Declaring for Episcopalianism

So, yesterday I was asked on a Greek exam to discuss the gods’ role in the Iliad. It was about an hour in and I had a pretty comfortable cushion to begin with, so after making some perfunctory comparison to double causation in the Aeneid, I cracked a joke about Calvinism, predestination, and the inability of Episcopalians to form an opinion about anything important.
I’m reverting to denominational humor a lot these days, which I feel needs some justification. I’ve offended enough Baptists and puzzled enough evangelicals this semester to merit some legitimate defense of Episcopalianism.
I should begin by saying that the defense is grounded in history, which I’ve found a lot of Christians-surprisingly and problematically-dislike. As far as brass tax is concerned: the Episcopal Church is an offshoot of the Anglican Communion. Back in 1534-5 Henry VIII wanted to ditch Catherine of Aragon for Ann Boleyn. When the pope refused to grant him an annulment (Rome was surrounded by the forces of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor and-I think-Catherine’s sister), Henry issued an Act of Supremacy that essentially placed the British monarch at the head of the Church of England. Structurally it was still Catholic. It just didn’t have a pope.
Edward VI succeeded briefly before his half-sister “Bloody” Mary came in, married Philip of Spain, and started murdering a bunch of Protestants in the hope of bringing England back to the Catholic fold. This is all important because it explains the yearning for peace and stability that drove the Elizabethan settlement.
After Mary’s death, Elizabeth I came in and dropped a set of principles on her father’s infidelity. She wanted to steer a “Middle Way”-liturgically, theologically, and hierarchically-between Catholicism and Protestantism. She was famous for saying that she didn’t want “to make windows into men’s souls.” As long as you were in the pews every Sunday, reading from the Book of Common Prayer and praying for the well-being of the Royal family, you could believe whatever you wanted about transubstantiation, et al.
This spirit of peaceful coexistence stayed with the Episcopal Church even after that momentary bit of unpleasantness between the two great branches of the Anglo-Saxon peoples forced colonial Anglicanism to separate from the mother country. I’m always fond of quoting the following excerpt from an essay on Protestantism and the Civil War (George Fredrickson is here talking about the effect that the Second Great Awakening had upon American Christianity):
“Previously established churches now learned to compete for membership with denominations, like the Methodists and Baptists, that had never known and sought government sponsorship and financial support. Recognizing that persuasion and not coercion was now the key to denominational success, Congregationalists and Presbyterians emulated some of the revivalistic methods pioneered by the Methodists and Baptists. As a result, the mainstream of American Protestantism became aggressively evangelical. Only non-Calvinist ritualistic churches like the Episcopalians and the Lutherans resisted the new methods.”
Historically, as well as temperamentally, we-Episcopalians-recoil from “aggressive evangelicalism.” We stand with Burke. “No sound ought to be heard from the pulpit but the healing voice of Christian charity.” As the vicar at All Saints says, the only thing that you can be sure two Episcopalians will agree on is the necessity of helping another person. We like the metaphor of a three-legged stool. Regarding any theological question, we consult Scripture, tradition, and reason. In equal measure. This process yields all kinds of different conclusions. The process rather than the conclusions is what makes us Episcopalians.
Some All Saints parishioners believe in transubstantiation. The closest I’ve ever gotten to Christian orthodoxy is paraphrasing Lincoln’s response to a Methodist minister who accused him of impiety during his first congressional campaign: I have never said anything intentionally disrespectful toward the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, or toward people who subscribe to it. We all recite the Nicene creed as it is printed in the BCP and listen to the words Jesus as they are read from the KJV every Sunday. Which is a noble thing.
In any case, you must excuse my prejudice in this matter. Recall that the better part of my childhood was spent at an Episcopal school where I received a first rate tutorial in argumentative writing and, more importantly, made a few very dear friends. I suppose there’s a tremendous depth of gratitude that stems from that.


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