A Purified Church?

By H. Boone Porter

The current movement for a number of parishes, and some additional clergy and lay people, to separate from the Episcopal Church cries out for editorial comment: and yet it does not. This controversy is not based on what the editors of magazines say or refrain from saying. Some people would prefer to stay in the church, at least on any reasonable terms. Others would rather form a new ecclesiastical body, at least on any reasonable terms.

Your editor is in the rather typical position of feeling a certain sympathy with each position. To maintain the unity of the Christian community, of which one is a part, is a solemn obligation, not to be lightly put aside. On the other hand, what thoughtful churchman has not occasionally daydreamed about forming a renewed, purified church? What devout believer has not thought of the attractions freed from sin and error? Who has not wished that the slate could be wiped clean, and a new start be made?

The annals of Christian history are filled with such efforts to make a new start. Some have been noble but short-lived, like the attempt of Savonarola to establish a purified church in Florence. Others have been long lasting and very dignified, like the similar effort of Calvin in Geneva. Some have led to admirable new religious communities, like that of Brother Francis, whose followers have themselves been torn by successive waves of internal reforms. Some have in their way been very successful, like the Wesleyan Revival within the Church of England which gave birth to the great world-wide Methodist Communion. According to the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis, even the Lord God yielded to the desire to wash the earth clean and start again … But he only did so once, and left the rainbow as the sign of his promise that this effort would not be repeated.

The historian cannot say that such things should never be attempted. The historian can say, however, that such efforts are fraught with danger. The historian can also say that the result intended is never entirely the same as result achieved: no religious body has yet devised a way of barring the door against sin and error.

The finest part of these movements of protest and reform is the challenge they sometimes provide to the commitment and dedication of their followers. The most tragic part of these movements is the harvest of cynicism which they sometimes bring in their wake. There is a cynicism of those disciples who have followed a path which proved in the end to lead nowhere in particular. And there is the cynicism of those who endlessly accept the status quo, in the calm assurance that a lukewarm faith is always the safest. Both remind one of the lines of the poet T.S. Eliot:

Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burn roses leave

Dust in the air suspended

Marks the place where a story ended

(Little Gidding, II)

Historic Anglicanism has without doubt had too much of the lukewarm. Yet many of us believe it fortunate that our Anglican heritage derives neither from Thomas More nor Henry VIII, but from Erasmus of Rotterdam, although the general public never found him an easy man to follow.

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This editorial was published in our February 19, 1978 issue.

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