CyberHymnal + 1928 BCP +
Ordo Kalendar + Tracts for our Times

Are there Episcopalians
in foxholes?

Richard Brookhiser

This article appeared in the July 29, 1991 issue of National Review

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 welcoming.

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 morning.

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 millennium, may 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 cases?


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 Atlantic Charter.

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 industry.

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."


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 of Woolwich.

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 spiritual crisis.

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 fear rightly."

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.


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]


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.

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