Friday, December 14, 2007

The Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.—just a Denomination?

For consideration by all who have concern for the unity of the Anglican Way!

The Preface to the first edition in 1789 of the new American Book of Common Prayer (adapted from The BCP of 1662 with a little help from Scotland) is a fine example of late eighteenth-century style. It contains one of the earliest official uses of the word “denomination” to refer to a particular form of the Christian Church. There is reference to “the different religious denominations of Christians in these States” and obviously this refers primarily to such as the Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist Churches.

Thus from the very beginning—despite state churches in a few states for a while—the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. [PECUSA] recognized that it shared the territory with other Churches (denominations) and had effectively both to cooperate in some areas and compete in other areas with them.

Yet at the same time, the very content of The Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and Articles of Religion, received and adapted from the Church of England, gave to this particular American denomination/Church a sense that it was very different from the Congregationalists, Baptists and others. Not only was there the conviction that the Ministerial Order originated in the time of the Apostles and had been maintained by the Church of England at the Reformation to be continued in the expansion of the same Church overseas—thus substantiating the claim that as a visible Church PECUSA was a real part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; but also there was the assumption that the Episcopal Church is by its very nature a genuine National Church, a Church that naturally and really claims and ministers to the whole available territory.
And being in full communion with the Church of England, a National Established Church, both allowed and fostered these types of conviction, which were usually not articulated as clearly as they could have been.

Looking back to the late 1780s, one can now say that it would perhaps have been better in the long run for PECUSA to have done a more radical revision of The BCP. That is, removed from it that teaching and those characteristics which make it really to be suited only to a genuinely National Church, rather than to a competing denomination. Nevertheless, the PECUSA stayed with this inheritance and did eventually divide the whole country into dioceses based on the territorial principle, and it did often act and speak as if it were the (one and only) National Church. It called its Washington D.C. Cathedral, “the National Cathedral.” And to seek to show that its clergy were not merely Protestant ministers but genuinely different in essence, it began in the 1950s a policy of calling all clergy “Father” (which was odd because in Britain this title was reserved specifically for Anglo-Catholic priests).

When the PECUSA began to set aside and then eventually put into the archives in 1979 its Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and Articles (in editions of 1789, 1982 & 1928) and began to use from that date another very different Prayer Book with different doctrines and devotion, it effectively lost (by the very removal of the classic BCP etc with their inlaid assumptions) the basis for its thinking of itself as a National Church. Rather, it became self-consciously only a main-line or old-line denomination characterized by its liberal progressivism in political and social matters, its (better than Vatican II) liturgy; and its devotion to music and the arts.

It is known now in 2007 more for its innovations in morality than for its claim to be a branch of the one, holy, catholic an apostolic Church.

So the loss of The BCP, Ordinal and Articles in 1979 was much more than a loss of sacred liturgies in the traditional English language of prayer, it was the loss of the sense of being a National Church and not merely a long-existing denomination.

Thus with the sense of “National” gone or weakened, those who felt obliged to secede from PECUSA because of its progressive liberalism in doctrine and morals in the late 1970s, and then in the late 1990s and afterwards, left with little or no sense of The Anglican Way as being by its nature, English origins and US history the claimant to be a/the National Church. This is an important point. For whatever high views the seceders had of the Ministry or the Sacraments, these were apparently in a box alone and they were not associated with the sense of a National Church and the vocation and unity which this requires and implies.

Thus for those who exited in 1977 and later, it was relatively easy not only to secede but also to create different ecclesial entities on leaving. All sense of a united, national Church had gone.

And the fruit of this loss of sense and perspective is now very evident in American Anglicanism, where many claiming to be orthodox Anglicans are apparently living happily in their differing and even competing small denominations and jurisdictions, and they regard this situation as normal (it is normal, we may say, for American religion but was not normal for the Anglican Way). True there are calls for unity in terms of cooperation and co-existence, and there is Common Cause; but all sense of a National Church has gone and gone forever.

Even talk of a new Province arising out of Common Cause is talk which works on the assumption that there will not be One Church as a Province, but rather an association of covenanting autonomous small units--dioceses, networks, groups and the like— who covenant to be together and work in harmony.

So PECUSA is now really and truly a denomination in the modern sociological use of the term (that is, NOT a National Church), and best known as The Episcopal Church. Around it are other denominations also of Episcopal or Anglican character and these also are denominations [in the modern sociological sense], though much smaller than PECUSA. Interestingly a growing number of these denominations are the results of missionary work by overseas Anglican Provinces! So the global Anglican Communion is contributing to the loss of the sense of National Church in the U.S.A.

And regrettably, there is no sense at all of the Anglican Way seeking to be and explaining itself as a National Church, even where the classic BCP (1789-1928) is still used as the liturgy by churches.

We need some very wise leaders to arise including good women as was Deborah in order to guide the Anglican Way in North America into godly and wise thinking and actions.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon December 6, 2007

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