Religion Today

Friday, August 22, 2008

Whither the Episcopal and Anglican Churches?

The Anglican Church, the world’s third largest church and the one to which the USA’s Episcopal Church belongs, ended its seventeen-day meeting of all bishops last weekend (August 3rd). The Lambeth Conference, as it is called, takes place in Canterbury England once every ten years, and it provides the bishops from the 38 Anglican countries and regions (= “provinces”) the opportunity to worship and pray together, as well as to discuss matters of pressing concern. Was it a success? It depends on what criteria you use.

In terms of demonstrating concern for key world issues, it was a success. The bishops highlighted eight problems they promised to influence their countries to address by 2015. These include the reduction of child mortality, the implementation of universal primary education, the combating of HIV/Aids, the promotion of gender equality, the empowering of women, and the working towards environmental stability in reaction to ongoing climate change. They expressed concern about the situation in Sudan and Darfur. They even staged a protest march against world poverty which Gordon Brown, Britain’s Prime Minister, joined in.

In terms of the key issue that has brought the global Anglican communion to the point of splitting up, that of homosexuality, the conference’s outcome was less clear. On the one hand, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Anglicanism’s leader, summed up the conference participants’ attitude well when he said, “Person after person has said to me, ‘There is no desire to separate.’” This was echoed by many bishops who indicated they felt the Lambeth meeting was spirit-filled and that the participants were willing to be open and loving with each other, despite their differences.

By the end of the conference, the bishops set out several steps to prevent further splitting of the Church, with some being more concrete than others. First, they would create a “Covenant,” a “binding voluntary agreement” among the branches of Anglicanism about the core character of the Church. This would attempt to define Anglican beliefs and practices in Scriptural and historical terms, as well as addressing present concerns with a view of strengthening the Church for the future.

Second, while this covenant is being developed, there would be a moratorium on actions that further exacerbate the situation. On the liberal side, this would include no more consecration of gay bishops and no more blessings of same-sex unions. On the conservative side, this would include the cessation of “cross-border incursions,” i.e., the operating of a bishop outside of his diocese. This especially applies to African bishops ordaining priests and bishops in America.

Third, there will be a “Pastoral Forum.” This will be the enforcement body for the moratoria, although its emphasis will be pastoral rather than legal. The conference report emphasized that this body should be able to move speedily to bring groups committing infractions towards reconciliation.

Will these actions be sufficient to prevent a split in the Anglican Church? Perhaps not.

Of the 800 bishops invited, more than 200 of the most conservative did not attend. Most of these were from Africa and Asia.

Even before the Lambeth Conference, these conservative bishops held their own meeting in Jerusalem. The June convention was called the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) and established an international association that is rapidly becoming the basis of an association of dioceses that could form the nucleus of a new, split-off, Anglican church. Its delegates represented approximately 35 million of the 80 million Anglicans world-wide.

Even as Archbishop Williams delivered his up-beat, closing address to the Lambeth Conference, the English bishops of Exeter and Winchester, called for the Church to recognize the inevitability of the split and to take steps to ensure that the coming separation was done in a peaceful and equitable manner.

Can anything be done to prevent the African and other conservative dioceses from forming a new church? There are only two actions that could prevent the split. If the US and Canadian branches back down from their acceptance of the rights of gays within the church, or if these two branches themselves withdraw from the Anglican Communion.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's OK to Pray in Your School

The school year has almost arrived, again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.

What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?

Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Wiccan. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.

It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.

Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.

What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?

It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.

Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student.

In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not.

These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at To comment on this column, visit