From the December 2009 issue of Chronicles.
William Murchison gets right to the point in his eloquent account of mainline Protestantism’s near-terminal degeneration, written poignantly from an Anglican’s perspective:
Whenever traditional Christianity clashed with late-twentieth-century culture, the Episcopal Church normally weighed in on the side of the culture: for enhanced choice in life, for more laxity and less permanence in belief.
Don’t take Murchison’s word for it: Listen to those responsible for the dwindling Episcopalian flock. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to be elected as primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion, is not done being an agent of change. She recently told delegates to her church’s triennial convention that the notion “that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God” is the “great Western heresy.”
That’s why Jefferts Schori said she had chosen “Ubuntu”—which is supposed to be an African word for sharing and caring—as the theme for the Episcopalian meeting. “Ubuntu doesn’t have any ‘I’s in it,” she noted in her Opening Address to the convention.
The “I” only emerges as we connect—and that is really what the word means: I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others. There is no “I” without “you,” and in our context, you and I are known only as we reflect the image of the One who created us.
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, another charming lady who happens to be the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has identified one apparent exception to Ubuntu: the “blessing” of abortion, whereby a woman can become a whole person by terminating her relationship with the “other” in her womb—even if it is a purely elective abortion undergone by a woman who “becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship” and “has every option open to her,” but nevertheless “decides she does not wish to bear a child.”
After all, says Ragsdale, “The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.” Perhaps fearing she might be misunderstood, Ragsdale continued, “These are the two things I want you, please, to remember—abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.” She then repeated the second part of the sentence three times to make sure no one missed out on the gospel according to St. Margaret Sanger.
It is this kind of nonsense that prompted Murchison to write Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Decline of Mainline Christianity. It’s also what has the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican Communion on the brink of schism, pitting believers in Jefferts Schori’s “great Western heresy” against culture-conforming progressives who celebrate the blessings of abortion, homosexuality, and feminism.
Murchison, a syndicated columnist, Chronicles corresponding editor, and happy warrior, proceeds from the Church of England’s somewhat problematic beginning under Henry VIII to the evolution of an American Episcopal Church that “oozed with specialness.” He concedes that there were problems from the beginning—“In the Episcopal Church no book could be presumed closed”—but praises the denomination’s “beguiling blend of all that was best in Christianity.”
In that blend, Murchison includes “orthodox doctrine; sacramental devotion balanced by devotion to Scripture; intellectual attainment; scholarship; architectural richness; liturgical know-how; good manners; good taste.” All of these characteristics can still be found in American Christianity, even American Protestantism, today. But good luck finding them all in one place.
Now for the part that will really have the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop hunting for heretics. Murchison traces his denomination’s destructive shift to the civil-rights movement of the 1960’s, which is to modern American liberalism roughly what the Resurrection is to orthodox Christianity: a kind of final victory over sin and death. Murchison is obviously in sympathy with Christian calls for racial harmony and the decent treatment of black people. But it was in the midst of his church’s civil-rights activism, he argues, that Episcopal elites acquired less benevolent habits: liberal guilt, radical egalitarianism, the desire for more crusades to liberate the oppressed (however defined), and the conviction that the moral sensibilities of Episcopal elites were superior to those found in Scripture or tradition.
First came the emancipation of women. “When the Episcopal Church came to consider the place and role of Episcopal women, it recalled that certain ‘old’ attitudes about blacks, supposedly ‘approved’ by Scripture, had turned out to be wrong-headed,” Murchison writes. “What about women? Wasn’t it possible—likely even—that all this time parchment prescription had blinded everyone, most women included, to the truth and justice of womanhood’s claims to fulfillment?”
In due time, women were to be ordained as priests and bishops. Episcopalians became active in support of legal abortion, since abortion was viewed as an extension of women’s rights rather than having to do with any “rights” of the unborn. The cultural revolution continues to this day, when Episcopalians enjoy the spiritual leadership and theological reflections of Katharine Jefferts Schori and Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.
Then came homosexual liberation, which in Murchison’s telling “followed ineluctably for the church” from the previous step. Every liberal social cause was to be shoehorned into the civil-rights template, no matter how square the peg or round the hole. “It is as though this great Christian body,” Murchison continues, “admiring the culture’s vivacity, had deliberately sat down alongside the exemplars of that culture, hoping to draw from them warmth and comfort.”
Yet it was the embrace of “gay rights” that provoked the conservative reaction within the Episcopal Church, riling even those who were generally unbothered by the ordination of women or the vulgarization of the Book of Common Prayer. The baptism of homosexuality was an issue that united Anglo-Catholics and low-church evangelicals, American traditionalists and their Anglican brethren overseas, white Southerners and black Africans. For many Episcopalians—even for entire congregations—it was a bridge too far.
But the Episcopal leadership was undeterred, consecrating the open homosexual V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as bishop in 2003. Conservative Episcopalians who had long resisted converting to Catholicism or joining evangelical churches disaffiliated and formed the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, with the support of Archbishop Peter Akinola of the Church of Nigeria.
Murchison points out the Episcopal Church’s problems are symbolic of a larger crisis within mainline Protestantism, but it may even be further gone than most. A recent survey of Episcopal clergy found that 72 percent favored the ordination of homosexuals, 77 percent oppose church teachings against homosexuality, and 87 percent favor homosexual lay leaders. Only clergy in the United Church of Christ—conservative Christians often joke that its acronym “UCC” really stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ”—reported more liberal attitudes on this subject.
Mortal Follies ends with a prayerful call for Episcopal faithfulness to Christian tradition. It is a bitter irony that Africans may need to send missionaries to convert American Episcopalians, Methodists, and other mainline Protestants to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When the African missionaries arrive, Katharine Jefferts Schori will no doubt endeavor to remind them that there is no I in Ubuntu.
[Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity, by William Murchison (New York: Encounter Books) 300 pp., $25.95]