The Episcopal Church, History and TREC

Please note:  this entry to my blog will be of interest primarily to Episcopalians.

I posted the following thoughts to Episcopal Café in response to their entry on the recently released recommendations of TREC, the official group of The Episcopal Church charged to re-imagine especially the government of TEC.

[begin my post to Episcopal Café]  That the carefully crafted balance between Catholic and Protestant thought and belief which historically marked The Episcopal Church took a shift toward Catholicism with the Book of Common Prayer 1979 is, by my observation, without question. In the days since the advent of BCP 79 we witness an ever growing consolidation of influence in the Episcopate and a continuing diminishment of influence of diocesan and general conventions. By way of example, witness the morphing of the notion of a "presiding bishop," i.e., a bishop who presides when the House of Bishops meets, to a CEO of TEC, from a "right reverend among right reverends," to a Most Reverend who is called a Primate. If the recommendations of TREC, as I understand same, are implemented, we will have a more efficient national organization, along with a much more Catholic organization where power, influence and decision is centered in a Primate with ever more responsibility.

Participatory government is not known for efficiencies.  Participatory government is difficult, messy and slow to respond. The founders of TEC employed a model for church governance which broke new ground for being participatory, an organizational paradigm with checks and balances between laity and ordained intentionally included, a polity which enabled the carefully crafted balance between Protestant and Catholic to guide the growth and development of TEC. If the recommendations of TREC are implemented, we will have a more efficient national church, to be sure, but we will also have a church which is more clergy-centric and more Catholic by nature. The cost of efficiency will be the loss of the carefully crafted balance between Protestant and Catholic thought and belief which has guided TEC for the past two and quarter hundred, or so, years. I relish that balance and will miss it.  [end my post to Episcopal Café]

I am unashamedly rooted in the history, growth and development of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church from which TEC springs.  Necessarily TEC dates, minimally, to the 14th century and the notable beginnings of the English Reformation with the work of John Wycliffe, et al.  (I do not wish to engage in a debate about whether Wycliffe is the proper person to whom to date the beginning of the English Reformation – one has to start somewhere and I choose to start with him.)  The availability of Holy Scripture in a language which the average person could comprehend is, from my point of view, the sine qua non of reform in England, if not of the entire Protestant Reformation.  The ability of the average person to access Scripture enabled the members of church to question the teachings of the church.  From the abuses of Johann Tetzel (‘when the coin in the kettle rings, the soul from purgatory springs’) to the excesses of the Papacy, members of the Church Catholic no longer needed to rely only upon the teaching of the hierarchy and clergy – members could turn to Scripture for answers to questions of faith and belief.  Indeed, as Christians in Europe and Great Britain began to measure belief and faith by Scripture, new churches were formed (what today we call the Protestant Reformation) and Henry was enabled in his quest to separate the English Church from Rome.
Since TEC is the Anglican Church in the USA, to help to define TEC we must remember that the Anglican Church certainly from the mid-16th century is fundamentally comprised by both its Catholic heritage and the Protestant influences of the Reformation.  The genius of Elizabeth brought the English Church together by insisting that worship was offered according to a set form (The Book of Common Prayer), but without any litmus tests of individual belief.  Christian Protestants and Catholics worshiped side-by-side in Anglican churches using a single liturgy, and Holy Communion was distributed using words calculated to appease both groups while wholly pleasing neither.  [(Catholic theology)  “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”  (Protestant theology) “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and be thankful.” cf. BCPs 1549, 1552]

From the 16th century forward to this day, the Anglican Church in England and more recently the Episcopal Church in the USA has maintained this delicate balance between Catholic and Protestant thinking and faith.  Although the pendulum has swung in one direction or another over the years, somehow through the grace and mercy of God TEC has maintained a relative degree of this carefully crafted balance.  It is my judgment, however, that TEC has slowly been moving more toward a more Catholic approach to faith and belief, and away from Protestant principles.  The advent of the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, with a renewed emphasis on the centrality of the Sacraments, and of the Holy Eucharist in particular, is but a small example of this observation.  The pendulum of the moment of this writing certainly tilts towards the Catholic side.

If the recommendations of TREC are implemented, there will be more efficiency in the polity of The Episcopal Church, no doubt.  There will be, however, less participation in the polity of The Episcopal Church.  Clergy will have more responsibility over the course and direction of TEC, and especially the Presiding Bishop, who in recent years somehow, magically and mysteriously, has become the “Primate” of TEC.  The centralization of responsibilities of the church with the clergy is yet another characteristic of the Church Catholic.  The influence of the laity of TEC will necessarily be diminished since there will be fewer opportunities for the laity to meet, recommend and vote – a smaller Executive Council, a smaller General Convention.
Good arguments, historical arguments, can and should be advanced for maintaining  Catholic traditions within the faith and belief of TEC.  Equally good and persuasive arguments can and should be advanced for maintaining the checks and balances of Protestant approach to faith and belief.  I love TEC, and Anglicanism more generally, for this wonderful and ever so creative balance between Catholic and Protestant thought and belief.  We stand firmly in the middle, a singular bridge between the two traditions.  From my perspective, the loss of our Protestant heritage to a centralized ecclesiastical authority will significantly weaken The Episcopal Church.  To see this loss of heritage occur only in the name of an increase in efficiency in our polity would be a tragic example of rejecting that which is essential because of that which is not essential.


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