Vile Bodies: The Episcopal Church’s General Conventions
Every three years, officials of the Episcopal Church meet in what is called “General Convention.” In the last forty years the church has performed three actions of black mischief: it has authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood, adopted a new prayer book, and, this year, approved same-sex “marriage.” Those actions are the markers of the decline and fall of the Episcopal Church.
In 1976 the Episcopal Church authorized the ordination of women in response to a noisy claque of trendier-than-thou feminists. In the General Convention of that year, the canon concerning qualifications of candidates for holy orders was amended to say: “This Canon shall be interpreted in its plain and literal sense, except that words of male gender shall also imply the female gender.”
To make such a momentous change, one might think that the church would have required a vote in two separate General Conventions, as it has done for other momentous actions, and as the Canadian Anglican church did when it approved women priests. But the American Episcopalians could not delay. They made the change seem a housekeeping detail, not a change of momentous proportion in the history of Christianity. Move along. Nothing to see here.
Following the American practice, the qualifications for candidates for holy orders might also be amended to say that “the word person shall be interpreted in its plain and literal sense, except that it shall also imply sheep.” Now, it may well be that the average sheep would make a better shepherd than today’s average Episcopal priest: there is no official position on the matter. Even so, ordaining sheep is the kind of decision that a reasonable man, understanding that a little order is useful when making big decisions, would require two General Conventions to approve, not one — and a reasonable woman too, although we should note, along with A. P. Herbert, that there is no reference in all of common law to a reasonable woman.
In 1979, the General Convention adopted a new prayer book, on, nota bene, its second reading — i.e., the change was seen as sufficiently momentous to require approval at a second General Convention. In 1978 George Gallup had polled Episcopalians and asked them which prayer book they preferred, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer or the proposed new book. Gallup said that in all his polling career he had never seen a result as lopsided as the one showing Episcopalians favoring the traditional 1928 version. So what? said the remote people who run the Episcopal Church. What do the people in the pews know? And so they went ahead and approved the new, tin-eared, newspeak version, which even someone with a little learning can see is a handful of dust.
And then at this year’s General Convention the church authorized same-sex marriages, starting … the day after Halloween. Whether the proper procedures for this action were followed is, again, a matter of dispute (see here).
Following the General Convention’s latest action, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the American Episcopal Church is, for now, a part, said the church’s action “will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.” So what? said the trendier-than-thou church officials, the Episcopal Church’s remote people. What do Archbishops of Canterbury know?
Still, it wasn’t a complete victory for the homosexuals. Priests and bishops who choose not to marry homosexual couples can refuse, and there will be, in theory, no retribution (how that sop must have stung the homosexuals!). That concession may have been offered to the “traditionalists” because the homosexual population of the country is only about 2.5 percent. The proportion may be larger in the Episcopal Church, but even so, homosexuals are far from being a majority, however much publicity they may be able to gin up in the liberal media.
Meanwhile, back in the pews, Episcopalians have been fleeing the church: in 1979 the Episcopal Church had 2.8 million members; today it has 1.9 million. That is not because Americans have stopped going to church: in 1965 there were 48.5 million self-identified Roman Catholics in the United States; in 2014 there were 79.7 million.
Where will it end, and when? Who knows? When the going was good, the Episcopal Church was part, at least creedally, of the larger Catholic Church: the creeds of the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church are virtually identical. But the virtue of the Episcopal Church lies now primarily in its creed, not in its practice, not in its doctrine, discipline, or worship.
Today’s Episcopal Church needs men at arms wielding a sword of honor, doing battle against the ruinous forces of modernity, struggling to make possible love among the ruins those dark forces have created. Love not just for the words that have inspired centuries of Christians, but for the faith also that has sustained them, doing battle until those dark, satanic forces collapse in unconditional surrender.
It could happen. After the darkness, the light shines. And sometimes it shines in the darkness.
Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of Education and Research Institute and Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, DC. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of National Review. Email Daniel Oliver at Daniel.Oliver@TheCandidAmerican.com