Out of Division, a Greater Unity?

By David Mills

Two weekends ago, almost four-fifths of the clergy and over three-fifths of the laity representing churches in the Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the South American Anglican province called “the Southern Cone.” It was the second American diocese (out of 100 or so) to do so, with two more — the tiny diocese of Quincy, in western Illinois, and Fort Worth — expected to follow.

World Anglicanism is made up of 39 provinces, mostly in former English colonies, each completely independent, and in this country, individual Episcopal churches, and now these two dioceses, have simply given up allegiance to their province and joined a theologically sympathetic one. Hitherto, being an Anglican has been enough to paper over profound religious differences — the body having been founded on national identity and strategic generality and vagueness — but now, pushed mainly by the division over homosexuality, it isn’t.

According to the Episcopal journalist David Virtue, even after four decades of decline, 1,000 Episcopalians are still leaving the church every week, and the church is closing congregations all over the country. For almost all that time, such growth as the church experienced came from the conservative congregations, which are now either dispirited or gone. Fewer than 70 people attend an average Episcopal church every Sunday, and the average Episcopalian is 64 years old.

Why is this of interest to Catholics, beyond our interest in brothers and sisters who have tried to remain faithful to historic Christian moral teaching on homosexuality (though not on other matters, particularly contraception) in a body that denies it, and found they couldn’t? Of most practical importance, one fruit of the Episcopal communion’s disintegration has been a new interest in the Catholic Church — not primarily in Catholicism, but in a closer and livelier friendship with Catholics. These are the Episcopalians we are most likely to meet in local Bible studies or praying in front of abortion facilities.

My Evangelical Episcopal friends tended to assume that the Church is, at the parish level, mainly an ethnic community, and the religion there formal and ceremonial, as opposed to the real “heart religion” they see in their own churches. They either condemned or patronized converts to Catholicism. Ministers I know would complain about “the Roman system” and “Roman juridicism,” contrasted with Anglicanism’s sensitive pastoral flexibility, and so on.

When I was an Episcopalian, many clergy I knew didn’t seem to realize that the Catholic Church existed. I heard one talk about the churches in his town and leave out the Catholic church just two blocks away, though it had more active parishioners than his and all the other local churches put together. I and others have heard affluent Episcopalians say, when asked about the Catholic Church, something like, “Why would I go to church with my plumber?” (I always thought this was a joke, until I heard it from a man who was not trying to be funny.)

These ideas and feelings have not disappeared, by any means, but many of the conservative Episcopalians who ten or twenty years ago would not have included Catholics in their list of real Christians now speak of Catholics as fellow Christians, even brothers and sisters in Christ; read Catholic writers; treat official Church statements as having some kind of authority for them; seriously engage the distinctive Catholic doctrines; and even inquire about Catholic devotions. They speak kindly of converts. They admit there may be something to “the Roman system” after all.

The grounds for this new friendship are a little shaky, however. These same Episcopalians are, in my experience, unclear on what the Catholic Church teaches about herself, and expect a convergence that is not going to happen.

I have a friend, an Episcopal minister, who finds in every Catholic kindness to Anglicanism a sign that the Church is changing her teaching. Upon reading story about the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching at the international Mass at Lourdes celebrated by Walter Cardinal Kasper, he was pleased to find the cardinal celebrating an ecumenical Mass, assuming it had been a great rite of intercommunion. He was a little annoyed when I told him otherwise, and suggested that I was imposing my own rigid understanding of things upon the ever more open Catholic Church.

These Episcopalians think of the Catholic Church as a body as capable of evolving as their own. This they combine with the traditional Anglican self-mythology: that, as a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, they have the best of both worlds, rise above all the tired old divisions, can draw the good things from everyone and reject the bad things, and can be a friend to all. They vaguely assume that the Catholic Church is not only capable of evolving, but is evolving into Anglicanism.

Asked by Christianity Today how “all these events among Anglicans fit into the bigger picture,” Bishop Duncan replied:

They need to be read in the context of this great reformation in the Christian West. . . . I see a new day dawning — and not just for us, but for all our Christian partners. We Anglicans, who don’t theologically always get it right, have done something ecclesiologically that might have helped the whole Christian church.

He is quite sincere in this belief, as peculiar as the idea that shuffling legal allegiances is ecclesiologically helpful appears to the Catholic. He thinks his diocese’s action part of an oft-predicted “realignment of Christendom,” in which conservatives in the various bodies move closer to each other and away from the liberals, to the point of forming new churches by combining their parts of the old ones, and someday a single new church.

Conservative Episcopalians like this theory, but it is a dream without much clear content that has (therefore) proved politically useful for a couple of decades or more. First it justified remaining an Episcopalian because things would naturally work themselves out anyway, if only people didn’t panic, and now it justifies leaving the Episcopal Church. It had the value of putting the Episcopal struggles in a wider context and giving the conservatives’ resistance a meaning beyond the small cramped room of the Episcopal Church, to prevent people from feeling they were wasting their time and money. And it headed off conversions, since no one would want to move from a body that is changing into another body that will wind up in the same place someday anyway.

How the Catholic Church fits in this alignment has never been made clear, and indeed several of the people who used to promote this idea have become Catholics, like the English writer William Oddie and me. My Episcopal friends who talk in this way all seem to assume that Rome will “come around” on various issues, like married priests and women priests and all those Marian doctrines, and especially contraception. They get annoyed when I say it won’t.

I am glad to see my old friends and colleagues move closer to the Catholic Church by shedding some of their prejudices and at least giving the Church the benefit of the doubt. While we will not see any kind of corporate reunion, because most of them remain firm Protestants, we will see more and more individual conversions. And we will have friends we did not have before. That may count for something in the future, as the Church remains the secularists’ favorite target.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on October 29, 2008.