The rite stuff: What the Episcopal Church’s position on gay marriage can teach us about the middle ground

Christ Episcopal Church, home to one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the state, is Charlottesville’s oldest church. Photo: Christian Hommel Christ Episcopal Church, home to one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the state, is Charlottesville’s oldest church. Photo: Christian Hommel

Ten years ago last month, a sharecropper’s son from Kentucky was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Because Gene Robinson is gay, his elevation to one of the highest positions of authority within the Episcopal Church rocked and splintered the church to an extent that no other issue in its history ever had—not slavery, not the ordination of women, not the rewriting of ancient liturgy.

Virginia, always an Episcopal stronghold and home to the church’s largest domestic diocese—Haiti is the largest overall—wasn’t spared the effects of the turmoil. Whole congregations seceded from the hierarchy of the church, touching off lawsuits over property ownership that are still being fought today and challenging a notion basic to the denomination’s very existence: That beliefs within the church can differ without disrupting the tradition of common worship.

The theological divide is evident here. Traditional congregations that sprang up in the wake of earlier battles over liturgy and practice have seen some new members join from the ranks of disaffected Episcopalians. But of the 14 Episcopal parishes in Charlottesville and Albemarle, an area with a history deeply enmeshed with the history of the church, not one broke away. As the rest of the country grapples over the right of gays to marry, and the larger religious community that gave rise to the Episcopal Church continues to fight and split, what can the city’s patchwork of Episcopal parishes tell us about a big-tent approach to compromise?

Schism and solidarity

More than 4 percent of Charlottesville and Albemarle residents attend one of 14 Episcopal churches here, making it one of the most parish-to-population dense regions in the Diocese of Virginia.

To the other 96 percent, the Episcopal Church’s history and hierarchy can be confusing. The church is part of the Anglican Communion, an international association of churches with the Church of England at its heart and a symbolic leader in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a “first among equals” in a group of head bishops from 38 provinces. They are Protestant denominations, as they stem from a church that broke from Rome in the 16th century, but they recognize a tradition that is heavily catholic in the broad sense of the word—that is, tied to the early Christian church and the apostolic tradition. Liturgies and internal organization vary, but each wing agrees on the essentials.

At least, that’s the idea. But the concept of unity without unanimity hasn’t always worked. From its birth as a separate offshoot during the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church has been proudly democratic, with a heavy emphasis on the role of laypeople in church governance. And in the last 100 years, Episcopal doctrine has drifted left, following the cultural tide of a country in which liberals—as a recent New York Times article on the legacy of liberal Protestantism asserted—have established “ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance as the dominant American creed.”

In the process, it has tugged on the ropes that tie it to the traditional catholic elements of Anglicanism, and the tension has sometimes reached breaking points. In the 1970s, many more traditional Episcopal clergy and congregations broke away over changes to the church’s Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women. The disaffected stepped out of the Episcopal hierarchy, creating new Anglican associations in the U.S. that still looked to Canterbury for leadership. Gene Robinson’s ordination a decade ago sparked a similar schism, and this time, the theological divide rattled the entire Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church has officially come down on the side of gay inclusion, both in welcoming gay clergy and in allowing churches to bless same-sex unions, putting it sharply at odds with more traditional Anglicans around the world and further splitting the ranks here in the U.S.

Whether the Episcopal Church as a whole will remain within the Communion is still up in the air. But for most Episcopalians, what’s happening in Canterbury matters less than what’s happening at home.

Trinity Episcopal Church, begun as an African American mission church in 1919, is now an “intentional multicultural” Episcopal congregation. Photo: Christian Hommel

“Trust God with the details”

Christ Episcopal Church was Charlottesville’s first church. Not just its first Episcopal church, Rector Paul Walker explained one recent morning over coffee, but the first church in the city, begun in 1820 by builders on loan from Thomas Jefferson.

The congregation’s current home, completed in the early 1900s and built in a soaring English Gothic style on the same plot, holds one of the larger Episcopal congregations in the state. Some 1,600 people count themselves as members, and 69 were confirmed there last year.

It also has a role in one of the more painful chapters in Charlottesville’s history. In the era of massive resistance, when Senator Harry F. Byrd threw the full weight of the law into preventing desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the city schools chose closure over integration, Christ Church claimed neutrality but opened its doors to house an all-white “emergency school.”

There’s been healing since then—a public apology, racial reconciliation. But the issue contributed to a perception of Christ Church as a more conservative congregation, which was reinforced during the tumultuous years following the ordination of Gene Robinson and the appointment of the gay-friendly Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Christ Church’s clergy publicly opposed the consecration of gay bishops, and, according to news reports at the time, discussed leaving the Episcopal Church altogether to join a dissenting Anglican diocese.

But that didn’t happen. A few years later, in 2008, the Reverend Paul Walker became rector.

Walker never planned to be a priest. In 1986, fresh out of UVA, newly married, his LSATs out of the way, he was set to enroll in the University of Richmond’s law school. But his wife, Christie, convinced him to broaden their horizons first.

“She said, ‘We need to do something outside of this bubble,’” Walker said. They ended up in Haiti for six months, living with a Haitian Episcopal priest. She taught English; he picked up building work. It changed the course of their lives.

One Sunday toward the end of their stay, Walker was taking communion when he felt what he described simply as a powerful calling. He told his wife he wanted to be ordained.

“She thought I was crazy,” he laughed. But there was no going back. Instead of law school in Richmond, it was the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. His first appointment after graduation in 1995 brought him back to his college town, to an associate rector position at Christ Church. A few years later, after he had joined the clergy at a Birmingham, Alabama cathedral, he was asked to return to the Charlottesville church to help establish a college ministry to bring students into the fold.

The Reverend Paul Walker has served as Rector at Christ Church since 2008. Photo: Christian Hommel
The Reverend Paul Walker has served as Rector at Christ Church since 2008. Photo: Christian Hommel

That was in 2004, and since he arrived, his time at Christ Church has been marked by expansion in more than one sense of the word. There are now four services every Sunday, from a small, early, quiet worship following traditional rites to a huge evening service catering to the hundreds of students who attend the church during the school year, which is followed by a home-cooked meal. Some of those new young arrivals have helped grow the church’s outreach projects, including an active music ministry that oversees The Garage, the tiny independent open-air concert space around the corner on First Street.

“I didn’t like church growing up, and I still don’t like the formality of religion,” Walker said. “I’m an anti-establishment person.” He recognizes the irony in feeling that way even as he leads the most “establishment” Episcopal church in the city. But it helps guide him to the heart of what really matters, he said. Structure and form serve a purpose for him and his church, but he doesn’t want anyone to have to dig deep to find the real message. “The substance is this radical acceptance of the self as we are, rather than as we should be,” he said. “A lot of Christianity becomes moralism, which is, ‘God loves you, but let me tell you how you need to change.’ We just don’t do that.”

That’s part of why he doesn’t talk about the issue of gay inclusion—not from the pulpit, and not to the press. When you walk through the church doors, it shouldn’t matter, he said.

And whatever his own beliefs, he doesn’t want others to classify him and his church one way or the other, because “we’re neither fish nor fowl on the issue.” He knows that there are members of his congregation who are opposed to gay marriage, and plenty who have no problem with it.

“It’s a different issue when it becomes about what happens within the church,” he said.

He’d rather focus on what’s happening in his parish than on the big theological questions. That’s the philosophy of Christ Church as a whole, he said. “If we had a mission statement, it’s preach the gospel,” he said, “and then to love people no matter who they are, no matter what their orientation is, no matter where they come from, and trust God with the details.”

“I want the big tent to be truly that”

In a denomination that puts so much emphasis on hierarchy, the idea that a local parish can think independently may seem like a contradiction. But that’s the Episcopal Church, said Bishop Shannon Johnston, head of the Diocese of Virginia.

“We love it that way,” he said. “We are very proud of that diversity.”

And if it’s more pronounced in Virginia, there are good reasons, he said. From the time of Jamestown, parishes here were technically part of the Church of England, but independently organized and self-supporting. It was rare for the Anglican leadership across the Atlantic to send bishops to the colony. As a result, the vestries—elected bodies made up of laypeople—were largely responsible for running their parishes.

“That became part of our DNA—strong vestries, and a very strong lay leadership,” said Johnston, much more so than in other parts of the country. The shadow side of that, he said, is that it’s produced a diocese full of parishes that are more likely to think locally instead of as parts of a whole.

“It makes a lot of sense when you think about it historically,” he said, but it makes his job as a leader who calls the theological shots tricky. “How to grow out of that tradition is a very sensitive matter, because no one would want to argue that we want to weaken the control of the laity. That’s something we are envied for.”

The diocese was, in part, honoring the independent streak in the Virginia churches when in early 2011, it put forward plans to allow individual parishes to seek permission to offer same-sex blessings.

Johnston said he’s personally in favor of honoring gay unions, but felt it needed to be introduced in a way that allowed churches to preserve their autonomy.

“I want the big tent to be truly that,” he said—and he believes it’s working. “I’ve gotten a lot of support and appreciation from traditional and progressive churches who understand that I’ve got their back, and that I support them in their conscience and I understand that this is an issue that’s changing quickly in the national church, in our country’s civil life.”

Not every parish has appreciated the sea change. Eleven Virginia churches voted to break from the diocese after the church’s governing body of bishops refused to back down from its decision to ordain Robinson. Many joined other Anglican associations, some based in Africa, which has emerged as a conservative stronghold within the greater Communion. The schism lead to protracted battles over who owned parish buildings and other property. Last month, the last of those suits—involving a particularly bitter split in The Falls Church Episcopal parish in Northern Virginia—was essentially settled in favor of the diocese when the Virginia Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the breakaway church.

But like many of the majority who have remained within the Episcopal hierarchy, Johnston emphasizes what binds the church, not what divides it.

“We feel the responsibility to model what we understand is best about Anglicanism, and that is the ability to hold in tension differing points of view,” he said. And as it happens, the greater Charlottesville area is a particularly representative microcosm. “I’m proud of how broad a range is represented here, and how rich the different practices.”