THE TAMING OF THE FEW
A Talk on Continuing Churches and suchlike
for The Anglican Society
at Christ the King, Gordon Square
Saturday October 10th 1992
By "The Few" I mean what the Bible refers to as the "faithful remnant".
Time and again in the history of Israel, Old and New, it has fallen to a small number of people to be the survivors of one era and the foundation layers of the next.
Our own times are no exception. We have seen and are continuing to witness the breakdown of an ancien r‚gime Ä several to be more precise, and at the same time the discovery of those who find themselves in the position of trying to rescue what is rescuable from the rubbish that surrounds them and try to reconstruct from it a defensible city (like Nehemiah) or a seaworthy ark (like Noah).
Whether you prefer the architectural or maritime analogy is, I suspect, a matter of taste. Suffice it to say that the Nehemiahs of this world get no sleep whilst the Noah family have to share their accommodation with beasts both clean and unclean.
It would be profitable, I think to investigate a little more closely the "breakdown" of which I spoke a few moments ago.
What has broken down is a consensus. That is not to say that consensuses are in themselves always a Good Thing or their breakdown to be invariably regretted. Consensus is closely allied in law at least to conspiracy and that, as we all know, is something which covers a multitude of activities, some perfectly innocent and others which are anything but.
What is that consensus? In the case of the Church of God it seems to have four elements which can be represented by the acronym TAME. T stands for theological, A for administrative, M for moral and E for economic. There is no special significance in the order of the letters.
Consensus is not the same as unanimity or uniformity. In fact its very existence presupposes that neither of these is possible at least in the long term, and does not exist in the present. There will always have to be a spectrum, be it broad or narrow, within which the system operates. In addition there will always be the odd maverick who places himself outside one or more edges of the spectrum: the incumbent who refuses to pay any quota; the celebrant who refuses to make himself audible or who uses a rite peculiar to himself in public worship; the bishop who devotes his life to collecting objects d'art on endless Grand Tours of Europe and fills in the rest of the time writing rather bad romantic verse; or the parish priest who operates a No Go Baptism policy for anyone other than the regular attenders at his conventicle.
All these can be coped with: by ignoring them, by disciplining them; occasionally by unfrocking them.
The real problem arises when the actual consensus itself breaks down and there is no general agreement or authority strong enough to hold people together, no norm against which to measure the eccentric. For once consensus has broken down there can be no cohesion until a fresh consensus has been rebuilt: and experience suggests that is something a great deal easier to say than to do. For everyone will almost certainly disagree about where the focus of unity should be.
My time at theological college coincided almost exactly with the breakdown of
First of all there was the theological breakdown. Vidler et al's. Soundings John Robinson's Honest to God, and Harvey Cox's Secular City were three books of the period. None of them said anything very new: most of the ideas they contained had been floated before, some of them long before. But they happened in such a way and at such a time as to convince many thoughtful people that the very basis of their faith had hitherto been misplaced.
Then there was the consensual moral breakdown. People just did not see why the should or should not do as they pleased, providing, of course that "they didn't hurt anyone". Why this criterion should have become the touchstone of moral rectitude goodness only knows. Before and afterwards people have never shown too much reluctance to hurt others. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a piece of wisdom which depended for its efficacy on the infliction of pain. Whilst nobody except the perverted saw the infliction of pain for its own sake as desirable, nobody cherished any illusions that life would be anything but painful, much of it self- and man- inflicted. The idea that pain-infliction prohibited everything and its absence permitted anything was one of the more bizarre pieces of popular belief.
The administrative breakdown followed hard on the heels of the other two. It was supposed that people prospered with the minimum of let or hindrance. The fact that badly managed firms consistently did less well than those which were well managed did not seem to ring any alarm bells with the enlightened. Added to which there was the notion that administrative skills were something inborn and did not need acquiring. The whole business of "running a parish" or "overseeing a diocese" was thought to need nothing more than a gentlemanly approach to the business of living. If by some misfortune, a new generation of priests lacked the necessary savoir faire then it could be acquired in his first title given an incumbent who had been properly brought up.
Finally there was the financial breakdown whose effects we are only beginning to experience. It was assumed that because we had always muddled along somehow, we would be able to continue to do so. The fact that a whole new solar system of ideas based upon subsidy rather than sponsorship and fairness rather than preferment gave rise to a series of totally unrealisable expectations, amongst them the idea that people would willingly give increasingly large sums of money to enterprises which would be in no way accountable to them and which, if the truth were known, held their benefactors in the deepest contempt.
Let me stress that none of these things was new or original. The Church of God has often had to cope with widespread moral decadence (think of the Borgias), with benefactors having their fingers bitten, and with theologians whose only claim to fame was the ability to believe theologically speaking that 2+2=5.
What was different was the lack of any single restraining or unifying force. So long as papism was seen as an arch enemy not just theologically but politically, the stabilising bond of the Church of England could survive almost any amount of waywardness. Providing the public at large upheld the Christian moral standards in matters to do with life, death and the meaning of it all the show could go on. But the decade 1955-65 produced a generation which thought differently.
Or rather it felt its feelings differently and attributed to them an authority which was as absolute as it was indisputable. It was in vain that the academic Christians of the old school tried to stem the tide. C.S. Lewis who died halfway through the decade was aware of himself as being "the last of the dinosaurs". Alas, the men who might have been able to help us had retreated from the Front Line back into their academic enclaves where related, but different, battles were being fought.
By the end of the decade (1965) the consensus was all but shattered. Theologically, Administratively, Morally and Economically churches throughout the Anglican Communion were "doing their own thing". Bishop Pike of California, who at the beginning of that period had been an impeccably orthodox theologian of the catholic
2 tradition had, by the end of it completely flipped his top. The resulting inconclusive charges of heresy which were levelled against him only served to demonstrate that the ECUSA hierarchy (and lowerarchy) were powerless.
It is of such stuff that Continuing Churches are made. The first significant step in this direction came with the founding of the American Episcopal Church in direct reaction to Bishop Pike by the equally eccentric Bishop Dees.
It is one thing to found a Continuing Church. It is quite another to get people to affiliate themselves with it, and yet another to secure its continuation other than in name. For as everyone who has attempted has discovered, they are immediately faced with the problem of TAME-ing it. No Church can survive without consensus in the fields of Theology, Administration, Morality and Economics, and the likelihood of all those who have abandoned one body because of its perceived defects in one or more of these areas achieving consensus in that area let alone the other three in some other body is remarkably small even as a purely mathematical probability.
For example the likelihood in 1965 of two American Episcopalians who disagreed with Pikery (itself a many faceted thing) to the extent that they decided to distance themselves from ECUSA ecclesiologically, actually agreeing about, say, the remarriage of divorcees in church was quite remote given the number of ECUSA bishops who were already on their second or third marriage.
Of course the easiest thing was to do nothing. And that is precisely what happened. Over and over again those who sought to uphold the traditions they had received were heard to say "This is not quite the time; this is not quite the issue". And so nothing effective happened.
The innovators knew this well. So long as they knew they had inertia on their side they were able to slice away patiently at the orthodox camp, seeing it diminish tranche by tranche until the moment was ripe for the coup de grace of the ordination of women as priests. This happened you may remember illegally in Philadelphia in 1974, but its perpetrators had reckoned (correctly) that once it had been done it would be ratified as the (only) easy way out.
What remained of The Few (and there were a considerable number of them still, thanks to the efforts of the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen) met in 1976 at St Louis, Missouri, to formalise their strategy.
The good thing that emerged from St Louis was the Declaration which stated in plain modern language the basis for orthodox belief. So up till this point Theological consensus had been achieved. But that was about all the consensus that there was to show for it.
For within itself the whole Movement had the seeds of its own downfall. Each tradition, each faction had its own preferred consensus and agenda both as to what they wanted to see happen and whom they wanted to lead it. Added to which none of them wanted to know or have any dealings with the American Episcopal Church founded by Dees which, you will remember had already 10 years experience behind it. Indeed there was a certain resentment that they had "got there first" and the accusations that their departure had been premature and ill-conceived were openly voiced.
Well we all know what happened. A whole alphabet-soup of independent jurisdictions, with very little to unite them apart from a wholehearted contempt for ECUSA, the rock from which they had been hewn, and an equally strong dislike and suspicion of each other emerged, the ill-effects of which are still evident today.
The numbers they attracted, though not inconsiderable, bore no relation to the number of disaffected ECUSA members whom they had hoped would join them. Most ECUSA people, if they did not sever their relationship with the Church altogether, decided that they would stay where they were.
3 But this has done them little good. Apart from saving their pensions and preserving their jobs the price they have had to pay in integrity has been enormous. The belated attempt to redress the balance in the form of the (independent) Episcopal Synod of America is a recent creation (1988) and it remains to be seen how far it is able to go in rescuing anything worthwhile from the shipwreck that ECUSA now is.
It ill becomes us to be too critical of their history. Without the benefit of the hindsight which we enjoy it must have seemed obvious to them that the course of action they took, at least up to and including St Louis, was the right one. But given that hindsight we should be most foolish not to learn from their mistakes.
And to be fair I believe we have done this. There has been no large-scale departure by priests of the Church of England either to Rome, Orthodoxy or some form of Continuing Church. Those of us who have been engaged in the battle against the ordination of women as priests have succeeded in maintaining a consensus within our ranks to the point at which we realistically believe that the motion will fail by a significant margin to achieve its required two-thirds majority in at least one house of the General Synod and perhaps all three.
Not that we can afford to be complacent. For whichever way the vote goes we shall be faced with the same task of consensus rebuilding which has been engendered by the present breakdown. If the Measure is defeated we shall be part of a Church of England which has been torn apart by the events of the last 20 years, is teetering in many areas on the brink of bankruptcy, which is administered by a team of very second-rate, woolly-minded bishops, and which has allowed its theology to be determined by popular sentiment and prejudice.
In addition to which, of course, if the Measure passes, we shall be faced with the question of how to proceed from there. A good deal of thought has already been done along these lines, and bearing in mind that even if the Measure does pass there will be an interval of perhaps as long as 18 months before the Canon is promulged and women priests purportedly ordained, it is particularly important that the unity which we have so far achieved is maintained as far as possible unscathed.
Passing of the Measure will greatly increase the need for careful consideration of a Continuing Church, irrespective of what bodies already exist of that description. We should do well to look closely at those places like Canada, Ireland and Sweden where the inception of such a Church has been (or looks like being in the case of Sweden) achieved without serious internal division. But we have to remember that these bodies are fairly minuscule, living a hand-to-mouth existence and deeply dependent upon the steadfastness and personal sacrifice of those who belong to them.
I wish that I could assure you that the defeat of the Measure on November 11th (which I and others predict) would give rise to a period of uncomplicated unity within the ranks of those who have united to bring its defeat about. Unfortunately I can guarantee no such assurance.
Many I fear will relapse into complacency that the ordination of women as priests will not now happen within the lifetime of their professional ministry, perhaps not within their actual lifespan. Whilst I sympathise with those who are battle-weary I believe that such an attitude is profoundly wrong and mistaken. Though we shall, I believe, have inflicted a mortal wound on the Beast of Error it will not be dead by any means.
Those of us who see that the fight must go on will have to agree what it is we are fighting about. And here again there is no ready-made consensus. Morally, ecclesiologically, financially and liturgically there are several conflicting schools of thought within our ranks. Once the present danger is withdrawn there will be the possibility, amounting in my view to near certainty, that the parties which have united to achieve the expected victory will be unable to hold together.
And even if they do there is the questions of Who shall be our leader? and Who is going to pay for it? At present those questions can be conveniently ignored since until we know whether the Measure goes through or not it is impossible to say what those leaders will be leading or the payers paying for.
I'm afraid it's not a very attractive prospect. But then neither was Jerusalem when Nehemiah got leave from Artaxerxes to go on a fact-finding survey. And just as Nehemiah, a mere cupbearer was probably the last person anyone would have thought of to oversee the rebuilding process, it is equally possible that the Holy Spirit has, waiting in the wings so to speak, some "most unlikely" person to superintend the rebuilding of the Church of England edifice which is lying in ruins all around us.
His, or rather their, task (for it is equally likely that there are several people who are being trained for this) will not be an easy one. Nehemiah and Ezra both suffered many sleepless nights in the course of rebuilding the city. But both of them had the unshakeable conviction that it could be done. And neither of them supposed for a moment that he was indispensable to its achievement.
That perhaps is the hardest lesson to learn for Continuers, actual and potential. The Kingdom is not theirs; it is God's. Judgment has begun, and it has begun at the House of God. Everything we know about God and his dealings with Israel both old and new should assure us that in the end he will make a thorough job of what he has undertaken.
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