LETTER FROM AMERICA

Small Change from Lambeth

by David Mills

LAMBETH HAVING ENDED when it did, almost everyone went on vacation afterward and thus very little has happened since. Which, in general, is good news.

The readings of Lambeth's effects on the Episcopal Church vary, as you would guess. Our liberals have usually spoken of their pastoral concern, for which they will ignore the decisions they did not like, Lambeth being only an advisory body and one in which (they say) most members do not understand western culture and problems. (Had it gone the way they wanted it to, many would have demanded obedience to its rulings, as in that case it would have spoken for the entire Anglican Communion.)

 

The conservative reaction

The conservatives, judging from scattered conversations and various e-mail discussions, are very pleased, deeply grateful to their African and Asian brothers, and also deeply humbled thereby, and aware that Lambeth changes very little for us.

There are, of course, the terminally optimistic, who assume against all experience that Americans demonstrably addicted to moral and doctrinal change are suddenly going to act as if they were traditional Christians because African and Asian bishops outvoted them. They ignore two realities: first, that the innovators are convinced beyond possibility of conversion that they are right, and in fact bringing in the new world of sexual equality, and second, that they have constituencies they dare not offend.

The optimists also do not realize how deeply uninterested is even the most ardent multi-culturalist liberal in the beliefs of African and Asian Christians, especially as they agree with the "fundamentalists" and "reactionaries" he must deal with at home. Bp Spong did make an ass of himself, but only because he said out loud what many liberals think.

However, as far as I can tell, most leaders of the resistance groups believe they still face a long struggle with the innovators, one that will require establishing parishes in some liberal dioceses and rescuing persecuted parishes in others. One, founded last year in Little Rock, Arkansas, has already come under the care of an African bishop.

 

First Promise falters

The First Promise movement (described in the October 1997 letter) will be holding its second national conference for laity at the end of this month. The group, mostly Evangelicals of the Reform type, have spoken clearly on the nature of communion and the need for a shared Faith — a new thing for Evangelicals — and supports the young priest who founded the new parish in Little Rock.

But even they seem to have faltered. The priest they have asked to speak on serving in a hostile diocese has been in a hostile diocese for only two years, and has distinguished himself by allowing the bishop — Charles Bennison of Pennsylvania, some of whose heretical opinions I described in the July issue — to preach, celebrate, and confirm in his parish.

In asking him, they ignored the rectors of the nine parishes of the Episcopal Synod of America, who have for many years taken a principled stand for the Gospel and therefore against the diocese. Several have recently been threatened with deposition for refusing, on clear biblical grounds, the bishop his canonical right to preach and confirm. They have a better understanding of what Scripture requires when dealing with its enemies than the priest asked to speak.

There may be an argument for acting as this priest did, but it will be a pragmatic and political one, not a biblical and theological one. One test to be applied in these cases is whether St. Paul would have done this. The answer in this case, of course, is no.

The choice was a peculiar one, but I do not think it reflects any change of conviction among First Promises' leaders. It does suggest the ever present danger of assuming that if a man is conservative his pastoral choices are orthodox.

 

Growing minorities

In other news, the American sociologist Rodney Stark has found that "the areas of the country that had recently produced the highest number of Roman Catholic priests, seminarians and conversions, relative to the size of the Catholic population, were also areas where Catholics were a small minority."

According to Gustav Niebuhr in the New York Times, Stark found that the most successful was a southern diocese in which only 2% of the population within the diocesan boundaries was Catholic. Among the least successful were the large northeastern dioceses in which Catholics are a majority of the population, and in which parishes are being closed and consolidated even when the people can maintain and pay for them, because the diocese has no priest to give them.

This is bad news because the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has found that the parishes that produced the most new clergy in the last twenty years, " measured against parishes that had produced no ordinations in the same period, were more likely to have two or more priests on duty, maintain a Catholic elementary school and sponsor youth groups." As one official said, for young men "to imagine themselves as priests they have to see priests and interact with them."

Dr. Stark, a professor at the University of Washington, explained his findings by arguing that minority Churches were competing with other Churches for members, and therefore were more innovative and committed than those who dominated their market. He told Niebuhr that other studies had found that "per capita giving to Jewish organizations is highest among Jews who live outside major Jewish population centers, and giving to churches is often inversely proportional to the presence of those churches' denominations within a particular community."

He did not study the effect of the diocese's positions on its success in producing priests and gaining converts. Several of the dioceses he cited have very orthodox bishops — among them Fabian Bruskewitz, the Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, who two years ago excommunicated unrepentant members of pro-abortion and anti-papal groups.

I think his answer is half right. An alternative explanation for his findings is that the Roman Catholic Church grows in places where being a minority increases the consciousness and cost of being a Catholic, and where the bishop and diocese present a orthodox and (therefore) compelling vision of the Catholic life: where, in other words, people know the cost and also know what they will get by paying it. As, thank our God, Anglicans do in Asia and Africa.

 

David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and editor of The Pilgrim's Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, just published by Eerdmans.

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