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Reactions: Episcopal Church’s identity stretched, but not broken

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The Anglican Communion, an international association of churches, suspended the Episcopal Church’s voting and decision-making rights within the communion, for a period of three years, which follows a string of controversy stretching back to 2003. Associate Professor and Assistant Chair for the Department of Management and Quantitative Methods Mathew Sheep, who studied the changing identity of the church over a period of 10 years, talks about what this means for the identity of the Episcopal Church.

Sheep:
The Episcopal Church (TEC) is an international body headquartered in New York, affiliated with the global Anglican Communion (AC)—an 85-million-member religious body headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (U.K.).

On January 14, a majority of the 38 “Primates” (heads of global Anglican provinces) voted at a meeting in Canterbury, U.K., on consequences to TEC for its “change in their Canon on marriage (which) represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces….” In other words, the Primates were addressing actions of TEC that began in 2003 with the election of its first openly gay bishop (the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson) and continued with resolutions allowing for same-sex marriage liturgies (less controversial now with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage, but more controversial in some parts of the world).

To be clear, I don’t pretend or wish to comment on theological issues regarding this vote. However, I do want to offer some insights regarding its impact on “identity elasticity”—because that was our research contribution from an “organizational identity” viewpoint as published in Academy of Management Journal. In reality, we should end research articles with “…to be continued” just before we roll the credits.

In the Primates’ own words (in their January 15 communique), while expressing a “unanimous desire to walk together,” they voted to require that “for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that…they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

So, what would we call such a “consequence”? News stories used words like “censure,” “suspension,” “sanction”—notwithstanding that the Archbishop of Canterbury “kept insisting that the U.S. Episcopal Church had not been sanctioned or suspended. The measures were simply consequences of the Church’s unilateral action in supporting same-sex marriage” (Church Times, U.K.).

Whatever one calls it (from a discourse perspective, it matters), elasticity of TEC’s identity (and that of the AC) appears to have been preserved. Identity “stretched,” but it didn’t break. TEC’s Presiding Bishop (Michael Curry) reacted with what Christianity Today called “sacrificial grace.” In a statement, he said, “I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves…segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain…But God is greater than anything…I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow Primates in the Anglican family.” Identity elasticity was stretched to the point of “pain,” but it was not broken.

Other reactions were posted from TEC bishops and leaders, but almost none of them suggested an “inelastic” break with the AC. Instead, we saw statements such as one from Gay C. Jennings, President of the House of Deputies (a representative body within TEC), who stated, “I want to assure you that nothing about what the primates have said will change the actions of General Convention that have, over the past four decades, moved us toward full inclusion and equal marriage. And regardless of the primates’ vote, we Episcopalians will continue working with Anglicans across the globe….”

Our theoretical model of identity elasticity (and the six tensions that would predict/explain it) seems to have held up even in this new round of events. What more could a researcher ask? (Perhaps a new study that accounts for the model’s application to these events). We shall see…to be continued.

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