The ECUSA as a supermarket of religious possibilities
In various tracts and essays I have referred to the vast supermarket of
religions that is found in America and that is advertised in the “Churches”
section of the Yellow Pages of the Telephone Books for the big cities. And I
have observed that in a corner of this supermarket is the
Episcopalian/Anglican section with the ECUSA and forty or so other smaller
groups selling their wares.
It has been pointed out to me that the ECUSA itself is practically speaking,
and on the ground, a veritable supermarket of religions. There was a time –
not too long ago -- when there was a basic uniformity to the PECUSA (now
ECUSA) and that uniformity was provided by the use of one classic Book of
Common Prayer , even though varieties of churchmanship were present. So it
was the same product on sale even though it was wrapped in different paper
and presented with different background music in different parishes.
This offering of one product by the ECUSA ceased in the 1970s when the use
of trial services and innovative new shapes of the liturgy became common.
The uniformity based on the classic BCP together with other formularies and
the common male episcopate was replaced by variety in the actual content of
services and women as priests and bishops. So people began to shop around
within the one church to find what was to their taste. For some this meant
a woman priest and a relevant liturgy while for others this meant a male
priest and a traditional liturgy. And there were still rich parishes and
poor parishes, respectable and not so respectable parishes.
The situation in the year 2001 is that the ECUSA is dominated by the
doctrine of relativism and thus allows and encourages all forms of service,
all types of liturgy, all forms of preaching, all forms of living and
lifestyle that do not ever make any absolute claims to be true. Truth is
seen as the net result of all people sharing and pooling their insights and
feelings rather than in some revelation from God in heaven. So variety is
encouraged. The only uniformity is therefore philosophical and few seem to
notice this because it is more taken for granted than spelled out. In this
philosophy, the Christian religion is seen as therapeutic and community
building but it is not portrayed as the unique conveyance of absolute,
saving truth and of eternal life with God.
But there still hang on in the ECUSA those who aspire to be classically
orthodox as charismatic, or evangelical or anglo-catholic Episcopalians.
And there are parishes which defy the basic relativist philosophy of the
ECUSA and teach and preach and worship on the basis that Jesus Christ is the
Way, the Truth and the Life. Such Episcopalians have to compromise in some
ways and they only have a very small share of the supermarket that is the
ECUSA. But it does mean, for example, that if one lives in certain parts of
the USA and is prepared to travel one can even – amazingly after 50 years
of innovation -- find churches using the old prayer Book (the BCP 1928) and
doing so both as evangelicals or as anglo-catholics.
It would appear that supermarket that is the ECUSA can and will stay in
business as long as there is a common assumption held by the majority not
only that no-one possesses absolute truth but also that there is not one
single way to God for salvation. In this context there is much room for
variety and for worship--committees in different places to devise vastly
different types of services offering worship to seemingly different deities.
If this basic philosophy of relativism is ever seriously and persistently
challenged by a large-enough group within ECUSA then there will be religious
and culture wars within this Church. Meanwhile as a minority the would-be
orthodox have very little influence and so they can be tolerated as long as
they do not cause too much fuss and do not grow appreciably in numbers.
This toleration has the practical effect of enlarging the supermarket of
possibilities in the ECUSA!
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon July 10, 2001