The German shepherd’s name was Trapper and he came to St. Peter’s Anglican Church with his owner, a newcomer at the historic Toronto parish.
At the end of the Mass, Trapper went forward with everyone else for Holy Communion. That’s when the vicar, in what she later described as a welcoming gesture, served the dog some of the consecrated bread that some Anglicans believe has — in a mysterious manner — become the body of Jesus Christ.
So one parishioner complained to the bishop and, in a flash, critics online were quoting Matthew 7:6 (“Do not give dogs what is holy...”), and the controversy — this story had legs — even reached BBC with the headline, “Canadian priest sorry for giving dog Holy Communion.”
It seems that strange and dramatic events of this kind happen year after year in the global Anglican Communion — truly one of God’s gifts to headline writers.
It appears unlikely this trend will change anytime soon. Recently, in a burst of candor in Mexico, the current Archbishop of Canterbury harkened back to the English Civil War and quoted sobering advice from Bishop Jeremy Taylor, who was executed in 1645 by the Puritan parliament.
The Most Rev. Justin Welby noted that Taylor warned: “It is unnatural and unreasonable to persecute disagreeing opinions. ... Force in matters of opinion can do no good, but is very apt to do hurt.”
These are hard words in an era in which England’s shrinking flock of Anglicans is still fighting over female bishops and, across the Atlantic, the shrinking flock of Episcopalians continues to fight over non-celibate gay bishops. Meanwhile, leaders in the growing Global South churches of Africa and Asia are calling for repentance and doctrinal discipline.
During an August 13 address in Monterrey, Welby said he sometimes worries that Anglicans are “drifting back” into a true civil war of their own.
“Not consciously, of course, but in an unconscious way that is more dangerous. Like a drunk man walking near the edge of a cliff, we trip and totter and slip and wander, ever nearer to the edge of the precipice,” he said, in the released text.
“On one side is the steep fall into an absence of any core beliefs, a chasm where we lose touch with God, and thus we rely only on ourselves and our own message. On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion. It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches — divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church.”
The problem? One bishop’s “core beliefs” are another’s cruel dogmas. And, according to Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Christianity is entering another 500-year cycle of doctrinal reform similar to that of Martin Luther.
“The major shifts of focus of these periodic seismic events are profoundly unsettling to many people, but they seem to be necessary to God’s mission,” she said, in an August 15 address at the national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Pittsburgh.
Anger and fear caused by rapid political and cultural changes have caused some members of liberal Protestant flocks to flee, said Jefferts Schori, whose denomination has declined from 3.6 million members in 1965 to 1.9 million in 2011. In the tumultuous past decade, average Sunday attendance has declined nearly 25 percent, to roughly 650,000 Episcopalians.
Jefferts Schori’s flock is also aging rapidly, in part because — as she boldly told The New York Times in 2006 — Episcopalians are “better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates” than Catholics and other believers and because they “pay attention to the stewardship of the earth.”
While others are seeing signs of peril, she said, progressives must see progress, especially when fighting for gay rights, racial justice and causes central to their faith.
“The challenges that both our churches have experienced around issues of inclusion of all human beings in recent years have reminded us that God is always at work — on us, within us and among us,” said Jefferts Schori. “Some have judged our smaller numbers as faithlessness, but it may actually be the Spirit’s way of pruning for greater fruitfulness.”
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.