John Shepley considers nineteenth century precedent for the current divisions within The Episcopal Church but suggests a different outcome to its civil war

If Locke was the intellectual progenitor of the American Revolution of 1776, then John Stuart Mill was the intellectual inspiration of both sides in the Civil War of 1862. In his On Liberty (published 1859), Mill wrote of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. In practical political terms, his analysis raised two pressing questions: what degree of subsidiarity is appropriate in a democratic body, and what rights do parts of a democratic whole have to secede from it? How binding is the social contract, and at what level is it most binding? These were the conundra of the American Civil War.

Perpetual civil war

It was by no means obvious, in 1776, that even the thirteen states, not to mention the greater part of the continent, was, or ought to be, ‘one nation under God’. Quite the reverse: even George Washington habitually referred to Virginia as ‘my nation’. The transition from ‘these United States’ to ‘the United States’ only came gradually and was not consolidated until after 1864. ‘The United States’ was a social contract written in blood.

Lincoln, of course, clothed these democratic ambiguities with mellifluous rhetoric: ‘…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ But the question remains – why did the North reject the right to self-determination of the Southern states? Why was so much blood and treasure expended in order to subdue those who had voted by democratic majorities to leave the Union?

The answer routinely given – that the North went to war to free the slaves – is only partly true (if that). The American Civil War was a conflict in search of a reason: the abolition of slavery was the final reason given. But at no time in the titanic struggle would the majority of combatants have said that this was what they were fighting about. The Thirteenth Amendment came at the end of the War, not at its beginning.

So the question remains, and the answer, it seems, has to be cast in terms of the concept of the ‘manifest destiny’ of the American Republic, which had grown up in the years before 1776. Americans had come to think of themselves as in a special category – uniquely placed by history to capitalize on, to complete and fulfil, the promise of man’s existence. Their rustic blemishes had become the marks of a chosen people. ‘The liberties of mankind and the glory of human nature is in their keeping,’ wrote John Adams. Only such a quasi-religious vision and conviction can explain all-out war against fellow citizens. Only such an ideology could justify a nation which had its origins in a Declaration of Independence, denying the same independence to others.

Like state like church

The symbiosis between the polity of The Episcopal Church and the politics of the United States has been frequently remarked. What is now becoming obvious is that the parallels continue. TEC in the early twenty-first century is entering upon its own Civil War. Parishes are voting to leave dioceses and dioceses are voting to abandon their affiliation with The Episcopal Church. The Church authorities, meanwhile, are denying the constitutional right to withdraw. They are suing parishes, and even individual vestry members, for property. In an unfortunate echo of papal language about Anglican Orders, the Presiding Bishop’s chancellor has declared any changes in diocesan constitutions ‘null and void’.

But why? Why does a Church which, since the days of its inception, has been a federation of pre-existing entities (and even now is an association of dioceses each with its own constitution) deny self-determination to those dioceses when they in conscience seek to withdraw from it? And what is to be done when dioceses do part company?

Will The Episcopal Church declare those sees vacant, seek to appoint new ‘bishops’ for them and reconstruct their diocesan conventions much as Lincoln planned the ‘reconstruction of Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas?

It is hard to say what is in the minds of those who represent the episcopal majority; but one thing is certain. This ecclesial Civil War will be fought with all the determination which marked that greater conflict. ‘My aim,’ said William Tecumseh Sherman, ‘was to whip the rebels, to humble their pride and – to make them fear and dread us.’ After burning most of Georgia, he had all but achieved his aim. Katherine Schori, Bonnie Anderson and their legal cohorts show every sign of being prepared to act similarly.

Like the US itself, TEC has a vision of its ‘manifest destiny’. Like the revolutionaries of 1776, the present management of The Episcopal Church believe that ‘the liberties of mankind and the glory of human nature is in their keeping’. More than that: they have mistaken the decisions of their General Convention for the doctrines of the faith, and themselves for the Catholic Church.

But, pace Karl Marx, history never repeats itself, either as tragedy or farce. The factor which distinguishes this ecclesial Civil War from its secular predecessor is the involvement of foreign troops. Napoleon Ill’s sympathies for the Confederacy were well known; but he never sent soldiers. The provinces of the Anglican Communion have not followed him in avoiding the fray. Quite the opposite: soon there will be no less than eleven bishops owing foreign allegiance operating within the territory of The Episcopal Church – more than the ‘autonomous’ provinces of Scotland or Wales.

We need to take full cognizance of this unprecedented fact. Left to themselves, the outcome between the American combatants would not be in doubt. The liberal divisions far out-number the rebels, and they have, in any case, the treasure to pursue their course relentlessly. The traditionalists would naturally lose. But the involvement of outside forces changes the dynamic. Though eleven bishops are not an army, they are a powerful witness denying the claim of TEC to have sole franchise on Anglicanism in the United States. They witness to the fact that Anglicanism is bigger than and other than ‘the polity of this Church’; to the fact some things in the life of the Church are given, not voted, into existence.

The overseas bishops are in the midst of the fray to ensure that, unlike the Civil War, the argument will not become a fight to the bitter death.