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Trendier than Thou

The Episcopal Church and The Secular World
Paul Seabury

[This essay was first published in the October and December 1978
issues of Harper's Magazine.]

In the Fall of 1977, when dissenting Episcopalians met in St. Louis, Missouri, to form a continuing Anglican Church in North America, a long-developing breach within the national church was made formal. Since then, four new dioceses have been established, covering the Far West, the Rocky Mountain states, the Midwest, and the South. Last January the dissidents met again, in Denver (in a borrowed Lutheran church), and with high liturgical ceremony consecrated four of their own bishops. These in turn have ordained new ministers and priests; more than 100 parishes with perhaps as many as 15,000 parishioners within half a year have affiliated with the church.

Schism, or the likelihood of it, while common to other Protestant denominations, has no precedent in the American Episcopal Church, and for this reason alone some astonishment is in order. The church has been viewed as an assemblage of wealthy Protestants - "the Republican party at prayer," as a cynic put it. It is an institution of religious moderates in a culture inclined to fundamentalism and missionary witness. While the church has had its Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings, most of its members have been decidedly latitudinarian, easily embarrassed by extremes and indifferent to sharp doctrinal imperatives or social causes. Skeptical of the Pentecostal revivalism of other denominations and of the complex rituals of the Roman and Orthodox churches, Episcopalians placed themselves at the midpoint between Protestantism and Catholicism, thereby avoiding excesses of enthusiasm and sacerdotalism both.

Only rarely throughout American history were Episcopalians or their institutionalized church to be found at the forefront of great movements and causes, religious or political. In the Revolutionary period, most American Anglicans (in the Northern colonies particularly) were loyal to the Crown. Anglican clergy furnished the loyalists with their chief pamphleteers. When the war of independence ended, many emigrated rather then accept the consequences of defeat. Later, during the great westward migrations, the church stayed put where it first had taken root; it has remained for the most part an Eastern and urban establishment.

The Rutgers historian Philip J. Greven, in his recent book The Protestant Temperament, suggests that a fundamental expression of Anglican moderacy is a willingness to include all sorts and conditions of men in the church community - saints and sinners, regenerate and unregenerate, the saved and the damned. In this the Episcopal Church differs radically from Evangelicals, for whom the personal experience of spiritual rebirth is the essential aspect of commitment and belonging. For this reason, the church has been accused of compromise and fence-straddling, its formalism regarded as a sign of emptiness of hypocrisy.

The modern reformation

Observers who read or reported about the schism within the Episcopal Church in 1977 believed it had been provoked by a single issue: the ordination of women as priests, narrowly approved in September, 1976, by Episcopalian bishops, priests, and lay delegates meeting in General Convention in Minneapolis. The dispute was perceived as only another skirmish in the struggle of equal rights for women - a skirmish that just happened to break a traditionally conservative church in two. But on the contrary, the schism manifested much deeper, and cumulative, impulses within the church that were stimulated by the political turbulence of the 1960s. The issues resolved into a question that the Berkeley scholar Charles Glock had summarized in the title of his 1967 sociological study of the Episcopal Church: To Comfort or to Challenge? Was the mission of the church to act within the world as an agent of change or to withdraw from the world and purge itself of quotidian concerns? At the time, the answer to this question seemed obvious to Episcopal leaders, if not to their flock: the institutional church had indeed abdicated its social and political responsibilities. Its redemption - even its survival - depended upon its emergence into the light of secular day, where, as the Church Militant, it would join other political forces to transform society.

As Early as 1966, when a commission of the Episcopal Church chaired by Nathan Pusey began its assessment of Episcopalian theological training, it was already apparent that large numbers of ministers and priests chafed at the routines of parish work, while the quality of applicants to seminaries had seriously deteriorated. The excitement lay outside the institutional church, and it was unlikely that even a church with a history of political moderation could fail to be dazzled by it. In such times it was by no means certain which of many contradictory gusts should set the direction of the weather vane. What would be the marching orders? Civil rights? Poverty? Whose poverty? Colonialist exploitation? The Vietnam war? All these crusades found eager recruits among newly ordained priests and among older priests and rectors who had come to doubt the significance of the unchanging church in a violently changing society. Their voices were persuasive and ultimately converted many in the national church leadership - including the Presiding Bishop and bureaucrats - who had at their disposal considerable financial resources to invest in the many causes that presented themselves, either by supplication or by blackmail.

It was not only that such church activists turned attention to all these secular and fashionable causes - their license the greater due to the prevailing political passivity of local congregations. Their hands also turned to the refashioning of the institutional church from within. Here, in a "revolution from above," the Episcopal Church also began to incorporate and accommodate the other gentler, introspective styles and causes of the Sixties, which were of the self-indulgent, rather than radical activist, mode: guitar liturgies, rap sessions, light shows. These were designed to effect within the church a new emphasis upon loving and caring, even at the expense of belief and Christian commitment. (So it was - a bit further down the road - that when Barbara Walters interviewed the first woman ordained as a priest under new dispensation, the colloquy went: "Reverend Means, do you consider yourself to be a woman of strong religious faith?" The response: "No, Barbara, I do not. But I do believe in caring, and that's what religion is all about, isn't it?")

By the late 1960s, national church authorities were dispensing millions of dollars of missionary funds collected from parishes and dioceses to radical political movements across the land - Black Power groups, migrant farm workers, Afro-American thespians, native American organizers, Puerto Rican nationalists, Marxist documentary film producers, and Third World liberation movements. While many groups and projects may have deserved support, virtually none had Christian or religious content. And all too frequently the paternalistic enthusiasm of these Episcopalian benefactions inspired contempt in their recipients. In 1969, when the Church-in-Convention in South Bend, Indiana, voted funds for a radical Black Economic Development Council, Mohammed Kenyatta, one of its leaders, seized a microphone from the hands of the startled Presiding Bishop, John Hines, to amplify his contempt:

"For the first time in history, you have faced the issue of your racism, and you have responded. The quality of your response can be judged by the degree to which you have sought what was acceptable to us rather than what was acceptable to you and your God. You chose to use us to be your middlemen. That is your choice and it is unacceptable... .it is neither hot nor cold. Canon Carter spewed its contents out of his mouth and you were helpless; you were exposed as slaves to your own fears."

In 1970, the national church leadership reached its peak of politicization, demanding immediate withdrawal of American forces in Vietnam; drastic dismantling of U.S. strategic forces in other parts of the world; support for Black Panther militants; and church funding for political strikes. Only when the IRS warned that the church levies for such programs would jeopardize its tax-exempt status did the Presiding Bishop back down. By then, however, a radicalized church establishment, in barely three years, had dispensed nearly $5 million to secular social action groups across the nation. Going out into a troubled world and snared in its political battles, the church leadership was now indistinguishable from it.

An open - door policy

As good a place as any to observe this reformation in the Episcopal Church is in its great cathedrals: St. John the Divine in New York City and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Here the inner tensions and confrontations have been most vividly displayed, often in theatrical form.

Since 1970 the diocese of New York, under the guidance of the Right Reverend Paul Moore, has suffered litigation and controversy both within the cathedral and in its relationship to the surrounding (and preponderantly black-Puerto Rican) community. With the bishop's moral and financial support, militant Puerto Rican squatters in 1970 occupied church-owned tenements on land adjacent to the cathedral that had been designated for the construction of an Episcopalian home for the aged; and there they have remained to this day. The elderly, removed from a nearby church retirement home condemned as unsafe, have been provided with no alternate lodging. Bishop Moore at the time achieved celebrity for this odd moral act of robbing old Peter to pay poor Paul; but he has been plagued ever since by the consequences of it. Having abetted the illegal seizure, he repudiated it in 1977, when public opinion turned against the squatters. Since then, from time to time, the Puerto Ricans make known their anger at him by staging sit-ins and disrupting church services. Last year on Easter Sunday, to renew their claim, 200 pickets impeded the bishop's celebratory entry into the cathedral.

Inside the cathedral close, affairs were no more tranquil. Dissension within the cathedral staff, the arbitrary hiring and firing of a comptroller, organist, choir director, two black choristers, and many others prompted one trustee to remark that the dean, James P. Morton, was "ruling the cathedral staff with fear." A new comptroller, who is alleged to have drawn the bishop's attention to procedural irregularities in the cathedral in 1977, was summarily dismissed, having served only ten months. The bishop, a leader in current movements to protect homosexual and lesbian rights, houses near his office a deposed Roman Catholic priest and his companion, a male hairdresser.

Both the bishop and his dean have been in the front rank of social reform movements since the 1960s, and have offered the cathedral as a laboratory for many of them. Moore, a millionaire liberal schooled at Groton and Yale, is perhaps prototypical of a guilty Establishment for whom the 1960s was the occasion for repentant activism. In the early 1960s he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., picketed the White House for peace in Vietnam, was tear-gassed in Saigon at an antiwar rally, and generally employed his purple robes and pectoral peace cross for the familiar causes of that disturbed decade. The once-famous Cathedral boys' choir has been liquidated, and the Cathedral School is now de facto secular. "It is interesting to note," several school trustees reported, "that our openness to all national, religious, and cultural backgrounds has been so extreme that now Episcopalians are the small minority, and the greater majority of the school population is non-Christian, and we believe Canon Landon is the only Episcopalian on the full-time faculty." But this was said before Canon Landon, too, was dismissed.

If the dean's cassock has been singed, he shows no sign of discomfort. "I'm the one who's gotten all kinds of upstage looks for having traditions over and above the Anglican institutions," he told the New York Times last January. "To accuse me of wanting a more Anglican school - that's not where I'm coming from."

The cathedral, now reaching out - urbi et orbi - makes itself available as a theatrical facility, for light shows, Shinto rites, Sufi work shops in dervish dancing (advertised in New York's Village Voice at $30 a throw, but "bring a towel for sitting on the floor"), ceremonies for striking farm workers and for Indians at Wounded Knee, memorials for Kent State victims, special anniversary masses for Hair and political protest rallies. Dotson Rader, once of SDS and as trendy a fellow as the bishop himself, has described in Esquire his thrill at persuading Bishop Moore to use the cathedral for a huge antiwar ceremony organized by anti-Trotskyite Marxists in December, 1971: the cathedral, he said, was important because "it was the largest hall in Manhattan outside of Madison Square Garden." Rader was thrilled by the bizarre sight of Andy Warhol standing at the back of the nave, "his Catholic mind reeling at the dirty words used in Mailer's play before the high altar, and the kids smoking pot., In church! 'It's just like .... uh, you know .... it's just like the Dom (a discotheque) used to be! Like the Sixties! It's fabulous! "' As Sally Quinn (she of the Washington Post) reported at the time: "The air inside the enormous cathedral was redolent of incense and marijuana. 'Anybody got any rolling papers?' someone yelled as Bishop Moore, in long purple robes and a cross of peace, stepped out between Charlie Mingus's amplifiers to speak."

One New York churchman has asked that, at some future time, the cathedral, defiled, be formally reconsecrated. But by then, one might have thought, was it a cathedral any more, or a recreation hall for the counterculture?

On the west coast, 3,000 miles away, kindred if less spectacular episodes have occurred in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral since the late 1960s, when the Episcopal Bishop of California, Kilmer Myers, opened the great doors of his cathedral to secular political activities. In 1969, when the cathedral began to be used for antiwar, pro-Hanoi rallies, a smartly dressed audience of peace delegates watched in stunned fascination as a guerrilla theater group in military khaki interrupted the ceremonies. Their leader - relieving the Right Reverend John E. Hines, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, of the microphone and "standing with his back to a white-robed choir of pink cheeked boys" - denounced the worshippers (according to a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle) as being "on the side of the greater evils of racism, militarism, and imperialism." An intimate friend of Bishop Moore of New York, Myers once called Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, a "warmonger." His consciousness as lofty as his conscience, Myers welcomed Bay Area transcendentalists of Grace Cathedral for light shows, guitar liturgies, nature festivals, and pagan ceremonials. In 1971, during one nature ceremony in the cathedral, a decidedly ecumenical audience watched reverently as the poet Allen Ginsberg, wearing a deer mask, joined others similarly garbed to ordain Senators Alan Cranston and John Tunney as godfathers of animals (Cranston of the Tule elk and Tunny of the California brown bear). The cathedral dean was dimly seen through marijuana smoke, wrestling atop the high altar to remove a cameraman, while movie projectors simultaneously cast images of buffalo herds and other endangered species on the walls and ceilings, to the accompaniment of rock music. Although Episcopal priests had protested that this vigil would be a "profane employment of this sacred house of worship," Bishop Myers joined in nonetheless and offered prayers for a "renaissance of reverence for life in America."

The perturbation in these two cathedrals has had the odd quality of arising not from any religious differences or issues, but from quite ordinary strife among mortals in a situation where authority, custom, and conventions have broken down. The ensuing power struggle, in New York in particular, bears no resemblance to great religious quarrels over faith and liturgy. As Andre Suares once wrote, "There are no heresies in a dead religion."

Before these strange events of the Sixties, the inner diversity of the Episcopal Church was to be seen in differing modes, habits, and observances that reflected differing attitudes toward the sacramental, redemptive, and missionary tasks of the Christian faith. What Low Churchman, stumbling innocently into an Anglo-Catholic parish church, would not have been overwhelmed by the smell of incense, the strange genuflections, the incomprehensible bobbings up and down of elaborately attired priests, private confessions, and even - perish forbid! - the adoration of Mary? What Anglo-Catholic, in turn, would fail to be chilled by the austerity of a Protestant Episcopal parish where congregations failed to observe the familiar practices of obeisance and kneeling; where Holy Communion often was optional; where ministers (not priests) saved time by cutting liturgy to the (minimum prescribed) bone; where sermons, not sacraments, exhortations rather than supplications, were the order of the day? Especially would Anglo-Catholics recoil from the evangelical tone of the Low Church service, so embarrassing in its exaggeration of the soul-saving, rather than the supplicating, function of the church?

But buffering these contradictory tendencies were large numbers of temperate Middle Churchmen, reluctant to force issues and content with a church that, while not succumbing to the pressures of the secular world, still was tolerant of and even at home with all its ambiguities and possibilities. Agreeing upon essential elements of faith, the threefold church of Anglo-Catholics or High Churchmen, Middle Churchmen, and Evangelicals or Low Churchmen remained, until the 1960s, in peaceful equilibrium.

In the early 1960s, the theologian Robert Fitch had noticed the first signs of a new theological Zeitgeist on the West Coast. In his book Odyssey of the Self-Centered Self (1961), he explored the implications of a then popular play by Archibald MacLeish: J.B.

In this moving, if subversive, take-off on the Book of Job, MacLeish had portrayed a cold, ironic, and calculating god. Tormented by this unloving deity, J.B. recoiled, seeking warmer fonts of comfort and discovering them in Mother Nature - a sweet and gentle spirit to be found among the forsythia and in the green leaves of woods and in the wind on the water.

The succor to be found in nature goes somewhat against the grain of experience, however. As Adlai Stevenson once remarked, nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species. Nonetheless, lost souls suspicious of moral absolutes and finding romance and drama in the mythos of existential man could make nature their temple. They would perfect it with as much energy as they invested in perfecting themselves. Thus whales and porpoises, unlucky New England clams, the snail darter and the furbish lousewort could become objects of veneration, and (as John Noonan, a professor of law at Berkeley, recently pointed out) a bird or a blade of grass in a national park could be entitled to greater legal protection than a five month old human fetus. Environmentalism and pop psychology - the Sierra Club and the Esalen Institute - would join to lead the faithful from tradition's stuffy parlor.

Not to be left behind, Episcopal leaders recognized the need for a new, warm, and responsive church. W.H. Auden, before MacLeish, pointed to a distinct theological possibility. In his play For the Time Being (1944), he had Herod devise a mock prayer for equalizers who required a more "human" Divinity:

O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of water clocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his homework, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.

So the Deity could be tailored to the current fashion: a nice, cool, relaxed God could be procured, as presented in the theological best seller of 1965, Are You Running With Me, Jesus? Now he would situationally jog. God would be a friend, and Christianity a celebration of life.

Dispensations and uncommon prayer

In the Episcopal Church, then, a trend parallel with the radical action which persisted and evolved beyond the Sixties was directed toward an increasingly frightened and hedonistic culture. When it was suddenly realized that not only blacks should be liberated, but everyone, American churches became less emphatic about canonic and other restrictions. Some Catholic style setters after Vatican II achieved more notoriety than Protestants only because in them it was, at the time, more bizarre. When Sister Jacqueline and the religious school she headed were laicized in 1967, she argued that "the Christian grace is translated into every secular institution today." A nun's vow had circumscribed her power: "I had given someone else the authority to limit or veto my decisions." The distinctions separating the church from society had vanished. But such deeds as Sister Jacqueline's were the consequence not of a changed church but of individuals breaking away from its constraints. With respect to the celibacy vows of Catholic priests, which conflicted with the new findings and dispensations of Masters and Johnson, it could be argued that such constraints were dehumanizing, depriving a good Catholic of warmth of marriage and family. In the Episcopal Church, however, where celibacy was never an obligation, the new liberation ethic turned instead on the rights of clergy to dissolve their own marriages - a practice that the late Bishop James Pike of California pioneered, demonstrating to his brothers-in-Christ the bold practice of sequential monogamy.

The point at issue here, in the early stages of the unraveling of official Episcopalian mores, was that while some individual Roman Catholics took off after Sister Jacqueline in search of self-fulfillment, the Catholic Church remained unruffled. The Episcopal Church - or at least the church in General Convention - did not. It was, after all, impossible for a church to deny to laity the same right of divorce as was practiced by prominent clerics; so in 1973 the Church-in-Convention revised long-established sanctions against remarriage of divorced persons and thus explicitly abandoned its doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. In 1976, in General Convention again, it staked out its position favorable to abortion. From this point on, all things were possible: attention could be paid to the liberation of other classic victims - lesbians and homosexuals in particular would have the same rights and privileges as others. And thus - as Soviet speech writers would put it - "it was not accidental that" once the Church-in-Convention had deemed the ordination of women as fitting and proper, the Bishop of New York lost no time in ordaining a lesbian priestess - whom he dispatched with speed to his colleague, the Bishop of California, who in turn quickly shipped her across the bay to a Berkeley church, where she now is lodged. If the salvific purpose of the church was to be chiefly that of rescuing its priests, bishops, and other clergy from their obligations and orders, then the dispensation brought a new amazing grace to a church that never before had found it necessary.

In framing these ordinances and dispensations on manners and morals, the reformers in the Church-in-Convention could not, of course, impose the new license upon all practicing Episcopalians. Dioceses, parishes, and congregations could, after all, exercise local options, and so resist the enlightened bureaucracy of the national Church-in-Convention. It remained, for example, within the discretion of a diocesan bishop to decline to ordain women (and lesbians) as priests, and it remained the right of parish trustees to decide whether the personal habits of a rector or priest could be considered among his credentials. The church and all its 2 million communicants could not be compelled to move in lockstep. Diehards did point out the danger that some of the new rules enacted in Convention would create an unbridgeable chasm between the Episcopal Church in North America and communions elsewhere that, like the Eastern Orthodox Church, would regard the Apostolic succession as broken and invalidated once the ordination of women was allowed. But such considerations, important as they may have been to theologians concerned with ecumenical ties, were of less immediate importance to most churchgoers.

If Episcopalians were tolerant of the church's pronouncements on manners and morals, they were up in arms when the Church-in-Convention, in 1976, by a narrow and hotly contested vote, approved a drastically new version of the church prayer book, one that (according to a straw poll) was found acceptable by a mere 11 percent of the laity. This decision, unlike the earlier dispensations, applied uniformly and obligatorily to all provinces of church life. It is impossible to say whether the issue of women's ordination or that of the prayer book did more to provoke the ensuing schism. Probably for dissenting clergy the ordination issue - threatening the tradition of Apostolic succession - was paramount. But for most dissenting laity the renovation of the Book of Common Prayer must have been decisive: an Episcopal theologian described the book .... as the church's "operational center."...

Thus the long train of issues in dispute that led to the rupture in the Episcopal Church combined with politics and personal mores, belief and liturgy. What lent particular vehemence to quarrels over these matters was the fact that all of the new policies, regardless of their origin, were finally handed down by national leadership, as policy, to communicants, churchgoers, rectors, and priests, most of whom had been singularly uninterested in playing activist politics with their church. Until recently, the broad church had been able to enjoy its inner diversities precisely because they were formally constituted in separate orders, each of which exercised self-restraint. When matters were forced at a national level, by an organized minority of the church, the institution ultimately proved incapable of withstanding the strain.

Does immanence prevail over transcendence, or is it the other way around? This abstruse question, incomprehensible or absurd to non-believers, is critical to Christian theology. Some have denied the incompatibility of these very different conceptions of the Deity: divine immanence (God within nature, manifest in the mundane world) and divine transcendence (God above and removed from the world) need not be mutually exclusive, it is said, but rather correlative and reinforcing.

This question is at the center of the disaffection with religion in America, by no means confined to the Episcopal Church. As the Lutheran scholar Peter Berger argued in the New Oxford Review (November, 1977) "Secularism as a world view means, above all, a denial of transcendence." If God is conceived as evident in the world, then the faithful can become Christian soldiers and the symbols of an essentially transcendental religion may be employed as weapons in political conflicts. The institutional church, besieged or seduced by powerful mundane forces, has always faced the temptation of joining them as an auxiliary of the Zeitgeist. Its symbols, after all, are politically potent when employed in real world struggles. The institutional church can be refashioned to deliver secular goods in packages fancier than those offered by ordinary mental health clinics, day-care centers, national liberation movements, and political parties.

Immanentism in contemporary America now embraces leftish secular causes, but the Right, too, has its uses for a secularized Deity. In Nazi Germany, the German Christian Church appropriated Jesus as an Aryan follower of Hitler's movement; during the Depression, Bruce Barton (in his book The Man Nobody Knows) portrayed Christ as a successful businessman.

The "failure of nerve" in the churches is manifest in the conception that the world should set the agenda for the Church. The irony is that, since the world changes its agenda capriciously, the Church becomes directionless.

But even from a wholly secular perspective, one might ask whether the deliquescence of institutional religion should be welcomed with enthusiasm by liberal humanists who care for the future of the American polity. An essential contribution of Biblical, Judeo-Christian belief is, after all, a conviction that all human undertakings are less than ultimate; what is ultimate and perfect remains forever transcendent. Tocqueville, commenting on this understanding as it applied to America, once wrote:

There is no religion which does not place the object of man's desires above and beyond the treasures of the earth, and which does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses. Nor is there any which does not impose on man some sort of duties to his kind, and thus draws him at times from the contemplations of himself. This occurs (even) in religions the most false and dangerous. Religious nations are therefore naturally strong on the very point on which democratic nations are most weak; which shows of what importance it is for men to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal.

The collapse of transcendency, as Episcopalians now know from experience, transfers the religious community to the domain of secular politics. William Blake, although deeply religious, was to be found at the dividing point between sacred and profane messianism when he declaimed in his famous poem:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Now shall my sword sleep in my hand.
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

But many a once-gentle land, in our time, has been laid waste and reduced to gulag. What happens then?

As the Reverend George Rutler tells it, a missionary society in England recently asked a bishop in Uganda, "What can we send your people? You are being persecuted. Your archbishop has been martyred. What can we send you?" The answer came back: Not food, not medicine; 250 clerical collars. This was the explanation: "It is your Western prejudice which thinks this an odd request. You must understand, when our people are being rounded up to be shot, they must be able to spot their priests."

How far may schism go? A great irony in the situation I have described is that a devotion to institutional continuity - the natural reaction in a time of uncertainty - causes many within the established Church to swallow the unpalatable, while the secession of those who resolutely reject the unpalatable removes from the Church a check against even further deterioration. Some of the most bitter opponents of the new church may be the conservatives who stay behind.

One consequence may thus be the further degeneration of institutional religion in America. But the world of the spirit, like that of nature, abhors a vacuum. What spirit will fill the choir stalls? Once a spiritual order becomes the auxiliary of a secular Zeitgeist, it loses even the utility it professes as its justification; politicians, after all, are better at politics than clergy; Shintoism is better performed by Shintoists; marriage, divorce, and psychiatric counseling and social work are done just as well by trained professionals as by clergy who have lost confidence or interest in their essential calling, which has been deemed - to use a quaint expression - salvific. There are those within and outside the institutional church to whom the recovery of the salvific means the recovery of the Church itself.

Three Readers' Letters
and the Author's Reply

Paul Seabury ["Trendier Than Thou," October] thinks the schism in the Episcopal Church is not the result of a "skirmish" issue (i.e., the ordination of women) but comes from "impulses deep within the Church." His view is that the Church has abdicated its reason for existence - to be the means of salvation - by cravenly letting the world set the agenda for it.

I grant that since the 1960s many in the church (both Episcopal and Roman Catholic) have been tempted to see themselves mainly as the "auxiliary of a secular Zeitgeist," but I believe the present crisis of Christian identity springs from an even deeper source than mere loss of nerve. The more serious problem is not trendiness but an incapability of maintaining a certain supernatural world view. Many sincere Christians are no longer able to live as if reality were composed of gradations of being; as if, for example, there were some among us who have special "powers" to command assent.

If Mr. Seabury is so anxious to retain those Church structures that promote transcendence, I wonder if he would be willing to submit to a pope. In the face of an "infallible" decree, would he be willing to admit himself in error even when he knew himself to be right? Now that really would be untrendy!

Since the advent of biblical and historical criticism, many Christians have had to suffer a "double-consciousness." Though fondly attached to a supernatural world view of tradition and authority, they cannot let go of the newly experience imperatives of intellectual criticism and individual conscience. Many Christians cherish ancient structures but they also know these structures to be historically conditioned. No tradition is identical with God. Any tradition is subject to reform, even radical change.
- The Reverend Harry W. McBrien
- Saint Augustine Church, Hartford, Conn.

Paul Seabury writes: "If Episcopalians were tolerant of the church's pronouncement on manners and morals, they were up in arms when the Church-in-Convention, in 1976, by a narrow and hotly contested vote, approved a drastically new version of its church prayer book ...." I happened to be at that particular General Convention and was present when the vote was taken. The vote totals were: clergy, 107 yes, 3 no, 3 divided (which means the delegation split); in the lay order, 90 yes, 12 no, 9 divided. I would not exactly call that a narrow vote.
- The Reverend Charles H. Riddle, III
- East Chore Chapel , Virginia Beach, VA.

It is difficult to decide whether Mr. Seabury's naked bias or stunning ignorance of the course of recent history in the American Episcopal Church is the more repellent.

To take one minor point, regarding my own ordination as priest (not priestess), I had been for some time a deacon, as had many other women, and the closeness of many of our ordinations to the decision of the General Convention was perfectly natural. Nor was I "shipped" to California. I had for two years been living and working in the Bay Area before I was ordained priest, and I settled in a Berkeley parish because it was (a) congenial and (b) convenient. Neither my ordination nor my present status as graduate-student cum worker-priest were the result of any obscure (or blatant) political designs.

- The Reverend Ellen M. Barrett
- Oakland, California

Paul Seabury replies:

"Praise," Lord Acton once said, "is the shipwreck of historians." If this is so, considering some of these responses, mine is a safe voyage. Judging from the number of letters my article inspired, it seems to have touched sensitive nerves. I thought it might.

I want to emphasize that the troubles I perceived within the Episcopal Church, leading to the current crisis, are not to be found - nor did they originate - in the vast majority of parishes throughout the country. On the contrary, they originated within the national church establishment and the Church-in-Convention. If in charting the causes and course of this historic breach I appeared to cast odium upon wide parts of the church, I apologize; that was the opposite of my intention.

Readers, among them Reverend Riddle, draw attention to several errors in my article - most particularly my erroneous account of the convention vote on the new prayer book. They are correct - the vote was not close. The vote on ordination of women was close. The ordination vote, coming before that of the prayer book, was the convention's decisive test of strength. When the vote fell one way, the strength of opposition collapsed.

Next , I apologize to Reverend Barrett for suggesting by flawed language that she had been transferred from New York to California. She was ordained by the New York bishop, and then appointed in northern California, her home ....

The Reverend Harry McBrien's thoughtful letter deserves a thoughtful response. He is correct: contemporary Christians must "suffer" a "double consciousness." Those who, like some extreme Evangelicals and extreme liberal reformers, avoid the difficult issue he raises either lock themselves out of the "immanent world" or lose all sense of the transcendent and historical Church. But I was writing to neither of these extreme tendencies .......

But there are serious problems in Reverend McBrien's argument: they concern the relationship of form and hierarchy to conscience and criticism. Form and hierarchy are not necessary antagonists to conscience and criticism. They can and do provide an ordered protection of conditions in which both faith and conscience can safely flourish. An anarchy of cults is more productive of fanaticism and intolerance than the institutional church. During medieval witchcraft persecutions, for example, it was not the papacy but rather Catholic and Protestant vigilantes who instigated and supervised the fury.

The historical forms of the Church should not be trifled with simply to accommodate a passing secular cause. As far as I'm concerned, qualified men and women both merit access to all secular professions. The serious issue of women's ordination is different, raising a fundamental question of a religious character: Is the Apostolic succession just an anthropological oddity or is it rather a chain linking the "living church" to Christ when present on earth?....