Reflections from the Rev’d Dr Peter Toon, President of the Prayer Book Society
Before each General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, there appears what has for a long time been called “the Blue Book” (although in 2006 it has a green cover). The current one contains Reports of the Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards of the General Convention of the ECUSA, which is scheduled to meet in Columbus, Ohio, June 13-21, 2006. This year its title is: come and grow, 2006. (all lower case)
Since the last General Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, three years ago, there has been unceasing talk and debate both in the USA and abroad about two of the decisions of that Convention – the blessing of same-sex partnerships and the ordaining/consecrating of a man as bishop living in such a relation. Not a few people have left the Episcopal Church over the issue and various overseas bishops and archbishops have declared themselves out of Eucharistic communion with the ECUSA because of it. Further, an official report, The Windsor Report, was commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury to look into the whole business and amongst it recommendations is the expressing of regret by the Convention for its advance into innovative sexual doctrine and practice.
So it seems that the whole world is watching to see whether or not the Convention does express regret and commit itself to restrain itself when it comes to innovation in Christian doctrine, ethics and liturgy in the present and future.
Now back to the Blue Book.
If you look through its large 460 pages of small print you will find no reports, studies, reflections or resolutions that deal with same-sex stuff or with the suitability of persons in same-sex partnerships to be made priests or bishops of the church. It appears on first sight that the subject is not important to the ECUSA at this time, even if it has been front-page news for the secular and religious press in the USA and around the world – including Muslim lands.
However, what it does have is a one page statement (page 407) under the heading: “An Interim Report of the Special Commission of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.” The purpose of this Commission is to help the ECUSA respond to the Windsor Report and other documents from the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting. Known as the SCECAC it has produced a preliminary Report, which is available on line and which is intended to guide the framing of resolutions concerning the relation of the ECUSA to the Anglican Communion in general and the Windsor Report in particular. By ECUSA standards it is a conservative report and if followed will cause the Convention to vote to do what is necessary to stay on acceptable terms within the Anglican Communion.
So, without the same-sex stuff, does the Blue Book present to us a Church that is “orthodox”? This is a question worth asking, for a lot of Episcopalians in the USA and Anglicans abroad appear to hold that if the ECUSA does a U-turn on its innovative sexuality stuff and returns to its former position before this was implemented, then it will be “orthodox” again.
One does not need a Ph D in English and another in Theology to see that what is presented in the Reports is very much a liberal, progressive agenda of a very liberal mainline USA denomination – except perhaps with reference to the Pension Program of the ECUSA which apparently works according to the highest principles of capitalism to bring rewards for ECUSA retirees.
The “Anglican and International Peace with Justice Commission Report “ (pages 73ff.) is very much a statement of “left-wing” political theory and aims which are dressed in “God-language.” And it is a salutary reminder that the commitment in the “baptismal covenant” of the 1979 prayer book to “peace and justice” was originally intended and remains a commitment to radical politics to seek to bring the secularized kingdom of God on earth now.
The “Liturgy and Music Report” (pages 130ff) has a series of proposals for new liturgy – providing “Rites as Related to Stages in Human Development” (including prayer before a first teenage-date!) and “Prayer and a Rite for Remembering the Departed.” In these, one is at the boundaries of what has been presented over the centuries as Anglican Prayer in the Anglican Way, for the basic assumptions of the prayers are often outside biblical revelation, and further the methods of addressing Deity do not apparently assume that the Recipient is the Triune LORD God of biblical theology. One may observe that Laity, whose prayer-life has been molded by their habitual use of traditional Liturgy, can pray ex tempore in more meaningful, theologically acceptable and reverent ways than is found in the content and forms of language of many of these prayers.
The Report from the “Committee on the Status of Women” (pp.347ff) reveals very clearly the radical agenda of the Episcopal Church in terms, for example, of the hatred of biblical headship ( called “patriarchalism”), the total commitment to inclusive and expanded language in addressing Deity contrary to biblical revelation and holy tradition, justice for women in terms of “reproductive health,” and full rights for women in the leadership of the Church (there are, we are told, 1700 full time women priests now and many part-time but there are few in positions of leadership). “When we take seriously the elevation of women to the fullness of humanity in God’s image, we believe the world will be a more peaceful and just place…”
One major theme in various reports is the absolute centrality of the Baptismal Covenant (found as the center-piece in the 1979 prayer book baptismal service). This is seen as fundamental to all that the ECUSA does at the local, diocesan and national level in terms of worship, mission and justice in church and world. It commits the ECUSA to a radical agenda, which interprets the Christian religion very much in terms of a movement within this world to bring improvements in living conditions, opportunities and rights for people everywhere. It is an agenda informed by the various liberation movements since the 1960s and by the great emphasis in the West upon rights and self-fulfillment, and God is adopted, as it were, to lead this revolution.
Judged by what is in the Blue Book, and without any reference to the whole sexual agenda which is absent from it, it is most difficult to see the ECUSA as an orthodox Church, built upon the revealed Truth given in Scripture, following the tradition of doctrine within the classic Anglican Formularies, worshipping the LORD God as the Holy Trinity and in spirit and in truth, and serving His kingdom – his heavenly kingdom – in this present evil age and secularist culture. Its official formulary, the 1979 Prayer Book, is being constantly added to through texts in “Enriching our Worship” and these additions cause the basis of Episcopalianism to become more radical and serve to take the ECUSA more obviously away from orthodox Anglican Faith and Worship - and, of course, this is where the current leadership wish it to go, for they see themselves as prophets and ambassadors of a new, post-modern form of religion!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)