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GOLDEN AGE?

I was a “continuing” church bishop when the last threat of a significant schism disturbed the Episcopal Church. In 1977 perhaps a thousand clergy and laity met in St. Louis. At that meeting a church was born and a statement of faith, “The Affirmation of St. Louis” adopted. The then TEC Presiding Bishop, John Allin, a gracious and gentle man was refused communion when he presented himself as the Congress Eucharist. Bishops from Fond du Lac, Eau Claire, Northern Indiana, saints like Stanley Atkins and William Sheridan stayed away althugh they shared many of the misgivings owned by these proto-unilateralists.

The new church was titled “The Anglican Church of North America”. Before its birth cries were heard some opted to disassociate themselves, creating a small body intent on reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. Then there were squabbles about whether there should be a few or even one non-geographical dioceses and disagreements about Canon Law, High Church, Low Church matters and much more.

One of the priests, later a bishop in Canada, described many of these efforts as an attempt to create a Brigadoon Church. The temptation, almost impossible to resist was the creation of an ideal church. The problem was that many had different visions of what such a church would look like. Would it look like PECUSA in the fifties? Would it look like the Church of England in the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII? Very nasty things were written about the Elizabethan Settlement and its comprehension. It was generally judged that Anglicanism had failed because it allegedly hadn’t established a firm body of doctrine, canon law and discipline. What many wanted wasn’t really an Anglican church at all, but a National Catholic Church with an Anglican Missal rite, rather like the Polish National Catholic Church shorn of its ethnic component.

Within three years the Anglican Church in North America split into four parts and further splits later occurred. Much of the strength and energy of the Movement was channeled into bitter internal feuds and personal attacks. The problem of discipline was compounded rather than solved, as clergy and parishes hopped from jurisdiction to jurisdiction seeking to avoid punishment or to discover greener pastures. Meetings to settle differences, discourage internal schism, parish hopping and priestly ambition produced agreements often breached before the ink was dry. Wrangles about whose bishops were more or less valid than others exercised the minds of many.

The miracle is that even in the midst of such confusion some strong and viable parishes emerged and a few, but not many jurisdictions grew and became stable. One of these jurisdictions is now a partner in the Common Cause movement. Those of its leaders, clerical and lay, who remember the past must surely enter this federation with some misgivings and fears.

It seems that the new Golden Age to be reproduced to create a viable Anglican alternative is based on the model of the Church of England between 1547 and 1552. The leaders of the CofE then were pre-Calvin Evangelicals, followers of Peter Martyr, Martin Bucer, Henry Bullinger and perhaps John a Lasko. The fruits of their labor are to be found in the short-lived Prayer Book of 1552 and the earlier draft Articles of Religion. Such a church died with the accession of Mary Tudor and the burning of the bishops including Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer.

True this blueprint for Anglicanism is “liberalized” to give space to charismatic worship, the ordination of women, although their ministries will not be generaly recognized, with a nod to a few Anglo-Catholics. Victorian Evangelicalism and its missionary outreach has some influence. It seems to be generally agreed that Comprehension is a bad thing, and those who remain in TEC are judged to be collaborators, hell-bent, to be shunned and exposed by self appointed inquisitors. Such a temperament will surely come back to bite any future ecclesial entity.

I welcome an attempt to bring together some of the sounder “Continuing Churches” and the Reformed Episcopal Church, whose own history is an object lesson is idealism, reaction and now a wider and salutary comprehenson. I hope the crafters of the new Anglican alternative will listen closely to those in the Continuum who have “been there, done that.” I hope such leaders will be brave enough and strong enough to offer sound advice and warnings and will not be drawn down paths leading to artifical golden age religion. The Agreed Statement between the Anglican Province of Amrica and the Reformed Episcopal Church, to be found on their web sites would seem to offer a non-romantic blueprint of classical Anglicanism.

The tragedy remains in fragmentation, dreams of alternative Anglican Communions -nor for the first time in vision or creation – and an alternative TEC. The tragedy is compounded by recrimination and judgmentalism, the real loss of common cause and common witness to the best Anglicanism can be, is and will be. In such a climate it woud be easy for those of us under attack to become reactive and self-conscious or even to despair. Yet, as I have written before, any present persecution is that “light affliction” which may “gain so great a prize”.