but I expect those numbers may roughly be a wash. While Network leaders may want to see their numbers as larger by incorporating AMiA and “continuing Anglican” organizations, that will not affect the Episcopal Church: those folks are already gone.

What is different is this vision of our Church as “conjoined twins.” While it was articulated most recently by Bishop Jefferts Schori, I think it’s been around for a while. Thus, folks at both ends of the spectrum cry, “Let them leave!” (or, sometimes, “Make them leave!”), as if each were the twin that would survive the separation. From the rhetoric, of course, there are those who see this as amputation: they represent the full body, which must cast off some diseased member lest the whole body be lost. But I don’t see the image of conjoined twins as much of an improvement.

You see, the image of conjoined twins might make us more cautious about separation. It might (accurately) predict how much more complicated separation will be than the image of amputation. It still presumes that we can never be one.

The chimera image recognizes that we are one, even though some tissues, and even whole organs, might have different strains of DNA. It acknowledges that it would be really difficult, really messy, and possibly fatal to both to actually separate these different strains. It emphasizes that if we separate (and I am becoming more convinced that those who will leave are committed to the goal, if not the means) it will be slower, more painful, and much more local than perhaps we realize, and with greater cost to both sides.

Some, of course, may take this image and argue that I’m right, and that we never should have come to be at all. However, such persons do exist, living normal lives, largely ignorant of the differences within their own tissues. The Episcopal Church has been such a “person,” and the evidence of the action of the Spirit in the history of this body suggests to me that we are in fact God’s creation, if not perfected as we will be when God is finished with us. There is always pain and danger in amputation, and even in separating conjoined twins. There is grief and phantom pain after. Are we really prepared to enter into the hazards that separating our different tissues, that have until recently been successfully (if not always comfortably) integrated? Or can we pursue reconciliation that allows us to continue to live with our differences, sometimes at cross purposes, but only whole if we are together?


Marshall Scott said...

That is another interesting thought, Brian. I suppose, at least in recent events, you could say that GLBT persons said, "Let her have the baby, but let it live;" or perhaps it was said for them, whether they liked it or not. Ultimately, I fear you're right: both ends are more concerned about stymying the other than about the health of the baby.

Marie said...

Beautiful metaphor. I'll have to ponder it more, but my initial thought is that some of us have been living (and been at least content, if not happy) with the "different strains of DNA" for quite some time. We're willing to stay, willing to break bread together. But perhaps not willing to be sacrificed on the altar where the bread is broken.