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ISOLATIONISM

One of the sure signs that a dominant group in the church is suffering from hardening of the arteries is when it gets defensive and perhaps isolationist. A movement which was full of vigor, freshness and hope, breaking out of the proverbial box, and stretching minds and hearts gradually becomes narrow, legalistic and defensive of its turf.

Such a development is as much a part of our Anglican history as the “golden ages” some love to re-visit for strength and solace. One of the tasks of a historian is to dig into golden ages to reveal, as best one may, that they were perhaps not as golden as they seemed, as well as to examine so called “dead” periods to see just how lifeless they really were. When I was much younger the popular historical view was that the 18th Century church was as dead as the proverbial Dodo until the Evangelicals came along and woke it up. Today a perhaps more measured description is available.

Yet one only has to see just how cross, defensive and miserable, for instance, many Evangelicals became as they faced a triumphant Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th Century or note just how “precious” the heirs of the Tractarians became in the mid 20th Century when faced by the earlier Liberals, that is until the Roman Catholic Church pulled the rug from under Anglican Catholics with the reforms of Vatican 2. It is daunting to spent decades introducing rites and ceremonies only to see them undermined by one’s heroes. Take a look at some of the writings of the Evangelical Bishop Ryle and the Anglo-Catholic Vernon Staley to see just how defensive church people can get when threatened by other views.

The 1979 American Prayer Book is often derided by conservatives. Its irony remains that in a sense it was the last great triumph of American Anglo-Catholicism at a time when that party was being marginalized by converts to Liberalism in the 60’s and 70s. Ascendant parties in Anglicanism often “win” too late!

One only has to read some of the blog sites and list-serves of contemporary establishment Liberalism in our church to see just how institutionalized and defensive its aging adherents have become. Where once they broke the rules in the name of justice they now cling to the Canons and church structure to preserve their achievements. Hope and confidence are now replaced by fear and retrenchment. Perhaps it is not too naughty to detect a similar dynamic at work in our House of Bishops.

Indeed many now espouse an isolationism as stark as its political equivalent in the 1920s. The Anglican Communion, which after World War 2, thanks to great bishops like Stephen Bayne (the first secretary-general of a growing Anglican Communion, whose nurse-maid was the autocrat and conservative Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury who fostered Provincial autonomy in the “colonies” before independence was granted by Great Britain) the American Church took to the ideal of a world Communion and became its largest financial contributor. Now, threatened by the very Provinces which copied American ideas of self-government and autonomy, some American establishmentarians dream of breaking away from pesky foreigners who have the audacity to question Yankee theology and practice. “Who needs a Communion?”

Few are more isolationist, particularly in an attitude to ecumenism, than vocal converts from Roman Catholicism or Fundamentalism who retain their fear of that which they rebelled against and interpret Anglicanism in the light of their personal reaction. Their interpretation of the tradition they have now espoused is often dreadfully flawed and destructive. They see our tradition in almost as lurid terms as late -Reformation Anglicans viewed Rome or Restoration Anglicans viewed Puritanism. Prejudice may often assume the mantle of righteousness and even “justice”.

At home the structures of TEC creak and groan under the weight of modern life and opportunity. Tiny dioceses created in the missionary era of our church, strain to support a bishop, diocesan staff and the minimum of program and project necessary for viable diocesan life. The ancient theology which demanded that a diocese have not only a valid bishop in communion with others but also minimal viability is forgotten while a questionable European 16th Century doctrine of a territorial, unitary national church is espoused with great passion. Henry VIII call home! Such a love affair with structure is not the product of vigor and growth. Rather it is espoused because it works for those in power. It preserves our present governing oligarchy. It may not work at parish, diocesan or “provincial” level. It may not even work in the structure of our national church. The problem is that it is “broke” and it needs fixing for the life of the church.

I am not suggesting that the same sort of isolationism and protectionism “writ large” isn’t manifest in the not-so loyal opposition to 60s Liberalism and establishmentarianism among us. In fact it is. The solution offered by those “traditionalists” marginalized by an ascendant party which cheerfully broke many essential doctrinal standards and disciplinary practices in the name of “progress” is to break all the rules by wandering off into a hinterland of rival groups which daily grow into themselves as they occupy “safe-ground”. In reaction those in authority who speak of inclusion and freedom now cling to church law with fervor. Their job is to protect the church. One remembers a High Priest who said something on those lines.

Yet the real threat to TEC, whatever the causes of a dwindling “membership” is not Africa or the Southern Cone, and certainly not the tiny rump of “traditionalism” within the church, but rather internal collapse through the weight of obsolete institutions. It is certainly true that this is a problem we’ve faced before. The Baptists got to the frontier first. They walked and were self-creating. Episcopalians and some Presbyterians waited until they could replicate establishment structure, although, thank God, there were enough creative people, full of missionary zeal, to extend the church from the eastern seaboard across the mountains. My own parish here was one of four original parishes planted by Bishop Jackson Kemper. He covered an enormous territory on horseback. Of course he had to create borders, standing committees and vestries, but these were unaccompanied by the weight of regulation and structure which abounds as our parishes and dioceses dwindle. We’ve possibly created more ecclesiastical law and regulation in the past thirty years than TEC did in the entire 19th Century. Indeed where there seems to be revival it is often because of a core of “extroverted: Christians in place to build and expand despite the system rather than because of the system.

Despite the decline obvious to anyone with an eye to the facts and to anecdotal experience, voices still tell us that “smaller is better” particularly if what results is more homogeneous, more unified, and more on message. Some products can be successful sold to a discreet and upscale market. If we are to confine ourselves to those like ourselves we shall succumb ironically to the sin of many first Christians secure in their heritage, who didn’t want or need those pesky Gentiles. Who needs the poor, or the “conservative” or those who lack good taste? Of course we do as a “cause”. But how about as a constituency?

One Response

  1. This from Bishop Whalon, “Our Man in Europe”.

    “Tony, It would be good if you could reflect upon the role and work of missionary bishops, like Kemper, who have been the architects of so much of the Communion. For example, I wish our present conflicts with Nigeria did not prevent a fruitful conversation with them about their successful revival of this office. Yours, +Pierre”

    I’ll see what I can do.

    Tony

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