Letter from America June 1999

Leaving the Union

 

IN WRITING ABOUT the Episcopal Church, I would be tempted to be the 4,365,983rd person to quote Yeats' famous lines "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," did the Episcopal Church have a centre. I can't see that it does.

No centre

It does not have a theological centre, certainly, not even the bare list of beliefs the Righter Court defined as "core doctrine." To these many Episcopalians either sit lightly or redefine them into something less supernatural and more palatable, and even the direct denial of them - common enough among our bishops and theologians - drives very few even of conservatives to do more than grumble among themselves.

The effect is a Church in which pluralism in doctrine is in fact acceptable to the great majority of its members, though many would like, as an ideal, greater conformity. Even the Episcopal Synod of America, having passed a resolution noting the break in communion between its members and the bishops who signed Bp Spong's Koinonia Statement, recently found their own bishops taking communion from the Presiding Bishop, a signer thereof, and explaining this lapse with the peculiar claim that refusing it might have been seen as a political gesture, and besides, they didn't do it in public.

Episcopalians of all sorts still talk of "the centre of the Church," usually meaning Jesus understood in the most general way, but a better image for the Episcopal Church might be the sort of toy ball now popular here, which has a thick rubber cover but some sort of soft material inside, so that you can squeeze it into almost any shape. The point is simply to be inside and not outside, no matter where in space that inside might be.

If I am right about this, I do not think we can even say that things are falling apart. The Episcopal Church is merely leaking a bit. The losses are cosmetic, not substantive. People leave but the property and money usually remain, and liberal bishops seem to feel this a good trade. The ball may lose most of its stuffing, but the shell will remain forever.

Around the edges

But still we find some brave rebels, who insist that Christianity has a centre and insist on standing in it when the rest of the body has moved away. A small parish in Massachusetts, St Paul's in Brockton, refused to fund the diocese after the bishop (the Cowley Father Thomas Shaw) and diocesan convention made clear their rejection of the Christian teaching on marriage.

The diocese responded by reducing them from a self-governing parish to a mission controlled by the bishop. They responded by leaving the diocese. The diocese responded by taking the property. And, while they were at it, going to court to prevent the people from calling themselves "St Paul's."

To make things worse, the diocese had just defrocked the rector, Fr James Hiles, on charges of sexual involvement with a parishioner twenty-five years ago. The charges had at the time been dismissed as unfounded by the then bishop, but once raised again the rector had no hope in that diocese of a fair trial.

The parish has been meeting in a nearby gymnasium, and last Sunday received communion from the retired bishop of South Carolina, FitzSimons Allison, who was acting without Bp Shaw's permission and risking prosecution for doing so. In his official statement on the matter he said that he "felt compelled, in spite of many personal misgivings, to bring what reassurance and comfort possible to a much distressed congregation of wonderful believers."

Bp Shaw had failed in his pledge to guard the Faith, Bishop Allison continued. "Do Bishops who violate their consecration vows to guard the faith from, not only of heresy, but apostasy, forfeit their right to canonical obedience? If canons can be elevated above creeds and faith we are in a deplorable state of idolatry."

A significant rebellion

His support for St Paul's - the real St Paul's - means something important, I think. Bp Allison is not, by background or temperament, a rebel. He is a cradle Episcopalian and an almost stereotypical southern gentleman. He taught Church history at two of the more prestigious seminaries before becoming rector of a fashionable parish in Manhattan. (He is also, I should admit, a friend and a trustee of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where I serve.)

But Bp Allison is also an Evangelical of the older, dogmatically serious type. He believes in the ordination of women, for reasons I don't think can be sustained, but is otherwise a descendent of St. Augustine and Richard Hooker and Charles Simeon. He is also a South Carolinian, and a friend reminds me that South Carolina was the first state to leave the Union at the beginning of the Civil War and the last to rejoin it at the end. This may explain a lot.

He had simply seen how radically deep was the division within the Episcopal Church, and come to the aid of the ecclesiastically poor. "I know that we can't go around giving everybody orthodoxy tests all the time," he told the religion writer Terry Mattingly. "But right now we can't agree about what the creeds mean, what the Scriptures mean or even on the ultimate issue of who God is. . . . At some point we will have to be honest and say that if we are not united in one faith, how can we be in communion with one another?"

"I definitely broke canon laws. I freely admit that," he said. "Right now, I think it would be a badge of honor to be censured by the House of Bishops. Of course, if they put me on trial they will give me a platform to discuss the key issue - which is what I believe and what they no longer believe."

Other rebels

In Philadelphia, Fr. David Ousley, SSC, and the people of St James the Less left the diocese for the same reasons as did St Paul's. A few weeks ago, the bishop had refused to license their assisting priest because he insisted on serving at St James, but suddenly found himself caring greatly for the parishioners when they decided to leave his domain. But of them, and the bishop's Orwellian thinking, more next month.

The Episcopal Church has no centre, which puts those who believe that Christianity does in unavoidable conflict with those for whom staying within the boundaries, however far they move, is more important than standing in any one place.

 

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 (Eerdmans). For two relevant essays, his "Be Fair to the Liberals: How Worldview Affects Communion" and his colleague Stephen Noll's "Broken Communion: the Ultimate Sanction Against False Religion and Morality in the Episcopal Church," see < www.tesm.edu/writings >.

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