As we march through this Lenten season, complete with the silliness over the sequester and the post-modern version of the Great Refusal, we come to yet another saga in the Anglican/Episcopal world–the volte-face that has taken place by the Truro Anglican Church and its rector, Tory Baucum, vis-à-vis the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston. It’s amazing, after the public acrimony, cost and litigation that has taken place, that we have so soon an attempt at “reconciliation”, but we’ve got one. It’s even inspiring the new occupant of Lambeth Palace in his quest for same reconciliation on a broader scale. The obvious dumb question is why.
Let me begin by stipulating that, as is usually the case with politics of any kind, there are untransparent complexities at work here. There are always things going on behind the scenes that move situations in one direction or another that really don’t have much to do with the principle issues at hand, but are the product of the organisational situation on the ground. In a metropolitan area like Washington with three state/district jurisdictions and Episcopal dioceses to match, both secular and ecclesiastical politics get murky quickly.
The fact that it’s in the capital region, however, is a good place to start in our attempt to pinpoint the underlying problem. It’s as old as the Episcopal Church itself in this country, but now driven by the change in our country’s power structure and the values held by that power structure.
If we go back to colonial times, the Church of England was the official state church in the colonies south of the Potomac, and thus the preferred church of people of property. The ones without it, or the ones with property in remote areas, often preferred to go somewhere else. That, of course, was illegal, and those on the wrong end of things helped to fuel the disestablishment of same Church of England after the American Revolution.
When the remnants of the old Church of England picked themselves off of the floor and pulled themselves together to form the Protestant Episcopal Church, the intent was not to be the people of property at prayer, but that’s how it turned out. The effect was mutual: the Episcopal Church both shaped the ethic of the upper reaches of society and in turn was shaped by those reaches. After World War II it became part of the church’s marketing strategy for an upwardly obsessed society, which produced a spectacular roller coaster ride in terms of membership numbers: straight up through the 1950’s and 1960’s, straight down in the 1970’s.
The left lurch of the Episcopal Church is well documented, although many in Round II (in the 2000’s) weren’t around for Round I (in the 1960’s and 1970’s). The big difference between I and II was that the latter actually resulted in a meaningful secession. That secession has left some loose ends, and evidently they’re no looser than in the shadow of our nation’s capital. I suspect that it’s not an accident that this first serious threat to the unity of the ACNA is coming from there.
To start with, a church which appeals to the upper reaches best does so with an appeal to tradition, an appeal that needs to be more aesthetic than one of conviction. That’s at the core of the property disputes: both sides know that much of the pastiche of Episcopal religion is tied up in its historic properties. Although the left has grossly overplayed (and overpayed) their hand on this one, they know that the appearance of continuity can mask the lack of real continuance of belief. The other side, believing they have both, struggle to get the property so that they may present the appeal to the truth through the appeal of tradition. Losing that advantage is the key setback of losing the property litigation.
Turning to the issue that detonated Round II, the LGBT has become to the American élite left what the Communist Party was to the proletariat: its vanguard. A church which is started in opposition to same is bound to put itself in the crosshairs of the toughest, most tenacious force in the American political and social scene today. It’s not a formula for popularity, especially with those who are at the heights.
And being in the capital region makes an élite appeal unavoidable, especially for a church somewhere in the Anglican/Episcopal world. Beyond their bouncing from one moral crusade for “justice” to another, our elites’ dream is to make the U.S. like Europe, where the wealth of the nation is sucked into the capital, which takes a generous cut of the proceeds and redistributes the rest back out as it sees fit. Under these conditions, we really don’t have a left-right divide: we have an us-them divide, which explains, among other things, why our media is so deep in the tank for Barack Obama. Under these circumstances, presenting the Gospel to “us” is challenging: “us” takes one look at it and sees a competitor to “our” control, which is the underlying reason “us” are going secular.
My guess is that Baucum and his parishioners are beaten down on the one side by an Episcopal Church which manages one property victory after another (whether they can replicate this in SC is a whole different subject) and on the other by a mission field which has turned blue. They’re looking for relief, and coming from a tradition where the emphasis is on comity, the idea of burying the hatchet with the likes of Shannon Johnston is a major temptation.
Baucum–and indeed the ACNA in general–must realise, however, that seeking such accommodation defeats the reason for the ACNA and the Anglican revolt. What was the point of secession, of the cost of litigation and for most of the losers relocation, when you’re just going to throw in the towel? And, to get back to the key issue, what’s the purpose of a church whose beliefs are little different from the world around it?
In such a hostile environment, presenting and living the life that Jesus Christ offers us will need an entirely different way of doing things than conventional, open-society church. First, however, we must, like the song from India, decide to follow Jesus and not turn back. We must understand that such a choice is not going to be popular, especially in a place where Our Lord’s proclamation that all power is given to him and not to the mission field’s paymaster.
The higher one goes in society, the greater the temptation for Christianity to attempt to strike a nice accommodation with the world around it. That’s the occupational hazard of churches in general, but of the Anglican/Episcopal world in particular, given its “target demographic” on this continent. The price to live for Our Lord is high, but the price of caving has been even higher. What makes anyone believe that the latter will get any lower?