• RSS Subscribe to Blog




    Steve on SAINTLY?
    Paul Nicholson on SAINTLY?
    RGE on Calling the Shots
    Walter J. Tanner on MARRIAGE EXTENSION
    franiel32 on IN THIS COMPANY


    • 117,073 hits


I attended my first General Convention in 1970. It met in Houston. That Convention was a curious mixture of old-time Episcopalian religion and the new time liberation Gospel. We sang hymns from the 1940 Hymnal. The Presiding Bishop wore a black chimere with his rochet and scarf. I think there was a bit of experimental liturgy, but not much.

The American Church Union, from which now stems Forward in Faith and Affirming Catholicism, put on a High Mass in a local church, using the Anglican Missal. The Bishop of Texas, looking bemused, presided, dressed in choir habit, while smoke billowed around him. There were no women priests, let alone bishops.

For Presiding BishopJohn Hines so much had been accomplished. A generation of priests, ordinands and lay people had emerged through the baptismal waters of the Civil Rights Movement renewed and converted. They came from all strands of church party affiliation and yet the old factions suddenly became meaningless. They had seen the Promised Land.

Before them lay a vision of the kingdom established here on earth through political and social activism. Blacks were being liberated. Women would soon be freed. Trial liturgies shifted the emphasis from Cranmerian teachings about Justification by Faith to more joyful, community affirming rites. Not much was said about gay rights, for that movement –soon to be the most powerful of all lobbies – was in its infancy.

What was not so clear was that numerically the Episcopal Church had peaked in membership and was even then beginning to decline. All sorts of factors contributed to this decline, one shared by most main line churches. America was changing. The drift of populations to the sun had begun, in which thousands uprooted themselves from community and familiar and church ties, many of whom changed church allegiance once in Florida, California or Arizona, or gave up on the church altogether.

Mixed marriages more and more drew people to mega-churches which began to cater to the present desires and demands of a searching population. Meanwhile the country began to be politically and socially polarized in a manner not witnessed since the Civil War.

In the next ten years the image of the Episcopal Church went through an enormous transformation, perhaps as significant as the Reformation period. Altars were transformed into free-standing Tables. The Liturgy was revised. Bishops began to wear Anglo-Catholic garb, or at least red chimeres and stoles. The laity, female and male assumed what were once priestly liturgical functions. Soon, by the narrowest of votes, women were admitted to all ordained Orders. At first sight most of the changes seemed very Catholic. The Eucharist replaced sung Morning Prayer. Confession to a priest was given liturgical sanction. The reservation of the sacrament became normal.

What did not seem obvious was that a post-millennial theology, in many ways in tune with the politics of the Democratic Party, became the obsession of a large majority of bishops and clergy and of activist laity. More to the point this vision, born in the Civil Rights Movement, became the passion of an entrenched majority of bishops and deputies in General Convention.

And who could doubt that many of the causes espoused were righteous? Racial discrimination had long been the lie to America’s proclaimed ambition to be the land of freedom for all its citizens. The plight of the poor remained a scandal. Legal and social barriers against the equality of the sexes could not be defended. Obviously there was compelling biblical evidence to support a vigorous campaign to outlaw discrimination in all forms. Yet what was not noticed was the simple fact that changing laws does not automatically change people. A just society and the Kingdom is not the same thing.

Liberation and transformation seemed to become synonyms in the Episcopalian vocabulary. The new Gospel seemed to imply that political and social transformation were the equivalent of Baptism. There’s little wonder that some Episcopalians began to believe that anyone might receive holy communion, whether baptized or not. Is there any wonder that the baptismal covenant became, in the thoughts of many to be an egalitarian concept, rather than the outward sign of God’s covenant with his new race, a chosen people? Forgotten was the simple Credal announcement that baptism is for the remission of sins.

Thus on Sunday the election of the first woman Presiding Bishop was hailed by 90% of our Deputies as a moment of liberation for women rather than merely the logical and theological outcome of a determination that women may be called to Holy Orders or that the Bishop of Nevada may have been an obvious choice to make.

What is lost in all this is a firm and Anglican doctrine of the Church and its nature and purpose and a doctrine of salvation. Economic and social change does not imply “moral” change. Those liberated by social action may not be any more or less envious, cruel, selfish, any less transformed than they were when they were slaves of one sort or another. Sin –living as if God isn’t – is as much if not more a reality among the well-fed as among the starving.

Most of all, to attribute to the Holy Spirit actions which divide and fracture the Church, drive from it faithful people, and obscure the biblical vision of the newly restored people of God is nothing short of blasphemy. It may be that many of the issues our church raises are true and just, but to assume that our timetable is God’s purpose at this moment, is both arrogant and bemused. The kingdom is not within us and about us through our own legislative activity, but because “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” We further pray, “In the fullness of time, bring all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where with all your saints, we may enter into the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.” True the words “that heavenly country” may obscure God purpose to issue in a new heaven and a new earth, to reverse Eden and that we are the first-born of this new creation in Christ.

If the Church in America is merely the Democratic Party at prayer, why not merely attend local party meetings and do good to others? Surely the church is the embassy and presence of God’s kingdom, of his new people, of the country which is and is to be, where, through the renewal of our minds and beings we show forth Christ’s death and passion until he comes again. From these outposts of Christ’s Empire, we are called to embrace the world, its peoples and all creation and to call them into a new and vital relationship with God, as, in Christ we care for them and liberate them holistically, healing them in the name of Christ, feeding them in the name of Christ and changing them in the name of Christ. We belong not to one of the varied American cultures, but to the culture of God’s people, the organs and limbs of Christ’s Presence. Until we recapture such a vision, we will have nothing abiding to offer to the watching world.