Episcopal divisions long in coming, visiting Bolivian bishop says

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Six years ago Bishop Frank Lyons left the United States to do missionary work with the fledgling Anglican Church in Bolivia.

These days he finds himself back in America from time to time on a different type of mission—ministering to a well-established, but fractured, denomination.

In late January, he spent a week in San Diego guiding several congregations that have left the Episcopal Church over such issues as the inerrancy of God's Word, the divinity of Christ, and the ordination of homosexual priests and women. Similar struggles are emerging across the country as the denomination pushes forward with a more liberal interpretation of the faith.

Several of those congregations have retained their ties to the Anglican Church, which has 38 independent yet connected provinces worldwide. The U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, is one of the more liberal provinces in the Anglican community. The majority of the provinces, especially in Africa and South America, are conservative and oppose ordination for homosexuals and women.

In addition to a handful of San Diego congregations, Lyons oversees parishes in Atlanta, the Cleveland-Akron, Ohio area and various other cities, totaling 35 in the United States. He oversees a handful in Bolivia.

Raised in the church as a youngster and having served 20 years as an American priest, Lyons said the schism—which has widened since the 2003 election of openly gay V. Gene Robinson as bishop for New Hampshire—has festered for years.

"Some people think it's just been a few years here because you have high-profile events happening, but I grew up in a diocese in Washington D.C. where this stuff has been going on during my entire lifetime and for another generation before that," the bishop said.  "So it's been a long time brewing. It's just a turn; theological liberation has gotten fuzzy on the fundamentals of the faith and at this point, the question is, 'Is what certain bishops share about the Christian faith even Christian?' If Jesus is not divine, if Jesus is not God's revelation to us, then what does that mean for the world?

"You have some radical theological stuff going and I think that's the basis for the problems we're in right now. If you are not careful about your theological distinctives, then they just begin to break down."


Shifting views
Lyons said he believes the shift came as early as the 1960s when the denomination, in a spirit of tolerance, allowed dissenting views to emerge without check, especially in seminary, considered ground zero for developing theology for young priests.

"It had to do with our perception of being able to be open to dialogue with different positions," the Anglican said. "You can dialogue with different positions, but not to have your own position, that's where you begin to fall into difficulty.

"The Episcopal Church, with many of their people on the front end of that cultural divide, has fallen. We've been suckered lots of times by the culture. Jesus did not come to baptize American culture.  He did not come to baptize any culture. But he came to present the kingdom culture, which is supposed to critique whatever culture we're in."


Divergent cultures
When it comes to the cultures of Bolivia and America, they might as well be on separate planets. In Bolivia, the people are poor, the resources few. Although the Roman Catholic Church has long been a part of the culture, Lyons said religion has done little to ease the spiritual, economic and physical hardships of its citizens. Since 2001, Lyons has been working to build a faith community that stands true to Scripture while trying to create fresh opportunities for its adherents.

The irony is stunning. The nation founded on Christianity, the home of the free and the brave, being evangelized and corrected by a relatively new mission field.

"The Third World can help us, can come to us (Americans) and say, 'You guys are falling off the horse. Let us set you back on it.'"

America, though, seems soundly hypnotized by its excesses.

"We are so cluttered by the material things around us that we forget that a lot of this stuff has a spiritual basis," Lyons said. "We get to the spiritual at the end, when there's nothing left. When the pill doesn't work, when the doctor doesn't work, when the counselor doesn't work then, 'Oh yeah, oh yeah,' there's another resource that we have that we can try. Let's try that and it should work, and it works every time."

Bolivian Christians, on the other hand, for a lack of such distraction, tend to depend solely on the name of Jesus and the Word of God, he said.


Stark contrasts
The contrasts are playing out in grand fashion on American soil as some departing conservative congregations battle their local dioceses and the national denomination over buildings and other assets. Several lawsuits, including one in San Diego, have been filed.

In those cases the coveted cache is the fate of often-elaborate buildings with stained glass windows that have become a symbol of the denomination's liturgical legacy.

"Those things can become idols, because even though they are important and have had importance, the question is, are we living out the same type of faith that built those places? And regularly, quite regularly, we're not," the bishop said. "The Christian culture in the United States is not that much different than the culture that's all around us. That is not kingdom culture."

Lyons said he believes the lukewarm commitment of the American church is disappointing to God.

"He has blessed us with so much," he said. "We have so many blessings here in the United States, and we're not aware of what's going on anywhere else. We have so many blessings here in the United States that we begin to focus on the blessings and forget the Blesser.

"In other words, we have a bigger house, we have a bigger lawn.  The only time we can take care of that stuff is on Sunday morning, and so we end up cutting the lawn on Sunday morning, and sitting on the tractor instead of sitting in pews and doing ministry to others."


Gospel of tolerance
At the center of it all, Lyons said he believes tolerance has co-opted—and corrupted—the American church.

"It's become the new byline for the gospel," he said. "The gospel is tolerance."

The problem is so prevalent, he said, that last year the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the highest-ranking official in the worldwide Anglican community, denounced the emphasis on tolerance, saying it was not a gospel value.

"That came as quite a shock to most Episcopalians in America who are trying to live out that gospel of tolerance," Lyons said.

The South American bishop said he believes the liberal contingency in the church is surprised by the persistent revolt among conservatives.

"I think what (liberals) underestimated was, as changes came about in the church, they saw people adapting to it and people not being clear with their testimony, really where they put their trust, where they saw the Lord leading," he said. "So they've been cranking up the water for a long time and we're almost stewed.

"At this point, some of the frogs are jumping out of the water. But a lot of frogs are comfortable, still."