Peter Toon asks whether the new establishment of ECUSA understands the nature of liberalism

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH of the USA has a long history which may be traced back to the planting of the Anglican Way in America at the end of the 16th Century. Nevertheless, it is now one of many denominations in the USA, where it competes in the supermarket of religions for attention and for members. In fact its size has decreased as the population has increased over the last thirty years — from 3.5 to 2.4 millions. Further, it is no longer led by people from the old middle and upper classes, but by people from or indebted to the new middle class, the knowledge class as it is called by sociologists. So the decrease has been accompanied by a change in “values” and “mindset” and place in national life. Now the Episcopal Church only gets major press interest and attention when it has horrendous scandals — over church funds and homosexual orgies for example.

However, the ECUSA is still a major player in the Anglican Communion because it uses its dollars to gain friends in the Third World. Further, its excessive number of bishops have more influence at Lambeth Conferences than the membership of ECUSA justifies.

1. The liberals of yesterday are not the liberals of today.

However much the old liberals (or modernists) denied certain articles of the Creed (e.g. the virginal conception and the bodily resurrection), and however much they turned the Gospel into social action and universal brotherhood, they did actually believe in an objective, supernatural Reality and Truth. They were children of the Enlightenment. Thus they believed in a Creator who had included a moral order in his creation a moral order which could be demonstrated by reason. Even if they were hesitant Trinitarians at least they were genuine Unitarians, believing in a transcendent, holy God, whom they believed had called mankind to use reason to understand and rule his world. In fact they held that the use of God-given reason would bring progress to the human race.

The old American Episcopal Church (up to the 1960s) was run by a coalition of traditional Churchmen and of genial modernists/liberals. Orthodoxy was maintained publicly by the disciplined use of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Certainly much of the theological education was of a mixed kind and the 1979 Prayer Book may be said in general to reflect this mixture and coalition (though it also reflects the beginnings of the influence of post-modernism in the use of inclusive language for “humankind” and the he/she of the ordination services, for example).

The new liberals of the 1990’s belong to the era of “postmodernism,” where the confidence in reason and a rational universe is gone and where there is no agreement as to what is objectively good and what is morally right. There has been a major turn to subjectivism, to the self to self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-realization; at the same time pluralism in terms of a confessing and accepting a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-gendered, multi-cultural, and multi-dimensional society has become commonplace. In this society all moral judgments are seen as “expressive”, that is they reflect personal preferences, prejudices, feelings and tastes, not objective standards. This approach to morals has been called expressivism, emotivism and relativism. Thus the only universal language of morality and ethics which all can understand and appreciate is that of human rights. Thus we hear much of the right of the pregnant woman to choose, the rights of minorities, of women, of homosexuals and so on.

As an Institution, the new Episcopal Church (increasingly since the 1970s) has become captive to the mindset and principles of post-modernism. The liturgies produced by the Standing Liturgical Commission and approved for use by the General Convention since the 1980’s clearly reveals this – by their inclusive language for God, reduction of the transcendent element and emphasis on the horizontal and immanent as where “God[dess]” is..

2. How the new liberals think and talk.

When the Christian Faith, with its doctrine, morality, liturgy and order is received and interpreted by the post-modernist culture and church, then the nature and shape of the Faith change, even though some of the traditional and received language is still used. However, it is a situation where old words acquire new meanings, and there is no certainty as to these new meanings for they are in constant flux, determined by individual subjectivity.

The new liberals are deeply affected by the ideologies of pluralism, relativism, emotivism and human rights. They have little time for classic tradition, ancient, godly wisdom, the disciplines of the devout life, or rational inquiry. Thus the identity of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and the nature of truth, salvation and justice are seen in the light not of received church doctrine, but of these modern ideologies.

Deity or God[dess] or Divinity, in this system (even if traditional terms are still sparingly used), sounds more like ancient pantheism or Gnosticism than traditional Jewish or Christian monotheism. In fact modern panentheism, which is related to process philosophy, is very popular amongst postmodernists for it allows a close connection between deity and the universe (the world is in God and God does not exist apart from the world being in God). Such a theology requires that God[dess] as Creator be thought of more as a birthing Mother than the Father, who speaks the Word of power – creatio ex nihilo. So much feminist and liberationist theology is based on panentheism — and is very obvious in the new liturgies of the 1990s.

Further, Deity perceived as universal Spirit or Mind is often presented or presupposed in terms of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. This allows modern insights and developments in culture and ethics to be seen as the result of the enlightening effects of the activity of divine spirit. So it is not surprising that leaders of ECUSA speak often of the need of leaders to discern how the “Spirit” is leading the church into new truths and values.

Jesus Christ is usually presented as a unique human being who just happened to be a male. Now the Nicene Creed is translated “..became human…” In this human being, we see what God is really like (even though aspects of his teaching [e.g., that God is truly the Father] belong to the sexist, patriarchalist culture of the Jewish world). And what God is like in Jesus is the deity who excludes none and who embraces all and who is concerned for peace with justice.

Truth in modern Episcopalianism is subjective: truth for me and truth for you; truth is as I see it and as you see it. Truth is subjective and relative. I can only share my truth with you, I cannot tell you what is the Truth. So, as the new Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, says, “conversion is through conversation”. Only by hearing truth as seen by others can I enlarge or change truth as it is to and for me. Everyone has truth but no one has the monopoly of truth. In practice this means that all may be tolerated in the circle of conversation except those who cause disruption by claiming that there is objective, transcendent Truth to which we should all submit! For the postmodernist, the TRUTH (as it was called and believed yesterday) is merely and only the opinion of people of yesterday.

The Scriptures are honoured as the ancient Books of Judaism and the Church but they are seen as the record of the experience of mostly male human beings who desired to know “God” and who were locked into their own cultures, with their sexism, racism and patriarchalism. What they mean today is what they mean to me and to you, individually and as we share our understanding one with another.

Salvation has nothing to do with eternal life or with being saved from hell for heaven! It has to do with the liberation of the self in terms of self-fulfillment, self-esteem, self-realization and so on. It is being saved to be more human and to be more involved in the pursuit of peace with justice in this world.

Modern liturgies, it is said, must take into account the pluralist society and must speak out of relativism for each group within the modern multi-lingual, ethnic, cultural and gendered church. There is no longer any need for a fixed common liturgy, even that of the 1979 Prayer Book; rather all that is needed is a structure or form into which can be dropped relevant content to meet the local need. Common Prayer now means a common structure. (Before 1979 Common Prayer meant one set of rites for all; with the arrival of the 1979 Prayer Book, falsely called “the Book of Common Prayer”, common prayer meant choice from a variety of rites; now it means a common structure for the “holy Eucharist” in terms of word, passing of the peace, sacrament.) Celebration by the local community of its religion each Sunday requires, it is emphasized, an appropriate content for the liturgy.

Morality is not fixed by external commandments or laws, but is what you and I feel comfortable about, what gives us a sense of fulfilment and enrichment and esteem. It is not for me to judge your morals or you to judge mine. However, in exercising my liberties I ought not to harm you or anyone else. On this basis of subjective and relativist morality, what once was called sin and immorality is now righteousness and morality. Nowhere is this clearer than in the sexual revolution.

The Church is not the Body of Christ or the Household of Faith; it is “the community of faith,” the association of individuals, each of whom has his or her own grasp of truth and all of whom together celebrate each Sunday. The central act which unites is the passing of the peace for this is the powerful emotive symbol of affirmation and acceptance in the community.

3. How the new liberals behave.

The new liberals who run the ECUSA speak of an inclusive and a welcoming church. All who embrace the basic tenets of postmodernism and use the word “God” are welcome. There are no outcasts. However, there are certain types of person who are not welcomed because they are not worthy of welcome. In brief these are the classical liberals and the traditional orthodox. There is no place for them in the circle and at the table because they do not accept the basis of the rules of the circle and table. They do not embrace liberationism, relativism, subjectivism and pluralism as dogmas! Further, they dare to hold to objective, transcendent Truth accessible to and above all!

(i) So it is not surprising that the General Convention of 1997, dominated by the new liberals, mandated commitment to the ordination of women. All must accept it in practice and every diocese shall ordain women. There is no place in the new Episcopal religion for those men and women who oppose the newly proclaimed rights of women (to be ordained against the scriptural and historical witness) and these obstinate wretches must be excluded from being bishops, priests and deacons, and from serving in lay leadership positions.

(ii) It is also not surprising to see that the General Convention, imbued with the spirit of post-modernism, has been unable in recent times to affirm with clarity the received doctrine of Christian marriage and of chastity, but has opened ever wider the door to the marriage of divorcees, the ordination of practising homosexuals and to the blessing of homosexual partnerships. The highest court of the Church in its Righter Judgment of 1996 declared that there is no prohibition of active homosexuality of priests in the core doctrine of the ECUSA.

(iii) Further, while bishops tolerate and even encourage all kinds of liturgical experiments with themes and texts reflecting the dogmas of postmodernism, they become legalistic and angry when they encounter a congregation or a priest who wishes to use the classic Book of Common Prayer. Their supposed toleration does not include the religion of their “foreparents.” because that religion, that Trinitarian Theism, will not be embraced by postmodernism (for IT stands in judgment on postmodernist religion!).

(iv) The general abandonment of belief in objective truth and moral order has had a disastrous effect upon the family. About one third of the clergy of the ECUSA are divorced and remarried and not a few are in serial marriages. The percentages are higher with the laity. And abortion is all too common among the women in episcopal congregations.

But it must be said that at least on the surface those who have embraced postmodernism and the new Episcopal religion based on it seem happy with it. They are attracting people of like mind into their local communities of celebration. And they are talking of mission, the mission of spreading the “nice” religion of pantheism while still speaking of Jesus of Nazareth as some kind of Saviour (but not Master!). In fact the only people who seem unhappy in the ECUSA these days are those who cling to the old liberalism or the old orthodoxy for it often appears that they have nowhere to turn and nowhere to go!

In its new Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold of Chicago, the postmodernists have a leader after their own kind. He calls everyone to the table of sharing and discussion, and in the circle he hopes to convert them all through conversation to profounder levels of relativism, pluralism and panentheism (i.e. to the new religion of the ECUSA). Evangelicals and charismatics, Anglo-Catholics and high-churchmen, are being taken in by the talk of having a place at the table and being listened to there. For Bishop Griswold and his kind, classical orthodoxy and the great principles of the Common Prayer Tradition are merely some opinions along with others at this table.

Archbishop George Carey accused the minority, traditional membership of the ECUSA at the General Convention in July 1997 of being guilty of “the greatest heresy” (his words!!!) because they do not wish to sit at the table of pluralism and relativism!

The illiberalism of the new liberals has already entered the Church of England. Expect it to grow. Be ready for it and oppose it, despite George Carey (whom we love but cannot always believe is wise). Dynamic orthodoxy, centred on the Common Prayer, must remain and prevail.

Peter Toon is President of the Prayer Book Society of the Episcopal Church, USA. This talk was originally given to the English Prayer Book Society at their Conference in the Summer of 1997