[COMMENT:  Philip Turner's excellent history of the demise of ECUSA is well worth reading.  A warning to the whole Body of Christ Militant.  To stay militant.  

Turner, however, styles himself as a "fierce" defender of the ordination of women.  I would respond that the very history he so well outlines was aided and abetted significantly by the collapse of the male-only priesthood, that the ordination of women was based not on Scripture or theology, but on "civil rights".  The Church has had no clear theology of either sexuality or of ecclesiology for well over a century.  We have simply adopted the spirit of the times because we had lost our own identity -- largely to the secularism undergirded by cosmic evolutionism -- the modern replacement for God. 

The ordination of women, the putting of women into the primary roles of leadership and authority has had the effect of undermining the very meaning of spiritual authority, and the very foundations of salvation by faith rather than works.  For my argument on these issues, see Psychology, Salvation, and the Ordination of Women.   E. Fox]

The End of a Church
and the Triumph of Denominationalism

On How To Think About
What Is Happening In The Episcopal Church

 Philip Turner


On August 5, 2003, the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA),
following an initial action by the House of Deputies of ECUSA’s General
Convention, gave its consent (by a ratio of roughly 60/40) to the election
of the Rev. Gene Robinson to become the next Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese
of New Hampshire. Gene Robinson is an outspoken gay man who has lived openly
with his partner for over a decade.  He is also the divorced father of two
children.  At a later point in the same convention, delegates gave
permission for the blessing of gay unions in Dioceses that may choose to
grant clergy license to perform these services.

Shortly before these events occurred, a friend, anticipating the firestorm
they would precipitate, suggested I write an article that would help people
think about how the likely actions of ECUSA might best be understood.  As
the existence of these columns makes plain, I decided to take him up on his
suggestion.  However, before any attempt is made at interpretation or
prognostication, it is well to note that there are few if any dispassionate
observers of these developments.  No one looks upon them with the calm of a
“view from nowhere.”  My own view is that of a person who was born into a
family of Episcopalians whose allegiance to that Church stretches as far
back as anyone can remember.  It is the view of a person who was formed as a
Christian within the bosom of the Episcopal Church, who served for ten years
as a missionary of that Church in East Africa, and who has taught several
generations of its clergy.

>From the point at which this history has placed me, it seems most clarifying
to say that, by its action, ECUSA has confirmed a decision taken
unconsciously some time ago to find its primary identity as a liberal but
liturgical option within the spectrum of Protestant denominations that make
up America’s religious kaleidoscope.  In making this decision, ECUSA has at
one and the same time (perhaps again unconsciously) made marginal for its
self-understanding the significance of its membership in a worldwide
communion of churches that jointly claim to be a part of the One, Holy,
Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  In fact, it has placed its membership in
the Anglican Communion under threat, and, rather recklessly, brought that
communion itself to the verge of a split between the churches of the global
South and those of the North.  This is my point of view and the best way to
make it understandable (and defensible) is first off to recount, even if all
too briefly, certain key aspects of ECUSA’s more recent history.


The U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to the “free exercise” but
prohibits the “establishment” of any religion.  The right to free exercise
and the prohibition of establishment provide, in the American context, legal
and social space for the birth and growth of a plethora of religious belief
and practice.  In America, “churches” became “denominations”—named
organizations, each of which occupies a particular niche in a religious
market place.  Thus, when Episcopalians found establishment beyond reach,
they presented themselves within the American religious market as a “bridge
church,” incorporating the best elements of both Protestantism and
Catholicism.  This self-presentation proved both pretentious and fatuous,
and in time lost its hold on imagination.  In its place came another,
namely, that the Episcopal Church provides an enlightened alternative to the
moral and theological rigidities of both Roman Catholicism and Evangelical
Protestantism.  Emboldened by this new self-image, Episcopal clergy embraced
new learning and new experience.  They preached an enlightened religion
attuned to the latest movements of liberal culture.

 The power of this new self-image over the mind of the Episcopal Church
showed its strength clearly as far back as 1966, when the late Bishop James
Pike was accused of heresy for stating in Look Magazine, “The Church’s
classical way of stating what is represented by the doctrine of the Trinity
is…not essential to the Christian faith.”  For reasons that will become
apparent, the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA, despite pressures to the contrary,
wished to avoid a heresy trial; and so managed to have the matter referred
to an ad hoc committee rather than to a panel of judges. The committee
concluded that a heresy trial would be widely viewed as a “throw back” to a
previous century in which both church and state sought to penalize
“unacceptable opinion.”  As such, a trial would give ECUSA an “oppressive
image.”  The committee did say, however, that they rejected “the tone and
manner” of the Bishop’s statements, and that they wished to dissociate
themselves from many of the Bishop’s comments.  His utterances were, they
said, “irresponsible” for one holding Episcopal office.  The Bishops then
censured Bishop Pike; but, despite the fact that he did not renounce his
heresy, did nothing to inhibit him in the exercise of his Episcopal office.
It would appear that the Bishop’s fault was a certain degree of
irresponsibility and a lack of tact rather than false doctrine.  A charge of
heresy in the minds of the church’s leadership would represent a throw-back
to a former and repressive age and so compromise ECUSA’s position within the
spectrum of American Christianity.

This view was certainly held by a group of Bishops who opposed Bishop Pike’s
censure.  They wrote a minority report in which they gave voice with stark
clarity to the new self-image of the Episcopal Church.  “We believe it is
more important to be a sympathetic and self-conscious part of God’s action
in the secular world than it is to defend the positions of the past, which
is a past that is altered by each new discovery of truth.”  So the doctrine
of the Trinity became a position of the past that is altered by each new
discovery of truth.  In the minority report, Bishop Pike was not viewed
negatively as a heretic, but positively as “a casualty (martyr?) of the
Christian mission in our day.”

Throughout this struggle, all sides sought to present ECUSA as an
enlightened denominational option on the American religious scene.  In this
struggle can also be seen the birth of the notion that Episcopal office is
to be used as a “prophetic” lever to pry people loose from the encrusted
positions of the past.  This notion of Episcopal office appeared in even
more pronounced form during the battle over the ordination of women that
took place during the decade of the 1970s.

Before recounting this tale, I feel compelled to make it clear that I am a
staunch, even fierce, supporter of the ordination of women.  However, the
way in which the practice was introduced into ECUSA has (sadly) served both
to weaken its structures of order and authority; and to further strengthen
its self-identity as an “enlightened” denominational alternative.

In 1974, after the General Convention had twice refused to approve the
ordination of women to the Priesthood, three retired Bishops ordained eleven
women Deacons as Priests.  The reason given by the Bishops was that their
act was an “obedient” and “prophetic” protest against oppression and an act
of solidarity with those who are oppressed—in this case women.  Once more
there was an attempt to bring the offending Bishops to trial, but once again
the attempt was foiled.  The matter was referred at various times and in
various ways both to the House of Bishops and to a special committee.  The
Bishops decried the action and went on at a later date to censure the
Bishops involved.   The special committee found that the offending Bishops
were in fact guilty of canonical offenses, and that their acts involved
“teaching publicly a doctrine contrary to that held by the church.”
Further, the committee posed in clear terms a fundamental question, namely,
“whether this church’s understanding of the nature of the church and the
authority of the episcopate permits individual bishops, appealing solely to
their consciences, to usurp the proper functions and other duly constituted
authorities in this church.”  Another advisory committee put the point even
more pointedly by saying that “a bishop is not free to appropriate the
sacramental structure of the church to his own views.”

Despite these admonitions, warnings and actions, however, in October of
1975, Bishop George Barrett, another Bishop without Diocese, ordained four
more women Deacons to the Priesthood.  The women involved stated as the
reason for their action that to wait for the General Convention to give
approval to women’s ordination was to affirm in principle the concept that
discrimination against women to the Priesthood may be practiced in the
church until the majority changes its mind and votes.  Once more a leading
cultural trend, this time women’s rights, showed itself as the dominant
force within a defining moment of ECUSA’s common life. Once more, a majority
of ECUSA Bishops decried what had been done, but acceded to its legitimacy
by failing to take effective disciplinary action.

Looking back over the history that stretched from the “Pike affair” to the
struggle over the ordination of women, one can see by the end of the process
certain things firmly in place—ECUSA’s espousal of enlightened culture and
progressive cultural trends, the use of Episcopal office to further
“prophetic causes,” and the inability of the governing structures and
authorities of ECUSA to restrain independent action on the part of its
Bishops.  All these factors revealed themselves plainly when, in 1977, just
two years after Bishop Barrett’s blatant defiance of his fellow Bishops,
Bishop Paul Moore of the Episcopal Diocese of New York ordained a professed
and practicing Lesbian to the Priesthood.  In response, the House of Bishops
did no more than express “disapproval” of Bishop Moore’s action.  The next
General Convention, which met in 1979, passed a resolution that said among
other things that the delegates believed “it is not appropriate for this
Church to ordain a practicing homosexual or any person who is engaged in
heterosexual relations outside marriage.”

On the surface, it appeared as if the General Convention had legislated
against the practice initiated by Bishop Moore; but surface appearances can
be deceiving.  The resolution that labeled these practices “inappropriate”
began with the phrase, “We recommend.”  Twenty dissenting Bishops
immediately signed a letter saying that they took the action of General
Convention to be “recommendary and not prescriptive.” These twenty Bishops
also announced that in the name of “apostolic leadership” and “prophetic
witness” they would not implement the resolution in their Diocese.

It is unlikely that the General Convention resolution was intended to do no
more than recommend against a practice, but over time political forces
within ECUSA have in fact managed to establish the resolution as
“recommendary” rather than “prescriptive.”

In 1989, 1990, and 1991, the Episcopal Dioceses of Newark and Washington
D.C. ordained open and practicing homosexuals to the Priesthood.  The
justification for these ordinations was “new experience” and “new learning”
that serves to “contextualize” the negative Biblical witness.  The
ordination of sexually active homosexual persons then became a “justice
issue” that must be furthered by a “prophetic” Episcopate.  In the face of
these claims, it is perhaps not surprising that charges of heresy later
brought against one of the Bishops of Newark (Walter Reighter) were turned
down on the grounds that the Bishop’s action was not contrary to the “core
doctrine” of the Episcopal Church.

After the Righter trial, the way was open for Bishops to ordain sexually
active homosexual persons if they so chose.  It was clear that no
disciplinary consequences would follow.  It was at this point that the
policy of a Bishop or Diocese to ordain or not ordain, to bless or not to
bless, came to be known within Episcopal circles as the “local option.”  It
was asserted, quite rightly, that “local option” is the de facto practice of
ECUSA. The election of Gene Robinson to succeed to the present Bishop of New
Hampshire was thus only the most radical assertion of a policy that had been
firmly in place in respect to ordinations and blessings since the time of
the Righter trial.  Not only was it now permissible within ECUSA for clergy
and Bishops to be openly gay, not only was it permissible to bless gay
unions, it was also the case that these novelties were hailed by their
supporters as evidence that God is “doing a new thing.”  The cultural
recognition and integration of Gay and Lesbian people into the American
mainstream was read as an act of God. The Episcopal Church, so the claim
goes, is taking a lead in calling attention to the finger of God in history
and giving prophetic support to divine providence.


It is possible that people from outside ECUSA who oppose these measures will
at this point simply throw up their hands and say, “Well what else would you
expect from the Episcopalians.  They’ve always been a little long on style
and a little short on substance.”  A reaction of this sort might provide
some self-satisfaction, but would miss the significance for the rest of the
churches in America of what has happened in the Episcopal Church.  The
Robinson election in fact serves to highlight the primary challenge all the
churches in America face; be they Catholic, Orthodox, “mainstream”
Protestant, Evangelical, or Charismatic.  I speak of the subversion of
Christian belief and practice by the logic of autonomous individualism, and
their transformation into simulacra.  For one should make no mistake!  What
has happened in ECUSA is not the particular problem of a once (overly) proud
denomination.  Rather, it provides an exemplary case of the sort of
subversion and transformation that, in one way or another, threatens all
American’s denominations.

To display this point with some clarity, I will freely borrow from the
account Alasdair MacIntyre has given of the tradition of liberalism in Whose
Justice? Which Rationality?  The present economic and political cultures of
America plainly stem from this tradition, and it is this tradition that
currently is bringing all its force to bear (in a hostile way) on more
traditional forms of Christian belief and practice.  MacIntyre notes that
the tradition of liberalism cannot allow for a single notion of good to
possess “the public square.”  Liberal society must remain neutral in respect
to the good.  What one can express in public are not notions of good but
preferences.  Of course, some way must be found to order preferences both in
respect to individual life and to social policy. No rational way can be
found to achieve this goal, however, because there is no common notion of
good to which appeal can be made when it comes to sorting out conflicting
claims.  Thus, the way in which one establishes preference in the public
arena, if it cannot be done by force, is by bargaining.  Everything, both in
respect to private and public life becomes a “trade off.”  Social life
becomes a sort of free trade zone for preferences.  All one needs to be able
to play the game is the ability to bargain.

There are two things in particular to be noted about this form of social
economy.  The first is that theories of justice abound.  They must for the
following reason.  To have one’s preferences excluded is to have one’s
rights denied.  Then the question arises of how one person’s right to his or
her preference is to be balanced against a contrary right claimed by someone
else.  At this point, some theory of justice must be invoked, but in a
liberal social economy of preferences, no one theory can establish itself.
Theories of justice simply multiply exponentially and interminably.  Given
this social reality, one can see easily why supporters of Gay rights hold
ordination and the blessing of Gay unions to be matters of justice.  One can
see also why supporters of Gene Robinson hold that his election was above
all “a justice issue.”

The dominance in America of a liberal social economy also provides another
reason for regarding the Robinson election and the permission given for Gay
blessings to be more than an Episcopalian anomaly.  Within a liberal social
economy there comes to be a view of moral agency that gives special
significance to sexual preference and sexual satisfaction.  The denizens of
a social order based upon competing preferences think of themselves not as
inhabitants of a pre-established moral order but as individuals who are
utterly unique, as selves that have particular personal histories and needs,
and as persons who have rights that allow them to express their
individuality and pursue their personal well-being within the social world
they inhabit.  For moral agents who think of themselves as individuals,
selves, and persons, sexuality becomes, along with money, both a marker of
identity and a primary way of expressing the preferences that define

It is precisely this notion of moral agency and personal identity that makes
the Robinson election so understandable.  Here is a unique individual, who
is a self with a particular history and a person with a right to express his
preferences and put his talents to work in the social world he inhabits.  To
deny him that right on the basis of sexual preference is, at one and the
same time, to deny his personal identity. This notion of moral agency also
makes understandable why the issues of abortion and euthanasia take their
place alongside self-chosen sexual expression as centers of moral
controversy both within the churches and without.  At the basis of each of
these arguments lies the characterization of moral agents as individuals,
selves, and persons who have the right to pursue the preferences that
provide them with personal identity. In the culture wars that rage over
abortion, euthanasia, and sexuality defenders of more traditional Christian
teaching and practice often miss the fact that they must confront American
culture on a deeper level than any of these specific issues.  If they are to
be effective, they must take on the very way in which Americans think of
themselves as moral agents.  The “socio-logic” that stands behind ECUSA’s
recent action beckons thinking to an even deeper level than the sad history
of this Church’s search for a distinctive place on the spectrum of America’s
denominations.  It calls Christian thought to confront a perception of moral
and social life that runs counter to the very foundations of Christian
thought and practice.  It raises the question of whether we inhabit a moral
universe with an order we are called upon to understand and to which we are
required to conform, or whether the moral universe we inhabit is properly
the creation of preference pursuing individuals, selves, and persons who
create a social world suited to their self-defined goals through an
elaborate process of moral bargaining.


The Robinson election in fact manifests the social forces that at present
erode the ability of America’s denominations to act like churches: that is
to say, to form people in a pattern of belief and a way of life which may
run against preference but nonetheless accords with what Christians have,
through the ages, held to be the truth about God and his intentions for
human life.

It is important to recognize these social forces, but it is important as
well not to conclude that the recent actions of ECUSA can be adequately
explained by the play of these forces alone.  Christians through the ages
have faced social forces that threaten to compromise the truth they have
been given to live and proclaim, but they have not always succumbed to them.
To think well about what is happening in ECUSA one must ask why the sirens
of modernity have sung so sweetly in ECUSA’s ears.

My belief is that a religious rather than historical or sociological answer
must, in the end, be given to this question.  The English theologian P. T.
Forsythe once wrote, “If within us we have nothing above us we soon succumb
to what is around us.”  The history recounted above suggests that the
internal life of ECUSA may well lack a transcendent point of reference—one
that can serve as a counter balance to the social forces that play upon it.
A certain vacuity at the center is suggested also by an analysis of the
theology that currently dominates ECUSA’s pulpits.  The standard sermon in
outline runs something like this: “God is love, God’s love is inclusive, God
acts in justice to see that everyone is included, we therefore ought to be
co-actors and co-creators with God to make the world over in the way he

Here is the theological projection of a society built upon preference—one in
which the inclusion of preference within common life is the be all and end
all of the social system.  ECUSA’s God has become the image of this society.
Gone is the notion of divine judgment (save upon those who may wish to
exclude someone), gone is the notion of radical conversion, gone is the
notion of a way of life that requires dying to self and rising to newness of
life in conformity with God’s will.  In place of the complex God revealed in
Christ Jesus, a God of both judgment and mercy, a God whose law is meant to
govern human life, we now have a God who is love and inclusion without
remainder.  The projected God of the liberal tradition is, in the end, no
more than an affirmer of preferences.  This view of God is, furthermore,
acted upon by an increasing number of ECUSA’s clergy who now regularly
invite non-baptized people to share in the Holy Eucharist.  It’s just a
matter of hospitality—of welcoming difference.  An inclusive God, it would
seem, requires an inclusive sacramental system.

Jews have always held, I believe, that idolatry is the greatest of all sins.
In the end, the actions of ECUSA must be traced to idolatry, to the creation
of a god made in our own image, rather than to the play of social forces.
It is this observation that brings me to the final remark I wish to make
about how to think about what is happening in the Episcopal Church.  As I
write, the chief Bishops of the various Provinces of the Anglican Communion
are preparing to go to England in October to meet with the Archbishop of
Canterbury.  The purpose of this meeting is to discuss what the response of
the Anglican Communion ought to be to ECUSA’s action.  A majority of the
Bishops of the global South are of the opinion that some form of discipline
must be imposed upon ECUSA if the Anglican Communion is to maintain its
claim to apostolicity and catholicity.  Contrary to the assertions of many
liberal Episcopal clergy and Bishops, the concern of the Bishops from the
global South does not stem from the fact that they have not as yet lived
through the Enlightenment.  It stems rather from a perception that some form
of idolatry has infected ECUSA, and that this infection has led to forms of
gross disobedience that compromise not only Anglican but Christian identity.

Time will tell whether ECUSA’s Presiding Bishop will manage to convince
these Bishops from the global South that an international “local option” is
the enlightened way for the Anglican Communion as a whole.  The attempt will
certainly be made.  It is entirely likely, however, that the Bishops of the
global South will say to ECUSA that membership in the Anglican Communion
requires conformity to the faith and practice of a world-wide fellowship of
churches—even if that conformity runs against the grain of the culture in
which Christians happen to find themselves.  ECUSA will then have to decide
if it wants to remain in its denominational niche or if it wants to affirm
its identity as a church that is part of a worldwide communion of churches.

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