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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!

8 Responses

  1. Tony, IMHO this is one of your best “lessons in history”. Thanks for your insights, informed as they are by your own experiences in a “continuing Anglican” church.

    Nigel A. Renton

  2. Nicely done — you are my new hero. God bless you. Greg Jones+

  3. Tony, Thank you so much for this. You have addressed many questions, including “why does history matter?” and “don’t the current parishioners have a right to take the property?” so beautifully that some may not realize you’re even doing so.

    Kim Byham

  4. 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.

    Dear Tony – I think you have gone over the top. The folk in VA that I know at these churches have an incredibly high view of the Church and of God’s purpose for the Church. It is that high view of the Church that compels such resistance to a false view of the Church such that it is willing so to change its message that the Church becomes the propagator of a false or inauthentic Gospel.

    I know that the continuing Church of which you were a part also took a strong stand against false teaching as they understood it. However I believe that there is a difference here when such a huge percentage of the Anglican Communion has been willing to condemn the false teaching to the extent of declaring broken or impaired communion. The AC did not do so over the earlier issues of women and prayerbooks. This set of issues has actually torn the fabric of the Communion. This has become an issue of heresy and apostacy.

    While I remain, praying for a Communion wide solution, I do understand those who believe that they are led to leave. The critical issue is usually the leadership and attitude of the Bishop. Tragically so many of them appear more loyal to the Episcopal Church than to the Lord of the Church. Remember the confession from Presiding Bishop Frank Allen who at the end of his ministry confessed the latter.

    The ECUSan leadership has been bent on pursuing the tearing of the fabric of the AC. This places this set of circumstances apart from the dividing issues since WWII. It is my prayer that those faithful to Christ will remain and fight the good fight. Meanwhile those who separate are not separated from those who remain to continue the fight. Those who are truly separated are those who pursue false teaching and false doctrine contrary to God’s Word.

    Ian Montgomery+

  5. A fine, fine piece of writing. One that I have read and re-read in the days since it was first posted.

  6. Tony,

    A wonderful piece of writing. I have been reading and re-reading this since it was posted and contemplating your insights on many levels.

    I’m with Greg+…my new hero!


    Andrew Gerns+

  7. Tony, I never quite understood why you returned to ECA, but this helps me to understand. I share the Continuing Church Experience, and I agree with you that they only began to click when they stopped defining themselves against each other.

    The present situation in the Canterbury Comunion makes very little sense to me. Perhaps that is the result of having been in the Roman Catholic Church so long as I have. What I don’t understand is how the Network which embraces the ordination of women and the remnant of the Evangelical and Catholic Mission (Forward in Faith) which rejects it, can even think about making common cause. Perhaps it is simply a case of misery loves company.

    At St. Louis you were singled out as a “vagante”. The greatest fear of the continuers was to be in the same boat as you were in at the time, and they all fell into it. You are clearly pointing out that the same fate awaits the present defectors from Anglicanism, and you have made your point by returning to ECA. I would point out that the only escape, if one must leave Anglicanism, is to go to the Roman Catholic Church as I have done. Life is too short to be diddling around looking for authenticity where it is not to be found.

    C. David Burt

  8. Tony, greetings and blessed Christmas from an occasional reader of your blog. So what do you make of historian Joan Gunderson’s new article? It’s quite solid.

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