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Samuel L. Edwards on Lessons from the Battle of Accokeek
It is marvelous, though it is not much fun, to have opponents who keep making my case for me: I have been telling people for years that the principal object of our adversaries in the ecclesiastical wars is the acquisition of power, and they just keep proving me right. The principal symbols for power are property— “the kingdoms of the earth”—and money—“the glory of them”—and we know who offers them, and to whom, and what his answer is, and that it must also be our answer.
I have been in the middle of a test case, with significance for all those in similar situations. In mid-December of 2000, the vestry of Christ Church, Accokeek, Maryland, called me to be its rector following a search of more than two years. It is a small parish in rural Maryland, but part of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, D.C. Following the retirement of Bishop Ronald Haines, the “bishop pro tem” is Jane Holmes Dixon.
At the end of the canonically defined period of 30 days in which the bishop must raise any objections to the call, Dr. Dixon had raised no objections, and the vestry and I entered into a binding civil contract. Afterwards, on March 6, 2001, Dr. Dixon informed me that she would not approve the call. Being advised that she was acting outside the canons, I came anyway and took up my duties as rector in late March.
After unsuccessfully attempting to eject me in late May, she set up a competing congregation in my parish and on June 24 filed a federal lawsuit against me and the vestry. It is worth remembering that, in efforts by corrupt religious establishments to get their way, the use of secular magistrates is nothing new: Consult John 19, or refer to the accounts of any number of Paul’s scrapes with the religious and civil authorities of his day.
After hearing arguments in August, the court ruled against us on October 29 and ordered me to vacate the property and the position immediately. We appealed to the Federal Circuit Court, and I moved to temporary quarters in late November. The appeal was argued before a three-judge panel in late January, and a decision is pending at this writing.
While this matter is being fought out on legal grounds, it represents a genuine conflict between two different views of central theological matters. On the one hand, there is Jane Dixon’s revisionist approach to ecclesiology and the doctrine of revelation. In an article published in the diocese’s official newspaper in January she dealt with both.
Ecclesiologically, she subscribes to the modernist misreading of the sixteenth-century Anglican divine Richard Hooker on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, saying that “Hooker did not ascribe primacy to one over the others, nor do most Anglicans/Episcopalians today.” We, on the other hand, believe as Hooker himself did (and all Anglicans until very recently), that Scripture has the priority and the supremacy, and that reason and antiquity are its servants, not its vice-regents.
As to revelation, she thinks that “most Anglicans agree that God reveals God’s self completely in Jesus of Nazareth. The debate in the Church is that there are those who accept that God continues to reveal God’s self in the world and those who do not accept the idea of ongoing revelation.” Dr. Dixon’s actions (including her claim to Episcopal office) place her squarely in the former group, while we affirm that the revelation of God himself in Jesus Christ was, is, and remains definitive and complete.
Our situation in Accokeek is a microcosm of the larger situation—the contest between truth and power— as it has developed not only in the Episcopal Church and in the first-world portion of the official Anglican Communion, but in all the mainline churches of the West. I would like to reflect on the dynamics and significance of what has been going on in my parish over the last few months.
The struggle in Accokeek is manifested in a clash of generations, in a clash of visions concerning what a parish church (indeed, what the Church as a whole) is for, and in a clash of visions concerning the role of the parish priest. These are rooted in a more fundamental clash between those who seek to conform themselves to the Truth as it is in Christ Jesus and those who seek to conform others to the power that they think they possess, but that in reality possesses them.
1. The clash of generations. The composition of the pro-diocesan group in Accokeek is somewhat counterintuitive: It is largely made up, not of young radicals, nor even of 40-something boomers, but of members of what the sociologists call “the Silent Generation,” who were born between 1927 and 1943, were growing up during World War II, and thus are largely in their sixties to mid-seventies. A generation that is likely to prove the most generous of all, as a rule its members value peacemaking and are effective managers. They are good team players.
The predominant generation in the pro-diocesan faction is thus one that has been noted for its tendency to be loyal to institutional forms and to avoid questions of substance or conviction. The leadership of the group, interestingly and tellingly, refers to itself as “the Board.”
This generation’s strengths, however, easily turn bad in the absence of a strong vision of the purpose and mission of an institution. As a generation, they tend to be reflexively (as opposed to reflectively) conservative; most of its members in Accokeek are socially and politically conservative or moderate, but none can be accurately described as genuinely traditional—former Bishop Haines’s weird opinions (“we are the real traditionalists and victims of a vast international orthodox conspiracy”) to the contrary notwithstanding. They are, in a word, corporatists.
This generation, as a generation, is characterized by a vague, underlying, and unspoken assumption that there is no objective truth to which institutions are obliged to conform. It is arguably the first generation that manifested as a generational characteristic the fruits of modernistic relativism—a generation in which the members had no transcendent good for which to sacrifice themselves because they had been subtly trained that there was no knowable truth. Their intellectual formation took place during the very time that modernist assumptions were coming to undisputed dominance in the academy.
It is also arguable that this is the sort of attitude that would have had a better chance to develop in the absence of strong fathers (who were away fighting fascism or wrestling with their own experiential demons after returning from the fray) and under the tutelage of rear-area types—the sort of people referenced by Wilfred Owen in his poem “At a Calvary near the Ancre”:
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the State,
But those who love the greater love
Lay down their lives: They do not hate.
Because members of this generation tend to treat questions of institutional purpose and objective truth as issues of, at best, secondary significance, they are particularly susceptible to corporatist appeals.
The diocesan powers and their willing accomplices in Accokeek have played on this in several ways. For instance, one of them—a highly intelligent and politically skilled former college English teacher—wrote an article in which I was accused of being unacceptable because my views were not agreeable to “the true Episcopal faith.”
Now this is an interesting selection of terms, not least because it confirms something I have long suspected, which is the existence in the mind of revisionist and corporatist Episcopalians of something called “the Episcopal faith,” which is presumably distinct from “the Christian faith”—a bifurcation alien to the Anglican ethos. However, it is a selection of terms that for the tactical purposes of Jane Dixon and her allies is difficult to beat since it plays upon the Silent Generation’s veneration for corporate structures.
Another instance of the skillful use of corporatist icons in pursuit of their goals is the way the diocese never has sent anyone other than a bishop or bishop’s staffer to deal with the members of their faction here. Episcopalian members of the Silent Generation seem by and large to assume, in the face of all contrary evidence, that to suspect a bishop of insincerity, deceit, or outright heresy is an act of impiety. The underlying assumption of the pro-diocesan faction, Jane Dixon, and ECUSA, in general, is that there is no higher Shepherd than the bishop to whom they are to render account.
One parishioner in the diocesan faction has been heard to criticize my and the vestry’s resistance to Jane Dixon’s impositions and aggressions in these terms: “They ought to do what she says, because she’s the boss.” An instance of higher octane corporatism is difficult to imagine.
This is the generation of “the man in the gray flannel suit.” It is also the generation of most of the senior leadership of the mainline denominations, ECUSA included. This is the generation whose members tend to be adept at managing institutions, but not at leading them, for they have no authentic vision, which brings me to item 2.
2. The clash over visions of the parish. This clash might be called “parish as community institution versus parish as transformative agent.” Those who constitute the pro-diocesan faction are characterized by a vision of the nature and purpose of the parish church that is distinctly different from that espoused (at least implicitly) by the majority of the active congregation.
For example, the parish for some years had been the site of a school that had only a tenuous connection to the church. The school accumulated so much debt that, in the end, the vestry had no choice but to close it. Much of the minority faction opposed this move and seem to have been willing to let the parish sink into financial dependence upon the diocese so long as the school (which they consider to have been an “important community ministry”) survived.
A previous rector chose, on the floor of the diocesan convention, to disavow the parish’s own statement criticizing the pansexualist “Statement in Koinonia” (authored by the former bishop of Newark, John Spong, and affirmed by the diocese of Washington), then publicly denounced parishioners who disagreed with him. He was much loved by the minority faction as a “nice man” who should not have been challenged for his personal opinions and who was hounded from the parish by “fundamentalists.”
It appears that, to this group, the parish church is intended to function as a sort of religious adjunct to the surrounding community that does not distinguish the wants of that community from its genuine needs.
The underlying assumption here is that there is nothing in the nature and attitudes of the community or its members that requires transformation. Thus, the parish exists to bless the way things are, to reassure its members that they are, after all, nice people.
Such an environment is very comfortable for what John Wesley classically described as “the almost Christian”: the superficially friendly, decent, natural man with religious affections who is able to say, “the Word of the Lord,” after the Scripture readings and to recite the Creeds as gestures of communal solidarity but without any sense that he ought actually to believe—much less frame his life around—what the Scriptures and the Creeds say.
This sort of (usually intermittent) pew-sitter in fact is usually discomfited only by the presence near at hand of people who actually believe that what they hear in Scripture is the Word of the Lord and what they say in the Creed provides a foundation on which they may be built up as living stones in the true temple of the Lord.
It does not help matters that such an attitude about the purpose of the Church has a long history among English and American Anglicans: It is the same attitude that nearly killed the Church of England more than once and which both the Evangelical and Catholic revivals—and now the Evangelical-Catholic revival—were raised up to challenge.
Amaziah or Amos
3. The clash of visions of the priest. This last clash can be called, “the priest as institutional flack (Amaziah) versus the priest as man of God (Amos).” The pro-diocesan faction rather clearly has bought into the diocese’s vision of the role of the parish priest.
In this vision of the priestly role, the priest is connected to the church and the gospel solely through the bishop of the diocese. This manifested itself in Accokeek in the use of an interim priest, appointed by the bishop and assisted by an aggressively revisionist deployment officer, to extend the period of vacancy, presumably in the hope that in the end the vestry would let the diocese choose a priest for the parish.
It manifested itself to me in the incomprehension on the face of Jane Dixon when I told her in an interview last year that I thought the rector’s understanding of his call is that it is primarily to his parish and only secondarily to a diocese, the implication being that he is first to represent Christ to his people and only secondarily to represent the person of the bishop. It is evident that her view is quite the opposite. (It is a vision, I am sorry to say, not always confined to the revisionist and corporatist dioceses of ECUSA.)
The effect of this understanding of the parish priest is that he is a sort of ecclesiastical middle-manager, who is supposed to keep quiet about his disagreements with diocesan policy, if any, and to encourage those in his charge to conform themselves to it—with oil or obfuscation or ostracism as the case demands. This understanding of the pastor’s call encourages him to see his main function as feeding the flock with what the institution gives him in press releases and position papers, rather than with what the Chief Shepherd provides in Word and Sacrament.
The model for ministry preferred by the Washington diocese and its faction in Accokeek is not John Vianney or John Wesley or John of Kronstadt or John Keble, but Amaziah of Bethel (cf. Amos 7:10ff). Amaziah is the priest of Bethel (not “the priest of the Lord at Bethel”).
He is the man who tells Amos to stop prophesying at the sanctuary at Bethel because “it is the king’s [not the Lord’s] sanctuary and it is a temple of the kingdom [not of the God of Israel].” In other words, the shrine at Bethel is very literally a national cathedral for the kingdom of Israel—it exists primarily to prop up and sanctify the existing social and political order in the northern kingdom.
The worship of the Lord is merely incidental to this primary purpose. This was the purpose of the shrines at Bethel and Dan from their inception under Jeroboam I: They were established to prevent the subjects of the Israelite kingdom from going to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and perhaps having their loyalty to the Davidic dynasty renewed.
These national shrines were also idolatrous from the beginning, since each contained one of two golden calves of whom the king had said, “Behold your gods, O Israel” (cf. 1 Kings 12:26ff). Therefore, the presence in this sanctuary of a man who calls the nation and its religious and political leadership to account for their nonconformity to the Lord’s standards is intolerable.
The underlying assumption of the pro-diocesan faction, Jane Dixon, and ECUSA, in general, is that there is no higher Shepherd than the bishop to whom they are to render account. The problem with this assumption is that it is essentially idolatrous: It takes something less than God and makes it the ordering principle of life. This is not Christianity but functional atheism, and, to state the obvious, there is no support for it in Scripture or in Reason or in the Tradition.
Functional atheism is the result of what Luther referred to as “professing Christ” rather than “confessing Christ.” It is manifest when people are not living in accordance with the faith whose tenets they outwardly affirm. It is evidence of an implicit adoption of the notion that there is no knowable definitive truth and that hence we must do the best we can with “our truth.”
Functional atheism doesn’t really work very well even in a secular state, as a sampling of its fruits—which are all around us—will quickly demonstrate. It results in the substitution of ethics for morals, of professionalism for vocation, and (ultimately) of self-will for godliness.
Its open appearance in the core of the Episcopal Church is no less shocking for its presence having been long suspected, and no less sad for its being the inevitable consequence of a chain of false choices stretching back to the Bishop James Pike affair and beyond. It appears virtually certain that the Episcopal Church’s epitaph has been written already, and it consists of what Whittier denominated as the saddest of words, “It might have been!”
Samuel L. Edwards (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).