SO DEFTLY HAS Jack Spong cornered the market in ecclesiastical horror stories that lesser prelates have scant opportunity to distinguish themselves. Is there a heresy left which Jack has not copyrighted? And who, in any case, can rival the professionalism of his media technique? Who would presume to challenge the supremacy of the bishop who has made Anti-Christ look ham-fisted? The questions are not rhetorical.
California, since the days of James Pike (whose rather self-apologetic apostasies seem small beer these days), seems to have conceded the palm to the East Coast; but the Sunshine State is now belatedly making its come-back in the person of one William Swing. (Pike, Spong, Swing – what names they have! – as though Screwtape had applied to Central Casting.)
The Rt Revd William Edwin Swing is Bishop of California and proprietor of a body which calls itself the United Religions Initiative. In 1996, Bishop Swing’s report on his global URI pilgrimage stated the URI’s scope of work: “The nature of the United Religions would be to focus on: 1) the whole human family; 2) the whole health of our planet; and 3) the whole realm of living species, and to offer the unique gifts of religions.” On p. 63 of his 1998 book, The Coming United Religions, Bishop Swing says “The time comes, though, when common language and a common purpose for all religions and spiritual movements must be discerned and agreed upon. Merely respecting and understanding other religions is not enough.”
Such statements may seem innocuous enough (if rather over-ambitious for an Anglican bishop); but there is more. The URI – you guessed it – is dedicated to ‘the saving of Planet Earth’. Section III of the draft URI charter is titled “Ecological Imperatives.” Projects proposed in response include these:
– “Find out what ecology groups are active and see what spiritual values might be brought to bear in those. (This might be a way in which the ‘Supporting the Agenda’ group and this group might collaborate – the ‘Supporting’ group might provide a list of local organizations, and URI reps might begin to consciously ‘infiltrate’ those organizations in ways that might inspire a more holistic world view.)”
– “Create solstice and equinox festivals, the natural earth holidays, which celebrate the changes on the planet.”
– There would be a “URI course to ‘retool’ both clergy and lay religious leaders in the philosophy of spiritual ecology.”
And do not be surprised that ‘saving Planet Earth’ ultimately involves not a growth of understanding between religions, but the substitution of a New Religion in place of them all. In The Coming United Religions, Bishop Swing asserts that the major faiths – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and the indigenous religions – converge like multiple paths up a mountain to a single point, a “unity which transcends the world.” (pp. 58-59) At the top of the spiritual mountain are the esoteric believers from each religion; they “intuit that they were ultimately in unity with people of other religions because all come together at the apex, in the Divine. Everyone below the line would be identified as exoteric. These people in all religions would wed the form of faith to the content or final truth of their own faith. Thus, the forms of one’s faith become absolutized because these forms, alone, are held to carry the truth.” (p. 59).
Section V of the draft charter also shows that the URI is becoming more explicit in its support for a New Religion. It says:
“We believe in the universality and eternity of the Spirit. We believe that all religions derive their wisdom from that ultimate Source. Therefore, the world’s faith traditions share in common wisdom, which can be obscured by differences in religious concepts and practices.”
To make this unity explicit, the URI will develop a new “theology of acceptance” to “help the world’s people explore common ground” and foster awareness of “unity within religious diversity.” The URI would also create a common collection of “sacred writings and oral wisdom,” and there would be “Interfaith Sharing of Spiritual Practices.”
It is not difficult to see what all this adds up to: there will be a new object of devotion (the sacred Earth); a new and all-embracing philosophy of life (a spiritual ecology, in whose maintenance is salvation); a new collection of sacred writings upon which this philosophy will be based; a new liturgical life (the proposed new calendar of feasts and Earth-centred celebrations); a new spiritual life (based on inter-faith ‘sharing’). A new creed, a new code, a new cult and so – a New Religion.
It is worth reflecting how and why American Anglicanism has come to this – how and why it is from the gothic splendours of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill that the light of the New Era shines out.
At first sight the development seems improbable. American Anglicanism, only two short generations ago, was stoutly traditionalist and stuffily conservative. Just as the Irish community of New York declared its political dominance and self-confidence by the building of St Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue, so the Protestant Episcopal Church declared its social superiority and abject Anglophilia, with an even more megalomaniac bout of neo-medievalism. From Mount St Alban rose Washington National Cathedral (a shining pastiche of Canterbury); on the edges of Harlem rose the still unfinished St John the Divine (an amalgam of late Romanesque and French gothic, and like nothing on earth).
The Church which built those vast monuments to tradition was itself essentially traditionalist. Around those ample ambulatories echoed the liturgical language of the seventeenth century and the music of Thomas Tallis and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Protestant Episcopal Church went one better than being an Established Church: it established itself as the Church of the Establishment.
At the end of the century it is paying the price of elected Erastianism. To be the Church of the Establishment is, after all, to cater to the establishment’s needs; and those are no longer elitist and Anglophile. Episcopalianism, in consequence, has recast itself as the religion of the academocracy – that wave of political correctness and ‘inclusivity’, which famously excludes all claims to revealed and absolute truth, and has effected in Allan Bloom’s memorable phrase, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’.
Bill Swing, ironically, has put his finger on it. So enthusiastically had Episcopalians ‘wed the form of faith to the content or final truth of their own faith’ that they mistook the forms for the reality. The mitres and purple shirts and stained glass windows became an end in themselves (the perfect cloak for entryism); and the eternal truths they had once clothed became a secondary consideration. The sacrament of it all was the coronation of Barbara Harris, who placed the mitre upon her own head, while Ed Browning exclaimed: ‘Go for it!’
The least lovely aspect of Anglicanism is an effortless arrogance (noted, in one way or another, by all our ecumenical partners). Anglicanism, in the perception of its most vocal apologists, is reasonable, inclusive, tolerant, non-dogmatic. It is all things to all men; which, in their view, is as it should be. It is, in consequence, the natural religion of all right-thinking people. Who better, then, to head up a United Religions Initiative than an American Anglican bishop, who can bring to the enterprise precisely what it needs: ‘class’ without content?
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.