Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Episcopal Church as Rebellious Teenager

While cruising through the morning's news, I came across a link (h/t: Thinking Anglicans) to a piece published at the Huffington Post, and authored by none other than the Canon to the Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson, Ph.D. It seems that Canon Robertson is an official visitor from ECUSA to the current meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England (July 5-13). He took the occasion to remind his English hosts that the Episcopal Church (USA) is "independent but connected", as far as its relations with the Anglican Communion are concerned. He began with the official 815 Capsule Version™ of our Church's history:
The Rev. William White spent several years with the group we now know as the Founding Fathers. As chaplain to the Continental Congress, he met with them, dined with them, swapped late-night stories with them (his next-door neighbor was Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence). White's unique role gave him a front row seat to the debates of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest concerning the single most important issue of the day: independence. How could a collection of British colonies live into a new reality as a united, self-governing nation? How could they maintain the best of the values they had inherited while creating a new system that would fit their context? As they deliberated, White listened ... and learned.

White was also an ordained Church of England minister. Having witnessed firsthand the birth of a new Republic, he turned his attention to the labor pains of a Church that could no longer be "of England" in name or composition, but neither could it be wholly unfamiliar. Through the Constitution that White wrote for this Episcopal Church, as it would become known, he helped create "a church government that will contain the constituent principles of the Church of England, and yet be independent of foreign jurisdiction or influence." Actually, this was no newborn he was helping along, but rather an adult child ready to strike out on its own, leaving the nest and creating a life separate from the expectations of its parent.
An "adult child"? If that phrase accurately describes the nascent Church at the end of the eighteenth century, then how, pray tell, does one account for its 21st-century regression to being a rebellious teenager? Let's face facts: the Episcopal Church (USA) has done more to snub the Anglican Communion than any other single church among its members: for references, see this post, this post, this post, and many more at this page. (In fact, the Presiding Bishop went out of her way to make the snub personal to the Church of England itself.)

The Rev. Canon Dr. Robertson continues with his history lesson for the erudition of the Brits, and draws a most inapt parallel with early church beginnings:
That parent, unsurprisingly, did not immediately embrace its child's new status. White used the term "Episcopal," the Greek term for "bishop," to describe this entity, and yet he could not convince Church of England leadership to consecrate indigenous bishops for the fledgling Church. In some ways, the situation was not that different from what was experienced by the first-century believers in Antioch, who desperately wanted the support and connection with the "mother Church," but at the same time were taking steps in their own governance and mission that reflected their geographic and ethnic context, and therefore looked quite different from what the Twelve had started in Jerusalem. Even so, while the English Church used the appointment system to propagate its ecclesiastical hierarchy, American bishops, said White, would be elected . . . and not simply by clergy, but by lay representatives as well. [Obligatory reference to ECUSA's unique polity omitted.] And in a land where there would be no king, neither would there be an archbishop. Rather, the head of this new Church would be a Presiding Bishop, reflecting the principles of the young republic in which this Church had taken root.
Frankly, I find it impossible to reconcile the good Canon's version of our Church's history with the known facts. There was no "Presiding Bishop" created by the founding documents to be "the head of this new Church", much less a lead bishop "reflecting the principles of the young republic" -- see the details about the gradual establishment of that office, and its subsequent mushrooming into its current form, in this earlier post.

Moreover, the Church of England and its bishops were emphatically not unwilling to "embrace [their] child's new status." They simply had to eliminate certain procedural hurdles, and to iron out a few doctrinal differences, before they could proceed with consecrating an American bishop, all as explained (in painstaking detail -- which I know for many readers is the bugaboo of this blog) in this post, in which there are full links to all the historical documents. There, one will learn, for example, that far from being unable to "convince Church of England leadership to consecrate indigenous bishops for the fledgling Church", the Rev. Dr. White was one of the first two American bishops to be consecrated by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury. That august official, together with the Archbishop of York, went to great lengths to accommodate the desire of the "fledgling Church" to have proper bishops to lead it, and to ensure that it was truly a church founded in the image of the Church of England, if not under its jurisdiction.

It was the Archbishops who successfully pushed the legislation through Parliament to enable them to consecrate foreigners as bishops without requiring them to subscribe to the Oath of Supremacy, by which all new ordinands acknowledged the monarch as the head of the established Church. It was the Archbishops who pored over the proposed new Book of Common Prayer for the American Church, and made numerous changes to bring it into doctrinal conformity with its English counterpart. And it was the Archbishops who specified the multiple attestations and letters of reference which they required concerning the moral and godly character of those whom they were being asked to consecrate. In the light of these facts, I would scarcely want to write, as does Canon Robertson (I have added the bold, to show you what I mean):
Through the years, misunderstandings and differences have continued. Oscar Wilde's famous maxim about two peoples separated by a common language has proven true for the Anglican Churches in these lands. It is not simply that different decisions made by one Church are often frustrating to the other. No, it is the difference in processes by which decisions are made in the respective Churches that can mystify and exasperate. Our directness can at times seem to be overly bold and unilateral, while the more nuanced ways of our transatlantic colleagues can appear heavy-handed and non-transparent. Singularly unhelpful labels such as "cowboy diplomacy" or "backroom politics" can prevent the real possibility of mutual understanding and appreciation of both Church's distinct contexts. At its worst, there can be now, as in William White's time, a refusal to see God at work in the other's polity and policies. Different does not have to mean deficient. And if we can let go of the infallibility of our opinions about our own context, perhaps we could learn from the other.
To my ear, this sounds just like the proverbial teenager talking back to her parents: the multiple "misunderstandings and differences" over the years, the "different decisions" made that are "frustrating" to each other, the unwillingness to see or appreciate how different from them she really is, and how she really, really needs her independence just now. How different ECUSA sounds now from the Church that first appealed to the Archbishops for assistance in these humble words:
Our forefathers, when they left the land of their nativity, did not leave the bosom of that Church over which your Lordships now preside; but, as well from a veneration for Episcopal government, as from an attachment to the admirable services of our Liturgy, continued in willing connection with their ecclesiastical superiors in England, and were subjected to many local inconveniences, rather than break the unity of the Church to which they belonged.

When it pleased the Supreme Ruler of the universe, that this part of the British empire should be free, sovereign, and independent, it became the most important concern of the members of our Communion to provide for its continuance. . . . [I]n accomplishing of this . . . it was nevertheless their earnest desire and resolution to retain the venerable form of Episcopal government handed down to them, as they conceive, from the time of the Apostles, and endeared to them by the remembrance of the holy Bishops of the primitive Church, of the blessed Martyrs who reformed the doctrine and worship of the Church of England, and of the many great and pious Prelates who have adorned that Church in every succeeding age. But however general the desire of compleating the Orders of our Ministry, so diffused and unconnected were the members of our Communion over this extensive country, that much time and negociation were necessary for the forming a representative body of the greater number of Episcopalians in these States; and owing to the same causes, it was not until this Convention that sufficient powers could be procured for the addressing your Lordships on this subject.

The petition which we offer to your Venerable Body is, that from a tender regard to the religious interests of thousands in this rising empire, professing the same religious principles with the Church of England, you will be pleased to confer the Episcopal character on such persons as shall be recommended by this Church in the several States here represented, full satisfaction being given of the sufficiency of the persons recommended, and of its being the intention of the general body of the Episcopalians in the said States respectively, to receive them in the quality of Bishops.
. . .

Whatever may be the event, no time will efface the remembrance of the past services of your Lordships and your predecessors. The Archbishops of Canterbury were not prevented, even by the weighty concerns of their high stations, from attending to the interests of this distant branch of the Church under their care. The Bishops of London were our Diocesans; and the uninterrupted although voluntary submission of our congregations, will remain a perpetual proof of their mild and paternal government. . . . Our hearts are penetrated with the most lively gratitude by these generous sentiments; the long succession of former benefits passes in review before us; we pray that our Church may be a lasting monument of the usefulness of so worthy a body; and that her sons may never cease to be kindly affectioned to the members of that Church, the Fathers of which have so tenderly watched over her infancy.

For your Lordships in particular, we most sincerely wish and pray, that you may long continue the ornaments of the Church of England, and at last receive the reward of the righteous from the great Shepherd and Bishop of souls.

We are, with all the respect which is due to your exalted and venerable characters and stations,

Your Lordships Most obedient and Most humble Servants,


Christ Church, Philadelphia.
October 5th, 1785.
Now that is a remarkable document for all the deputies to the new Church in America to have signed, is it not? And in case you are not following me yet, let me make the point as plain as I can.

Begin by looking at this typical allegation from a lawsuit brought by ECUSA and one of its dioceses against a parish which had the temerity to see things "differently" from them, and to vote to withdraw from the diocese (San Diego, in this case):
33. In 1973, after the geographic territory that included San Diego County became part of the newly-formed Diocese of San Diego, the mission congregation at St. John's sought permission from the Diocese to become a parish. In their application, the representatives of the prospective parish promised that St. John's Parish would be bound by and conform to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese.

34. In consideration for promises of subservience to the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church, the Diocese admitted St. John's Fallbrook as a Parish at the Primary Convention of the Diocese on December 7, 1973.
When it goes into court, ECUSA always makes this argument: that by making a promise to a diocese, in the process of being admitted, that it will be forever bound by whatever canons and constitutional provisions the national Church sees fit to adopt (no matter how far into the future), every new parish becomes perpetually subordinate to it, and must adhere to its promise no matter how much it disagrees with where the Church is going.

Perhaps, however, it is time to turn the tables on ECUSA, and cite in response the promise it made solemnly to the Church of England in order to get the latter to consecrate its first bishops. Look at this passage from the letter quoted and referenced above (page 44 of the book at this link; emphasis added):
We are unanimous and explicit in assuring your Lordships, that we neither have departed, nor propose to depart from the doctrines of your Church. . . .
In sum: the Episcopal Church (USA) should expect its parishes to keep their promises only when it sets the example, by keeping its own. It claims to have made its promise when it was an adult child -- so why is it now acting like a teenager?


  1. WOW!! What a Fairy tale. I have linked this on my blog. As a lover of history I very much like your posts on this subject. I have spent some time recently looking at the TEC and the American Civil war.

    This is not history but Fairy tales perhaps made up by "historians" at a law firm

  2. If this is the rebellious teenager stage, I hate to think what the wild college party animal stage is going to be like. I hope they are using birth control.

  3. It would appear from his fabrication of history to suit the ends of his superior, the Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson's Ph.D. must have been taken in that branch of linguistics for which Eric Blair coined the term "Newspeak." It certainly was not in ecclesial history.

    Where did the Episcopal Church find such people to elevate to positions of authority within its body? It is difficult to believe that there could be so many delusional people in the leadership of one such small organization as TEC.

    Mr. Robertson (a good Scots surname) must not be familiar with the Scottish noun that describes a person who would create such a version of TEC history—a tale described in Macbeth as "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The noun is spelled eedjit.

    Yet another instance of the ubiquity of Johnson's Law, I suppose.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  4. Perhaps I am the only one to find that there are different definitions for a contractual "promise" and a statement of not "proposing" to change anything.

    Perhaps it is possible that another analogy is more correct. Rather than a "rebellious tenager" and an alert parent, it is also possible that the parts being played are "alert adult" and "mentally ailing great-uncle." Either comparison betrays the arrogance of the author in assuming the mantle of the all-knowing Being.

    Perhaps it is also possible that the Anglican Communion (or international Anglican Church as is now newly-proposed) was originally founded after the Episcopal Church had been in existence. In this view, the "teenager" cum "alert adult," would not normally be expected to give absolute obedience to the sentiments engendered at periodic family reunions at Canterbury. Cousins, aged uncles, sibligs, and infant children are typically given free reign at such events to say or do anything while others test the potato salad. Some will or have grow(n) up to be engineers, artists, short, tall, etc. and have no apparent connection to the other members of the gathered clan. Yet they are all Smiths or Joneses due to their inherent makeup. Those who wish to sever their connections with the family will simply not attend the next picnic. It seems that this has already been done. In this case, your "rebellious teenager" happens to find some worth in remaining connected to the family -- even while recognizing he is not a clone. Interestingly, several cousins don't see this worth (when "teen" arrives), have changed their name to Smythe and now hold alternative in a different field.

  5. My apology for this correction to my post. The last line should read, "and now hold alternative PICNICS in a different field." Additionally, it is kind of you to allow space on your own moderated blog for comments such as mine. Thank you.

  6. Nick Pace, thank you for coming here to comment. I think that families in general are fully capable of judging when they have a rebellious teenager on their hands -- particularly when the snubs run all one way. No perspective of an "all-knowing Being" is necessary. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said (The Common Law, Lecture 1), "Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked."

    As for the legal difference between a statement of present intention and a promise in perpetuity, the matter is not so simple, because we are dealing with unincorporated associations of persons (the nascent Episcopal Church, and congregations before they incorporate to become admitted as a parish). In law, the members of such a group have no legal capacity to bind future members of the group in perpetuity; the most they express by such a promise is, again, a representation of their present intention at the time of signing.

  7. Ahhh, Curmudgeon! I wish you could have omitted the obligatory usage of "live into" in the first paragraph of the Canon's maunderings.

    Such drivel! They actually believe they are saying something of weight, do they not?

    Same old TEC talking points. Different day.

  8. Since the era of TEC's formation there has been a recurring confusion of language that could be interpreted in either theological/
    ecclesiological or legal terms. Although theology and law are rarely identical (at least in the US), prominent figures within the Church have frequently spoken and written as though they were one and the same (and I'm speaking here not of the immediate past, but going back at least 150 years).

    You can tell that there's something fundamentally askew, when present-day progressives appeal to the vision of latter-day conservatives for a defense of the hierarchical church principle, while some of their own heroes (William Lawrence of Church Pension Fund fame or Powell Dawley of the General Theological Seminary) attest to a very different twentieth century reality.

    Unlike some of my conservative brethren, I understand why - even with the extensive documentation provided here - many are reluctant to accept the notion of autonomous dioceses. You can find it in General Convention debates - if you can stand the boredom of reading through them (for the record, I got paid to do it) - and in memoirs and certain other accounts, but most of these are the preserve of a historically minded few.

    Just to complicate matters further, I've read recent scholarly histories of TEC written by people I know to be personally conservative who use hierarchical church language and similar studies by people I know to be personally liberal who employ phrases that imply a much greater degree of autonomy. In neither case, I imagine, was the writer thinking about the legal implication of such language; rather, they were trying to convey the structural oddity that is TEC. It's only if you go very closely into the actual language of formation that one begins to see that hierarchy has always been much more of a theological than a practical reality for Episcopalians (which, ironically, makes it very different from many of the younger provinces of the Anglican Communion).

  9. Jeremy Bonner, thank you for those insightful remarks. The matter is indeed complex, with many voices contributing to the polyphony over the years -- but the good Canon's gross misstatements (about the antipathy of the CoE towards us in 1785-87) could not be allowed to pass without being noted.