Why He Is Still Episcopalian
Because I’ve bombarded y’all with bad news over the last few posts, here’s something hopeful. After publishing the thing the other day about Virginia Theological Seminary, I had an e-mail exchange with a young, conservative Episcopal priest friend of mine who said that things are very bad, but by no means hopeless. I asked him if he would write something for this blog that explained why he still has hope, serving in TEC as a theologically and morally conservative cleric. He sent me this, and I am pleased to publish it:
The demise of the Episcopal Church is just a statistical model — projecting the current rate of decline till the y-axis gets to zero. Of course it won’t actually cease to exist by 2050. That’s not how such models work in the real world. Which isn’t to say that TEC’s decline isn’t catastrophic (it is), or that our leaders aren’t whistling dixie as things fall apart (they are). That’s partly due to the fact that no one knows what to do, and partly to the fact that many of them are totally bought-in to the fashionable heresies that exacerbate (if not cause) the decline, and that those who aren’t are scared of those who are. It’s sort of like the Democratic Party in that respect.What I expect will happen is that TEC will become increasingly like the New England heirs of the Puritans — the Unitarians and Congregationalists. They barely exist, but still occupy buildings in New England, still maintain some institutions, and still even hold some sway in and around other important institutions (like Harvard). As an example, the (Episcopal) Church Pension Fund is one of the richest private entities in the US — on a par with some of the bigger university endowment funds. On the strength of that alone, Episcopalianism will continue to be a “thing” for the foreseeable future. That kind of Episcopalian legacy influence will continue among the cloud people (i.e. the elites), for better or worse (and it’s a mix), even if all the parishioners were to dry up totally. Think of the National Cathedral. It isn’t going away soon, even if it ceases (has ceased?) to be a worshiping community in any meaningful sense.
But at the same time, there are signs of hope. The Bishop Spong types are dying out. The younger generation of clergy tends to be credally orthodox, albeit socially liberal: they don’t cross their fingers when they recite the creed, as did previous generations of clergy, but they believe in gay marriage and read Ta-Nehesi Coates. On the other hand, the most dynamic intellectual movement in the Episcopal Church, and maybe in all of Anglicanism (which, NB, remains the third largest Christian body in the world, after the Catholic the Orthodox Churches) is probably the one centered around The Living Church Foundation. The writers for their blog and magazine are all conservative on matters of sexuality, and they have more PhD’s per capita than any other grouping of Anglican theological types of which I am aware. The group is also to some extent international and ecumenical (there are a few Roman Catholics in their ranks). They formed in “loyal opposition,” as they have said, to the Episcopal Church as concerning TEC’s revisions to its teaching on sexuality. These are some of the smartest clergy and academics in and around TEC. They skew young, and there are quite a few of them.Also, the few remaining conservative bishops have some of the most sterling theological credentials in the room — Dallas, and Tennessee, for example. Sumner in Dallas has a PhD in theology from Yale (from back when Yale was actually an important center of anglophone theology, with George Linbeck and the post-liberals etc.), and Bauerschmidt of TN has a D.Phil from Oxford, supervised by Oliver O’Donovan. Another glimmer of hope: the diocese of Springfield (Illinois) just elected a solidly traditionalist priest to be their bishop. We will see if his election gets the requisite consents from the larger Church. That will be something of a test as to whether big-tent liberalism still holds sway in TEC, or whether the Maoist types have gained the upper hand. Georgia recently elected a credally orthodox, big-tent liberal committed to welcoming conservative clergy. A small thing perhaps, but worth noting.
And there remain scores of variously sound parishes throughout the land, including some of the largest and most financially stable. One thinks of Incarnation (Dallas), St. Martin’s (Houston), St. George’s (Nashville), St. John’s (Savannah), All Souls (OKC), Church of the Advent (Boston), inter alia.Then there are the shiftings in the broader Anglican Communion to take into account. They bear upon the status of TEC and its future, as well as the status and future of the ACNA (formed by conservative emigrants from TEC over the past couple of decades, though now with a rising generation of “native born” clergy and lay leaders, as well as converts from other [non-Anglican] traditions, who did not live through the bitter ruptures of former years), and the relationship between the two bodies. The Anglican Communion continues to be overwhelmingly small-o orthodox and centered demographically in the global south. God knows how all of these siftings and maneuverings will shake out in the end, but it will certainly have ramifications for Anglicanism in North America. Those wheels grind very slowly — the Lambeth Conference meets only every ten years, for example.So there are solid reasons for hope with respect to the future, even while the catastrophic demographic decline of TEC is very real. I tend to regard it all as the fulfillment, in our little quadrant of Christ’s body, of the oft-quoted Ratzinger prophecy from the 60s. The wheat is being sifted, the flock culled, the gold purified in fire, etc. etc. It isn’t fun, but nothing in sacred scripture or the history of the Church, and certainly nothing about our Lord’s earthly life and teaching, should lead us to expect that those who seek his face will have an easy time of it.But in sum, I remain an Episcopalian because:(1) I learned to follow Jesus in this communion, having been baptized and brought up in the Episcopal Church, and educated in Episcopal institutions. If it pleases God to grant me an entrance into his kingdom at the end of my earthly pilgrimage, it will be in no small part because of my formation in the Episcopal Church. Even if I eventually wind up becoming Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or joining the ACNA, I will have done so because of my formation as an Episcopalian. It was here that I encountered and learned to love Our Lord and Our Lady, Augustine, Maximus, JH Newman, Silouan the Athonite, et al.
(2) Therefore I can say sincerely of the Episcopal Church, as the Psalmist said of Jerusalem: I love her very rubble, and am moved to pity even for her dust.(3) It is still possible for me to preach and teach small-o orthodox and small-c catholic things in the Episcopal Church, and I can still worship with traditional liturgical forms. No one hinders me. That may not be true in some dioceses, but it remains true in many. Hence I still feel sort of bound by St. Benedict’s warnings against gyrovaguery — i.e. bound by the principle of stability. I didn’t bring myself to this spiritual place – the providence of God did. So I am loath to abandon it.(4) I still find life and ministry as an Episcopalian to be rich and rewarding — spiritually and intellectually. That’s certainly true in my local (parochial) context, and even more broadly via various intra mural associations. One thinks of things like the Communion Partners, as well as the the various traditionalist (or traditionalist-friendly) devotional societies that are still active – Society of the Holy Cross, the Guild of All Souls, the Society of King Charles the Martyr, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Guild of All Souls, etc. etc.The days are evil to be sure, but there are non-delusory reasons to be hopeful.