The Episcopal Church and The Secular World by 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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
, 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?....