Brent, and a Post-Pandemic Vision for Christian Unity

Charles Henry Brent | Coronavirus photo: Mattthewafflecat, Pixabay

By R. William Franklin

Bishop Charles Henry Brent was a prophetic leader of the Episcopal Church in the early 20th century. What does his vision of Christian unity contribute to our post-pandemic Episcopal Church?

Brent was elected the first missionary bishop to the Philippines in 1901, and his influence was such that the new Prime Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines is named Brent Alawas. He was chief of chaplains of the American Expeditionary Force in France (1917-18), leading 1,300 chaplains of multiple denominations and faiths. In 1918 he was installed as IV Bishop of Western New York. He appeared on the cover of Time in 1927, and when he died in 1929 The New York Times published an editorial commemorating his service to humanity.

Brent is commemorated further in our Lesser Feasts and Fasts. From 1910 he led the emerging Faith and Order ecumenical movement, and for these reasons in 1921 he was invited to deliver the Duff Lectures of the ancient Scottish universities on the topic of mission and unity in the light of the First World War and the Great Pandemic of 1918-20. This article commemorates the centenary of those lectures.

The list of prestigious university theological lectures, speaking to major issues of the day, included the Duff Lectures. The oldest are the Bampton Lectures at Oxford, founded in 1702. And there are the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge (1790). The Duff Lectures were founded in 1879 to honor Alexander Duff (1806-78), a Scottish missionary to India and a major force in Indian education. Thus the lectures were intended in some way to link mission to social issues of the day.

There was a requirement that the lectures should soon be published. The lectures appeared in print in 1930 as The Commonwealth: Its Foundation and Pillars (D. Appleton and Co.)

The topic of the published lectures: What should the mission of the Church be in response to the multiple disasters of 1914-20? The answer was clear: the rapid progress of the denominations toward one United Christian Church that could serve as the preliminary pillar of a new world commonwealth of humanity.

Brent framed his argument between two emerging realities: a crisis of social instability and the emergence of new secular models for international cooperation, from which Christian denominations might learn.

For Brent, it was clear that World War I was an international catastrophe, a significant turning point for the political, cultural, and economic climate of the whole earth. Four great monarchies had disappeared. The German, Russian, and Irish Revolutions could lead to totalitarianism. There was an upsurge of racial violence in North America and South Africa, with incipient racial genocide against Jews in Russian pogroms, and with the Turkish destruction of Armenians.

War and genocide were directly related to the Flu Pandemic of 1918-20, which caused perhaps 100 million deaths worldwide. Though called the “Spanish Flu,” this was another international threat to stability.

As Brent was writing the Duff Lectures and then revising them, two international political institutions took shape. The League of Nations was the first world intergovernmental organization, founded in 1920, to maintain world peace through collective security, disarmament, and the settling of international disputes through conferences. There were eventually 58 member states of the league’s Governing Assembly. Although the United States never joined, Bishop Brent was invited to preach at the service that inaugurated the league in Geneva, of which he said, “The meeting of a League of Nations was more full of hope than in any other period of history.”

The British Commonwealth of Nations was not officially established until 1930, though it was based on an agreement hammered out in 1926. When Brent first gave his lectures, the question of whether and how the British dominions should be related to the Mother Country was a greatly debated issue. The future of Ireland was a major focus. How would the new Irish Free State retain some connection, however symbolic, to the British Crown?

In the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the term “British Commonwealth of Nations” was substituted for British Empire in the wording of the oath to be taken by members of the Irish Parliament. As an expansion of this understanding of a “commonwealth” as a community of equal institutions, in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which established the Commonwealth, Britain and the dominions agreed that they were “equal in status, in no way subordinated one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Brent was a Canadian by birth, and his principal biographer, Alexander Zabriskie, speaks to the influence of this secular model on his ecumenical ecclesiology: “An analogy to Brent’s idea of Church unity was the British Commonwealth, of which the bond of unity was personal loyalty to the King, rather than organic constitutional or legislative ties.”

The great ecclesiological theme of the revised Duff Lectures is this: Thousands are leaving churches because of the rivalry of the denominations. No one denomination can claim to be the Church of Jesus Christ. Brent was opposed to all concepts of the Episcopal Church as “the National Church,” pursuing any kind of an “establishmentarian ideal.” He wrote to his own diocese as he was revising the lectures: “My lesser loyalty is to the communion of which I am a member. I can see nothing but disaster in matching religions.”

Brent’s term for the Church is “the Body of Christ.” He repeats again and again, “The Church is the Body of Christ. It is a visible social organization composed of all united to it through Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The One Church is already composed of “all Christian Communions throughout the world which confess Our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.”

There were four pillars of the One Church as Commonwealth:

  1. Universal: Denominations must seek cooperative ministry across national borders.
  2. The welcome of a variety of ecclesial structures: Brent believed the United Church was not one in which everything had to be done by everyone in the same way. The activities of congregations might be managed in keeping with a variety of polities: episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. There should be latitude in doctrinal formulations.
  3. A framework for a variety of styles of worship: Such a church, Brent said, should make room for four types of worship: a rich, historic liturgy, non-liturgical worship with contemporary materials, a form of silent meditation with brief teaching, and a frankly revivalist style of worship.
  4. Ethics and morality are a key part of ecumenism: “We are talking in these days of the unification of the Church along lines of faith, but we have got to be even more elementary and go into the sphere of morals.”

The First World Conference on Faith and Order, over which Brent presided in August 1927, marked the first major advance toward a united Church based on these four principles. There were 400 official delegates gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland, from 40 nations, representing 127 autonomous churches.

What has been the impact of the ecumenism of a century ago on Episcopalians today? There has been a good deal of Life and Work cooperation between different denominations along the lines of the great Stockholm “Life and Work” Conference of 1925, assisting those severely harmed by the pandemic and the struggles after the death of George Floyd. Ecumenical and interfaith coalitions have been built. A more expansive and deeper ecumenical mission has been building among Episcopal bishops, for example. A College for Bishops salon met for the first time on June 29 to discuss proposals for shared ministry across denominational lines.

Bishops have become more outspoken. Bishop Kevin Nichols of Bethlehem, in a passionate speech to the Moravian/Episcopal Coordinating Committee meeting in June, sounded a passionate note: “The only way forward is partnership. Unless we learn to share our resources, we will die.” And Bishop Nichols referred specifically to the need for sharing by the more liturgical churches with all of their gatekeeping-style reliance on restrictive canons and rubrics.

Since the onslaught of the pandemic there has been some sharing of Brent’s four marks of ecumenism, in the light of violence and disease, with members of the General Convention Task Force on Ecumenical and Interreligious Work, the Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers, and members of our dialogues with other denominations. It is possible to observe in the proposed resolutions to the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church some reflections of the expansive, generous spirit of the four marks of Brentian ecumenism.

There is a resolution to study a “limited exchange agreement” to make possible the sharing of clergy between the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Another resolution seeks approval of “Churches Beyond Borders,” a document which establishes full communion relationships, ensuring the permanent interchange of clergy and sacraments, between two primarily United States and two Canadian Anglican and Lutheran Churches. Other resolutions commend further study of other documents which can make possible full communion with some Methodists and also with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria. Finally, as to the place of ethics and morality, the Task Force on Ecumenical and Interreligious Work will host a series of in-person consultations on this question as formulated by the Secretary of the Task Force, Marisa Tabizon Thompson: “Does full communion demand equal affirmation, agreement, and acceptance of Episcopal Church ethics by the other party?”

In the words of Margaret Rose, ecumenical and interreligious deputy to the presiding bishop:

“If there is anything we have learned during this pandemic it is that there is an ecumenism of suffering as Pope Francis, often says. Out of that suffering has emerged a commitment to join together for healing and worship, an exchange of gifts, and a deepening of relationships across issues, theology, and ecclesiology we might previously thought of as ‘church dividing.’ The pandemic has in fact been ‘church uniting’ and has encouraged us to come together sharing resources, experiences, worship and theological gifts.”

The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin is assisting bishop of the Diocese of Long Island, a member of the faculty at the Episcopal Divinity School at the Union Theological Seminary, and chair of the General Convention Task Force on Ecumenical and Interreligious Work.


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