ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS 
THE RT REV. ED MACBURNEY

The English view of the American is traditionally ambivalent. The old truism “What America did yesterday England will do tomorrow”, is usually uttered with a resignation that conceals a mixture of horror and excitement. Deep personal friendships and battle hardened loyalties forged in the conflicts of our century are allied to cultural foundations and a common language.

Our mutual stereotypes are benign yet baffling to those outside the relationship.

The barb that America is the only nation to have moved from barbarism to decadence without the intervening period of civilization would not be out of place in the Canon of English prejudices. And their obsession with history, in inverse proportion to their own, is a cause for patronising amusement. Their view of us as slightly down at heel cousins in charge of a splendid heritage theme park drifting between cathedral and tea rooms and lamenting the passing of the Raj may be an exaggerated summary of the fantasy but not overmuch.

Behind all this there is a long affection and respect. The churches in America, born in non conformity, have no place for establishment. The exports of poverty and enterprise from these islands and mainland Europe have established a massive catholic and free-church (notably Baptist) presence in the U.S.A.

However, for all its numerical insignificance, the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. has always exercised vastly disproportionate influence in the life of the nation. Though Americans would never talk in “class” terms, ECUSA churches are often characterized by a social and financial elite. One notable church with the dedication of St. Michael of All Angels was known throughout the state as “St. Minks and all Cadillacs”. Nevertheless, as parish churches, they often stood as beacons of pastoral concern for the whole community.

The last thirty years have seen an increasing radicalisation of ECUSA. What started as a compassionate and laudable concern for civil rights led, increasingly, to a church that has become caucus led and issue driven. The last fifteen years have seen a haemorrhage of one third of the membership to the point where, legally, it only qualifies as a sect.

During the recent international conference of orthodox anglican bishops in Canterbury, I caught up with a man who has lived through these traumatic times, one of the best loved pastors of recent years, Ed MacBurney, recently retired Bishop of Quincy. MacBurney was born in Albany, New York and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia. His dad was an electrical engineer and a presbyterian.

“He was confirmed after me. Ma was an episcopalian. I was baptised 67 years ago on Holy Saturday and there was never any question about what you did on a Sunday morning”.

His education was state school and then a place at prestigious Dartmouth College, real Ivy League.

When did you first get a sense of vocation?

Around 14, In the 9th grade we had to pick a profession and talk on it. I didn't speak about it again until my third year in college. I told my dad. He was not pleased. Why, when I could have done law or medicine, he wanted to know, was I doing this - a job dealing with old ladies and cucumber sandwiches! But, by the time of my ordination, no-one could have been a prouder dad.

Was there a key moment on the road?

No. But I can remember Brian Green's crusade at St. John the Divine - 6000 people for a week - that had an effect.

Where did you go then?

Berkeley Divinity School for three years, then, after I was ordained deacon, I went to St. Stephens House, Oxford and was priested in 1953 by the Bishop of Ely before returning to the States.

Your first Parish?

St. Thomas, Hanover, New Hampshire.

(And here the story stays and develops quietly and powerfully for a remarkable twenty years. The parish encompassed four hundred square miles, 3 colleges, outlying villages, 3 private schools and everyone from academics, doctors and businessmen to the poverty of tar-paper shacks. The main hospital took everyone from Vermont and New Hampshire and three nights a week of MacBurney's time.)

How come you stayed so long?

Well I was ten years the curate under Fr. Leslie Hodder who taught me to pastor and ten years as Rector. I saw no reason to move. People is what I do. You may see a Bishop before you but I'm just a parish priest raised to the level of incompetence.

(The outline of his ministry has all the hallmarks of the great training parishes of bygone days in England and those long curacies when young men were anxious to serve the Lord sine die, where they were put rather than the quick move to being “in charge” and the replacement of vocation by career.)

When did you get married.

Not till my late thirties. In fact if the current ECUSA rules had been in place then it would probably never have happened. (The “rules” now state that a priest cannot court anyone in his own parish) It is a lovely story. Anne was widowed at 34 with three young boys and persuaded by her parents, against her better judgement, to go and live in their summer house in Hanover till things sorted out. She appeared in church one Sunday and there began what I thought was the fastest and she thought the slowest courtship ever.

How long was it?

Four and a half years!

Who knew first that this was it?

Oh, Anne did. She can remember seeing me sitting over a cup of coffee outside a bookstore and praying quietly “Lord, you gotta be kidding”.

(There is a pause for agreement and recognition of the fact that, in both our pastoral experience, it is, almost without exception, the woman who knows first. Men just seem to be slower in discerning this particular inevitability.)

How did the boys take to you?

They were ready to have a dad. There was no competition in the sense of a divorced dad waiting in the wings and they moved onto my turf, I didn't invade theirs. I remember at the adoption the legal fees were thirty five dollars a head and one of my boys said “Gee, dad, Roman slaves brought more than I got”.

(The “boys” are now Professor of Medieval History at the University of Maryland, Professor of Economics at Berkeley, California and Organist and Choirmaster at St. Joseph's, Rock Island, Illinois).

Years later I asked one of them if he wouldn't rather have had the rich Washington lawyer who was keen on Anne, for his Dad. He said, “Money and Washington would have been O.K. but there was no doubt you were the one for the long haul!” Childrens' compliments are seldom graceful but they have a profundity that politeness cannot give.

What would you have done next if you hadn't married?

I thought very seriously about the Order of the Holy Cross. I took hundreds of undergrads, over the years, to them for baptism preparation, confession, vocations, retreat. It was a great powerhouse. Now sadly, it's very involved in feminism.

So after twenty years, what then?

In 1973 I began fourteen years as Dean of the Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa.

Why the move?

Well I could have stayed all my life at Hanover. It used to take me an hour to get up the street 'cos I knew everybody. To me it was the best parish in the diocese so there was no point in moving within. I guess I just wanted to see if my ministry would travel and work someplace else. We went to a mid west city of 100,000 - an agricultural state and had fourteen wonderful years. Have you seen the movie “Field of Dreams” - that's Iowa. When we finally return home we want to settle on the Mississippi.

And then Bishop of Quincy.

Yes 1988. What used to be known as the “biretta belt” - not true now. An old Anglo-Catholic diocese.

This means winning an election doesn't it?

Oh, indeed. I'd been through it once before in Milwaukee and promised - “never again”. That was 23 candidates in separate rooms for eight hours with nearly two thousand people coming in to ask “Are you for women priests?”, “Are you for homosexuality”. Scarcely any other questions were asked and in eight hours Anne was only asked once about anything. I came second, thank God. Quincy was different. My proposer was in favour of women priests but thought I would make a good pastor for the diocese. There we all answered a wide range of questions and were videoed. Copies were sent to all the vestries.

(The idea of parishes knowing who the candidates are never mind having a say in selecting the bishop is quite alien to the English mind.)

What news do you get in the press of the Church in England?

Everything's healed and together and moving forward in harmony. Living here for a year gives you a rather different picture of course.

When did things start going seriously wrong in ECUSA?

The church had become very issue driven in the 1960s and had got in the habit of pressure group politics with law seen as something to be overturned. So in 1975 when retired bishops ordained women with no order and no cure we were on the road. The House of Bishops wouldn't accept it but then the House of Deputies voted for it 51% 49%. The illegals were recognised and the church enshrined chaos and illegality. In fact they held an official 20 year celebration of it this year. It became clear that the only ones expected to obey canons were the orthodox.

Why were you opposed?

I don't believe it's the Lord's will, it's not scriptural, it's not in the tradition, it's finished us off ecumenically and it's divided, devastated and diminished our church.

We hear a lot about ECUSA and homosexuality. What's the real position?

Last year 102 bishops signed up to say that marriage was the place for sex. The next day Bishop Spong changed that to “faithful relationships” and 52 bishops joined him. His argument is that the canons talk about clergy living exemplary lives and therefore he is at liberty to define “exemplary”.

Didn't Spong very publicly ordain a practising homosexual.

Yes and he was censured. But right after that another Bishop did the same and he has now been charged by some fellow bishops. Looking at the make up of the committee that will judge the case I doubt anything will happen.

What happened to the priest ordained by Spong.

Spong fired him for being offensive to Mother Teresa. He went to Provincetown, started his own church and died of Aids.

The current crisis in ECUSA seems to include bishops' mistresses, the suicide of a compromised bishop and a massive fraud at H.Q. What is going on?

The presiding bishop is under massive scrutiny for the whole history of his appointments and a very active lay group are trying to get this on the agenda. When a church ceases to be bound by scripture these things are inevitable. In recent years we have reversed the situation - scripture, the word of God judges us but we have decided to judge it! Appeal to scripture is regarded a fundamentalism!

Rumour has it that those who cannot recognise women as priests will soon be outlawed in ECUSA?

The process is under way. A proposed new canon will remove the rights of the newly ordained. It will proceed to the House of Bishops and then to General Convention. The regular trick is to appoint a committee or commission that will produce the changes you want by starting the membership - for example the Eames Commission. How Runcie could have appointed that set up I just don't know.

Is New Age a problem in ECUSA?

The Bishop of California has accepted Matthew Fox (New Age former R.C. Monk) as a priest, we have “Mother, Daughter, Friend” liturgies, some have admitted being witches and the latest environment group report to the House of Bishops acknowledges its views to be panentheist. That do you?

We read about some very bizarre services in St. John the Divine (New York)

St. John's should be exorcised. I'm serious.

How can you stay in this church?

A lot of good priests have gone and everyone has their own final threshold. I don't think I could stay in if they refuse to ordain orthodox ordinands.

How do you see the English situation?

Forward in Faith can provide an orthodox network and the Flying Bishops are a return to a proper episcopal model. Reform has very strong churches. I'm just going to see Philip Hacking in Sheffield - they have 1000 kids from cradle to High School. So you may have a shot in your alley for the Church of England.

What is your hope for the future?

The unfolding crises and the waxing power of Satan means it is a time for believers to stand together. Our sub-cultures much not stand in the way. God will bless those churches that witness and preach the living Gospel. The lampstand will be removed from those who act contrary to scripture. I've worked with Luis Palau and evangelical missionaries elsewhere and it's terrific. This is the realignment, God's work, believers coming together across the traditions. Too much of the modern church has bought into Hegel you know:-

Thesis-Jesus is Lord

Antithesis-Jesus is not Lord

Synthesis-Jesus is sometimes Lord -

They mean 'only when he agrees with me'.

This will not do. I want to work with those who says 'Jesus is Lord, He rose bodily from the dead and Holy Scripture is authoritative.

This is where our hope has always lain.

Amen to that.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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