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“Episcopals Now Second Class Christians”: Anglicans Demote Episcopalians As Global Christianity Gets More Polarized

The Anglican Communion effectively banished its American branch, the Episcopal Church, for three years last week because of disputes about same-sex marriage. That rift is just the surface of a much deeper division, reflecting the polarization of Christian life in the 21st century.

The Anglican Communion, which began as the Church of England under Henry VIII, is now a global network spanning 165 countries. There are about 85 million Anglicans in the world, including about 2 million Episcopalians mostly in the U.S. As of this week, however, those Episcopalians are second-class Anglicans: Members cannot vote in any Anglican Communion decisions on church doctrine and cannot represent the communion in any interfaith bodies. Essentially, for three years, Episcopalians are Anglicans without any standing in their own church.

The suspension took place at a meeting of “Primates,” the archbishops and other leaders representing the 44 constituent Churches of the Anglican Communion. The reason for suspension came last June when the Episcopal Church removed doctrinal language defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and authorized marriage rites for same-sex couples. While it’s still up to individual churches whether to solemnize same-sex unions, but the vote formally allowed them to do so.

According to the Primates, these actions were improper because the Episcopal Church acted on its own. “Such unilateral actions,” the Primates said in their official statement, are “a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.”

According to some Episcopal leaders, that is bunk. National church bodies routinely make doctrinal decisions on their own. (Some Anglican Churches still do not ordain women, for example.) What this is really about is homosexuality—and what that is really about is what kind of church the Anglican Communion is today.

The answer, for decades now, is a divided one.

Until the 19th century, the Anglican Church was—as the name implies—basically British, and headed officially by the British monarch. With the spread of the British Empire, however, came the spread of Anglicanism to all corners of the world. By the end of the century, the contemporary Anglican Communion came into being, including not only the Churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but also the Episcopal Church and churches in “provinces” across the world.

Two major developments created the schism facing the church today: the liberalization of the Episcopal Church, and the growth in power and numbers of African, Asian, and South American ones.

George Washington was an Episcopalian. So were Madison, Monroe, FDR, and seven other presidents—11 in total. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Episcopal Church was perhaps the leading Christian denomination in America.

During this time, Episcopalianism embodied American propriety and upper-class values—conservative but reasonable. J.P. Morgan, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush. Prim church services, without the Catholic “smells and bells” but with the decorum and hierarchy. V-neck sweaters, pearls, and country clubs.

That began to change in the civil rights era. African American parishes had been around since the 1850s, but often separate but (un-)equal. In 1958, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution affirming “the natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God.” Over the objections of Southern leaders, the church began to take sides in the civil rights struggles of the time.

The change was gradual and uneven, but by the end of 1970s, liberals had the upper hand, and conservatives had mostly left, often to join the newly minted Christian Right, made up largely of evangelicals, Baptists and Catholics. Women were ordained as priests in 1976, and as bishops in 1989. Prim church services started to loosen up. By the 1990s, the Episcopal Church had changed from the starchy denomination of Rockefeller Republicans to a smaller denomination of (mostly) liberals.

At the same time, the rest of the Anglican Communion was changing radically, with adherents in the Global South coming to outnumber those in Europe and North America. The churches in British Commonwealth countries emerged in different social contexts, with different values, and different (often hostile) relationships to liberalism. Moreover, they found themselves competing with evangelical inroads, conservative (until two years ago) Catholicism, and Islam, with the most pious-seeming religious tradition often “winning.” For all these reasons and more, the emergent Anglicanism of the Global South was a far more conservative Anglicanism even than the old Episcopalianism, let alone the new one.

The watershed moment came at an important Anglican conference in 1998, when theological conservatives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America defeated the liberals on a key vote: homosexuality.

Arguably, the split we saw last week is just a later stage of the process begun 18 years ago. Homosexuality is the catalyst but not the only contentious issue. To liberals, the Episcopal Church is moving into the 21st century, setting aside Biblical fundamentalism and responding to how people actually live their lives. But to Anglican conservatives, the Episcopal Church has lost its way, moving toward a mushy universalism that downplays Christian exclusivity in favor of pluralism, and takes liberal positions on abortion, LGBT equality, and other hot-button issues.

Perhaps the great open question in American religion is whether liberal denominations like Episcopalianism have a future or not. (As Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress noted, Presbyterianism—Donald Trump’s denomination—is even more liberal than the Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian leaders have frequently criticized Trump’s positions on immigration and Islam.) American Christianity in general is in a period of steep decline, and mainline Protestant denominations—plus white, non-Hispanic Catholics—are declining the most.

We are moving toward a religiously polarized America. Thirty percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 profess “none” as their religious affiliation, while at the other extreme, around 35 percent of Americans subscribe to a resurgent ultra-fundamentalist evangelicalism. (77 percent of those evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times.) Mainline Protestants, once the dominant religious group in America, are now just 18 percent of the population. Episcopalians are less than 1 percent.

To the extent religion continues to provide a source of inspiration, community, purpose, and ethical motivation in people’s lives, liberal Christianity should have a lot to offer, seeing as it provides those things without preposterous beliefs, divisive social mores, or fire-breathing sermons. And it does, to many. But even though 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, they seem uninterested in expressing that belief in moderate, reasonable churches.

The American religious landscape, then, resembles the Anglican Communion as a whole. On one end, a shrinking number of religious liberals, and at the other, a fierce religious conservatism. In coming apart at the seams, the Anglican Church looks a lot like us.

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, January 17, 2016

January 19, 2016 Posted by | American Communion, Marriage Equality, The Episcopal Church | , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“A Theological-Political Vision Lies In Tatters”: Catholicism, George W. Bush, And The Cluelessness Of The Religious Right

Once upon a time, the religious right’s leading intellectuals told themselves an inspiring story. It went something like this: From the time of the Puritans all the way down to the early 1970s, American public life was decisively shaped by the moral and spiritual witness of the Protestant Mainline’s leading churches: The Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians.

But then the Great Collapse began, as these venerable churches sold their souls to the counterculture, abandoned the moral and religious tenets of historical Christianity, embraced a series of increasingly left-wing and anti-American causes, and saw their numbers (and then their cultural influence) plummet. Today these churches are an intellectual and demographic shell of their former selves.

This was a potentially disastrous development, depriving America of the theologically grounded public philosophy that it needs in order to thrive. But as luck — or providence — would have it, the decline of the Mainline churches set in at the precise moment when two other monumental cultural and religious developments unfolded: The rise of a politicized form of Protestant evangelicalism and a revival of intellectual and spiritual energy in the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II. The time was ripe for evangelicals and Catholics to come together to form a successor to the Mainline churches.

The public philosophy promulgated by this new-fangled amalgam of evangelicalism and Catholicism (with the former supplying the foot soldiers and the latter providing the ideas) would be staunchly opposed to abortion and euthanasia. It would be strongly anti-communist. It would be passionately pro-capitalist. It would favor using military force to promote democracy. And it would re-describe the United States, its history, and its form of government in providential-theological terms, with the rights espoused in the nation’s founding documents declared to derive directly from medieval concepts of natural law.

Once the country (or at least a sizable majority) embraced this public philosophy — turning it into a governing philosophy — the United States would supposedly flourish as never before, protecting the unborn, unleashing economic liberty at home, defending democracy and fighting tyranny abroad, and most of all bringing the nation back to its properly Christian roots after the silly season of the 1960s.

It is exceedingly odd that Joseph Bottum has written a book — An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America devoted to elaborating this story as if it were original to him, when in fact it is derived almost entirely from the writings of the man for whom both of us once worked: The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

You see, I once edited Neuhaus’ monthly magazine First Things. When I quit to write a book denouncing the ideological project outlined above, Neuhaus brought on Bottum (then the literary editor of The Weekly Standard) as my successor. When Neuhaus died in January 2009, Bottum became editor-in-chief of the magazine. (Twenty-one months later he was summarily dismissed by its governing board for reasons that have never been publicly explained.)

Bottum, a published poet, is a gifted prose stylist. That gives a distinctive flair to his version of the story. But the story itself, in every detail, comes straight from the writings of Neuhaus and his small circle of ideological compatriots: Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Robert P. George foremost among them.

In Bottum’s hands, no less than in the essays and books in which it was originally formulated, the story has some explanatory power. The decline of the Mainline churches is indeed a significant event in recent American cultural and political history — and one that has received insufficient attention from both scholars and intellectuals. (My colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty’s thoughtful reflections on Bottum’s treatment of the topic can be read here.)

But the story also obscures far more than it clarifies. For one thing, Bottum can’t seem to figure out if the problems he identifies with post-Mainline America (including the absence of a unifying, overarching moral consensus and the subsequent rise in acrimonious conflict in our political culture) are a result of Protestant Christianity’s inability to defend itself against an aggressive form of secularism, or if, instead, what we call secularism is actually just a desiccated form of Protestantism (hence the reference to a “post-Protestant ethic” in his subtitle). Either way, Protestant Christianity is to blame for America’s problems.

Which is why Bottum (following Neuhaus and the others) turns to Catholicism for a solution.

The closest we’ve come to seeing this theological-political vision in action was in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. You remember: It was a speech that consisted of a series of sweeping assertions about America’s God-appointed task to end “tyranny in our world.” (Bush made more than 50 references to “freedom” and “liberty” in a speech of 2,000 words.)

For Bottum, this was “the most purely philosophical address in the history of America’s inaugurations,” one that deployed “a Catholic philosophical vocabulary” rooted in natural law theory to “express a moral seriousness the nation needs.”

That’s one way to look at it.

Here’s another: The speech was a crude expression of American parochialism and pious self-congratulation — the kind of address you’d expect from someone who believed toppling Saddam Hussein was a sufficient condition for creating a functioning democracy in Iraq, and who thinks that presidential rhetoric can rise no higher than paraphrasing the lyrics to “Onward Christian Soldiers.” It was the speech of a simple-minded man leading a simple-minded administration.

The most interesting and original thing in Bottum’s book is a new-found pessimism about the practical prospects for the theological-political engagement he still favors. But I would be more impressed with this darkening mood if it grew out of a realization that great political leadership involves far more than moralistic sermonizing — and that something as partisan and sectarian as a Catholicized version of the Republican Party platform could never serve as the unifying, overarching moral vision of a pluralistic liberal democracy.

Instead, we’re left with vague, evasive statements about how “Catholicism as a system of thought proved too foreign” to play its appointed role as cheerleader for American exceptionalism.

Poor Joseph Bottum. Poor religious right.

They’re down for the count, splayed out on the mat. And they haven’t got a clue about what the hell happened.

 

By: Damon Linker, The Week, April 11, 2014

April 12, 2014 Posted by | Religion, Religious Right | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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