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Episcopal “Identity”

Episcopal “Identity”

by Donald Schell

Henry Fielding’s star shines bright in 18th Century Anglicanism. He’s a nuanced moral theologian whose comedy merciless satirizes simplistic moralizing and rigid theologizing wherever he found it including in his and our Anglican. It’s Fielding’s deep embrace of Anglican breadth and sanity that drives his satirical characterization of Rev. Thwackum, Tom Jones’s Church of England tutor. Thwackum reaches a point of exasperation in his argument with Square, the rationalist philosopher who is Tom and his half-brother’s other tutor. Thwackum wants to make clear that there is One Way and that he knows it – “…honor is not manifold because there are many absurd opinions about it, nor is Religion manifold because there are various sects and heresies in the world. When I mention Religion, I mean the Christian Religion, and not only the Christian Religion, but the Protestant Religion, and not only the Protestant Religion, but the Church of England. And when I mention honor, I mean that mode of divine grace which is not only consistent with but dependent upon this religion, and is consistent with, and dependent upon no other.”

Fielding’s own broad, universalist Anglicanism, like the faith of most of my Episcopal friends, happily breaks free of Thwackum’s narrow, self-congratulatory certainties. Episcopalians do believe that honor and religion are manifold and diverse. We know that the Holy Spirit that breathes in our church blows where she will. Most Episcopalians believe there are more ways to God than we’ve dreamt of, and most of us would be quick to explain to Thwackum, if we had the opportunity, that we don’t believe that the Christian Religion is defined by English Anglicanism or even American Episcopalianism. But I’m writing because I worry that another note in the way we talk about ourselves and our way is uncomfortably like Thwackum’s “no other.”

Shortly after I’d become an Episcopalian, a clergy friend explained to me that all our Episcopal church repeated use of the word “Church” in names like “Church Publishing,” “Church Pension,” the “Church Club,” or the “Church Mission Society” which with Society for the Propagation of the Gospel planted Anglican communities all across the globe. Calling our work or gathering simply “church” reflected the underlying Anglican/Episcopal principle of deliberately claiming NO distinctiveness. We meant to resist uniqueness and exceptionalism. Beneath those names, my friend explained, the longstanding Episcopal and Anglican tradition was to aim for nothing more or less than the catholicism of the four or five first centuries when the church in its variety of practice across the Mediterranean world and into Europe and Britain was undivided.

Whatever we found in the broad tradition of Christian practice was ours, and whatever was ours was there for the whole church (hence no copyright on our Prayer Book). This was the spirit of the English Reformers whose catholic and reforming spirit freely borrowed and adapted ancient non-Roman practices they found among the Eastern Orthodox – leavened bread, married clergy, Bible in the vernacular. This was our Anglican principle of keeping ancient practice that wasn’t forbidden in scripture rather than including only what was mandated in the Bible. This was the vision of our great poets, writers, and scholars. I recognized that vision in seminary when one of our professors said, “there should be no distinctive Anglican theology.”

From our English reformation onward, we never aimed to be distinctly Anglican or Episcopal – we aimed to be church. I fear that’s changing. I’m guessing the pressure to change has come from the marketplace and a market inspired need to establish a clear brand – our “product” needs to offer something others don’t. Perhaps it’s also heightened in the wake of congregations built on generic conservative evangelism leaving the Episcopal Church. And I’ll admit that my clergy friend spoke his vision in the heady days of ecumenical rapprochement and conversations about church union. Still, in the past few years, I’ve become uncomfortable at a list of random moments when I’ve heard “Episcopal Identity” evoked

–in criticism of an Evensong/Lamplighting service that a Native American seminarian led that begin with prayers to the four compass directions and smudging the space

–by African seminarians in England explaining that their African Anglican bishop had forbidden dance in church so they would sneak away after liturgy to go sing and dance with the pentecostalists, when someone

–in the name of revival of the diaconate insists we had to have an Episcopal deacon read the Gospel at an ecumenical liturgy, or explained that thankfully, it wouldn’t be an issue since it wasn’t a Eucharistic liturgy we were doing, in a university or ecumenical seminary setting, Episcopalians determined to make a parallel Prayer Book prayer tradition apart from the very good liturgical ecumenical worship in the seminary or divinity school chapel

— in fuss and anxious joking if anyone says an “Alleluia” in Lent

— when clergy colleagues and laity insist Episcopal clergy really ought to be addressed as “Father” or “Mother”

— in regretful judgments that others’ eucharists weren’t “really” eucharist or that others’ bishops weren’t genuinely apostolic like our own

— in dismissive assessment of Lutheran bishops and the compromises that “allowed” us to join with them in a concordat

— in insisting well-prepared candidates for ordination who have attended and completed a full three year M.Div. at an ecumenical seminary need an “Anglican year” in seminary to learn our ways and our ethos.

It is an odd list, but I think it reflects how belief in Episcopal exceptionalism creeps in at many levels of our church life and seeps into our conversation. In a time of increasing secularization, a time when church life seems more and more marginalized, are we hearing anxious clinging to our in group’s esoteric practices and secret knowledge? Does this sound like Gnosticism?

More often than not the people pushing for these markers of distinctive Anglican/Episcopal identity hold progressive social and political opinions. They wouldn’t dream of insisting with the Rev. Thwackum that we’re the one true church, but we do seem to hold out in our progressive way for things that still assure us that our kind of Christianity is truer or righter than our friends. Our assertions are exceptionalist rather than exclusivist, but to my ear these moments and gestures feel as arrogant or anxious as Thwackum.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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Marshall Scott

Somehow, this triggered in me a connection (admittedly loose) with Jim’s question in The Lead about Friedman and “non-anxious presence.” It is that the healthy person does some individuation. I think the same is true of communities. Indeed, without some sense of individuation, the community ceases to be identified, or identifiable.

My point is not to disagree with you, as much as to note that we are called to think about who we are, and who we might be – which will identify both characteristics we share with other Christian communities and characteristics that distinguish us. I concur that focusing only on what distinguishes us tempts us to pride and triumphalism. Focusing only on what we share (and in this I fault whichever Archbishop of Canterbury reputedly said, “We have no distinct theology, but only what we share with all”) leads to the assumed spiritual and cultural intimacy that also undermines diversity.

In my own considerations over the past decade, I’ve come to believe that it is a matter of process, that it is our mode of theological reflection, that is distinctively Anglican and that we have to share in the Christian world. That involves both how we arrive at our opinions, and our trust that those who have arrived at different opinions have done so in processes that we recognize as faithful. That, then, is the basis of how we live together more than a specific body of content, even in our Prayer Book tradition.

Donald Schell

Joan, I think knowing the coherence of our ways of being church and where they come from is important. And I’m an Episcopalian because I value and trust the integrity and coherence of those ways. What I’m concerned about is a reductionist, marketing move that seems what I’m hearing when the particular phrase “Episcopal identity” is invoked. Marketing and branding want to identify unique features – what makes us different from (and implicitly better than) other religious brands. I know the Pittsburgh story a bit. My wife’s parish growing up was Redeemer. My brother-in-law’s father was rector of Calvary.

The bishop who led the schism from Pittsburgh was a year behind me at General Seminary – that is, as you know, he spent three years at an Episcopal seminary, so in that instance at least, it wasn’t what was TRULY needed.

I think rather than trying to instill a sense of Episcopal uniqueness, specialness or quirkiness for that matter, what we both look for is a spirit open to the living presence of Christ in surprising places stretching us to understand how the Spirit truly does blow where she will. Identity marketing, like identity politics, preys on our anxious human desire to know that “we’re it.” I think I Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit,” drags us uncomfortably to a genuinely and irrepressibly broad church. Beyond that I remember with gratitude Baptist Will Campbell’s declaration that the most radical passage in the Bible was II Corinthians 5:19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they ARE reconciled.”

So, thinking a year of Episcopal seminary or a confirmation class won’t necessarily do it, how do we nurture a spirit of embrace and openness in people, a deep trust that God is present and at work way beyond the horizon of our particular community or jurisdiction or province of communion. That spirit of embrace, I suggest, is at the heart of the a genuinely Anglican way of being Christian.


I am afraid you might have a different take on “identity” if you had spent time in one of the dioceses that recently has gone through schism. Much of that schism was led by clergy who were ordained without ever learning anything about the Episcopal Church. In one of our districts (deaneries) a majority of the priests had been members of the Episcopal Church for less than 5 years. Thus they brought with them expectations of a congregational polity (or alternatively a hierarchy as vertical as Roman Catholicism), a confessional statement (well beyond the creeds) and a rejection of the broad church tradition you laud. In fact, that broad church tradition was declared heretical and non-Christian. What they TRULY needed was a year at a real Episcopal seminary.

Joan Gundersen, Diocese of Pittsburgh

Donald Schell

Phil and Ann,

My big unease is with how I hear the phrase “Anglican identity” or “Episcopal identity” used and what it seems to include Culturally, from a perspective of church history and practice, what people include in Anglican identity seems suburban, a bit romantically Anglophile, and attached to relatively recent quirks and details of practice. It sounds like brand identity for positioning ourselves for market share. And in the broader question of global (and catholic) creative synthesis of cultural material, my experience is that African American, Native American, South African, and other people offer their music and more, glad for people to experience something from that broader church and that it’s defenders of Anglican or Episcopal “identity” who object and say, “that’s not really Episcopal.”

Historically Christian liturgy and practice has always been borrowing and appropriating local custom and hybridizing with exotic material from other Christian traditions. The Kyrie, Gloria, Trisagion, the liturgical use of the Creed and more are all Western Church borrowings from the Christian East.

American musical traditions have deep roots in Scottish and English folk music and African music. Cultural collision, mash-up, and cross-fertilization has always been going on and continues to go on.

I do think the question of imperialistic cultural appropriation does show up strongly if we decide to borrow music or practice from other peoples and act as though we can take it on our terms or do it badly and imply that we’re fixing it. If we’re singing in Spanish or Urdu or other language, and we don’t think it’s important to get our pronunciation as accurate as possible and “simplify” melodies and rhythms to fit our ear, we’ve done the opposite of what we set out to do.

Ann Fontaine

Phil: I think that is a really good question – it is mine as well. When are we (white folks) just using others’ cultures and when are we sharing in the wealth of resources.

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