Saturday, March 3, 2012

Viewing the Decline in the Episcopal Church in a Positive Light

This week, sad news from the Diocese of Rhode Island has entered into the Anglican "blogosphere."  The Cathedral of St. John will be closing this year, due to financial difficulties in maintaining it as a place of worship (the building will still be open and operated by the Diocese).  This follows last year's news from the Diocese of Delaware,  where the Cathedral of St. John will also close.  There is also the old news from the Diocese of Western Michigan selling the Cathedral of Christ the King a few years ago.  There has also been quite a bit of buzz about Dr. Munday's post "What Will the Episcopal Church Look Like in 2030?".  I attempt not to enter contemporary debate on this blog, focusing, rather on the history of the Church, however, in this instance, I feel the history of the Church, especially the Episcopal Church is of crucial importance for the present Church.

The Episcopal Church is a rather odd expression of episcopal polity, if one compared the various expressions of episcopacy around the globe.  Typically an episcopal Church is founded when a bishop begins a diocese in a new area.  He builds a diocese around him and his see or cathedral.  Eventually, one diocesan bishop acquires control over other diocesan bishops and becomes and archbishop or metropolitan.  The power flows from him down to the diocesan bishops, priests, and the laity.  Not so with the Protestant Episcopal Church!  The Episcopal Church was originally part of the Church of England.  When English colonists arrived in what is now the United  States, they brought their Anglicanism with them.  Parish churches were constructed and clergy were sent to minister to them (usually by the SPG).  Anglicanism was concentrated in Virginia and Maryland, where it was the established Church, as in England.  It was diffused throughout the other colonies but with less privileges as in Virginia and Maryland.  These colonial parishes were under the episcopal authority of the Bishop of London.  Unfortunately, most of the bishops of London did not take their vocation to care for the colonial churches with any seriousness.  Hence, confirmation was rare in the colonial churches and ordained ministers were few because of the costly and dangerous voyage to London.  The Bishop of London appointed commissaries, who had most of the episcopal authority of English bishops, except the sacramental authority to ordain or confirm, to govern the colonial churches on his behalf.

The Church of England in the Colonies had grown significantly due to the work of Thomas Bray and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG).  There were several attempts to secure a bishop for the Colonies.  However, these efforts were cut short through the political conflicts leading up to the Revolution.  After the Colonies separated from the Crown, most other American Protestant churches recovered and even flourished, but the Church of England nearly collapsed.  Many of its clergy and prominent laity left for other Colonies or for England.  In its state of despair, William White emerged with a plan to constitute the Protestant Episcopal Church.  The problem was there were no cathedrals, sees, dioceses, or, more importantly, bishops.  The existing parishes in states would gather together to form voluntary associations, known as conventions, of state churches.  These would then elect a bishop, who would be the president of the state convention.  Samuel Seabury, a Connecticut High Churchman, thought this plan was too "Whiggish" and set sail for England to be consecrated a bishop.  He was denied consecration there but obtained it in Scotland.  Beside episcopal authority, Seabury also acquired a distinctive liturgy and a look into the primitive episcopacy when he was consecrated in Scotland.  The Scottish bishops, long sufferers of oppression from Scottish Presbyterians (and even the Church of England) for their Jacobitism, did not have titular sees or ancient geographical dioceses as the English Church still possessed.  They also had no metropolitans as many of the ancient churches had (because they had no ancient sees).  The bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church elected a Primus or presiding bishop (from the old title for all bishops primus inter pares).  Seabury brought these ideas with him and joined the other Episcopalians in forming the Protestant Episcopal Church.  White (and others) were later consecrated by the English bishops.  The American Church, like the Scottish Church, did not have metropolitans, neither did it have dioceses until the 1820's.  Each state church had its own bishop, who was a rector sans cathedral.  Unlike the Scottish Church, the American Presiding Bishop was not elected but was the senior bishop by date of consecration (until 1926, when the first Presiding Bishop was elected).

This primitive spirit was challenged by the rise of ritualism in the Church in the latter half of the 19th century.  The prelatical model, i.e. that of the Church of England, is not necessarily a bad model  but it is a later development which the Church adopted from the Roman civil government.  The Protestant Episcopal model was an attempt at primitive episcopacy with an American flavor, however, during the latter half of the 19th century, the original state churches (then styled dioceses) were split, as the Church grew.  Thus the Diocese of New York was divided into separate portions, such as the Diocese of Albany, where I currently serve.  The Diocese was constituted in 1869 with Bishop William Doane as the first bishop.  It was organized in the English fashion with a cathedral and titular see.  Throughout the country, Episcopal dioceses began constructing massive, Gothic cathedrals to accompany their new prelates.  All of this accompanied the ritualist movement, which sought to reintroduce medieval ceremonies into the Liturgy of the Church, such as the eucharistic vestments, actions such as the Elevation, ashes, etc.  The building of cathedrals occurred in this spirit.  The first cathedral constructed as such for the Episcopal Church was the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, New York, finished in 1888.  Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Episcopal Church went through radical changes and continued on this path to further centralization and "prelaticialization" or the creating of hierarchical structures that were never there in the first place.  The process has taken much time, and really has just reached the final stages in 2012.  The Presiding Bishop was first elected in 1926 and styled "Primate" in the 1960's.  The facilities at 815 Second Avenue date from the latter part of the last century as well.

The past thirty years have seen the increasing liberalization of the national church, with its adoption of a progressive agenda.  The result has been an alarming decrease in membership since the 1960's when the Church had somewhere around 3 million members and now only reporting 1.9 million domestic members.  The Church continually loses about 2-3% of its membership each year.  Many have left for breakaway Anglican churches, some have left for other churches but many are simply giving up on the church altogether.    It is in this scene that we see cathedrals closing and dioceses merging.  Munday examines the diocesan structure and proposes a massive change in the structure of our dioceses, if the Church is to survive.  He notes the proposed mergers of Fond du Lac and Eau Claire as well of Quincy and Chicago.  The diocesan  structure, as it stands now, cannot hold, due to the loss of members and falling revenue.

In this spirit, I propose that the answer to our problems is perhaps to be found in our history.  Although the loss of members is bad for our Church and the progressive agenda of 815 has hindered our mission, I see the decline of the Episcopal Church in a positive light.  Allow me to explain, first, the centralization that began in the latter part of the 19th century and which has continued to this day has proved to be unsustainable by our Church.  The centralization was born in the ritualist movement to essentially create a hierarchical church out of thin air.  The founders of our church eschewed prelacy in favor of a primitive episcopacy.  The paper-thin hierarchy has shown that it does not work and perhaps it is time to cast it aside and return to our primitive roots.  The facilities at 815 Second Avenue are already unsustainable and being rented, why not sell the property altogether?  Our church survived two hundred years without it, we can surely live today without it.  The office of the Presiding Bishop needs to be rethought and perhaps changed to model the original design.  The original idea was that the presiding bishop would be that, a presiding bishop.  Nothing more, nothing less.  He (yes, he) would preside at General Convention and that was it.  He did not visit dioceses nor did he give up his diocese to become presiding bishop.  A note on bishops at this point, bishops did not cease being rectors when consecrated bishops.  Essentially, they had adopted Jerome's theory of episcopacy saying that presbyters and bishops are of the same order but that bishops are presbyters which are elected and consecrated (not ordained) and given a further responsibility, i.e. ordination.  Perhaps the Church should rethink its ideas of episcopacy in accordance with the varying theories of episcopacy held in the early church and within our own church.

The opportunity has arisen to shed the layers of prelacy which have invaded our church through the past century.  While prelacy is certainly not a bad thing, it is not a part of the Episcopal Church and I think we would do well to remember that in the upcoming years as the penalties of the national church's progressive agenda will be felt throughout the dioceses, first as a ripple then as a wave, crashing down our paper-thin hierarchy.

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