Episcopal Church Woes II
Bill Long 4/15/06
Learning from the Presbyterians
The feeling I had when America went into Iraq in 2003 was this: "The British tried this before, in the 19th and early 20th century, and it didn't work. The religious landscape of Iraq is just too complex, with deeply-rooted animosities that Westerners simply don't understand." I thought that one of the religious complexities that Americans didn't understand about Iraq was the martyr-based tradition with Shi'ism that would make any attempt to "pacify" that group unavailing. Indeed, I recall writing about this tradition druing a stint as an editorial writer for the Oregonian in 1985 while on sabbatical from my teaching duties at Reed College in Portland. Well, I think that in 2006 some of my fears about the invasion of Iraq are being confirmed.
My feeling as I read the New Yorker article on troubles in the Episcopal Church was similar. I had seen this stuff before. But it was not in the context of sexuality or consecration of homosexual bishops. It was, rather, the unsuccessful attempt of the Presbyterian Church to confront the complexities of modernism in the 1920s. What triggered this memory was Boyer's mention of the Nigerian bishop's (Peter Akinola) criticism of the American Episcopal Church. It was as if the American Episcopal Church had, according to Akinola, forsaken the Gospel and had substituted it with a different Gospel, a sort of humanistic and relativistic message that lacked the punch and direct power of the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then it dawned on me. That was precisely the argument made by Princeton Seminary Professor J. Gresham Machen in his 1923 big-seller Christianity and Liberalism. The text of the book is online here. Machen, a courtly Kentucky gentleman who was steeped both in the tradition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1640s) and the "modern" German biblical criticism,* felt that the gradual seepage of German biblical scholarship and theological
[*The "modern" German biblical criticism is usually referred to as "higher" criticism. "Lower" criticism is text criticism--dealing with collating of manuscripts and establishing the "best reading" of a text; "higher criticism" is literary criticism, whether source, form or redaction criticism, to use the three German categories until the mid-20th century].
skepticism regarding the historicity of the Gospel narratives and classic Christian doctrines did not simply reflect a "modern" approach to Christianity but was a perversion of historical Christianity and renunciation of the faith once and forever delivered to the saints. So, in Christianity and Liberalism he threw down the gauntlet--either you stand on the side of the historic Christian faith, captured in a doctrine of the inerrant Scripture and adherence to Nicene Christianity, or you are basically a non-Christian. Liberal Christianity is, in a word, not Christianity.
What Happened in the 1920s to the Presbyterians?
So Machen, as the theological heir to the Hodges of Princeton Seminary (go there today and you can't miss Hodge Hall), then began making waves in the Presbyterian Church.** By the late
[**This, by the way, was only in the Northern Presbyterian Church. The Southern Church, which was the nurturing ground of an older contemporary of Machen, Woodrow Wilson, was, as expected, much less sympathetic to the new theology. Indeed, Wilson's uncle was dismissed from teaching at one of the Southern Presbyterian Seminaries in the 1880s because of his seeming sympathy with Darwinian evolution.]
1920s he had provoked a crisis not only at Princeton but in the Church at large. He attacked the Church's mission board (stocked with liberals, he claimed), the Seminary (controlled by the liberals) and the denomination in general. He began a competing seminary (Westminster in Philadelphia) and, ultimately a new denomination. The denomination didn't really "take off," but it was the harbinger of other Presbyterian split-offs in the 1970s and 1980s, which are relatively thriving today. The point is that when the debate becomes framed in terms of who is the "real Christian," you already have a schism in the Church. You just don't yet have separate denominations.
Returning to the Episcopal Church
Thus, if we learn from history, we learn that the schism has already taken place in the Episcopal Church; we just don't yet fully know the form in which the schism will take or who will end up on which side of the divide. The reason why it already has taken place, to repeat, is that the debate has now been successfully framed as "Christians v. non-Christians." If it had been framed in terms of "low" vs. "high" or "latitudinarian" vs. "conservative," there would probably have been hope for the "unity" of the denomination. But unless Boyer has projected something onto the debate which isn't there (and I highly doubt it), the garment of Christ has been riven.
The real problem, however, is that the split will be much worse in the Episcopal Church than it ever was in the Presbyterian. The next essay describes why this will be true.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long