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HOW DO WE FIND THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH?

When I lived in France I was constantly assured that while the French didn’t care much for President Bush (English understatement) they liked Americans. This piece of information was of greater comfort to my American wife than to me. However simplistic in practice, the sentiment was appreciated and contained some grain of truth. Setting aside that President Bush had been elected by a majority of Americans for a second term -whether he was elected the first time is another matter-one cannot judge a nation merely by recourse to the policies of its government. Immediately one brings to mind the fact that Hitler assumed power as a result of a democratic election process, but perhaps in that case the exception proves the rule. (I’ve never really understood that aphorism.)

If you read my burbles often you will know that I lament the politicization of the Episcopal Church. I am therefore uncomfortable with the notion that the policies adopted by those who govern us adequately describe who we are as Episcopalians. I believe the way most of us worship, in Word and Sacrament -not sermons and teaching classes -more accurately defines us and always has done. I’m even more distressed when I read the words of champions of Episcopalian orthodoxy when they seem to agree with the idea that present policies define who we are as Episcopalians.

In his presidential address to “The Anglican Communon Network” at its annual meeting in Texas today the Bishop of Pittsburg said:

“Yes, we are all at different places on the Calvary journey as concerns our ministries in the Episcopal Church. But I suspect I can speak for all when I say that where we are is not where we had hoped to be. God, in His wisdom, has not used us to reform the Episcopal Church, to bring it back to its historic role and identity as a reliable and mainstream way to be a Christian. Instead the Episcopal Church has embraced de-formation – stunning innovation in Faith and Order – rather than reformation.”

Now for the inevitable bit of history. Although the level of “deadness” the church on both sides of the Atlantic experienced in Latitudinarian times is now disputed, it is certainly true that Anglicanism’s hierarchy at the beginning of the 18th. Century had nearly reduced the faith to Aristotle and the rules of cricket, if the sermons of Tillotson and Tenison are any guide. Stillingfleet’s proposed revision of the Prayer Book, designed to make it possible for nonconformists to conform, later taken up with enthusiasm by revolutionary Americans and then ironically by the Reformed Episcopalian evangelicals, was intended to enable gentlemanly Deism. The Enlightenment at prayer.

The Wesleys were born into such a world, although their improvident father and pious mother were nearer to the Non-Jurors who in isolation carried the torch for Tory , High Churchism, a movement which would flower in the Northern Colonies much more than in its home turf of England. Evangelicals and High Church people saved the infant PECUSA from sudden death.

(If I’ve lost you in this history lesson, for goodness sake learn your heritage. It is because we forget who we are that we repeat the follies of the past. “There’s nothing new under the sun.”)

What I am suggesting is that the semi-Deist Anglicanism of the 18th. Century wasn’t transformed in a decade or even in a couple of decades. Yes, the followers of Wesley gave up on the Church and went wandering off into splintered sects which only came back together, or mostly together in the 20th Century. Yet those who didn’t give up on the church took most of a century to revive it and when they thought they had won, and that Anglicanism would be Evangelical, sober and moral -the Anglicanism of missionaries who went to parts of Africa -a newly technicolor version burst forth, a return to the form of Anglicanism experienced in the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII. Who would have thought it? Mass, Mary and Confession has returned as something new!

But to return to my original thought. Has the real church ever been the church of the headlines? Perhaps there have been times when to has seemed to be so. Yet all along, the very heart of what Anglicanism is has been doing its work and raising up new generations, new thoughts -well they are all really old thoughts -which demonstrate the dynamic reality which bursts forth as the Scriptures are read in public and private and the Sacraments celebrated. No headlines and no ascendent party is able to control the dynamic work of the Trinity when that name is invoked, even by those whose theology is wonky and public policies plain wrong. Aslan is not a tame lion.

I in many ways honor the Bishop of Pittsburgh. I am very fond of the Bishop of Quincy. I understand what they go through. But I am afraid that they, and the primates and I hope not the Archbishop of Canterbury believe the headlines. Certainly there are leaders in the church who sound a great deal like Tenison and Tillitson, or even William White our first PB although their sermons aren’t nearly as long -OK I malign those two long deceased archbishops of Canterbury and one PB,; they weren’t all bad! -and there are obsessed fanatics among us who rant and rave, some liberal and not a few conservative, but on the whole our parishes are not much different than those found anywhere else in the Communion. It’s really a secret, but there are Episcopalians who are Republicans! ( my wife is a Democrat and I’m just an old fashioned constitutional monarchist!) and the majority of parishioners, by far, are moderate people who hate the headlines and worship faithfully in their parish churches, don’t much bother about the diocese, don’t read Borg or Wright and distrust the National Church on principle, whether that principle is informed or not.

Because the policies of our present Establishment are regarded, quite wrongly, by primates and others as being who and what our church is, some encourage the impatient among us – “God in his wisdom has not used us to reform the Episcopal Church”, hang on a moment, why should He and if He hasn’t does that mean that He doesn’t have other ideas; does God have to do as we tell Him? Sorry +Bob but really!- to leave and create a new church, and others conclude that TEC is what General Convention votes on and thereby demonstrate that they have surrendered to a political and secular definition of “the Church” in exactly the same manner as those who have attempted to turn us into a “General Convention Church.”

September 30th is the deadline. By that time our present bishops must decide for our past bishops and future bishops whether TEC is a really Angican Church or not. If a similar deadline had been given to Anglicanism in 1730 shall we say, we might not have an Anglican Communon today. Please someone give me a theological, biblical, traditional definition of a deadline. Please +Rowan whom I admire, tell us. Or have our leaders worldwide and at home taken upon them the mantle of secular politicians? It all sounds like the Bush Adminisration and Iran. It doesn’t sound at all like New Testament faith to me. I believe that God will revive us, change us, use us, but what shape and form that will take I haven’t the ability to know. God hasn’t asked my advice. I dare not give God a deadline.

4 Responses

  1. Well, I hope that the “gay issue” is not the entire subtext here, in the “policies of the national Church” line of thought. There are lots of Episcopalians who are perfectly OK with gay people, even though the policies of the national Church might not be perfect (in either direction). Yes, there are Republicans in TEC – and many of those are OK with gay people, too.

    So at this point, let me just say it right out loud: the so-called “orthodox” are wrong about the “gay issue,” just as they were wrong 40 years ago about the ordination of women. Gay people are simply made that way, and should indeed be able to have full lives that include love and family (God willing). It may be too soon for an openly gay Bishop, but that is not a moral question. The next generation does not have the same take on the “gay issue,” and I would bet my last dollar there will indeed be more gay Bishops in the Anglican future. I should also point out that many – perhaps even most – gay people are quite traditional theologically.

    I really only wanted to respond about “the exception that proves the rule,” though. “Prove” in this case has the sense of “test” – so really, the expression comes down to “the exception that tests the rule” – which is perfectly intelligible.

  2. Well said, friend.

  3. BLS,

    I don’t want to answer for Fr. Tony, but I can say–perhaps as one of the next generation you paint so broadly (I’m 26)–that there are plenty of ways the “policies of the national church” have served to alienate myself and others in ways unrelated to the “gay issue.” And I’m sure that cuts both ways–the national church seems intent upon making pronouncements on issues that we are not of one mind on, and which in many ways contradict the bulk of the Christian moral tradition–and no, the gay issue isn’t the only or even primary example. For me the two prime examples would be the Executive Council’s affiliation of the entire Episcopal Church with a body that many of us have huge issues with in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice–that more than any single thing almost weighed upon my conscience enough to force me out the door–and secondly the support of embryonic stem cell research at the 2003 general convention, a decision that I believe was overshadowed (wrongly) by the much more public debate about homosexuality. Add to that the existence of the Episcopal Public Policy Network/Office (not sure what the appropriate title is these days) and the fact that they are required to lobby in favor of issues affirmed by GC resolutions and you have several things that bug the heck out of me. First you have a church employing lobbyists–yuck–and secondly you have them lobbying in favor of things that many of us have huge moral issues with. Our Church could write a textbook on how *not* to keep people in the fold.

  4. Having grown up in a parish that taught us soon aftr confirmation that the virgin birth and bodily resurrection had never occurred, I left long before any WO or gay issue emerged. I still don’t understand why anyone who has to cross their fingers while reciting the Nicene Creed doesn’t just sleep in on Sunday. It was for another denomination (after years of trouble) to bring me to God’s grace.

    If one never saw the obscene liturgy once posted on the women’s web pages of ECUSA’s site, if one didn’t know about ECUSA’s membership in and sponsorship of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, one might believe ECUSA had some link to Christianity. While some Episcopalians certainly are Christians, the leadership of the organization is decidedly not. I have made it my purpose to get the remaining Episcopalian members of my family out of there and into real churches.

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