The pathetic battle over diocesan seals

Last week, the conflict among Episcopalians in South Carolina reached a new low with a court battle (and restraining order) over the right to use the seal of the Diocese of South Carolina. We used to fight over doctrine or LGBT equality, even property (of course, we still do). Now we fight over diocesan seals.

If anyone on the outside would care enough to take notice, I’m sure this would open up a whole line of jokes. I can imagine the cultured despisers in Charleston issuing bon mots over their chardonnay or whiskey, if they even pay attention any more to the internecine battles of dying institutional Christianity. I can imagine, too, how this battle might become a marketing campaign for Episcopalians (of whatever variety) who are embarking on evangelism (we’ve got the truth and the true seal!). I can imagine how generations alienated from the institutional church for all sorts of reasons including our propensity to fight among ourselves, will laugh, and ignore, and seek meaning and purpose in life elsewhere than in the good news of Jesus Christ.

What pains me about this is not the conflict, although that is very painful. What pains me most is the energy and expense spent on a battle that no one will win, energy and expense spent in a futile effort to retain the signs, seals, status, and prestige of empire. For a seal is nothing more than that—a symbol of power—used over the centuries by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to impose its will on the people. Blessed by empire, a seal tries to preserve imperial power. And that, ultimately, is what this battle is about.

We saw earlier this week at the inauguration Episcopalians praying, worshiping, kowtowing to empire, praising the president while our drones continue to destroy innocent lives in Yemen, and the poor here at home languish. We see in South Carolina last, desperate efforts by Episcopalians on all sides to grasp at and retain power, wealth, and privilege.

In South Carolina and elsewhere, the Episcopal Church, which proclaimed its commitment to restructuring and “putting everything on the table” at General Convention last year with restructuring resolutions and task forces, rejected a possible future in order to preserve a past that is long gone. What would happen if instead of speaking of “continuing dioceses” or “faithful remnants,” the Episcopal Church used these situations to experiment with new possibilities? What if we gave up the power, prestige, and wealth of the past (and present) and seek to be the people of God, the body of Christ, in new ways, no longer bound to the power and property of previous centuries? What if we imagined and dreamed a new church, new ways of being church into being? What if we let go of the past, of all that it means, and venture forth on new journeys, trying to live faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ in new ways, new ministries and new missions? What if “we had the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, … who humbled himself, even to death on the cross?”

What would happen if we gave up our power, prestige, property, and seals?

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4 thoughts on “The pathetic battle over diocesan seals

  1. Hummm… “For a seal is nothing more than that—a symbol of power—used over the centuries by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to impose its will on the people.” Great summary! It reminds me of a survey I read this week about the cost of appropriate attire for archbishops. Seems some of the costumes run in the mid $30,000 range. Vestments. Diocesan seals. These do not even serve the people as well as stained glass windows. Alas…

  2. What is at stake in the latest ploy by Mark Lawrence and the schismatics in South Carolina is nothing short of identity theft. The insurgents who are attacking TEC have tried to steal the property and the funding that belongs to the national church and in addition they claim to be the REAL Episcopal Church, because they are the heirs of the Church of England in the Royal Colony of South Carolina! This is a preposterous pretension, but they have taken legal steps that force the national church authorities to respond in local courts that follow archaic laws which may be difficult to challenge. The hearing set for March 1st will provide an indication just how much traction the defectors really have in their effort to retain their ill-gotten goods. However, this latest legal gambit makes clear that the issue is simply a matter of power and has nothing to do with either doctrine or conscience.

    • It is fair enough to say all of those things are at stake. And at one level they are all upsetting. But on another level, those things do not seem to have much to do with living according to anything taught in the Gospel and perhaps bear a closer resemblance to certain well-known tables that were once upturned in Jerusalem.

      But I wonder, as one who hasn’t been very active in the church for some years but still has affection for it (a different story, which has a lot to do with philosophical challenges to belief and not much to do with church politics) — what should the church be doing? I’m curious to hear more from Fr. Jonathan about his ideas about where the church should be going, although maybe I just haven’t read far enough back in the blog yet to know and should do that.

      Since this is a first comment, I’ll introduce myself – I attended Grace Episcopal in Madison in my teenage years, 1989-95, and found my way to Fr. Jonathan’s blog when I googled Grace around Christmastime, curious to see what was going on there.

      • Tim: Thanks for commenting and thanks for offering a challenging question. I do hope that if you read back through my posts and my sermons you will get a sense for the direction I think churches need to go. And I think two things are central: 1) preaching the good news of Jesus Christ (that a relationship with Jesus Christ can transform lives); and 2) that preaching the good news also means concrete actions on behalf of the poor and oppressed (basically, yesterday’s gospel Luke 4:16-21). I also think we need to get outside our walls and our old structures and meet people where they are, in the midst of their lives (and their doubts).

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