I was looking through some papers and found a letter from an Episcopal rector with this:
I did enjoy your letter and it just makes me that much more distressed that you left the Episcopal Church. Somehow, with your mind and keen feelings, we should have been able to hang on to you. We sorely need the prayers of everyone and their understanding during this time of crisis in the Church. It would be so easy to “throw in the sponge” and go along with the crowd, but my disposition is not such. I suppose I will go down fighting for what I feel I have to do.
Personally, I do not think there is much hope for the Episcopal Church at the present time except to grow smaller and smaller as more and more people leave it to go elsewhere, or to join with the Anglican body now being formed.
And the date? Perhaps in the last decade or so, after the crisis detonated by Vickie Gene Robinson’s elevation to bishop? Hardly. The letter was written in January 1978, the rector was the Very Rev. James C. Stoutsenberger, and the parish was St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach, FL.
Before I get to commenting on this “contemporary feeling” epistle, some background is in order.
My home church is Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach; however, in 1972 we moved to Boynton Beach. I was the only one in my family going to church anywhere at that point, and that was St. Thomas More Catholic Church, the destination for my “Tiber swim.” A few years later church attendance became a “political football” in my parent’s protracted divorce, and that’s where Rev. Stoutsenberger came in.
Now for some observations about this letter, which could have been written a quarter century after it was:
- The “Anglican body” he was referring to was that of the predominantly Anglo-Catholic “continuing” Anglicans, which had met and issued a statement the prior year. As we all know, they formed a few parishes and dioceses, but really didn’t make much of a dent in TEC.
- At the time most of the impetus to form a new body came from the Anglo-Catholics. The Charismatics, like their LGBT counterparts, were too fixated on changing existing institutions and not making new ones. The Reformed, I suppose, were simply out to lunch in those days, or “swimming the Tweed.”
- It’s interesting to think what would have happened if these continuing Anglicans had really taken hold at the time; the Dennis Canon wasn’t passed (or was it?) until the following year. It would have definitely levelled the playing field had those seceding not had to deal with it.
- The Episcopal Church’s lurch left and the membership bleed that followed isn’t a recent phenomenon; it was just Round II, Round I having taken place in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Smaller and smaller” has been the trajectory of TEC ever since, except they managed to stop the bleeding in the 1980’s and 1990’s long enough to gather people in who weren’t there for the first drop, but many of whom were involved in the second.
- Most of the people who left at the time and stayed in Christianity either swam the Tiber like I did or went to an Evangelical or Charismatic church of some kind.
- I think one major reason the continuing Anglicans didn’t make the impact their later, AMiA/ACNA/CANA counterparts did was the lack of a ready means to make a community and spread the message. The internet handed the Anglican world just that in the 1990’s, and the rest is, as they say, history.
- Another reason was the continuing churches’ lack of communion with Canterbury, an obsession which has lurked in the Anglican/Episcopal psyche from the start. The AMiA, formed by the provinces of Rwanda and South-East Asia, fixed that problem to some extent, and now we have the results of the recent Primates’ meeting.
Stoutsenberger put “his money where his mouth was” and ended up serving at a FiFNA affiliated parish in Lantana. He passed away in 2004, living long enough to see the explosion that has brought us where we are. It’s sad that it took the elevation of an openly gay man to motivate people, because TEC’s problems were clear long before that event. That’s indicative of peoples’ low consciousness and understanding of what Christianity is all about, and that situation (in this country at least) shows little sign of improving.