The Issue Behind the Issue

At first glance, the recent and intense debate on the Obama administration’s plan to require religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals, schools and colleges, to offer birth control coverage as part of their health plans may seem a long way away from the world of Episcopal schools. However, I think one of the underlying themes, barely detected in the flurry of reaction and debate, strikes a remarkably similar chord to an issue that so many of our schools deal with in one venue or another.

I will leave it up to others to carry on the debate regarding the rightness or wrongness of this initiative. However, it is telling that the administration has made a quiet distinction in this decision between religious houses of worship and religiously-affiliated institutions.

Presumably, one of the assumptions underlying this distinction is that there are people of like minds and similar beliefs in a religious house of worship. Religiously-affiliated institutions, on the other hand, employ a wide variety of people who may or may not hold beliefs in common with the religious group that began, controls, or maintains some type of relationship with that affiliated institution. They may not hold to that religious group’s view of birth control, for example, and thus are entitled to access to all U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription contraceptives. In some cases those affiliated institutions may have more employees who are not members of that religious group than those who are.

It did not take long for this issue to spur deep feelings and intense debate. But none of the debate has seemed to focus on what I would refer to as the “issue behind the issue,” that is, the distinction between houses of worship and religiously-affiliated institutions. Why have both sides been reluctant to make any effort to explain this distinction?

I believe, quite simply, it is because the issue is so hard!

For the impartial onlooker, a Catholic hospital may seem to be just like a Catholic church. An evangelical Christian school may seem just like the church that sponsors it. After all, it has “Catholic” or “Christian” in its name. Look at the institutions a little more closely, however, and you will see differences between them and the religious houses of worship from which they may have been born. But how do we describe that difference? How do we describe the similarities?

I see this same difficulty in the debate we are having in the Episcopal Church over the new canons for lay benefits. To date very few dioceses have decided whether or not a school or hospital is “subject to the authority of the Church” (the ultimate official yardstick for determining what institutions should comply with the pension provision) because, I believe, it is a difficult debate to enter into as well as an immensely difficult thing to determine.

For better or for worse, we operate in a zone of ambiguity when it comes to making a distinction between the Episcopal Church, per se, and its many Church-affiliated institutions, including schools. Some might view Church-affiliation as one step beyond being Church-controlled, maintaining that affiliation has to do with a free and voluntary choice to be connected to the Church and to cultivating that affiliation through certain practices, a representation of the Church in the governance of the school, and incorporating the spirit of the Church in the stated mission of the school.

At the same time, however, there is not the kindred commonality of doctrine or belief in a school as there is in a parish, and much of the work of the school has to do with things that are not specifically religious. For these reasons, schools are “Episcopal” in a way different from, say, a parish. What’s more, it is not uncommon in Episcopal schools for there to be far more non-Episcopalian students, faculty, and staff, than those who are.

Is this ambiguity due simply to the “Anglican spirit,” which allows for a variety of interpretations to coexist under one umbrella? Or do we face a daunting task when we begin to unravel the differences between control and affiliation?

Whether it is on the national/political level, or on our own, “Episcopal level,” it is a tough task to determine the exact shape and scope of a religiously-affiliated institution. I have been struck, in listening to the health care debate, how often political observers struggle with the distinction (some have been referring to these institutions as “religious entities,” whatever that might mean!). On both levels, it is not uncommon for those eager to see the relationship as a tenuous one to point to the diverse makeup of the employee pool or student body; likewise, it is not uncommon for those eager to see the relationship as a binding one to forge the connection—in language and imagery—to the sponsoring/founding religious group. If one is “Catholic,” for example, the other must be “Catholic” as well.

There are compelling issues of accessibility, conscience, and autonomy in the current debate on contraception and the religiously-affiliated institutions. It will be hard to come to any consensus on these matters until we are able to begin to understand, describe, and adopt a working vocabulary on the nature and scope of religious affiliation.