The Episcopal Church and the Soviet Restaurant

Creedal Christian’s post on the meltdown of the Anglican Communion (HT to Stand Firm) got me thinking about many things.  One reaction to this is that the “middle” is AWOL in this discussion.  But I think that view overlooks some things that have been at work both in TEC and our society in general.

One of the things that people like about Anglicanism is its “comprehension.”  That comprehension was initiated by the fact that the Church of England was a nationalised part of Roman Catholicism with a Reformed theology injected into its episcopal structure and liturgical worship.  The result was the much-vaunted via media, but that via was brutally enforced by state power under Good Queen Bess and kicked from wall to wall in the following century, first towards a high church idea under Charles I and Laud and then a replica of Geneva under Cromwell.

What survived was directed to muddle along in an atmosphere where strong belief is discouraged.  The broadness of Anglicanism only works if everyone agrees not to get too worked up about the whole business, and that’s the Anglican view that was presented to my ancestors, generation to generation.  Enthusiasts like the Wesleyans and the Oxford Movement come along from time to time, but eventually they figure out that the church isn’t going their way and depart, leaving a remnant to carry on at a lower level.

The last century was very hard on religion such as this.  In its kind face was thrust a gaggle of “isms:” communism, fascism, feminism, etc., to say nothing about the technological changes that were afoot.  Like the bland English cooking that disappeared from the streets of London to make way for every other kind of cuisine, many found a more interesting spiritual (or unspiritual) diet to feed themselves and and to build their lives around.

For those left in Anglican churches, the question that made V.I. Lenin famous arose: what is to be done?  The left’s answer was and is simple: we must remould the church to be like the society around us so we can communicate with that society and be relevant to it, irrespective of what we have to jettison in the process.  Bringing up Lenin in all of this, however, makes another culinary analogy relevant: the old Soviet restaurant.

Back in the last years of the USSR there was a joke circulating about a man who went into a restaurant and ordered an item off of the menu, only to be told that it wasn’t available and that he should order another dish.  The man was indignant: I thought we had choices here, he said.  You do, the manager replied: you can order what we want you to or you can get out of this restaurant.  (I witnessed something almost this bad at Galatoire’s one time, but I digress…)

That wasn’t far from the truth, either.  Soviet restaurants had full menus, but when you’d point to an item you wanted, they’d tell you they didn’t have it.  After a while of pointing and disappointment while the waitress giggled, you’d end up ordering the Chicken Kiev and that was it.

But their agenda was no laughing matter for the left in the 1960’s, when it burst on the scene in what was then PECUSA.  What they basically told a largely upper middle class, WASP denomination was that they were overmoneyed, racist phonies.   And that was just a socio-economic criticism; it went on to attack their antediluvian theology and 1928 BCP.  Faced with this assault, it’s little wonder that so much of the membership got the “Soviet restaurant” feeling and departed.

What’s amazing is that the church, to some extent, came back from this, only to get another round this past decade as the left determined that embracing the LGBT community was “the deal” for the church.   Those who missed the characterisation as overmoneyed, racist phonies got slapped with the broad brush of bigots and homophobes; racism took a back seat when the Africans arrived on the scene.  And this time TEC has a Presiding Bishop who is more forthright in stating the agenda and more ruthless in enforcing it–and making sure that, when the unhappy patrons storm out of the restaurant, they don’t take the silverware and china with them.

It’s little wonder, under these circumstances, that the “middle” is nowhere to be found.  This isn’t a game for the feint of heart.  And the worst of it is that our political system is pretty much the same.

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