Friday, September 28, 2007

1984 in the Episcopal Church

by Christopher L. Webber

Note: This essay was submitted to The Episcopal Majority on September 26. In the intervening days, more events have occurred, about which we will comment. Meanwhile, we are pleased to offer Chris Webber's essay.

George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, is the most familiar statement of the way in which words can be made to say whatever we want them to say. Words can be bent and twisted until they say the opposite of what they once stood for. The Cold War gave us “Democratic People’s Republics” in which there was no democracy and the people had no public voice. William Safire noted recently that we can’t call our soldiers “freedom fighters” because others have preempted the phrase.

Last night on the news there was a story about the Episcopal Church and the division between what the commentator called the “traditionalists” and the “liberals. To give us pictures to go with the words, we were shown “traditionalists” holding up their hands as they sang and swayed to a rock band on a stage at the front of the church. “Traditionalist”? Who’s making up definitions?

Then we were shown “liberals” and they were kneeling quietly in their pews while a vested priest at the altar led a celebration of the Eucharist. It looked very much the way churches looked when I was growing up – which is longer ago than many of these “traditionalists” remember!

“Tradition,” as Alice in Wonderland might have said, “is what I say it is.”

The tradition of the Episcopal Church is to pray from the Book of Common Prayer and welcome all who are drawn to that pattern of worship. Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “I will not make windows into men’s souls.” In other words: "If you join with me in the standard pattern of prayer, I won’t inquire too closely into what you believe." Words can deceive us; what matters is unity in worship.

But the new "traditionalists" of the Episcopal Church have changed the definitions. Now division, not inclusion, is the agenda. Now you have to agree with their interpretation of the Bible or they will refuse to join you in worship. Once Anglicans looked to Scripture, tradition, and reason for their authority. Now we are asked to respond to code words and to let emotion overcome reason.

The tragedy is that so many are being swept along in this emotional, divisive, destructive redefining of Anglicanism into something without any recognizable tradition. Something that has never before been the Anglican way is being raised up into a new religion and called “traditional.”

About the Author: The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is a graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary where he earned two degrees and was awarded an honorary doctorate. He is the author of a number of books including The Vestry Handbook, Welcome to the Episcopal Church, Beyond Beowulf (the first-ever sequel to the first English saga), and the recently re-issued Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website).

In a ministry of fifty years and counting, Fr. Webber has served parishes in inner city, suburban, rural, and overseas communities. He is currently serving as a supply priest on the Diocese of Connecticut. He has been married to the same wife for slightly less than fifty years and is the father of four children and grandfather of four.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that many of us in the Diocese of Springfield (IL) should begin to explore options if and when it occurs that the bishop, Peter Beckwith, decides that he along with Common Cause decide they want to leave the Episcopal Church.

Many of us will find ourselves reacting without good information and without knowing where we can turn for support, advice, and direction. Perhaps instead we should simply contact the Presiding Bishop.

Frankly, it's difficult to attend church every Sunday in a congregation who will likely affirm Beckwith's decision. I feel very much assaulted and very much alone. Many of my moderate friends simply left the church. I stay in touch with them, encourage them, but understand why they don't want to come on Sundays. I've tried to reach out to others whom I know to be more moderate but they are unwilling to be vocal outside of their own congregations and some aren't willing to be vocal in their congregations.

I will not leave the Church I love, even if I'm the last Episcopalian in Jacksonville, Illinois. The Episcopal flag flies from a flagpole in my back yard. As a deacon who remains canonically resident in Chicago when I came back home to Jacksonville, I have had friends whom I've known for more than 40 years turn their backs to me literally simply because I remain clearly supportive of General Convention and the House of Bishops. I still go to church every Sunday because it's where I grew up.

What advice can you give us?

9/28/2007 8:46 PM  
Blogger The young fogey said...

An introduction: I am a born Anglican rooted in traditional Anglo-Catholicism and thus I really lost my church home some time ago and am on the opposite side of Controversial Issues™ from you...

You make several interesting and true observations, Father.

What more could one expect from a church that came from the land of irony (and cold buildings, damp weather and good beer)? :)

Most people on the conservative side of this row are Protestants and liberal liturgically, something Continuing Church people have noticed and it's even made some inroads there.

The liberals are often higher ceremonially.

Along with that is something you don't hear much about: a generational divide much like in the Roman Church with older liberals and younger (relative) conservatives. The new centrists in this scene accept women clergy and same-sex marriage but believe the creeds and liturgically have more in common with me than with your enemies in this row.

Uniformity in worship but not in doctrine would at worst only be Unitarianism dressed up but the new centre are not like that.

There really is no Evangelical Anglicanism in the Episcopal Church unlike England and much of the rest of the world. American Low Church is English low middle of the road. Global South Evangelicalism is foreign to most Episcopalians.

The conservative Central Church people I know are annoyed by parishioners who come back from Cursillo and want to ditch the hymnal for praise music. I can't see them going in for the new arrangements' happy-clappiness.

As for Episcopalians in conservative parishes and dioceses that might try and leave TEC, the only inevitable outcomes of this row are a few parishes will be split and a few others squashed. On both sides. 'Losing' the row wouldn't affect 90 per cent of Episcopalians in any way. Church life would go on normally and those among you who want same-sex weddings in church would have them without interference.

9/29/2007 8:21 AM  
Blogger John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

It is interesting that back in the 13th century, the first thing the Scholastics faced was metaphysical "classification" - What is what? How do we distinguish between this and that? Is there an apparent hierarchy in nature, and, if so, how is it to be defined? Etc.

I think that today the mess we are in demonstrates that the words we use for classification simply do not mean anything reliable any more - they over-simplify and do not clearly delineate this from that.

I find an immediate kinship with Fr. Webber. As a priest who recently celebrated his Golden Jubilee of ordination, I just don't recognize all the "charismatic" behavior which seems common among those unhappy with the Episcopal Church's official actions. I don't mean I discredit it, but it is entirely foreign to me. I will certainly accept that other cultures (i.e., many in Africa) find this emotional behavior in worship quite "normal", and I do not begrudge them that at all. But I'm old enough to know that 60 years ago, it would certainly have been unrecognizable in this country as "Anglican".

I remember the hullaballoo over the church in Van Nuys, CA in the 1940's where this sort of thing got its start in an Episcopal Church, but the very existence now of a separated "Charismatic Episcopal Church" suggests to me that even THEY did not think their worship was "characteristic" of the Episcopal Church (i.e., they had to form their own separate church in order to practice it freely).

"Conservative/liberal", "reasserter/revisionist", "orthodox/heretical", "Anglo-catholic/Evangelical", etc. no longer seem to carry any dependable meaning. None of those labels tell me any longer what I might expect on a Sunday morning in one of those parishes. And I rather think that the majority of Episcopalians would be hard put to apply any of those terms (as they are used now) exactly to themselves.

I think the only important division right now is between those who intend to spend the rest of their lives in the Episcopal Church (come what may!) and those who do not. I haven't heard it yet, but probably "stayers/leavers" will be the next descriptive language.

And this might well be more accurate than any of the others, because no two "stayers" will ever look exactly alike (in fact, there will continue to be wide variations - we Episcopalians are already entirely accustomed to that). And probably the "leaver" parishes will soon discover that once on the ground there will not be enough universal glue to hold them all together in a one-size-fits-all fundamentalist package and so - "Common Cause Partners" notwithstanding - there'll soon begin to be stayers and leavers among the original leavers. (If history tells us anything about such divisions is that they never seem to be able to stop dividing!)

These days, it seems there is a longing for the settled, thriving, post-war Church of (about) 1947 - and I find that very attractive myself -- until I begin reflect with modern eyes at the demeaning place women held (my incredibly competent mother never allowed to take a job because it would "shame" her husband); the terrible divorce laws which encouraged domestic abuse and left "innocent" parties with nothing but dismal enforced celibacy (or excommunicated those who re-married); those life-destroying pregnancies from rape; those scenes (remember the movie "The Cardinal"?) in which a mother must die because bearing the fetus to full term will kill her; the refusal of the Church to bury a poor and desperate suicide.

That was the world Fr. Webber and I remember -- and while it was black-and-white, it was also monstrously cruel, massively blind, and inexcusably contrary to any kind of right reason.

So, the only root question that seems to matter in this debate for me is "Will you stay in the Episcopal Church or not?" and that also frames itself as "Will you faithfully continue to accept wide diversity or not?"

So, when the dust settles, we "traditional Anglicans" (i.e., we who are willing to live - as we always have - with a vast variety of thought and practice - and the BCP) will continue to differ and squabble and now-and-then stir teacups into tornadoes, but we'll make it through, since by all evidences, God seems to have willed it so far.....

9/29/2007 1:32 PM  
Blogger John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

Posted for Prior Aelred:

"if you could post this for in the comments for Fr Webber's article,
"1984 in the Episcopal Church," I would appreciate it!

I thought Fr Webber's piece splendid -- I am reminded of someone's
comment that the Elizabethan Church was not tolerant because it was
comprehensive -- of course that was what the puritans hated (as they
still do -- remember that Archbishop Akinola has demanded that Bishop
Robinson be deposed whereas +Gene has said that he wants to remain in
communion with ++Peter Jasper -- nuff said).

Having become accustomed to High Church PECUSA's "don't ask don't
tell" tolerance of gays in the church (I was reared Baptist & thought
this position quite advanced) I was stunned to encounter the English
Anglo-papist "gin & lace set" of semi-closeted gay men -- that level
of hypocrisy made me very uncomfortable indeed.

In any case, the young men who come here these days assure me that the
baby boomer obsession with what other men do with their penises is a
non-issue for the young (& a stupid basis for a Fred Phelps Anglican

Although my memory does not extend as far back as Fr John-Julian's (I
was born when Harry Truman was president), my recollections of the
world of my childhood jibes with what he describes. The tax structure
was far more fair (after all, unions were strong) but it was not a
good time to be black (or female).

Cogito ergo sum Episcopalian
- Prior Aelred

9/29/2007 6:08 PM  

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