Does American Voluntarism triumph as the historic Doctrine of the Church in The BCP is eclipsed in contemporary American “Anglican” views of the Church?
I invite you to join me in this reflection to note what doctrine of the Church in relation to space and time is taught and presupposed in authentic editions of The Book of Common Prayer, and how this has been applied in the U.S.A.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE BCP
Let us set aside all Anglican Prayer books produced since the Lambeth Conference of 1968, when the green light for given for liturgical experiment, and consider instead the various editions of The Book of Common Prayer in use before and after that Lambeth Conference. In the West this places before us, the English 1662; the American 1928; and the Canadian 1962 (and similar ones in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales). And to be very clear of what we are talking about, let us remove also all forms of the editing these texts in a Roman Catholic direction done by pious Anglo-Catholics in what are called the Missals. So we have only before us the classic BCP in its three editions, 1662, 1928 and 1962; and we recognize that these have a common ancestry back to the first ever BCP, that of 1549.
Now there are many references to the Church of God in the various services and, further, there are specific prayers for the Church as the Church of God. In the Order for Holy Communion, the petitions to God for his Church are that it will be continually inspired with the spirit of truth, unity and concord; that it will have godly and faithful Bishops and clergy and that all its members will serve God in holiness and righteousness. The Collects for Trinity XV and XVI are specific prayers for the Church that it be kept in the way of salvation by the perpetual mercy of God, and be cleansed and defended from all dangers.
Obviously these prayers are for the world-wide Church of God and for the Anglican expression or manifestation of it. However, everything that is said about and prayed for the Church in The BCP presupposes that the “Anglican” Church, wherever it is, is One Church in one country or territory or geographical area. Even the American BCP has a preface from 1789 which, though it accepts that in the U.S.A. there are other “denominations” such as Methodist and Congregational, nevertheless assumes that the Anglican (= Episcopal) Church is one and one organization and Province only with multiple dioceses. Obviously The Protestant Episcopal Church had to live with this understanding, and the tension arising from it, as the number of denominations small and great increased in the U.S.A. as the years went by. Yet it managed to hold on to it in theory and practice well into the twentieth century, and in theory to the present day.
It had to face two internal challenges : first, the division of the Civil War between North and South, which was healed, and, secondly, the secession of a small group of Evangelicals in 1873 which was never healed.
SECESSION in 1873 & 1977
In 1873 the departing Evangelicals placed unity with their fellow Evangelicals in other denominations above their unity with fellow Episcopalians (especially when the Episcopalians were anglo-catholic!). In the event ,the Reformed Episcopal Church was never large, and it tended to be more like a small Presbyterian Church for most of its history, using the Prayer Book of 1785 rejected by the Church of England and the American Church in favor of the 1789; and it was very much guided by the general Protestant principles of American voluntarism.
When we get to the secession of 1977 of those Episcopalians, who believed that the PECUSA had abandoned the Catholic Faith in its innovations in the decade of the 1970s, we meet a group who seem to have been fully aware that The BCP of 1928, which they used, did assume and require that The Episcopal/Anglican Church of the U.S.A. be one organization, one province. So they saw themselves as under God being called to be “The Continuing Church” to replace the old Church; and so they stated their clear intention to be in communion with the See of Canterbury as the new Province (for the old Church was fast heading into apostasy they believed).
In the event, in 1977 many who were committed to orthodoxy and against the innovations of the 1970s stayed inside the PECUSA ,and those who came out were not able to stay together as One Body for very long. So the seceders of 1977 ended up in the very strange position in 1978 of creating several denominations, each of which claimed both to be “The Continuing Church” and also the whole of the U.S.A. as its province. So each of the new denominations actually retained the general doctrine of The BCP but applied in a different context, and a context of competition and parallelism which, it may be suggested, was a place in which The BCP doctrine of the Church could not rest or fit.
For what had happened in reality is that the seceders had, for practical and pragmatic reasons, accepted the principle of voluntarism (like the REC before them), but had wedded it to strong anglo-catholic doctrines of the apostolic succession of bishops, and the efficacy of sacramental grace. And their clinging to the latter seem to justify their abandonment of the classic Anglican doctrine of the Church in space and time.
So in the year 2008 the various “Continuing Denominations” are very much in sociological reality small American denominations, following the general rule of American freedom and assembly in religion, but, in these case, making a claim to uniqueness by their unique apostolic ministry and sacraments (which places them, on their terms, on the same level; as the Roman Catholic Church). They have given up all desire to be in communion with Canterbury and even in fellowship with the newer Anglican evangelical and charismatic Continuers, who have burst on the scene in recent years. So it is not unexpected that some of the 1977 Continuers are seeking to be admitted as a group into the Roman Catholic Church on their terms as special or unique Anglicans.
THE NEW CONTINUERS
Especially, but not solely, in response to the specific innovations in sexual doctrine and practice within The Episcopal Church in recent times, there have been secessions of various kinds at different moments: these have included one whole diocese, several whole congregations and many parts of parish congregations. As extra-mural Episcopalians (but preferring to be called Anglicans) these people have opted for a variety of ways of being organized and given pastoral care in their temporary wilderness—from that of a foreign bishop on a one to one basis, to that of joining a mission founded in the U.S.A. by a foreign Province, and to that of becoming a diocese within a foreign Province.
The seceders of 1977, as we have noted, were conscious initially of Anglican ecclesiology and realized that there should only be one non-apostate or orthodox [Anglican] Church in one geographical region. The fact that they failed to live up to what they originally knew does not change the correctness of their original insight and intention.
In contrast, the seceders of the twenty-first century appear not to have been conscious of classic Anglican ecclesiology at all (or, if so, to have ignored it) as they simply adopted the long established principle of American voluntarism. Of course, they were encouraged in their voluntarism by the crossing of provincial boundaries by foreign Provinces in order to enter the U.S.A. without an invitation or without permission from The Episcopal Church. Thus without any obvious Anglican ecclesiology, and following the general trend of things in the U.S.A. form of denominational existence, there was quickly, in the words of Dick Kim, “an alphabet of affiliations,” composed, as already noted with a variety of bishops, dioceses and provinces involved. Certainly a new form of voluntarism but nevertheless voluntarism!
The sense of the need for some unity is not totally gone and so some of the organizations and groups of these recent seceders, together the modern form of the 1873 Reformed Episcopal Church, the Anglican Province of America (a 1977 vintage group), various Canadian affiliates, several Episcopal Church dioceses and the missions (AMIA, CANA) from overseas Provinces, have united in a kind of federation called The Common Cause Partners. This is a classic example of a group seeking common ends within the principle of American voluntarism as they (importantly) each retain their autonomy. It is far away in principle or practice from the notion of an Anglican Province, which characterized the American Anglican scene from the 1780s to the 1970s.
It would appear that with the infidelity of The Episcopal Church ( which began in earnest in the early 1970s with the changing of the doctrine of marriage, the illegal ordinations of women to the Ministry; the novel contents of the new form of Common Prayer, and a general dumbing-down and secularizing of cardinal doctrines) the ideal and requirement that the Church be one organization, one unit, and one Province in one nation were bruised and crushed even if not eliminated entirely. What we have now are various type of self-styled Anglicans seeking to be follow their own blueprint of the Anglican Way, even as they live within the powerful ethos of American voluntarism, a reality which moulds and changes everything that it receives, including any current version of Anglicanism and interpretation of the Bible and Tradition. Only time will tell whether (a) The Episcopal Church is able to be reformed and renewed; and (b) the African connection with the New Continuers will prove a means of bring unity in truth and truth in unity to the much divided Anglican Way in the U.S.A.
firstname.lastname@example.org Epiphany One, January 13, 2008 www.pbsusa.org