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WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CHURCH?

I began to think about this blog this morning in adult education class. Our parish, like many others, attracts people from other denominations. Many come to us as refugees from fundamentalist bodies. There’s one near here, “non-denominational”, and thus free to impose upon its adherents stringent and “puritan” codes and to advocate male domination. Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted to welcome all sorts and conditions of people into our family and fellowship. The Episcopal Church has always thrived by attracting lay and ordained people from other bodies or none, who find in our worship, our traditions and our relative freedom new and refreshing ways to look at the Christian Faith.

My one concern is that converts learn and embrace what it means to be Anglican rather than using our church, at every level, as a bully pulpit to express why they are not what they used to be. I am also concerned at the trend to change who we are to make us primarily an anti-fundamentalist group rather than embracing the richness of our own tradition. Many years ago the late +Stanley Atkins, Bishop of Eau Claire, a native of the Newcastle area of England, in his quiet, caring, blunt manner warned about those coming to us “down the sawdust trail” who, consciously or not, can’t leave their baggage behind and in embracing our liturgy and customs fail to lose the temper of fundamentalism; the desire to be right and the desire to win. I call such people inverted fundamentalists.

Last year I read with horror the words of an influential seminary professor in this country, writing in the Church Times, who informed English Anglicans that the Episcopal Church exists to counter fundamentalism. We were the church long before fundamentalism was invented in the early 20th Century by a rebel Presbyterian.

Some in our midst advocate an archaeological version of Anglicanism based on those few decades, interrupted by “Bloody Mary”- the monarch not the drink – when the Church of England nearly succumbed to Geneva. Don’t mistake me, Anglican evangelicalism is part and parcel of our tradition, and as I have mentioned before, rescued our church from probable extinction after the American Revolution – but so did pre Tractarian High Church people -and it was evangelicals who labored to abolish the slave trade, child labor and who championed working class people as they fought for decent housing and working conditions. But from the middle of the 16th. Century onwards, evangelicalism was not the only flavor in the Anglican stew.

What I continually lament is the modern tendency towards “party” hegemony and intolerance. The zeal for God’s house eats up not only contemporary Anglican evangelicalism within our church but also those who bid good riddance to principled church people who find their consciences alienated by a growing tendency towards conformism in our church. I cannot for the like of me understand the mind set of those who refuse to make a place for those whose principles, long held among us, are compromised by synodical actions or lack thereof, and yet who would use the Order-breaching activities of the Global South bishops as an excuse to propose that we leave the Anglican Communion. Yes, the actions of Global South Provinces, some of them, in ordaining and consecrating bishops to serve in the United States is a serious breach of the Anglican traditional way of doing things. Yet formally endorsing or encouraging practices known to violate the consciences and principles of traditional “parties” within our comprehension is an equally egregious breach of the Anglican temper. Anglicanism is not a likely home for zealots. This may be a defect but we until lately abhorred schism and did all in our power to preserve unity. Oddly this did not discourage men and women called to prophecy. We absobed their ideas rather than legislating them.

The clergy of the Episcopal Church are much more managed than was once the case. Much of this is the result of instant communication and the encroaching example of corporate and political models. Not too long ago the local parish and its parson were able, if of such a temper, to develop what we now term “local option”. After an initial struggle and the occasional folly of zealous bishops -that old history book “Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church” illustrates this; where are our historians today?- Evangelicals were left to interpolate rumperty tumperty hymns, prayer meetings, bible classes and intercourse with Protestant churches and later Anglo-Catholics could resort to Mass, Mary and Confession with little interference from above. Tolerance was an acquired virtue but enabled all manner of salutary and barmy ideas and movements to prosper or perish among us. Vestries were free to call the rector of choice. Anglicans stayed together because they were free to practice their differences.

One of the down sides of our present Prayer Book is that it has tended towards a conformity otherwise encouraged by program after program -what I term painting by numbers – pedalled by diocesan officials and the national church. Our present crisis is in part occasioned because we insist that attempts to propose things past and things future receive official sanction from on high. Parish clergy are more and more company people and less and less the informed, scholarly, eccentric and independent parsons who were once described as “stupor mundi.”

Even our selection processes weed out “characters” and entrepreneurs in favor of safe introverted people -they can still be saints! -who are ready to frame their ministries in the light of programs. More and more our clergy become mirror images of school teachers, trained to follow a program and use the approved text. Our seminaries do little to correct this folly.

It is therefore ironic that we groan at the weight of covenants and protest at the alleged creation of pan-Anglican curias when we embrace and promote a conformity which narrows our comprehension and disallows the sort of passion which produced a Wilberforce and a Simeon, a Hobart and a Newman, unless their passions are pre-approved, “programmed” and legislated. We have swapped the “chaos”of Anglican freedom for a narrow majoritarianism mislabelled liberalism.

Had we winked at the use of the 28 BCP, allowed it possible that “men” could mean men and women, not looked too closely at who or what was blessed and been honest about whom we ordain, we would have controversy in spades, but not the repression which is leading us to internal and external schism. Given time, as in the new BCP, things once thought shocking like prayers for the dead and auricular confession might become usual and even approved by legislative action. On the other hand, as in non-communicating masses or a ban on parish dances, or playing cards things proposed might have died the death of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. We didn’t legislate virtue. We gave space for innovation and new things culled from things old.

We are losing the art of comprehension and surrendering to a climate of company policy and control and in so doing we are becoming something we have never been before. In part this is happening because instead of absorbing what it means to be Anglican, we are attempting to be against something else.

When I was a boy I would look at the painted images of saints on the rood screen, defaced by zealots and wonder the mind-set of those who enthusiastically took chisel and paint brush to obliterate that which is lovely all because someone might have a devotion to the persons depicted. I have no more time for modern iconoclasts than I have for their ancestors.

3 Responses

  1. Well said, just as we expected.

    There is a sector of Episcopalians I call the “Nots”: they’re NOT Roman Catholics, or they’re NOT fundamentalists. In their minds, they are “in recovery” from their former denominations. They are quite numerous in our parishes, and have created – – as you have well described – – a distorted version of Anglicanism in this country. As though Jesus Christ created the Church to cure the world from religion!

    You describe the problem very very well. I study in vain to discover the solution!

    Fr Kevin Holsapple
    Crystal River, FL

  2. Amen, although I hear there is also a conservative variant. One of the major differences from the “Nots” being that they brought baggage they actually like and work to make their new church look like their old church.

    Jon

  3. Thank you, Fr. Tony, for a wise and very honest appraisal of the gradual decline of a distinct and meaningful culture in American Anglicanism. So many of the people one encounters in Diocesan and Parochial leadership today have very little formation in the sort of thoughtful, informed comprehension that makes Anglicanism work; rather, one finds the easy resort to ideologies that have little or nothing to do with the character we have inherited from those before us. I feel that this hasty incorporation of general modern Americanism has been very destructive. I, myself, came from another tradition in Christianity. However, I felt called to be an Anglican, and wanted to become one through a patient process of formation here and abroad. I did not want to change things to suit me; I wanted to be changed to suit what I saw as God’s call to transformation. Today, I find many of the clergy I know have only the most passing understanding of Anglican history, and often have been giving no really significant exposure to its various major pieties and forms of prayer/practice/approaches to Scripture. What is more destructive, many clergy have clearly given up the Daily Office and are now really “company men/women” in their ongoing formation as disciples. I deeply agree with the “programitis” you speak of. It is a sorry replacement for humility, ascesis, and honest exploration of discipleship. While I hardly am a paragon of Anglicanism, it is hard for me to see so much of our gift to the wider Church being forgotten by those charged with its care and conservation

    I continue to keep you in my prayers…both your physical well-being (as well as your wife’s peace of mind) and your fine ministry in the parish and beyond.

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