Two seemingly unrelated stories about institutional religion broke just before the year ended. Schism rose like a specter over the Episcopal church as several northern Virginia parishes voted to depart and affiliate themselves with a conservative archbishop in Nigeria.
At almost the same moment, a mushroom cloud sprouted out of the Roman Catholic diocese of Lincoln, Neb., whose bishop, Fabian Bruskewitz, won Vatican backing of his excommunication of members of the reform-minded Call to Action group as virtual heretics.
These stories are really about the same problem: the nature and exercise of authority in organized or--as found in these two cases--disorganized religion.
The Episcopal church seems to be a once-stout barrel of belief whose staves, unbound by any steel band of central authority, are so loose that they cannot hold the contents together anymore. Bishop Bruskewitz, having called for backup from central authority, is applying so much pressure to tighten the hoops that he may shatter the barrel so that it won't hold anything at all.
The Episcopal situation is the latest evidence of the permeable boundaries of this church in America. This esteemed denomination was the breakthrough site for ordaining the first women priests 30 years ago and, more recently, ordaining an openly gay man as bishop and a woman as presiding bishop.
These historical moves have occurred not because Episcopalianism is so theologically progressive but because its authority structures have not been strong enough to control or contain its internal revolutionary impulses. Many conscientious Episcopalians are searching for a center that will hold rather than shift whenever traditional positions are challenged.
Fabian Bruskewitz, on the other hand, may claim that he is exercising authority when he is an authoritarian at heart. There is an …