The problems in that particular denomination have a long history, much of which I lived through from my baptism in 1958 until my departure in 1997. It is not apathy that has placed its further decline beyond my immediate concern, but rather faith in the law of gravity. Not only must things that are in free fall complete their journey, but each stage in the descent is obvious and predictable. (this is not simply a criticism of people who, in their misguided optimism, really believe they must hold firm under such circumstances, but rather a belief that if they remain in such a denomination they may be endangering their own souls and the souls of their children. Any suffering that they go through is due to a decision, and one can have only so much sympathy for a man who, having long ago reached the age of reason, is nonetheless surprised that banging his head against a stone wall results in pain, and that it does not move the wall).
As dramatic an example of apostasy as the Episcopal Church tends to be, its sordid behavior is not exclusive property. They have no monopoly on errant innovations. Although similar kinds of problems seem to exist solely in the mainline Protestant denominations, it is very dangerous for any church body to feel secure to the point where they can ignore the history of which I speak. Rarely does a week go by without a report about various American or European Roman Catholics who set themselves against the teaching of Rome. In addition we often read reports about attacks on the faith of Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and others that come from within their own denominations, often from the highest levels. For this reason, it is worth the time to look at a documented history of major events in the Episcopal Church over the last few decades, the whole time considering lessons that apply elsewhere. For the major problem that we shall diagnose is a threat that spills over into many other ecclesiastical venues, including non-denominational Evangelicalism as well as American parishes in the Catholic Church. The major flaw has been one that seems innocent, and that is practiced by many well-meaning and sincere Christians, especially when they try to reach out in evangelistic endeavors. That flaw, that deadly virus, is contrived relevance that accommodates and changes established traditions. In extreme cases it changes the substance; but it is nearly always perceived to be an adjustment in terminology and methods of communication with the decidedly meritorious intention to make the Christian message come across to a new generation. The result, however, is that all too often the message itself becomes subjected to an unforeseen transformation, with a corresponding effect on liturgy and translations of the Bible. Changing the traditions, including the traditional use of language, may appear to make the message more relevant. But, the cost needs to be weighed.
In the case with which I am most familiar, the one that I have lived through, we began to be subjected overtly to new ideas and changes in the once very conservative and traditional Episcopal Church, in the early 1970s. This was preceded by instances of apostasy, such as the strange life (and death) and heretical teachings of Bishop James Pike of the Diocese of San Francisco, and by earlier ideas that had been floated by such writers as the Church of England’s James Robinson, author of Honest to God. For people who paid attention to affairs in the realm of theology, the critique of C.S. Lewis already rang true, namely that the modern man suffered from the opposite problem of the Medieval man, concerning the Church. Lewis observed in the 1940s, that whereas the Medieval man believed that the clergy were more orthodox than most of the laity, the modern man believes the clergy are less orthodox. The Episcopal Church had within it people who had been pushing apostasy for several years, but for the average layman the problems were off in a corner out of sight, until about 1970. That year I was only twelve years old, and was directly exposed to contrived relevance for the first time at a church camp.
Every year on the last night of the church camp, held in Maryland at the Claggett Diocesan Center, we would have the service of Holy Communion. That year a middle aged priest emerged “vested” in a colorfully painted t-shirt and blue jeans, and wearing a stole that had every color of the rainbow (only a stole that is clearly distinguishable as white or red or green or violet has any meaning. Mixtures that seem to mean everything, consequently mean nothing). The opening “hymn” was George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” from the Beatles album “Abbey Road.” The intention was obvious; the priest was trying to make the service relevant to young people. The Beatles song was followed by Cranmer’s wording from the only Prayer Book we had, as the colorfully t-shirted priest turned around to the altar (for they still required a turn round to the East back then). “Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts are opened, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid…” The service had been made relevant, but not by the Beatles song, not by the “hippie” t-shirt and flashy stole, or any other remarkable distraction. For the service was relevant in its structure and meaning long before we had been born. And, its meaning and relevance were not destroyed by the comic exhibition of the well-meaning priest, though he most certainly created obstacles which failed to impress our young minds.
Now, as innocent as this may have been, it was symptomatic of the troubles that soon followed, and that have led to the most recent and extreme consequences of “gay friendly” General Conventions of 2000, 2003 and now of 2006. The assumption, back then in 1970, shared by hundreds of priests and bishops who very probably wanted to do the right thing and reach more people, was that something had to be done, a new course taken to change how the Church is perceived, and to improve the experience of those in the pews. It was meant to aid their understanding. The “Green Book” titled Services for Trial Use was sent to the congregations. It contained new liturgies that anticipated those that would appear later in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The assumption was that the Church needed to change if it was to survive. It needed to change if it was to reach a new generation and so be relevant. This was not done with the obvious intention of leading the Church to a time when “same sex unions” would have a formal liturgy with the approval of the Diocesan Ordinary. The perceived need to change the Church was in order to help people enter it, and to help make its message understandable to the young. And, at the time that the "Green Book" and the "Zebra Book" appeared in the pews of the Episcopal Church throughout America, several new versions of the Bible came out in trendy modern English, such as Good News for Modern Man, and (the most pathetic and unfortunately popular version of that time), The Living Bible.
The Charismatic Movement
The 1970s was a time in which people were seeking the reality of spiritual experience, and in mainstream Christianity this need was met by the Charismatic Movement, a very strong revivalist movement that had begun in the previous decade to enter the mainstream Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church, due to the ministry of a Dutch South African Pentecostal preacher named David du Plessis, called by the nickname “Mr. Pentecost.” In the Episcopal Church the early leaders of the movement included priests such as Dennis Bennett, Phillip Zampino, John Howe and others. By far, the most important teaching voice of national significance was Everett L. “Terry” Fullam. The Charismatic movement was a more sophisticated form of Pentecostalism. If George Gershwin dressed up Jazz and took it into the concert hall, Mr. du Plessis dressed up Pentecostalism and took it into the finest churches.
It is very often the case that writers present a picture of the movement so inaccurate that it cannot even be called a caricature. The average tongue-speaking Charismatic was not overcome by emotion to the point where he lost self-control like some ancient Montanist. He would turn his Glossoalia off and on at will (after the first experience). Many of them were among the most educated and financially successful, unlike the early Pentecostals. Furthermore, the notion that the movement was obviously un-theological is, at best, questionable. The whole movement was based on a theological proposition, namely that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had not died out in the Church, a proposition that made the movement attractive to Episcopalians and Roman Catholics whose belief in the sacrament of Confirmation already contained this same theological principle. The difference was that the Charismatics treated these gifts only as experience rather than recognizing their connection to the sacrament in any but the vaguest way. For, as much as this theological principle was at the heart of the movement, so was personal religious experience, almost to the complete exclusion of any disciplined learning.
Nonetheless, the movement abounded in teaching ministries, so much so that most of its events were centered on hearing a speaker who, far more often than not, was billed as a teacher. Healers were around, and so were a few important figures who “testified” about their conversion, and their “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Mostly, however, people attended events to hear a teacher. Furthermore, the movement spawned an industry of recording and selling cassette tapes of just about everything these teachers had to say. To characterize the movement as non-theological is simply misleading. Nonetheless, even with theology for the common man being pumped out in accessible, often trendy, vernacular, the movement had no real theological center, and the teaching ministries were self-styled, possessing a celebrity quality. The idea of formal study was often rejected by people, but perhaps for a very subtle reason all too easy to miss. After Charismatics had heard hours and hours of teaching from all sorts of ministers of just about every church tradition in the West, it was far too easy for each of them to think himself an adequate theologian. Much of the Biblical teaching was influenced by the jargon and trends of popular psychology. The movement had a large share of contrived relevance, very innocent and well-intended, and these quasi-celebrity teachers were sometimes especially culpable.
This popular round of teaching crossed every denominational boundary, so that a kind of ecumenism emerged that was at once sophisticated and terribly vague. The people were sophisticated in their spiritual experience as Charismatics, knowing how to come together across religious lines for a shared experience of worship, singing “in the Spirit”, and the utterances of prophecy. The largest of these events was at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in July 1977, where the two churches represented by the largest numbers were the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. With them were Lutherans, non-denominational Evangelicals, Pentecostals of every stripe, and, of course, Episcopalians. But, the movement was vague about many important theological and moral issues. The kind of ecumenism that the Charismatic movement engendered was based upon trying very hard to ignore doctrinal conflicts. The result was that important convictions about the truth were glossed over in a superficial way. The conclusions and deepest convictions of various church bodies were treated as an embarrassment, tolerated without comment.
In some places communities were set up among people who were not joined ecclesiastically, such as the Lamb of God Community in Catonsville, Maryland, where many non-denominational Evangelicals tried to form a “community” with Roman Catholics and a local Reformed Episcopal Church (not to be confused with the Episcopal Church). It was not always clear to the people just who possessed authority, the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, or the lay leaders of this “community.” Such an indifference to people’s devotion and convictions was all too common in the movement. Among Episcopalians, the clergy often faced a congregation mixed with genuine Anglicans but also with many self-appointed apostles who came to convert their Parish into something new and different. Assertion of duly appointed authority could be met with the utterance of “prophecy.” A Rector’s parishioners were influenced by many sources, from traditional Anglican thinkers to outright heretics and conmen on the Televangelist circuit. The good elements of the movement were easily compromised, as a very unprincipled form of ecumenism, all too often, undermined theology, and with it, morality. The Charismatic movement was riddled with all these problems. The good that it did in the lives of people whose faith in Christ was awakened by the grace of God, should never be forgotten. But, we benefit by learning lessons from the defects of the movement.
Among Episcopalians, the Charismatics were the leaders of the Pro-Life movement throughout the 1980s, specifically Rev. John Howe when he was Rector of Truro Church in Virginia (now Rt. Rev. John Howe Bishop of Central Florida), as the leader of N.O.E.L. (the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life). This was one of the best features of the movement, a case where it stood for truth and morality. On other fronts, the Charismatics were hopelessly compromised on the issue of women’s “ordination.” Despite outspoken opposition by some leaders, such as Fr. Phillip Zampino (later Bishop Zampino of the Charismatic Episcopal Church), among the leaders of the Charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church were prominent women “priests.” The reason is not too difficult to comprehend, as we shall see.
Women priests to blessed sodomy
In 1976 the hitherto illegal “ordination” of women was approved in General Convention in Minneapolis by simple majority vote. The effects were many, including the departure of many Episcopalians to the Continuing Church (along with members and clergy of the Anglican Church of Canada). In 1977 The Affirmation of Saint Louis was composed and accepted as a constitution for the Continuing Church. At first, as the Affirmation states, they tried to remain in communion with Canterbury and to continue to be Episcopalians and Anglicans (that second name signifying at that time the representatives of the Canadian Church who were present). By February 1978, it was clear that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggins, would not recognize the “Continuing” Anglicans as part of the Communion, but this did not prevent four priests from being consecrated to the episcopate.
Others who rejected women's "ordination" remained in the Episcopal Church, and protested with apologetics. Eventually they formed “Forward in Faith U.S.A.” (a sister organization of “Forward in Faith United Kingdom”), after going through various different stages with the “Evangelical and Catholic Mission” and then the “Episcopal Synod.” By sticking to a principled rejection of women’s “ordination” they were very much alone. Other conservatives formed “Episcopalians United” and similar efforts, because they were willing to accept the “ordination” of women, and did not see it as part of the overall problem of accommodation and contrived relevance.
The “ordination” of women deserves to be rejected on theological grounds, and on practical grounds as well. Nonetheless, its appeal takes us back to the issue of contrived relevance, where the spirit of the times requires not genuine equality of person, but sameness of function . This kind of egalitarianism is about trying to overcome limitations in the nature of both men and women, not about recognizing complemetary strengths. Ordination is a sacrament in the Anglican tradition, not simply a ceremony that bestows a license for a certain kind of work. So too is marriage. If the sex of a person has no sacramental meaning at the altar, then logic must take us from ordination to marriage. The approval of the Blessing of same sex unions (General Conventions of 2000 and 2003) has never required any sort of argument or new kind of reasoning. Neither has it required a new vocabulary. It has required nothing more than a strange combination: Prophetic claims borrowing the use of Biblical terminology from Charismatics, and a reassertion with that vocabulary of every argument previously made in favor of women’s “ordination.’
Many years after the dramatic sweeping of charismata through the mainline churches, the “liberals” in the Episcopal Church are using a quasi-Biblical vocabulary that was quite popular within the Charismatic movement. Charismatics often spoke about the leading of the Holy Spirit, and about how God had told them that he would do a new thing. These phrases, easily borrowed from Scripture without any context to provide a solid foundation, not rooted in Tradition or Right Reason, have been learned well by the innovators of everything from women’s “ordination” to the libertine promotion of sexual immorality, including the greatest current bone of contention for conservatives, Homosexualism. In 2003, after the General Convention had made news with its election of the divorced and openly “gay” Gene Robinson as a bishop, the bishops and delegates who had voted in favor of this event, along with other supporters, presumed the role of prophets by asserting that the Holy Spirit had led them to do this deed. God had done “a new thing,” and the innovators were “led by the Spirit,” and it all sounded much too familiar.
The “liberalism” of the leaders of the Episcopal Church has become very overt and obvious to the average layman, as it was not in the late 60s and 1970. In those days, when it was easy to ignore, honest evangelistic motivation created a place of innocence in which the most contrived kind of relevance flourished for what seemed to be only the best of reasons. Later, when women were “ordained” a certain amount of that innocence remained, making it possible for many Charismatics and Evangelicals to accept the new lady clergy in all sincerity, and to castigate traditionalists for being divisive. Even now, when these same innocent and sincere people are the nucleus of conservative Episcopalianism, trying to restore their church to some earlier condition, they truly believe that they can accept women’s “ordination” as they try to overcome Homosexualism, not considering that to argue against one, they argue against the other; if they accept one they accept the other. These are not two issues but one; and the apparent innocence in all of the contrived relevance of which I have written, was hiding a real agenda.
New Bibles and liturgies
These days, the Episcopal Church uses the 1979 Prayer Book, and reads its lessons mostly from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. When the Episcopal Church introduced a new Prayer Book in 1979, their tradition of English Prayer came to an end. No longer was the Prayer Book a simplified Regula by which the Anglican faithful were called to live, but simply a book of public services. Most of the services were not revised editions of the Book of Common Prayer, with a powerful and majestic language rooted in the entire Christian Tradition, drawn from the scriptures according to the understanding of the saints of past ages. These new services were contrived to be relevant in their use of modern idioms and words. And, the Psalter was translated into the most (for the time) politically correct language. As Dr. Peter Toon pointed out, speaking near Baltimore in or around 1988, with the use of the mis-translated Psalms “there can be no revival; because this is not the word of the Lord.” He pointed out that the first error was in Psalm 1, where “the Man” was now “they who.” The Man, as the Fathers of the Church taught, was Jesus Christ. But, the Man was thrown out in favor of "Gender Inclusive Language,"1 and replaced with the ever banal plural, “they” for an individual of either sex (often used despite the fact that it is grammatically wrong).
The 1982 Hymnal would prove to be every bit as bad, in one modern hymn rewording the Lord’s own promise from the sixth chapter of John: “I will raise him up on the last day.” The classical use of language meant that the Lord’s promise was that the individual who truly believes and partakes of the food of eternal life is given this promise. The “Gender Inclusive” version, “I will raise them up on the Last day” gives no promise to the individual of faith about his own soul- or even about her own soul as the case may be. It speaks of a collective, and just how many of “them” will be raised cannot be known. As for the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, it is riddled with this same political correctness. Near the end of his little book, the Old Testament prophet Malachi said that the new Elijah would “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” But, the NRSV mis-translates the word “fathers” as “parents.” It does many other such things throughout (in fact the first mistake is in combining the first two verses of Genesis into one sentence, making it seem as if the world may have existed before God’s creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form…” The Hebrew simply does not justify this “translation.” The first two sentences are not joined in the original. The older “And, the earth was without form and void...” is literally correct, and it cannot be used to suggest Pantheism).
The English language when translated into the dialect of contrived relevance, with extremely modern usage, cannot be used for the Bible or for liturgy. The effort to make it a language for prayer and scripture is futile at best, and unavoidably deceptive in its effect. Political correctness, Feminism, and "Gender Inclusive Language" combine into a tongue that defies interpretation. As Gandalf was hesitant to speak the language of Mordor in Rivendell, no one can proclaim the word of the Lord in Extreme Modern English. Saint Paul could speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but this seems more like a tongue of demons; it has no word for caritas. All Christians everywhere do well to take warning from the example of the Church into which I was born, in which I was raised from the cradle. Do not try to pray in this tongue, and do not try to translate the word of God into such a dark and imprisoned language. For it distorts truth and destroys beauty, muddles all true communication, and twists everything into a lie. It has no word for caritas, because it has no usage of “Father” as the One Who defines love by everything that He is.
The scriptures are very old, and to learn them requires that we submit to rigorous study, and that we make ourselves flexible enough to adjust to very ancient ways of thinking. Saint Jerome wrote about his time in the desert: “The flesh I might try to break with frequent fasting: but my mind was seething with imagination: so to tame it, I gave myself up for training to one of the brethren, a Hebrew who had come to the faith. And, so after the subtlety of Quintilian, the flowing of Cicero, the gravity of Fronto and the gentleness of Pliny, I began to learn another alphabet, and meditate on words that hissed and words that gasped.” As it was in ancient times, so it ever shall be, that the gift of the Holy Scriptures has been preserved by learning tongues of old, from before the times of our fathers. We possess numerous translations, words that cannot exactly haunt us because they are always fresh and alive, though coming from generations long fallen asleep in the dust of the earth.
The discipline used when translating the King James Bible, for example, flowed naturally from the reverence for God that had motivated Christians of earlier generations to choose words carefully. “Translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised.” The first part we understand, but the second requires effort to learn. In other words, the translators were quite able to correct any mistaken notions, because they knew Hebrew and Greek. But, they did not take it upon themselves to disregard former translations, which involved a careful handling of the Bible with respect for a whole tradition of understanding its meaning. Where they felt compelled to make changes, it was never arbitrary. But, modern translations, to the extent that many of them can rightly be called translations, too often enter the most dangerous ground of contrived relevance. If there is one place above all where we must turn the issue of relevance around, and learn again to apply discipline to our minds so that they become relevant to Another’s instruction, it is in hearing the word of the Lord. And, if there is one place where our words must be thoughtfully chosen and based upon revealed truth, it is in bearing our souls before the throne of the Almighty as we pray.
To translate the first commandment literally, we are forbidden to have other gods in the Lord’s presence- that is before His face (al-Peni). The only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, along with the other Comforter, are revealed in the Name spoken by the risen Christ: The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the Name into which we are baptized. But, this Name is regarded as offensive to the speakers of Extreme Modern English, and in the name of contrived relevance we are bidden not to utter the revealed Name. Early on I said “changing the traditions, including the traditional use of language, may appear to make the message more relevant. But, the cost needs to be weighed.” Here we see that the cost is that of knowing God as He is revealed. Which means the cost of contrived relevance is life eternal (John 17:3), a cost that we must decline to pay.
The history of the Episcopalian apostasy could fill many pages, and we could write thousands of pages about Pikes and Spongs and other dangerous implements. But, the real tragedy is not that the revisionists with an agenda should have been stopped, but rather that at one time they might have been. The road to Hell was paved with the good intentions of sincere clergy and other well-meaning “spiritual” people who wanted very badly to present the message of Christ in a way made relevant to their time. In the process they allowed themselves to be manipulated, and to have their own vocabulary appropriated, by forces that were far more aggressive than they, with an agenda far more rigorous than their un-Christlike mildness (it takes steel to turn the money changers tables and to face the cross). The perception that we must find a way to make the word of God relevant, and to make the liturgy meaningful, is flawed to begin with, since a faithful Church cannot fail to be relevant and meaningful. Beware the urge to become relevant, to adapt to the fallen world. Let the modern Episcopal Church serve as an example and take warning.
1. By "gender" they mean sex, a misuse of language we have addressed before.