When a founding myth becomes a weapon

by
02 May 2007

The Episcopal Church in the United States has a history of interdependence, not of isolation, argues Peter Doll

Within the contentious process of the reception of the Windsor report and the debates on sexuality surrounding it, there has been little mention of history. Biblical interpretation and sexual ethics have played the largest (and largely inconclusive) part. Yet the statement of the US Episcopal House of Bishops on 20 March, which rejected the pastoral scheme proposed in the Dar es Salaam communiqué of 19 February, appealed boldly to Anglican and Episcopal history (News, 23 March).

“It violates our founding principles as the Episcopal Church following our liberation from colonialism and the beginning of a life independent of the Church of England.

“It is a very serious departure from our English Reformation heritage. . . It sacrifices the emancipation of the laity from the exclusive leadership of high-ranking Bishops. And, for the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th century, it replaces the local governance of the Church by its own people with the decisions of a distant and unaccountable group of prelates.”

The objections appeal to a founding myth of the Episcopal Church in the United States: that the American Revolution enabled American Anglicans to throw off the baneful shackles of establishment and prelacy for the sake of a popular, autonomous, national Church. It may not be accidental that the rhetoric of the Episcopal Church’s response echoes that of the Declaration of Independence itself.

Such founding myths have a visceral power, which can help bind nation or Church together. But the myth becomes dangerous when used as a weapon of self-defence, or confused with the complexity of history. It becomes an excuse for a defensive attitude of independence rather than interdependence; of isolation rather than the “autonomy-in-communion” called for by the Windsor report.

This is a pity, as the Episcopal Church has a distinguished history of recalling the rest of the Communion to bear witness to the common tradition of the wider Church — precisely that autonomy-in-communion that the American bishops are now resisting.

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The English Reformation was not about the “emancipation of the laity”, but about the emancipation of the national Church from papal control. It was in support of royal absolutism, of making the king the fount of all justice, temporal and spiritual.

Theologically, it was also about making the English Church accountable to the whole history of the Church. Reformers within the tendency we now call Anglican insisted on a fidelity to the “Primitive” Church of the early centuries. John Jewel asserted in Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae (1562): “We have planted no new religion but only have preserved the old that was undoubtedly founded and used by the Apostles of Christ and other holy Fathers of the Primitive Church.”

Those reformers who called for a “democratic” Church were the Presbyterians and Puritans, from whom Episcopalians have always been eager to distinguish themselves.

The emphasis on episcopacy (such a defining characteristic of American Anglicans that they used it to name their Church) grew in intensity during the Commonwealth and the Restoration.

Anglican scholarship emphasised the dictum of Cyprian of Carthage “Episcopatus unus”: the episcopate is one. Anglicans recognised that through the episcopate they were united with and accountable to the Church in every time and place. This episcopal theology proved so attractive to many in the American colonies that it prompted numerous conversions to the Church of England.

Opposition to establishment was never a significant feature of the American colonial Church. Anglicans in the South were supported

by their own colonial establishments; in the North, where missionaries were funded by the SPG, Anglican clergy formed the backbone of loyalty to Britain during the Revolution. The Episcopal Church in the newly independent United States made a virtue of necessity, and repudiated the state connection when it no longer had it anyway.

So much for the myth: the historical reality is that Episcopalians have performed a crucial part in witnessing to the common faith of the Church. Its eucharistic liturgy remains notable for its fidelity to the Early Church. Its involvement of laity in the governance of the Church after independence was a critical model in the revival of synodical government throughout the Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church revived “missionary bishops”, who went ahead of settlers rather than following them. These likewise became the model for the expansion of the Church in the British Empire.

American and Canadian bishops essentially forced the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 on a reluctant Archbishop Longley. They wanted to have their say on the theological developments represented by Essays and Reviews and by Bishop Colenso’s denial of the historicity of the Pentateuch. (They condemned them.)

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The Americans also freely criticised the authority of the civil courts and the Privy Council over doctrinal disputes within the Church of England. All the time, they harked back to the model of the Primitive Church. English churchmen were resentful of colonials’ telling them how to run their Church.

Today, the issues are different and the roles are reversed. Now it is the American bishops who resist claims of reciprocal obligation. They resent the insistence that unless we are interdependent and mutually accountable, our Communion is meaningless. By all means, let us appeal to our history: it has much to teach us. But first let us be better-informed what that history is.

The Revd Dr Peter Doll is Team Vicar of Abingdon and the author of Revolution, Religion, and National Identity: Imperial Anglicanism in British North America, 1745-1795 (Associated University Presses, 2000).

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