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STONES CRY OUT

One of the parishes in Virginia which is attempting to leave the Episcopal Church is the Falls Church. George Washington was a member of the vestry there. Of course he was a Deist as were perhaps many of its parishioners then. Falls Church is one of the surviving Colonial parishes dating back to when the Church of England was the established church in Virginia. Its bricks have witnessed many changes.

Dr. Blair, first President of the College of William and Mary and Commissary for the Bishop of London writes about the corruption of Colonial era vestries which sought to undermine the authority of rectors by giving them annual contracts and firing them if they seemed to preach against the gentry. As John Betjeman puts it, they were “Broad of Church and broad of mind: broad in front and broad behind.”

Falls Church survived the Revolution, no doubt losing many who fled to Canada, the Bahamas and England. Its latitudinarian past -how does that sit with the present parishioners? -must have been shaken during the first Evangelical revival in the new diocese of Virginia enshrined by the founding of the Virginia Theological Seminary. I wonder how many left when the first evangelical parson was installed and told them they were sinners doomed to hell? He was probably right. Like their ancestors in Elizabethan England these people were “church evangelicals”, content to live and work together in a broad church containing everything from Deists to Sacramentalists. A Deist or semi Deist doubted the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Falls Church survived the Civil War and the division of TEC into two rival jurisdictions and was there to watch evangelicals leaving the Episcopal Church in 1873. The evangelicals were sure that Anglo-Catholicism was winning and the old Gospel was being subverted by Romanism. As a result of that schism the evangelical party in TEC was almost destroyed and fared little better in its new home as the Reformed Episcopal Church. The establishment of Trinity Episcopal Seminary in Ambridge in the 60s signalled the return of the evangelicals, something unnoticed by the other new 60s party, the Liberals.

Falls Church remained in the Episcopal Church even when the Prayer Book was revised in the 1890s and 1928.

Falls Church stayed put when a “Low Church” party captured much of the South in the 1890s and took over VTS, with its stress on Morning Prayer and the social Gospel, as long as the social Gospel didn’t relate to African Americans. Indeed the parish survived the General Convention Special Project of Presiding Bishop John Hines, when Episcopalians, for a while, financed, among other projects, revolutionary African American groups which rejected Martin Luther King’s peaceful revolution. Its parishioners remained staunchly Episcopalian through the next BCP revision and the ordination of women. A few left to join one of the rival continuing churches in Northern Virginia, but not many.

Through these centuries a sense of corporate “belonging” enshrined incarnationally in bricks and mortar, in those pictures of rectors and bishops on the walls, in the church yard anchored the Falls Church in a community established in Colonial days, continued as American Anglicanism organized a Province and thereafter. Falls Church remained part of the Diocese of Virginia through thick and thin.

Now this heritage has been swapped for an allegiance to vocal and persuasive people and personalities. It was my experience in the Continuing Church that while what we were was merely people and a Cause, we remained fragile. People can react to or against a leader, almost at the same time. A Cause can be interpreted in many different ways. It was easy to quarrel and fight and divide, and for personalities to loom large. It was only when we began to build parish churches, paid clergy and established a communal sense of a past expressed in diocesan synods, however short in years that past was, that a sense of unity and stability set in.

As soon as they could, the Early Christians built shrines over the tombs of the martyrs or took over town halls. Stone do cry out and draw together when mortals fail. That is why the Church of England survived during the Reformation, because the heritage of the parish church overcame the loss most experienced as the old religion was abolished. Place and heritage trumped the instability of emerging and declining parties and causes.

I’ll grant you that a lot of twaddle is talked about Anglicanism being an Incarnational Church. The Incarnation means nothing without a grown up Jesus, a dying Jesus, a Risen Jesus and and Ascended Jesus. Having said that, the fact that God is enfleshed has deep significance in the quest for unity. It is not just baptism which symbolizes our unity, a unity which not even the Archbishop of Nigeria is able to annul, it’s the place in which we were baptized or the place where our baptism was corporately recognized that tells.

The Falls Church property is claimed by those who are swapping that which their fellowship has been through many crises, for trust in a Cause and some leaders. Perhaps it is no longer a parish church set in place, drawing on the memories, real or taught and lives of local people, and become a gathered church of the saints; a puritan conventicle? Eventually the Cause will be passe and the leaders dead. What then will bind the good parishioners together? Even if a rival TEC emerges it will be just that, an ecclesial entity fixated on the troubles in TEC, recording each new evidence of sin in TEC, talking about the affairs of a church they claim to have left, but in fact which will remain vital for their continued self-justification and existence. For all the talk of faith in God’s Word and promises, leaving is an extraordinary symbol of a weak belief in God’s purposes for the Church. Indeed the sort of evangelicalism espoused by many leavers is one which has no ecclesiology at all. It is a starkly individualistic faith bent on getting individuals to Heaven in which the church is almost an accidental agency to be taken or left as it suits the individual believer. As such it may be many things, but as the Bishop of Durham now points out, it is not Anglican, not even evangelical Anglicanism.

It’s as if SS Peter and Paul had founded an anti-High Priest Church!