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Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

Posted: June 17, 2010 02:04 PM

This week, what is surely one of the most bizarre religion stories of the year came across my email. No, it wasn't the story about lightening hitting the giant Jesus statue in Ohio. Instead, it is the "Mitregate" scandal, part of the continuing saga of Anglican travail.

Both the Guardian in England and Episcopal News Service here in the States report the following:

When Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached and presided at a Eucharist June 13 at Southwark Cathedral in London, she carried her mitre, or bishop's hat, rather than wear it.

She did so in order to comply with a "statement" from Lambeth Palace, the London home of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, that said "that I was not to wear a mitre at Southwark Cathedral," Jefferts Schori told the Executive Council June 16 on the first day of its three-day meeting.


A mitre is the pointy hat that bishops wear as a symbol of their office and authority. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, forbade his ecclesiastical equal, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church ("Presiding Bishop" is the American and democratic term for "Archbishop") to wear her mitre while preaching in an English cathedral. In addition, Lambeth Palace ran the ecclesiastical equivalent to a background check on Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori -- just to make sure she was rightly and duly ordained.

American Episcopalians are up at arms. After all, their church was founded during the Revolutionary period as a response to English interference with their new style, New World democratic Anglicanism. During the War, the Church of England tried to force their colonial offspring to pray for the King. Many American parishes closed rather than obey the directive; others cut those prayers out of their prayer books and replaced them with supplications for George Washington and the Continental Congress.

After the War, the Church of England -- still in a snit -- refused to consecrate a bishop to the new independent church because the former colonists would not swear allegiance to the Crown. American Episcopalians turned to Scotland for help. There, Scottish Episcopal bishops gladly consecrated Samuel Seabury to be the first bishop of an American Episcopal Church, a move that also served to further aggravate the English (thus pleasing both the Americans and the Scots!).

The Episcopal Church in the United States has always had a difficult relationship with its Mother Church -- from arguments over the separation of church and state to missionary competition in Africa and Asia to concerns over "foreign interference" of bishops. So, it is particularly galling to American Episcopalians to have the Archbishop of Canterbury direct their Presiding Bishop not to display any signs of her spiritual authority -- sort of treating our "archbishop" as if she is a visiting ecclesiastical serf from some colonial outback. That she is a she mightily compounds the insult, as most American Episcopalians are pointedly proud to have consecrated the first woman archbishop in Christian history.

Over on Facebook, three new pages -- "The Anglican Resistance," "Rowan Williams Needs to Apologize to the Episcopal Church," and "The Archbishop of Canterbury Hath No Jurisdiction in this Realm" -- are drawing fans, as is the Twitter #mitregate conversation. But this is more than a petty church quarrel. In the larger picture, Rowan Williams' actions demonstrate something much more troubling.

Christianity in the west is in a persistent state of decline (this includes England and the United States), losing spiritual market share in favor of other religions and atheism. Why? Some of the loss is due to the fact that most western people find Christianity boring and hypocritical -- sentiments that the spiritual head of the Church of England underlined by Mitregate.

The world is facing global warming, an economic meltdown, massive immigration crises, continued international terrorism, interreligious tensions and warfare, nuclear escalation in the Middle East, poverty, the abuse of women and children, human trafficking, genocide, oppression of LGBT persons, and a massive environmental cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico -- and the Archbishop of Canterbury is worried about a woman's hat?

In case the Church of England hasn't noticed, this is why people are rejecting Christianity. It isn't because some Christians chose women to lead their churches, ask questions about traditional renderings of theology and the Bible, doubt God's existence, or want their gay and lesbian friends and relatives to be part of their church communities. Canterbury, please know that western people are rejecting Christianity because -- as noted in a recent survey of young Americans -- Christians are "out of touch with reality."

Worldwide, Anglicans do care about any number of profound social justice issues and are working to make the world a better place in God's name. But if the Archbishop of Canterbury's staff can issue a directive about Katharine Jefferts Schori's mitre, then they have too much time on their hands. Being worried about ecclesiastical millinery while Rome burns certainly counts as being out of touch with reality.

And Rowan -- a humble suggestion from here in the colonies -- if you see lightening, best take off your mitre.

This post originally appeared at Diana's Beliefnet blog.

 
 
 

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