As a Curmudgeon who regularly rants and rages against his own Episcopal Church (USA), I am often asked why I continue to remain a member, rather than be one who simply shakes the dust off his sandals and departs it, once and for all. Indeed, my situation is even more apparently twisted and paradoxical: a loyal Episcopalian (in the sense I explain below), I have nonetheless determined to fight its national and local leadership in civil court.
(N.B.: They started the lawsuits, not my client [the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin] -- which 815 has yet to name in any of its dozen or so lawsuits to reclaim what it says is property which that Diocese has "stolen." It appears that while ECUSA is willing to sue almost anyone individually, it most assuredly will not sue the entities that actually left it, lest they have to recognize their separate existence.)
I have pondered often and long about what my answer should be to the question so many times put to me. Of course, I have given tentative and partial answers: I still am able to worship in the same Episcopal parish which nurtured me from childhood, under an orthodox rector and a gloriously orthodox and traditional liturgy -- so why would I leave, etc.etc.?
Well, one of the things I love doing in my ever-nurturing and orthodox parish is teaching a Sunday forum for all worshippers -- and also non-worshippers, who simply come from the community at large. And this fall, I determined to depart from my usual curriculum of Christian history, Bible exegesis and apologetics, and to try something different.
I have based an entire course of sessions this time on a single literary work of unquestioned greatness: G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man (1925). When I read the book recently for the first time, I was bowled over by the simple common sense of its demonstrations and arguments, which penetrates unerringly through the fog of modern academia and liberalism, and lays bare the essence of why the Christian faith is so wonderful a gift to fallen man. And in the process of preparing for the forum sessions, I have found that Gilbert Keith Chesterton supplied all the confirmation I needed to explain to myself why I remain in the apostate Episcopal Church (USA).
Believe me, I have devoted almost five years to documenting and chronicling that apostasy on this Website -- nearly 1,000 posts to date. I feel my role as distantly akin (but far less important, of course) to that of John the Baptist -- who knew that he was not fit even to tie the sandal of Him who would come as the anointed of God, and yet who still left a record of his testimony to that fact: "This is the record of John ..." (Listen to the beautiful setting of that text by Orlando Gibbons, if you would like a restful interlude from the personal lucubrations here.)
In the same way, I feel as compelled as John the Baptist to leave a record of all that I have witnessed and personally seen go wrong, in recent years, with the only Church to which I have ever belonged. Whereas John foresaw God's holy miracle in the sending of His only Son, I have to deal with the much more mundane and ordinary degradation of that amazing miracle by the current episcopal leadership of my Church. And were I outside that Church, I could not feel the strength of my convictions as solidly. Indeed, it is that very strength which comes from being inside the Church -- and from seeing it go so badly astray -- which sustains me in maintaining this Weblog.
But now I find have a new ally, in the person of an Anglican who converted to Catholicism exactly eighty years ago: the incomparable G. K. Chesterton. For he saw so clearly the marvelous gift that Christianity was to man, and expressed the marvel of that gift so well, that all those of us who come afterward must forever be in his debt (including even C.S. Lewis, who pointed to Chesterton's The Everlasting Man as one of the books that led him out of atheism and into the faith).
The genius of Chesterton's book is that it is not a paean to Catholicism per se, even though it was written three years after he had converted wholly to that faith, and in that sense is faithful to Catholic doctrine. Instead, it is a sober and common-sensical look at what sets Christianity apart, as built upon the unique person of Jesus Christ (and without regard to the subsequent differences within the faith as to the nature and content of His revelation -- hence the book does not compel me to convert, even if that were an alternative).
What is it about Christianity, Chesterton asks, that sets it apart from the ever varying pursuits of man -- including other so-called religions? (In a subsequent post, I shall show how Chesterton makes mincemeat of the claim that all such other religions are merely different, and equally valid, ways to approach God.)
In answer to his question, Chesterton emphasizes toward the end of his book that Christianity itself, and mankind's worship of God as revealed through the human person of Jesus Christ, constitutes not only man's salvation, but his unique glory -- as having been made in God's own image precisely to be able to appreciate, and to partake of, that worship. He summarizes his argument first by dramatizing how different Christianity was from everything pagan that had preceded it:
Right in the middle of all these things [of the pagan, pre-Christian world] stands up an enormous exception. It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom, though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had even claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had even suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years-- that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word, instead of barking like a dog. Its unique character can be used as an argument against it as well as for it. It would be easy to concentrate on it as a case of isolated insanity; but it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.And then he drives home his point, by distinguishing Christians from all other followers of any other "religion" -- that they seek, as mere messengers, to unite mankind in an appreciation of the plain facts of salvation through Jesus Christ, demonstrated firsthand in His unique and unparalleled resurrection:
It came on the world with a wind and rush of running messengers proclaiming that apocalyptic portent, and it is not unduly fanciful to say that they are running still. What puzzles the world, and its wise philosophers and fanciful pagan poets, about the priests and people of the Catholic Church is that they still behave as if they were messengers. A messenger does not dream about what his message might be, or argue about what it probably would be; he delivers it as it is. It is not a theory or a fancy but a fact. It is not relevant to this intentionally rudimentary outline to prove in detail that it is a fact; but merely to point out that these messengers do deal with it as men deal with a fact. All that is condemned in Catholic tradition, authority, and dogmatism and the refusal to retract and modify, are but the natural human attributes of a man with a message relating to a fact. I desire to avoid in this last summary all the controversial complexities that may once more cloud the simple lines of that strange story; which I have already called, in words that are much too weak, the strangest story in the world. I desire merely to mark those main lines and specially to mark where the great line is really to be drawn. The religion of the world, in its right proportions, is not divided into fine shades of mysticism or more or less rational forms of mythology. It is divided by the line between the men who are bringing that message and the men who have not yet heard it, or cannot yet believe it.That is what reading The Everlasting Man has brought home to me: that I am a mere messenger, a servant of God who does his very best to relate the facts on which our everlasting faith is based. Men come and go, and with them come and go interpretations of Christ's revelation.
Currently we in ECUSA are witnessing the fruits of one such interpretation (or several -- it matters not), which are not true to the original message, because they are not based in the plain facts that Christ taught and demonstrated. Instead, as Chesterton again so ably points out, we suffer from the egotism of man, who suffuses his interpretations of the Gospel message with justifications for his own proclivities and preferences: including -- yes -- sin, because what else can man on his own do? In the process of his argument, Chesterton indicts all those other religions which have, in the final analysis, nothing to say of the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ (although in Chesterton's view, they still manage to beat the Puritans!):
But when we translate the terms of that strange tale back into the more concrete and complicated terminology of our time, we find it covered by names and memories of which the very familiarity is a falsification. For instance, when we say that a country contains so many Moslems, we really mean that it contains so many monotheists; and we really mean, by that, that it contains so many men; men with the old average [pagan] assumption of men--that the invisible ruler remains invisible. They hold it along with the customs of a certain culture and under the simpler laws of a certain law-giver; but so they would if their law-giver were Lycurgus or Solon. They testify to something which is a necessary and noble truth; but was never a new truth. Their creed is not a new colour; it is the neutral and normal tint that is the background of the many-coloured life of man. Mahomet did not, like the Magi, find a new star; he saw through his own particular window a glimpse of the great grey field of the ancient starlight. So when we say that the country contains so many Confucians or Buddhists, we mean it contains so many pagans whose prophets have given them another and rather vaguer version of the invisible power; making it not only invisible but almost impersonal. When we say that they also have temples and idols and priests and periodical festivals, we simply mean that this sort of heathen is enough of a human being to admit the popular element of pomp and pictures and feasts and fairy-tales. We only mean that Pagans have more sense than Puritans. But what the gods are supposed to be, what the priests are commissioned to say, is not a sensational secret like what those running messengers of the Gospel had to say. Nobody else except those messengers has any Gospel; nobody else has any good news; for the simple reason that nobody else has any news.And now we come to Chesterton's apotheosis, which was such a comfort to me in resolving any lingering doubts and uncertainties. As I noted earlier, his avowed Catholicism does not obscure the underlying and basic Christian message (there is no talk in this book of sola scriptura, or of justification by faith alone, but only of the tenets that Catholicism and Protestantism hold in common, including the veneration of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God):
Those runners gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened. They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witnesses. In the Catholic Church, which is the cohort of the message, there are still those headlong acts of holiness that speak of something rapid and recent; a self-sacrifice that startles the world like a suicide. But it is not a suicide; it is not pessimistic; it is still as optimistic as St. Francis of the flowers and birds. It is newer in spirit than the newest schools of thought; and it is almost certainly on the eve of new triumphs. For these men serve a mother who seems to grow more beautiful as new generations rise up and call her blessed. We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old.Those words -- that "the Church grows younger as the world grows old" -- gave me fresh hope and insight. And Chesterton proceeds to the culmination of his argument, which I find simply unanswerable (and incomparable, in its use of paradox as a means of reaching the underlying truth). Read each and every sentence of what follows slowly and carefully; let the words sink into your brain and take on there new and fresh meaning. You will begin to appreciate the miracle of Christian faith, which is our blessed heritage, and which will forever remain incapable of corruption by the mere machinations of fallen man:
For this is the last proof of the miracle; that something so supernatural should have become so natural. I mean that anything so unique when seen from the outside should only seem universal when seen from the inside. I have not minimised the scale of the miracle, as some of our wilder theologians think it wise to do. Rather have I deliberately dwelt on that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history. I have great sympathy with the monotheists, the Moslems, or the Jews, to whom it seems a blasphemy; a blasphemy that might shake the world. But it did not shake the world; it steadied the world. That fact, the more we consider it, will seem more solid and more strange. I think it a piece of plain justice to all the unbelievers to insist upon the audacity of the act of faith that is demanded of them. I willingly and warmly agree that it is, in itself, a suggestion at which we might expect even the brain of the believer to reel, when he realised his own belief. But the brain of the believer does not reel; it is the brains of the unbelievers that reel. We can see their brains reeling on every side and into every extravagance of ethics and psychology; into pessimism and the denial of life; into pragmatism and the denial of logic; seeking their omens in nightmares and their canons in contradictions; shrieking for fear at the far-off sight of things beyond good and evil, or whispering of strange stars where two and two make five. Meanwhile this solitary thing that seems at first so outrageous in outline remains solid and sane in substance. It remains the moderator of all these manias; rescuing reason from the Pragmatists exactly as it rescued laughter from the Puritans. I repeat that I have deliberately emphasised its intrinsically defiant and dogmatic character. The mystery is how anything so startling should have remained defiant and dogmatic and yet become perfectly normal and natural. I have admitted freely that, considering the incident in itself, a man who says he is God may be classed with a man who says he is glass. But the man who says he is glass is not a glazier making windows for all the world. He does not remain for after ages as a shining and crystalline figure, in whose light everything is as clear as crystal.
But this madness has remained sane. The madness has remained sane when everything else went mad. The madhouse has been a house to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home. That is the riddle that remains; that anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing. I care not if the sceptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man. Had it merely appeared and disappeared, it might possibly have been remembered or explained as the last leap of the rage of illusion, the ultimate myth of the ultimate mood, in which the mind struck the sky and broke. But the mind did not break. It is the one mind that remains unbroken in the break-up of the world. If it were an error, it seems as if the error could hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in its instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ; and the soul of it was common sense. Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid and the fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor; and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple-trees, or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment; the lightning made eternal as the light.By remaining in ECUSA, I return again and again to the madhouse, because it (despite all the faults and apostasy of its fallen, current leadership) remains my Christian home -- the home in which I may continue to celebrate and be thankful for God's gift of His only Son for us sinners. Nothing that 815 does to pollute the Church at the national level can subtract or take away from the reality that my local parish remains a (local) refuge from that pollution, and a (local) vehicle through which God's saving revelation can still be the message to others, through our own (and not 815's) example. In other words, for ordinary Episcopalians, local is everything; national (so long as it remains corrupted) is nothing.
The mistake of those who condemn ECUSA by the acts of its leadership is to commit the fallacy of composition: to assume that the leadership embodies the character of each and every parish of the Church. That is manifestly not true, and to condemn the entire Church as unworthy of continuing in worship is to belittle and minimize the myriad orthodox parishes which, like mine, hold to the faith once delivered to the saints.
So go ahead, 815 -- proclaim that Jesus is not the sole way, or the truth, or the life: you are but repeating the endless heresies which have been aimed against the message of Christianity almost since its birth. You do not, thereby, add one whit to the truth of the Gospel, and you but show your irrelevance and incompetence to occupy the positions that you do. Time will supply its own remedy -- either by removing you from office, or by removing (or exhausting in wasted litigation) the sources of your financial support. The false Gospel has never been able to command the resources needed to sustain it -- not even in the worst years of the Borgia popes -- because it is, by definition, a false Gospel.
"For it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ; and the soul of it was common sense." Take away my parish -- inhibit my orthodox rector and deacons -- and you cannot take away from our congregation its common sense -- which is to say, its faith. We shall find a way to serve and glorify God, just as Job did, no matter what coals are heaped upon us, and no matter what advice so-called "friends" give us. And in so doing, we shall continue uninterrupted to do our allotted part in witnessing to the faith that Christ revealed to our faithful forebears. His "instant and intolerant enlightenment, the lightning made eternal as the light," will continue to be our steadfast beacon in this world of false, and fallen, signals.