The Right Reverend John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark, may be
the most famous Episcopalian in American outside of the Bush
family, so when I found that he was to preach an Easter sermon
in a church in his diocese, I went to listen. The church proved
to be a small, postwar brick building in a medium-rent residential
neighborhood. This was the first surprise, for we too often associate
Episcopalians with the robber-baron power church of the big cities
or the hunt country. This was not a seventy-year-old structure
trying to look seven hundred years old. Hence, it was typical
not stereotypical. When you drive along the back roads of America
and see the pale blue and white metal signs with the cross of
St. George and the message, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes
You," this, in most cases, is the kind of church doing the
The second surprise was Bishop Spong himself. Bishop Spong is
famous for being a political and ecclesiastical windmill. If
there is a breeze, it puffs his sails. Bishop Spong has denied
the Virgin Birth and forsworn the right to preach to Buddhists
or Moslems; he has ordained active homosexuals, and described
St. Paul as a repressed one. The notion that all this represents
mere trendiness is untrue: the bishop has a definite theology,
of which more later, from it, all his headlines logically flow.
But neither the theology nor the newsbreaks were on view Easter
He spoke with a mild form of a mild Southern accent (he was born
in North Carolina; his mother was a fundamentalist). For the
most part, his message was one that was probably being delivered
in half the churches in America that morning, and that is probably
19 centuries old; he was arguing the Resurrection's uniqueness
from the change it wrought in the behavior of the disciples.
"What happened on Easter that was strong enough to make
them strong enough to die before they would again deny this Jesus?
What does it take to turn cowards into heroes? I don't know that
anyone can tell you exactly what happened on that day, but it
was powerful and life-changing.... In the twentieth century,
Easter calls you to go beyond the limits of human experience,
to find the power of the experience that changed human history."
Then a confirmation, communion, a hymn, and so home.
That one agnostic sentence (I don't know that anyone can tell
you exactly what happened) was really the only time he tipped
his hand. You had to be following the thread carefully to notice
where it unraveled.
The Episcopal Church has been less able to hide its unravelment.
In 1960, it had more than 3.25 million baptized members, and
a contemporary reference book declared that "the recent
pace" of half a million new members per decade "shows
no sign of slowing down." By 1970, membership still stood
at just over 3.25 million. By 1980, it was under 2.8 million.
By 1989, the last year for which figures are available, it had
sunk below 2.5 million. Today the flacks at Episcopal headquarters
are happy if the pace of decay shows signs of slowing down.
The Episcopalians are not the only faltering church in the Anglican
Communion. The Church of England draws little more than a million
people to church on Sundays --- fewer than their countrymen who
go to Catholic Mass. Englishmen increasingly bypass the national
church to hatch, match, and dispatch; from 1960 to 1982, the
number of infant baptisms dropped by over a third. As Philip
Larkin wondered, "When churches fall completely out of use,
what shall we turn them into?
This April, the Church of England made a bid to avoid Larkin's
question by enthroning George Carey, Bishop of Bath and Wells,
as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. A teenage convert to Christianity,
the 55-year-old Carey is a firm evangelical, who knows exactly
what happened on Easter: "I believe that Jesus was crucified,
buried, and that His cold, dead body was raised alive by God."
He also believes that the most divisive issue facing the Church
of England - the ordination of women, a step the Episcopal Church
endorsed in 1976 - must be decided in favor of ordination. In
a Reader's Digest interview before his enthronement, he went
so far as to call resistance to ordination "a most serious
heresy." Since the remark implies that his 102 predecessors
were heretics, Carey quickly apologized for his language - though
not for his convictions. If that shot from the lip is an indication,
Carey's primacy, which will last into the Next
only replace stagnancy with turbulence.
When placed in its social context the Church of England's debility
is not surprising. The general level of religious practice in
Britain is low, as it is throughout the industrial Western world.
That fact cannot explain the state of the Episcopal Church, however,
for, as survey after survey shows, the United States bucks the
secular trend. There are exceptions within the exception, of
course; American churches that languish, even as others hold
their own, or thrive. Why is the Episcopal Church among the basket
Over the years, the Episcopal Church has benefited from its
champagne reputation, however many beer-bottle parishes it included.
"Never forget," said the first Rector of St. Paul's
School, "that in the life to come the Presbyterians will
not be on the same plane as the Episcopalians." As late
as the 1940s, Episcopal seminaries were "like the Union
League Club," as one alumnus told me. "The beds were
made by black staff. At breakfast, there was a servant we called
Uncle Ben, because he looked like the man on the rice box, whose
job it was to pop the toast of the Regius Professor of Greek."
The church also benefited from hard work. The church's most recent
membership boom, which lasted from the Thirties to the early
Sixties, was the result of industrious recruitment. The end of
World War II was a cultural high point. T.S. Eliot was writing
the "Four Quartets," C.S. Lewis had made his pilgrim's
regress. FDR, a nominal Episcopalian, joined Winston Churchill,
a nominal Anglican, in singing "O God Our Help In Ages Past"
on the deck of The Prince of Wales when they met to issue the
The flakiness of the Sixties hit Episcopalians hard, as it did
the rest of the country. Cathedrals like St. John the Divine
in New York and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco hosted rallies,
happenings, light shows, and Sufi and Shinto services (they still
do), while the national church shelled out cash to Puerto Rican
nationalists and black-power groups. If the greening of America
had been the only problem, the Episcopal Church might have weathered
it. But in the late Seventies, the church showed public signs
of severe internal crisis.
In Minneapolis, in 1976, the triennial General Convention accepted
a top-to-bottom revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and approved
the ordination of women (several women priests had already been
ordained irregularly). The changes in the Prayer Book involved
more than a loss of sonorous diction. The New Prayer Book played
down the importance of sin. It also offered an array of alternative
rites, as if emulating product diversification in the cigarette
Traditionalists opposed the ordination of women on two grounds,
believing that it transformed the role of the priest, and that
it pushed Anglicanism further away from the Catholic and Orthodox
churches. "When God became incarnate in history," says
Robert Morse, a former rector of an Episcopal Church in Oakland,
"He became a male figure. Christ describes Himself as the
bridegroom; the Church is the bride. The priest represents Christ
. . . For a little minority of then three million people to break
any chance of reunion with Rome or Constantinople" by abandoning
such a symbolism unilaterally "was absurd." So vexed
was the question that only six changed votes at the Convention
would have blocked the measure.
After Minneapolis, the losers reacted in various ways. Some seceded;
Morse is now Bishop of the Diocese of Christ the King, an independent
Anglican church, with twenty thousand members. The Society for
the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer, which was founded
in the Sixties as the new liturgy was being devised, continued
to push for the right of parishes to use the old Prayer Book.
Opponents of the ordination of women who stayed in the church
banded together in a group called the Evangelical and Catholic
Mission. The issue of women's ordination ratcheted up another
notch in 1988 when the Diocese of Massachusetts elected as its
bishop Barbara Harris, a black woman with no pastoral experience,
thus scoring a twofer. (Making black women bishops is a different
kind of typecasting from making black men pop toast, but it is
typecasting nonetheless.) A year later, the leaders of the Evangelical
and Catholic Mission called a Synod in Fort Worth to consider
"how we shall be the Church within the Episcopal Church.
This is a triennial year, and the General Convention meets in
Phoenix in July (in itself a judgment of God, traditionalists
say). The Episcopalians will face two issues as far-reading as
those of 15 years ago.
The most enflamed is the question of homosexuality. This is one
of the issues Bishop Spong has been out front on. In 1989, he
set up a gay ministry in Hoboken and ordained J. Robert Williams,
an open homosexual, to run it. Father Williams did not work out
very well; he told an Episcopal conference in Detroit that monogamy
was only "an option," and suggested that Mother Teresa
might be more effective if she had had some sexual experience
(whether gay or straight, he did not say). Bishop Spong canned
him, but replaced him with another openly homosexual priest.
This June, Ronald H. Haines, Bishop of Washington, D.C., coasting
in Spong's slipstream, ordained an active lesbian.
The Convention will consider two proposals; one stating that
each diocese is competent to discern who ought to be ordained
(thus giving the Spongs their head); another recommending the
blessing of homosexual unions. Bishop William C. Frey, dean of
the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania,
calls the first proposal "inadvertently dishonest. While
being asked to vote on issue A, issue B is lurking in the shadows."
He has offered a proposal of his own; that all clergy ordained
in the Episcopal Church "abstain from all sexual relations
outside holy matrimony." William C. Wantland, Bishop of
Eau Claire and a member of the Synod, sees the homosexuality
issue as a last straw. If the recommendations pass, the Episcopal
Church as we know it "would cease to exist . . . There will
always be an Anglican presence in America, but the Episcopal
Church as presently constituted may not be it."
The second great issue, which concerns what is called "inclusive
language," is not so hot, though its implications are equally
profound. Six years ago, the General Convention asked the Standing
Liturgical Commission to come up with language that would include
women as fully as men. What it thought it would get, according
to Father Alvin Kimel, a rector in Highland, Maryland, was sex-neutral
language for human beings: no generic masculine pronouns, that
kind of thing. What came out of rewrite instead was a supplemental
liturgy that redefined God. "Father" language went,
except in a few Greatest Hits like the Lord's Prayer and the
Nicene Creed. So did references to "lordship" and "kingship"
(too patriarchal). Finally, "creation" language was
changed to "birth" language. "I have no trouble
with feminine similes," Father Kimel says. "But God
has named Himself" in revelation. The traditional language
"was not our projection onto Him."
Father Kimel does not say the Episcopal Church might cease to
exist. His foreboding is more gruesome. "I fear it could
become a high-church Unitarian sect."
GOD WITHOUT JESUS
On the edge of every brawl stands some philosopher. The revolution
in the Episcopal Church has been animated by a theology that
has been afoot for half a century. The most convenient way of
studying it is probably by reading Honest to God -
29 printings since 1963 and still going strong - which as it
happens was written by an Anglican, John A. Robinson, Bishop
Robinson, taking his cue from German contemporaries such as Paul
Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, explained that the traditional notion
of God was simply a crude physical metaphor (God as "up
there" or "out there"). In its place, he offered
a different crude physical metaphor, God as the Ground of Being.
"It is that," Robinson quoted Tillich, "to which
the words Kingdom of God and Divine Providence point. And if
these words do not have much meaning for you . . . speak [instead]
of the depth of history, of the ground and aim of our social
life, and of what you take seriously without reservation in your
moral and political activities. . . The name of this infinite
and inexhaustible ground of history is God." A concept so
impersonal might seem to lack defining qualities, but happily
for Robinson, the Ground of Being had a nature, which was loving.
"[I]n love one comes into touch with the most fundamental
reality in the universe." Therefore, "God, since he
is love, is encountered in his fullness only 'between man and
man."' (For this, they rewrote the Book of Common Prayer?)
There was nothing brand new in Honest to God -
Tillich had been teaching in America since 1934 - and later in
his life, Robinson backed away from his best-seller. But the
book wrapped a lot of theology in a convenient package. One of
the people who bought it, was a youngish Episcopal priest, John
Shelby Spong, who read the book three times during a summer of
It is odd, in three decades' retrospect, to think of people taking
Robinson or even Tillich for the latest thing. They had not pushed
their theology as far along the path of liberalism as Ralph Waldo
Emerson had, more than a century earlier. Emerson, who began
his career in a Unitarian pulpit, left the ministry when he decided
that if the Ground of Being, or the Oversoul as he called it,
was the goal, then we could get there on our own, without Jesus'
help. "That which shows God in me," he told the Harvard
Divinity School in 1838, "fortifies me. That which shows
God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen."
Robinson and his models certainly hadn't gone as far as Nietzsche,
though they played with Nietzsche's cover-story phrase about
the death of God. For Nietzsche had decided that Being was an
equally dead concept. "Existence has no goal or end; any
comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking...
One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there
is a true world."
Neither avant garde nor Christian, the new theology filled the
needs of clerics and would-be clerics who, because of training
and temperament, wanted to have "nice" thoughts, which
they could nevertheless justify to bantamweight late German philosophers.
Every subsequent splashy innovation, and every bitter battle,
has some kinship with postwar Anglo-German theology. Should the
church rewrite the Prayer Book? Why keep an old one littered
with crude physical metaphors? Should it ordain active homosexuals
and bless their unions? If you believe that "God is an immanental
hum, permeating everything," Steven Smith, an associate
professor at Trinity, says sarcastically, then "when you're
at your peak moments, that's where God is." The new theology
is even ready to encourage wackadoo politics when the Sixties
return again (which is not to deny that for many Episcopalians
they never ended). For the relations "between man and man"
in which love is encountered are obviously not only sexual, or
even personal, but social. So the Ground of Being meets PC. As
Isabel Carter Heyward, a leading light on the faculty of the
Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, has put it: "Many
fear that lesbian feminism poses a threat to the nuclear family,
the economic order. . . and the high value of dominant-submissive
relationships beginning with male property rights and extending
to God the Father. Those who fear that this is what we are about
Why did Episcopalians fall so hard for all of this? One reason
is that, as both Anglicans and Americans, they are averse to
theology. Traditional Anglican thinkers, even the noblest, are
more comfortable with history and worship than with first principles,
while Americans want to get the job done. So the Episcopal Church
was doubly vulnerable.
To the extent the church prized its comfortable social position,
it was reluctant to engage in vulgar controversies. Sometimes
this tropism toward gentility has comic results. Earlier this
year, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning signed an open letter
to George Bush urging him not to lead America into the "abyss"
of the Gulf War. But when Bush hosted a post-war White House
dinner for Queen Elizabeth, who should be on the guest list but
Bishop Browning, hangin' with the homeboys. When the subject
was not dinner, but doctrine, Episcopalians avoided crucial struggles
of definition until it was too late.
THE CHURCH AS A BRIDGE
A last point, related to both of the above, is the importance
to the Episcopal psyche of the concept of bridging. Episcopalians,
and Anglicans generally, saw themselves for the last century
or so as a potential bridge between Protestantism, Catholicism,
and Orthodoxy. Within their own church, they managed to join
high and low churchmen. Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals. But
the problem with bridges, as John Updike once observed, is that
"they have no content, only traffic." When the post-Christians
came along, the Episcopal Church was unwilling to deny them passage.
"Soon," one ex-Episcopal priest told me, with choplicking
Schadenfreude, "all that will remain will be a few well-endowed
shrine churches, with people in frock coats showing visitors
how WASPs once lived." Other fates can be imagined. A Spong-ized
church, gaining velocity as it loses mass, may even dispense
with the frock coats. Perhaps Anglicanism in America and England
will be revived by Ugandans, as Rome has been rallied by a Pole.
Or perhaps, having hit bottom, the Episcopal Church will bring
itself back. That would be a resurrection scarcely less astonishing
than the first.
[The following article, by William Oddie, accompanied
the above, and reports how American bishops are sowing heresy
in the Third World]
COMMONWEALTH OF CHURCHES
The Anglican Communion is often compared (by both its admirers
and its detractors) with the British Commonwealth of Nations,
the voluntary association of former colonies of the British Empire.
The Communion is largely made up of English-speaking churches
from these nations, and they often retain a startlingly English
ethos in far-flung places.
It is the American Episcopal Church which most strikingly breaks
the pattern. It repudiated the established church in the eighteenth
century, and its bishops are descended from the Scottish Episcopal
Church (hence the name) and not from the Church of England. Today,
it still likes to show its independence, in a way which might
be natural in a merely secular organization but which is profoundly
damaging in a body whose unity is supposed to have a spiritual
foundation. Again and again, the Episcopal Church has shown a
tendency to pre-empt decisions which ought to be taken by the
whole Communion together.
Every ten years, the world's Anglican bishops meet for the Lambeth
Conference, the nearest thing world Anglicanism has to a decision
making body. The last two conferences met in an atmosphere of
crisis, largely caused by the Episcopal Church; the first time
(in 1978) over women priests, whom the Episcopal Church had ordained
two years previously without consulting anyone else. Ten years
later, the crisis was over women bishops: the Episcopal Church
timed its General Convention, which was to decide this matter,
not after the Lambeth Conference - so that it could listen to
other Anglican Churches first - but just before. The American
bishops are not only twice as rich and twice as numerous as the
English bishops (even though they represent a much smaller church);
they are also twice as politically self-assertive. Some idea
of how underrepresented some poorer but more spiritually thriving
parts of the Anglican Communion can be grasped from the fact,
strange but true, that the province of Southern Africa alone
has more communicant members than the whole of the Episcopal
Church of the U.S.A., but that, nevertheless, it had only 12
votes at the Lambeth Conference in comparison with the 120 of
the American church. Many American bishops were opposed to American
military intervention in the Gulf; but when it comes to fighting
within the Anglican Communion, they have nothing to learn from
Stormin' Norman. Over the women-priests issue, for example, the
1978 Lambeth Conference decided, under American pressure, that
each province must respect the decisions of the others; this
in no way deterred many American bishops from the most aggressive
kind of proselytizing. More than forty of them refused to celebrate
the Eucharist in England in the Lambeth summer of 1988, in "solidarity"
with their sisters who were unable to exercise a priestly ministry
in England (though in the event this gesture went virtually unnoticed).
The pressure does not stop at this kind of demonstration, as
more than one African bishop told me before the 1988 Conference.
"What happens is something like this," the former bishop
of an African diocese told me, "A diocese in America has
a great fund-raising drive for mission in Africa. A quite substantial
sum is raised for an African diocese with which the ECUSA diocese
is 'twinned.' This is how the money is spent. First, the American
bishop has a trip to Africa, where he establishes warm relationships
with the diocese. That's easy, they are very friendly people,
it's not hard to like them. Funds are made available for some
large diocesan project. Places are found and paid for for seminary
training in America.
"An invitation to America follows for the bishop and his
wife. They stay in swanky hotels; it's all very exciting. Then
it comes: There's one more thing we would love to share with
you, one of our greatest treasures: the priesthood of women.
It's all very subtle. Nobody says, Ordain women or these funds
will dry up. But you have the idea in the back of your mind.
And one day there are going to be American-trained bishops. It's
a long-term operation. And you become all the time more dependent
on American money, we are so poor."
This fact of Anglican economic life had its effect on the arrangements
of the 1988 Conference. A motion urging the American church to
exercise restraint on the question of women bishops was voted
on by secret ballot, because the proposers feared that the large
African vote would be lost if the names of those voting against
women bishops were revealed: not an unfounded fear, as one African
bishop confirmed. "The ordination of women is not an issue
for us," he told me. "'If voting the wrong way here
loses us desperately needed funds for a school or a hospital
or a new church, we are going to toe the line."
In the event, owing to the heavy American representation at Lambeth,
only 40 percent of the bishops voted for restraint: nevertheless,
that 40 per cent represented the overwhelming majority of Anglicans
throughout the world. Despite this fact, and despite all the
misgivings expressed at the Conference, within six months the
American Episcopal Church had elected, confirmed, consecrated,
and installed a woman bishop.
Today, the Anglican Communion survives in a condition of silent
crisis, not the least cause of which is the repeated refusal
of the American church to accept that membership involved any
restraint whatsoever on its own actions. Now that Anglicanism
has abandoned a common liturgy, with all its doctrinal safeguards,
it is at the mercy of those who shout loudest and push hardest.
The American Episcopal Church has abandoned Scripture and the
Christian tradition as its own chief guides, and is slowly sinking
into oblivion. There are many who fear that it will drag the
Anglican Communion down with it.