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Hanging on

I firmly believe that on Monday the bishops of the Episcopal Church walked through a door which leads their church into unknown territory. That door is at the end of a long passageway down which they have been strolling for some years. The passageway was adorned with appealing and enticing pictures and murals depicting views of a new world — exciting, transforming, a veritable Eden. Finally, they unlocked the door and strolled out.

One may suppose that they wandered into the passageway at the beginning of the 1960s. Fifty years later, now much older, grayer, arm in arm with younger disciples, they have reached their Promised Land. As the dean of Wycliffe Seminary remarked at the end of a roundtable discussion hosted by The Living Church, “the Episcopal Church is now a liberal church.” There it is. Of course to believe that there is such a thing as a liberal church one must first be a denominationalist, someone who believes there is nothing at all odd about Christians living in exclusively brand name fellowships and further that there is nothing odd about describing such groupings as Churches with a capital C, and in believing that such groupings are free to construct and develop themselves in any way they please.

Denominationalism is a fairly modern variety of Christian expression. Its origins may be found in the religious revolution we call the Reformation. At least in the case of Anglicanism this was not an intended destination. Our Reformers intended to reform, clean up, the Church in England. Yet the seeds of denominationalism were already there. In formulating, making clear, adherence to definitions of aspects of Christianity, rather than affirming matters common to Christian belief in general, they propounded theories which automatically differentiated themselves not only from non-Christians but also in distinction with other Christians. They were not Roman Catholics. But soon they were not radical Protestants either. Those who didn’t agree set up rival bodies which stressed their distance from what would become Anglicans. Intending to be other than “Roman” Catholics, they opened the door to a religious world inhabited by a growing number of bodies which were unlike Anglicans, and unlike each other.

Now to be fair, Anglicanism did its best to be inclusive, to permit a fairly wide breadth of internal dissent in order, if possible, to comprehend as many non-Roman Catholics as possible. Yet the very effort to comprehend diversity disgusted those who wanted a pure church. Comprehension not only united. It divided. Nor were Anglicans consistent in their comprehension. Notoriously in 1662 Anglicanism drew a line, and created the age of denominationalism as those ejected from the national church set up church for themselves. Yet even within the limits created in 1662, a form of liberality continued and often blossomed. Our tradition didn’t achieve such liberality by conscious policy, by adopting and incorporating officially the tenets espoused by movements such as Latitudinarianism, or Evangelicalism, or Anglo Catholicism. The reverse was true. Anglicanism retained its descriptive tenets. It just shied away from officially defining controversial opinions . There developed a tradition by which the official organs of the church took care not to impose measures and theological opinions which might break the consciences and hearts of those who were loyal participants in Anglican life and worship.We were proud to state that we were a broad church and safeguarded our breadth by permitting variety. Of course we were free to challenge and dissent from those within our fellowship who advanced and practiced beliefs and practices with which we disagreed. We often did so with gusto. This led to great untidiness of the variety abhorrent to those who needed clarity or demanded uniformity. Others thought comprehension was our greatest weakness and suggested we advanced the concept of unity above doctrinal and liturgical coherence. While many came to us because of our liberality, others left us because they couldn’t abide our diversity.

In opposition to our vision of a comprehensive church, there arose that extraordinary phenomenon called the denomination, groupings of Christians who embraced conformity to a Cause, often the ideas of founders formulated in confessional documents. Throughout the Western world and formidably in the United States a veritable shopping mall of religious bodies arose, subdivided, occasionally came together with others. Each peddled its wares and attempted to attract new people to its fellowship. This was a throughly consumerist version of Christianity. Each sold its product, maintained brand loyalty and survived or declined on the basis of market share. I have written elsewhere about how this pattern of religious competition is in swift decline. Fewer and fewer people exist in contemporary America who are floating Christians in search of a religious body in which they may fit in.

During the past century and more formidably in the past fifty years the Episcopal Church has abandoned notions of comprehension, of mutual respect for difference, as it has set its sight on becoming a denomination, a brand name termed “progressive.” It has become liberal but not in the older sense of liberality. And so the Dean of Wycliffe Hall states that the Episcopal Church is now a “Liberal Church” and wonders whether there is now space for those who are excluded by the official actions of our governing body. Another seminary Dean, Dr. Ian Markham, asks the same question in an excellent post in Center Aisle.

I don’t want to write here about the specifics of the issues which now make some of us, a small minority, “provisional Episcopalians” except to say that at least for me this is not a matter of inclusion. The church is for all the baptized. I heed Archbishop Ramsey’s warning that if we begin to exclude people because we think they are sinners, we should be excluded for indulging in the deadliest of sins, that of pride. A pure church this side of the grave is an empty church.

There are, of course, measures which could be taken to encourage those of us who are now on the margins of what was once a generous Catholicity. They would be radical, newfangled, untidy, would break traditions of jurisdiction and authority, but such problems haven’t deterred us from the revisions we have adopted during the past half century. Inclusion means more than a minimal tolerance for those deemed intolerably unenlightened. Inclusion means encouragement, it means refusing to erect barriers to growth and survival.

I would also note that all our efforts to reverse our decline, to streamline our governance, will ultimately fail if we, by our denominationalism, alienate that large proportion of the population which is not in tune with our “progressive activism.” In an age divided by ideology, by class, by wealth versus poverty, by the atomizing of the family and the community we have chosen to be the designer church of the few. That was never the Anglican dream.


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