‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind
One of the more poignant scenes in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear is the gouging out of the eyes of the faithful but befuddled Gloucester in Act III. This mutilation cannot but occur as the old man refuses to see the unimpeachable loyalty of his legitimate son Edgar and the scheming machinations of his bastard son Edmund. As Gloucester smells his way to Dover ‘he learns too late that there is no man so blind as he who refuses to see’.
It has been said that numbers do not lie. Try these numbers on for size. In Year of Our Lord 2001 the Episcopal Church reported average Sunday attendance at 853,000. Do not bother doing the math. In a nation of 280 million people that works out to less than one-third of one percent of the population. Accompanying this troubling statistic from the national church came this admonition (with strained aplomb): ‘There is tremendous opportunity for the Episcopal Church beyond one-third of one percent.’ I should think so. And then there is this statistic. The average age of an Episcopalian is 57.9, while the average age of the general United States population is 36.4.
What is interesting (and indeed, would be humorous if not so pathetic) to watch is how the corporate, institutional structures of the Church, and those who head them, continue carrying on as if little had changed since the nineteenth century. What is plain to everyone else, including the little old lady sitting in an increasingly empty sanctuary, is apparently not so to her revisionist rector, her ever-smiling but hopelessly heterodox diocesan bishop, or the chairperson of the Standing Liturgical Commission.
This delusion is not naïve ignorance but willful blindness. For while attendance and giving decline, ministries end for lack of interest, and parish churches are sold off and turned into bars and libraries, the ‘movers and shakers’ at 815 Second Avenue, New York, New York continue obfuscating, centralizing their political power, homogenizing the Faith, busying themselves in frenetic but finally meaningless activities, and persecuting dissenters.
How did we get here from there? The question is one I hear quite regularly from confused parishioners. The Episcopal Church in the United States is the closest thing this country has ever had to a state church, and it once boasted a membership which included America’s presidents, congressman and senators, academics and poets. Today, the Episcopal Church is a by-word to unchurched Americans, and is a scandal to genuine believers in other churches. As any historian will tell you, causation is always complex, but it seems to me that there are three clear and certain reasons for the decline (and coming demise) of the Episcopal Church.
Firstly, one must acknowledge the subversion and capitulation of the seminaries. Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has the dubious honour of a lesbian priest and a witch on the tenured faculty, as well as of awarding a Master of Divinity degree without a single Scripture course (but with classes in gay and environmental theology, of course). EDS is the most notorious example, but all the rest – perhaps excluding two, one Anglo-Catholic and the other Evangelical – are in varying degrees of heterodoxy just behind it.
Christianity is a religion founded and dependent upon an unchanging deposit of divine revelation. This revelation is found primarily in a book, the Holy Bible, and secondarily on the councils of the Church which exegeted and synthesized the teachings of that book. Any particular branch of the Christian Church which begins to call the source, integrity, and authority of its founding charter into question, trains its priests to do so, and instructs those same priests to teach the faithful in the pews to do so, is doomed.
Secondly, one must blame the institutionalizing of the hermeneutic of liberation. This process began in the turbulent 1960s with clergy co-opting the activism of the youth culture and its opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Now, it is impossible to have any discussion with the libs without some reference to liberating an oppressed minority. The revisionist gospel is as boring as plainsong, forever on one note (Gender justice! Sexual justice! Economic justice! Social justice!).
It is also an exclusively imminent gospel. There is no concept of redemption, heaven or of a transcendent deity. Everything is about the here and now, and the Church’s mission, as they see it, is to enfranchise the poor, euthanize the elderly, abort the unborn, liberate the homosexual and save the whales. This activist hermeneutic has truly been institutionalized and is the lens through which theology, Scripture, ordination, sacraments, mission and even evangelism is viewed.
Finally, we must cite the disregard for history. Did you know that during the American Revolution Anglican clergy in the colonies, almost all loyalists, feared for their lives for merely holding services and praying for the king? The Reverend Jonathan Boucher kept two cocked pistols on his prayer desk to defend himself. The Reverend John Beach said he ‘would pray and preach for the King till the rebels cut out his tongue’, and he persevered in doing so even after being shot at. Most American Episcopalians do not have a clue about the above. And sadly, our ecclesiastical amnesia goes much deeper.
Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, John Jewel, Matthew Parker – all were men marinated in Holy Scripture and masters of Patristics. Indeed, the motivation behind the sixteenth-century English Reformation was to return the Church Catholic to a purity of piety and practice consistent with Holy Scripture and the Primitive Church. Until recently, a thorough course in Patristics was considered essential to the training of men for the ministry in England. Such was never the case in America, and those chickens are now coming home to roost.
A loss of memory is tantamount in an individual to a loss of identity. The Episcopal Church has no corporate memory before the illegal ordination of the eleven women in Philadelphia in 1976. Consequently, it can thumb its nose at Lambeth, the Church of England, antiquity, apostolic practice, and even the experiences of so-called Third World Anglicans just a generation ago, as being irrelevant. This amnesia has resulted in the Church becoming just another loony sect in a nation of loony sects.
What is next? As this issue of New Directions goes to print, the Episcopal Church will be meeting in General Convention in Minneapolis. According to the Canons, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies must both give consent, by simple majority, to the election of the openly homosexual priest Gene Robinson before his consecration as the next bishop of New Hampshire. Barring a miracle on par he will receive that consent. This action will merely make de jure what is already de facto, and will be the penultimate victory for the pansexualists. Their ultimate victory will be the systematic elimination of those who oppose them.
As Gloucester concluded, so it is with us, ‘I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw.’
The Revd Quintin Morrow is Rector of St Andrew’s Church in the Diocese of Fort Worth.