Eminentoes

Irreconcilable Similarities

Bishop Robinson and his church hit a rough patch.

By 5.6.14

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News of the impending divorce of retired Episcopal Church Bishop Gene Robinson from Husband Mark Andrew swept into the papers this past weekend. In what was no doubt a pre-planned rollout, a statement was released to Robinson’s former diocese on a Saturday, followed by a guest column in the Daily Beast in which Robinson opined about the concluding relationship, which only became a legally recognized marriage in 2011.

“The details of our situation will remain appropriately private,” Robinson wrote in what is surely wishful thinking — apparently believing that his announcement justifies a column in a major online daily, but that it will go no further. Robinson is a public figure, his same-sex marriage a central part of his public ministry (and his book released last year). Episcopalians as a bunch love to talk, and all will eventually be made known.

Far from scandalous, divorced officials have become all too common in the oldline church, with some thrice-married bishops outdoing even Robinson’s two failed unions. (The first ended in 1986.)

The conclusion of Robinson’s once-celebrated relationship will have little impact. Contrary to a widely accepted media narrative that Robinson was responsible for the breakup of the Episcopal Church, traditionalists have long maintained that acceptance of same-sex unions was merely a symptom of much deeper problems in the worldwide Anglican Communion, not itself the cause of them. Deep lines of division over the identity and role of Jesus Christ and the authority of Holy Scripture remain within the global family descended from the missionary activities of the Church of England.

While news of Robinson’s divorce will come and go, the Episcopal Church has itself taken a turn for the worse since his 2003 consecration — and marriage is a leading indicator that the largest problems lie ahead of, not behind, the denomination.

In 2012, Episcopalians made history by enacting a “provisional” rite for same-sex blessings. Officially, the Episcopal Church still considers marriage the union of a man and woman, but the provisional rite closely mirrors the prayer book marriage service. In states where same-sex marriage is permitted, bishops usually allow the blessing rite to be used to solemnize same-sex marriages, not just bless a union. Since enacting the provisional rite, only 16 of the church’s 99 domestic dioceses have stated that they will not permit its use. According to a report compiled by Integrity USA, the unofficial LGBT caucus of the Episcopal Church, a dozen more dioceses have not yet made a determination about use of the rite, with 71 dioceses permitting its use.

For all the attention given to marriage in the Episcopal Church, the denomination is facing a precipitous decline in couples entering into holy matrimony. In the past decade, marriages have declined an astounding 45 percent. In 2002, the denomination reported 18,798 marriages in its U.S. dioceses, in 2012 (the most recent reporting year) that had slowed to 10,366 marriages.

Fewer marriages translate to fewer infant baptisms (a 40 percent drop from 44,995 in 2002 to 27,140 in 2012) and a further decline in membership. Procreation is, of course, not the only path to church growth — but an onset of Universalist theology in Episcopal circles has devastated much of the evangelistic activity that kept the denomination’s numbers afloat as recently as the late 1990s. Indeed, adult baptisms have almost been cut in half since 2002.

Episcopal Church decline isn’t new, of course. The denomination has shrunk from a high of 3.6 million adherents in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, with attendance having plummeted to about 640,000. In Robinson’s New Hampshire diocese alone, he witnessed a nearly 20 percent drop in membership during his nine-year tenure — outpacing the church’s national decline. All of this is especially absurd considering that while this decline was taking place, Robinson declared of Pope Benedict XVI: “Pope Ratzinger [sic] may be the best thing that ever happened to the Episcopal Church. We are seeing so many Roman Catholics joining the church.”

Perhaps Robinson was seeing this — but the alleged influx of disaffected liberal Catholics couldn’t keep up with deaths and exodus of existing Episcopalians out of the church pews.

Recalling the end of his first marriage, Robinson described how the divorcing couple went from the courthouse to the church, where they returned to one another their wedding rings and, bizarrely, took communion in a sort of un-marriage service. There is no word if Robinson and Andrew plan a similar ritual in an Episcopal sanctuary once their divorce is finalized, but it is clear that they won’t find much competition for space from couples looking to get married.

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About the Author

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.