Two Score of Episcopal Ministry: My Response to a Dean's Reflections

I found retiring Dallas Episcopal Dean Kevin Martin’s reflections on his long life in ministry fascinating, largely because his career span–to say nothing of his span as an Episcopalian–sweeps most of the enormous transformation that has taken place both in TEC (which was PECUSA when he started) and in the country at large.

The question posed to him that prompted the entire blog post was as follows:

You’ve seen many changes in 41 years of ministry – Bishop Hines and the Special Convention Program, a New Prayer Book, Women in leadership including ordination, a change in the church’s teachings on divorce and human sexuality, can you share with us your perspective on all this change?

So let me pick out some of his responses and make some comments.

When I joined the Episcopal Church, I would say that the majority of members were what I would call traditionalists. By this I mean that most Episcopalians were people who valued high English Culture, including and especially, the English language, the arts and music. While the Episcopal Church was never a State Church as in England, still we had an embracing attitude toward education and the arts. I like to say that we were the State Church of the educated including scientists and artists.

The Dean neglected to include either the business people (who financed the church) and the social climbers (who were part and parcel with the business people).  In fact, the growth he alludes to (and I outlined in this post) didn’t come from simply scientists and artists; it came from people who wanted a refined religion that went with their new-found social status in the great upward movement that followed World War II.  That diluted the old-money aristocratic bent the church had before that.  The result was the inclusion of many people whose appreciation of the church’s heritage was not as broad as it was before.

The leaders of the Church in those days were remarkable people who survived the Great Depression and the Second World War, often bringing out of their experience a strong determination to give back to society.

If one were to name the Episcopal Church’s strongest point from a practical standpoint, it was this: the emphasis on the importance of “give back”.  It’s something I miss in a Pentecostal church.  This isn’t to say that Pentecostals are not willing to help others–they certainly are, and are for many reasons better positioned to do so than Episcopalians–but the context is entirely different, and it doesn’t percolate to the upper reaches of the organisation the way one would like it to.  But that’s also generational: baby boomers, for all the talk and their self-righteous insistence of making the next generation volunteer, are mostly too self-centred to know what true give-back is.

Take Bishop Hines who you mentioned for example. While Bishop of Texas, he started several high quality Episcopal Schools, he launched a seminary, he oversaw the planting of over 40 new congregations, and he gave good and progressive leadership to the wider community. Like many of his fellow leaders, he believed in an active Christian engagement with society. As presiding Bishop in 1968 when many of the inner cities of America were literally on fire, he determined that the Church could not sit back in its cultural place of privilege, but rather must engage the issues confronting our society.

I believe his impulse was both necessary and courageous. He was a dynamic preacher and outspoken leader especially regarding racial equality. Unfortunately, he made several mistakes. For example, in dealing with urban issues and civil rights, he largely bypassed the already existing African-American clergy leadership in the Church. He even ended up funding radical groups and organizations in dioceses directly against the wishes of local bishops. When he realized that he had lost the confidence of his fellow Bishops, he resigned.

The business about starting Episcopal high schools struck home: my own just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.  But his response to the upheavals this country was going through isn’t one the rest of the church should have, or can now, wash their hands of.  The Episcopal Church was unprepared to effectively respond to the social problems of the day because it had been busy building itself as a way up from them.  Reversing that kind of precedent wasn’t easy and the church hasn’t come up with a better plan since.  His bypassing African-American clergy was unwise, but that wasn’t strictly a function of race either.  I look at this from a lighter (and personal) perspective here, but basically Episcopalians lived in a different world than not only the poor African-Americans but the poor everyone else.  How could they offer anything other than paternalism?

I said above that Pentecostals are better positioned to address human need, and the reason is simple: they’re closer to it themselves than TEC or any of the other “Main Line” churches. Beating the American custom of class stratification of churches is a tall order for TEC or anyone else, but without it Christianity will never fulfil the New Testament concept of the church.

One thing Dean Martin didn’t bring up was Hines’ lacklustre response to the likes of James Pike and other left-wing schismatics.   But that’s the perfect intro to this:

Things have changed and I think not for the better. For example, as a seminarian I attended the General Convention held in Houston. I remember the hearing held on the proposed new Baptismal Rite. It started with a 20 minute presentation by a leading theologian and seminary professor on the need for changes. This was followed by a 10 minute “response” by another theologian from a different perspective. This theologian began by affirming a number of points made in the initial address, and only then did he respectfully present a differing opinion. This was followed by a panel discussion among a group of outstanding leaders and thinkers. Only then was the discussion open to deputies in the audience who could ask questions.

Compare all this to a discussion at the General Convention in 2000 over the issue of ordination of gay and lesbian persons in same-sex relationships. The initial resolution that would be taken to the floor of convention was read by the Chair of the Committee and then members of the audience were invited to give testimony limited to two minutes. Participants went to a set of microphones labeled either pro or con. I saw a seminary dean given only two minutes to speak to the Church’s theology of marriage. This was followed by a two minute personal sharing by a woman who was married to a transvestite on how accepting their local parish had been. I sat watching as a once thoughtful and intelligent community that valued substantive engagement with issues reduced itself to a community of passionate partisanship who reduced discussion to a superficial series of slogans and clichés.

There’s no doubt that it’s been a downhill run for TEC since those days, but Martin’s idealisation of “the old days” of Episcopal thought is just that.  The issue of the Baptismal rite is a good one: even with the theological worthies expounding at GC, we still ended up with the 1979 BCP’s “contract on the Episcopalians” that has plagued discussions of what it means to be one ever since.  The truth is that Episcopal theology at the time, moulded by a combination of traditional Anglican fudge and 60’s “with it” thinking, was like my grandmother’s description of Lake Ponchartrain–a mile wide and a foot deep.  The tidal surge of post-modernism, much in evidence at GC 2000 and since, has wrecked just about everything along the shore.

In the 1970s, Forward Movement produced a short booklet on the different groups, movements and worldviews that were represented in TEC. I remember that they identified at least seven of these. The main point of the booklet was not the differences, but rather the community that could embrace such a number of differing perspectives. I would say that we were an “Embracing Community” that recognized that Christianity allowed for numerous and different worldviews and all of these contained some truth that needed to be embraced in the fullness of the Church. While I had begun as a part of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church, been active in the social action wing, and had become an active part of the Charismatic Renewal Movement, I still felt fully included in the Church’s life and listened to with respect.

As the Progressive Wing of the Church began to grow with its concern for the full inclusion of all people including race and gender, things began to change. Those who had other views and concerns began to be discounter. Since then, I have spent many years as an Episcopal clergy person being marginalized by so-called “Inclusive” people. By the mid-1990s, the Church was being divided between conservative/orthodox and progressive/liberal people. This fight was largely won by the progressive/liberal folks when Bishop Gene Robinson received consent as Bishop of New Hampshire while living in a same-sex partnered relationship. By the 2006 General Convention, progressive/liberal clergy and laity made up 70% of the House of Deputies. Since then the losers in this struggle have either left TEC or have been completely marginalized by the denomination.

It has been my contention that the triumph of the “Progressive Wing of the Church” has been inevitable since the 1970’s.  That came as a shock to many who joined after that time when Gene Robinson became bishop, which only formalised the general movement of the church.  That movement was not clear for two reasons.  The first was that the relatively loose diocesan structure of the church (one which is on the way out with KJS) made it possible to insulate parts of the church from the rot in the rest of it.  The second was that it was largely a “top down” affair, having started in the seminaries and moved into the upper reaches of the church (along with receptive dioceses and parishes) before dropping into less receptive ones.  That speaks to StandFirm Sarah Hey’s recent post on liberal victories in health care and TEC.  Conservatives are too wedded to the strength of popular opinion (Evangelicals are the worst about this) and tradition.

Martin rounds out his reflections on an optimistic note.  But the time he has ministered in the Episcopal church doesn’t support that optimism.  He has witnessed not one but two stampedes for the exists, the first during the 1960’s and 1970’s and the second since 2003.  To a large extent TEC today is what its radical left wants it to be: a place for employment for its “advocates” pursuing their political causes, which are their idea of the mission of the church, without interference from those who disagree.

My best wishes are with Dean Kevin Martin; you have to admire his faithfulness to an institution whose own faithfulness has proven wanting.

Note on Lake Ponchartrain: yes, I know that, in reality, the lake is 20 by 40 miles and 27′ deep at most.  But the ratio (and the analogy) is correct.  My grandmother was also the one to bring the Episcopal Church to our family, an event with important long-term consequences.

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