If you’re an Episcopalian, take a moment and remember what the church was like when you first entered it. It doesn’t matter whether you were born into it in the days of the 1928 Prayer Book, “the Republican Party at Prayer,” and the glory days of baby booms and full pews, or if you’re a relative newbie, finding a compelling home in the Anglican tradition in the last few years.
No matter how long you have been an Episcopalian, the culture (if not also the canons and liturgies) of this church is more radically heterodox now than when you came in. The pace of change has not slackened, but increased; even widespread success has not kept radical heterodoxy from pushing the Episcopal Church ever further to the theological and cultural left in America, seemingly knowing no fear of committing heresy or apostasy.
Since the days of peak membership in 1965, the direction of Episcopal culture has been powerfully driven by progressive crusaders intent on seeing justice done, no matter the cost. The scope of change they have brought about is breathtaking, and at a pace that would have been unthinkable when the movement began. The cost, too, has been breathtaking and heartbreaking for those who have suffered it, but good crusaders never count the cost if the cause progresses. The result is that it is not unusual among the remaining orthodox to hear brooding speculation on whether the Episcopal Church is lost forever, barring a miracle, to historic Christian orthodoxy.
This should not surprise us: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Cor. 11:19). The church in every age has wrestled with powerful cultural movements and the innovative theologies that spring from them, from Gnosticism in the second century to deism in the 19th. Even that such a movement should sprout in the church and take root, challenging the church from within, is not unusual, but the collapse of the orthodox defense in this age does seem unusual. This is the real anti-miracle of the last 50 years. Why has orthodoxy, buttressed by centuries of fine thinking and great writing, nourished by valid and regular sacraments, in communion “as far as it lies within us” with the Apostolic Church, willing to make heroic sacrifices — in short, with every theological and spiritual advantage — failed so spectacularly to hold its ground?
This is a complicated question, and deserves to be answered at length; but for now consider that one answer is often heard among the dispirited orthodox — less an answer than an attitude — that perhaps it is not the vocation of this age’s faithful to succeed; perhaps faithful losing is our calling, if we can manage thereby, like the Benedictines, to preserve orthodoxy for a future age. Then a generation less harried by the enemy or carrying less baggage than we are may begin, by God’s grace, to right the ship.
Perhaps there may be nothing unusual about the orthodox collapse, after all, if we are merely living through the long downswing of a vast but recurring pattern of challenge and response in Church history. Decades passed before orthodoxy re-established itself over the much more popular Arianism. In the 20th century, existentialist critics of Christianity were culturally influential for decades before neo-orthodox champions like Barth and the Niebuhr brothers rose in response.
Other broad examples could also be given, but such objections obscure the relationship of institutions to theological movements. While God has graciously kept the treasure of his Church Catholic indefectible, such that each generation has heard the gospel of Christ, the same cannot be said of every lesser institution connected with the Church, especially when schism is involved. History is littered with the desiccated remains of local and regional instances of the Church that have embraced the heterodoxy of the day and ceased to be catholic in any real sense.
Some of these have shriveled and died, as Jesus predicted: branches that did not abide in the vine, receiving in themselves the punishment for their offense. Others have continued to exist and even thrive for decades or centuries outside the Catholic fold, leaving us to wonder about the boundaries of the flock, its essential definition, the shared nature of responsibility for schism, and whether cultural success is a good marker of God’s blessing. But the thriving of a particular local or regional instance of the Church Catholic, now separated, does not erase schism as a mark of failure. “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us” (1 John 2:19).
Covenant contributor Jeff Boldt has drawn attention to the problem of potential schism in the Anglican Church of Canada. It is worth reiterating, as Boldt does, that schism is a sin, even if we consider it for what we believe to be good reasons. Orthodoxy, after all, is not a crusade. It is not motivated by a great end that can justify any means. Bad behavior from the orthodox calls just as much for repentance as does error.
But if this historical metanarrative holds true, and North American Anglicanism is living through the long downswing of a longer historical pattern, it is worth noting that historical patterns cannot be said to be self-actuating. Some historians doubt the usefulness of seeing patterns in human history at all, since history is such a complicated mix of individual decisions, new contexts, and the progress of civilization. But even if the cyclical pattern holds, North American Anglicans would do well to remember that these patterns are made up of individual decision-makers and individual actors.
History is not an anthropomorphized entity that can act within itself — it is people who act, and (for the believing historian) God who acts through people to accomplish his will in the world. History will not deliver us from today’s radical heterodoxy. No pattern will raise new, effective, orthodox clergy and congregations or release us from the obligation of doing so ourselves.
Believing in cycles of history and the heroism of future generations may give us hope, but it is the hope of the defeated and powerless captive that someone else in some undetermined future might care enough about freedom to act when it is precisely today’s orthodox who are called to care passionately and to act. Rather than seeing history as a series of mythic self-actuating cycles, we should see it as a narrative told by a God who uses the repetition of patterns to illuminate the laws by which he governs, thereby revealing his character.
The biblical law of sowing and reaping is a more effective framework for understanding God’s character in history: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). This points today’s orthodox to the future: if we want to see a harvest of orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church, we had better not expect seeds to sow themselves, and become serious about the long-term effort to make progress in this church.
Whatever advantages orthodoxy may have enjoyed in the past, it suffers now from this one disadvantage above all: its people have lost a vision of orthodoxy as something that progresses. To those who have lived through the business end of this dramatically effective crusade, orthodoxy has become something we think of defending, as if it must always be back on its heels, always compromising for its security, always stepping backward, always Winter and never Christmas; always losing dioceses, bishops, and parishes either to the pressure of the radical heterodoxy or to a schismatic vision of greener grass on another hill; and never winning them back.
We are used to seeing bishops flip to heterodoxy, but we have failed to consider that there is no inherent reason why bishops should not flip toward orthodoxy. There is no reason inherent in these theologies or their tug of war that prevents the Episcopal Church from becoming more orthodox. It is not anthropomorphized history that stands in the way, nor any mythic pattern, nor the call of God to the vocation of generous losing: it is only individuals — for history and heaven alike are made up of individuals — who have lost the motivation and vision to act in a way that makes progress possible.
The how of orthodox progress needs further exploration, and many will understandably reserve their judgment until they see a method for achieving progress. This is, however, a mistake. What is possible is never bound by what is usual. Such an attitude is a tether to the conventional past and seldom results in clear-sighted criticism of methods that have failed to succeed in the past or innovative thinking about the task ahead.
Episcopal orthodoxy has spent a century as a conservative movement, conserving what was passed down from our predecessors. But it must now be reimagined as a progressive movement capable of changing minds, flipping bishops, and reinvigorating the Church’s institutions. Never once has the Church recovered from the challenge of radical heterodoxy without that one crucial task — reimagining orthodoxy — being accomplished in a winsome and compelling way.