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An Elegant and Multi-Layered History

Privilege and Prophecy 
Social Activism in the Post-War Episcopal Church
By Robert Tobin
Oxford University Press, pp. 392, $35

Privilege and Prophecy focuses on the internal conflicts and cultural shifts experienced by the Episcopal Church during the mid-20th century. Robert Tobin, a historian, and priest in the Church of England, synthesizes a prodigious quantity of archival material, conversations, and correspondence into carefully nuanced and accessible prose. He engages the activism of a generation of liberal men, mainly white and privileged, who transformed the identity and mission of the Episcopal Church between the years 1945 and 1979. TLC readers will likely recognize many of these men.

Tobin explores the values and contradictions of this generation with perspicacity and insight. His argument focuses on the identity of the Episcopal Church as it shifted from an established “English” church in the 1920s to a church centered on social activism by the late 1960s. These shifts occurred during a period in religious history when mainline establishment influence on American culture was in decline.

Tobin argues that liberal voices used prophecy to repudiate the religious and political institutions of their day, but also to assert the church’s relevance in post-establishment America. This inherent tension split congregations as more conservative laity were alienated by their clergy, while progressive clergy asserted that activism was integral to the creation of a more inclusive society. Ironically, Tobin argues, the social activism of the period often enhanced the positions of liberal clergy more than it gained actual equality for African Americans, women, or working-class constituents.

Privilege and Prophecy is divided into eight chapters. The first, “An Establishment Church,” details the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the concept of “establishment.”

Chapter two, “All Sorts and Conditions (1945-1954),” introduces the generation of clergy, deeply indebted to the Social Gospel movement, and concerned with public advocacy, such as William Scarlett, John Hines, Stephen F. Bayne Jr., Paul Moore, Walter Righter, Henry Knox Sherrill, Duncan M. Gray Jr., and William B. Spofford Sr., who worked closely with Vida Scudder. African American clergy also saw Christian activism as a means of social change, including John Burgess, Walter Dennis, and John Walker.

The need for church renewal inclusive of the laity is the focus of the third chapter, “Challenging the Church to Save It (1955-1959).” The prophetic theology of committed layman William Stringfellow is included in this chapter, as is the rise of liberal theology and social activism in Episcopal seminaries.

Chapter four, ‘The New Breed Takes Charge (1959-1964),” begins with the election of Arthur Lichtenberger as presiding bishop, signaling an expectation that Episcopalians would be involved in social issues. This chapter raises the challenges the Episcopal Church faced in the civil rights movement, and in overcoming its reputation for elitism and suburban bias.

The Episcopal Church as a progressive force in the social order is the focus of chapter five, “Involvement in Everything (1965-1967).” It begins with the election of John Hines as presiding bishop. This chapter also raises the increasing role of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and the anti-war movement.

The General Convention Special Program, the Black Manifesto, and the widening gap between laity and church leaders are discussed in chapter six, “Passing Grace and Seized Microphones (1967-1969).” Here, Pauli Murray’s critique of white male leadership’s lack of concern for sexual equality is an example of the challenges present in church activism.

Chapter seven, “No Love Without Justice (1970-1979),” considers the tensions involving women’s ordination and prayer-book revision, as well as the struggle to make the church relevant to a new generation.

In the closing chapter, “A Prophetic Church,” Tobin asserts that before the Episcopal Church can truly reframe its identity and mission, we need to identify the ways our ecclesiology is bound to establishmentarian models, and decide what is most valuable about our heritage, and why.

This is one of the most important works in Episcopal history to be published in recent years. Robert Tobin’s tone throughout seeks deeper understanding, rather than arguing a position. Notably, this is a book about elite white men that includes other social identities.

Tobin’s ability to interrogate sources with an intersectional awareness of race, sex, and class is exemplary. Privilege and Prophecy is an elegant and multi-layered history suitable for scholars, as well as general readers interested in Anglican identity and the evolution of the Episcopal Church in the 20th century.

The Rev. Dr. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook is editor in chief of Anglican and Episcopal History. She is on the faculty of Claremont School of Theology and Bloy House, and is currently working on a history of the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity.

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