One would think the recent twists and turns of the Episcopal Church in the United States would convince large numbers of Episcopalians to convert to Catholicism. It is not happening. Why not? Let’s take this one step at a time.
For starters, you have to admit that if someone had proposed ten years ago that the Episcopal Church would consecrate as a bishop a man like Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual who deserted his wife for his live-in homosexual lover, people would have thought it a heavy-handed satire by a Christian fundamentalist seeking to illustrate the impact of moral relativism on modern society. The reaction would have been similar to what would take place if I suggested that the Episcopal Church within a decade will approve of infanticide to deal with children found to be “defective” in the weeks after their birth. (Want to bet on that one?)
The lesson seems obvious: that there is a need for a central teaching authority, a Magisterium of sorts, to prevent the private interpretation of Christian beliefs from devolving into a worship of the spirit of the age, the religion of fashionable opinion; that Christ would not have come to earth and preached the Gospel to leave His followers as confused about the will of the Father as they were before the Incarnation. Why aren’t Episcopalians seeing it that way?
After all, the Greeks and the Romans of the first century were as capable of organizing discussion groups to determine enlightened opinion on moral issues as a group of well-mannered Episcopalians at afternoon tea listening to one of Bishop Robinson’s supporters describe the way the “spirit” is talking to us in our time. They did not need the Word becoming Flesh for that. Jesus confronted and challenged the fashionable opinion of His time, the musings of the Scribes and the Pharisees and the adulation of the state promulgated in Rome.
Serious-minded Episcopalians know this, of course. That is why they are refusing to go along with their leaders who are promoting the homosexual agenda. It is as obvious to them as it is to you that one cannot just flip on a centuries-old Christian teaching with an “Ooops…I changed my mind,” without destroying credibility. If the Episcopal Church was wrong on homosexuality all this time, why take them seriously on anything else?
In the years since the consecration of Gene Robinson, about three dozen American Episcopal churches have voted to secede and affiliate with provinces overseas. But things seem to be coming to a head in recent weeks. On Sunday, December 17th, the story was all over the newspapers. As the New York Times‘ reporter phrased it, “the family is breaking up.” On December 17, nine Episcopal churches in Virginia announced an overwhelming vote by their parishioners to cut their ties with the Episcopal Church. The Falls Church and Truro Church in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington voted to join the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America organization, which is linked to the Episcopal Church of Nigeria. Other churches are considering joining Anglican dioceses in Asia and Latin America. As the Reverend John Yates, rector of the Falls Church, puts it, “The Episcopal ship is in trouble. So we’re climbing over the rails down to various little lifeboats. There’s a lifeboat from Bolivia, one from Rwanda, another from Nigeria.”
Rwanda? Bolivia? Nigeria? Why not Rome? There have been some notable Episcopalian conversions to Catholicism, of course, but not a great wave. What is holding the Episcopalians back?
Some will argue that recent events in the Catholic Church make that step unattractive for them, everything from the sex scandals to the tampering with the liturgy. No doubt there is something to that proposition. If I were an Episcopalian serious about my beliefs, and I thought of the Catholic Church as the church of Sr. Joan Chittister and Fr. Robert Drinan, I wouldn’t be lining up for conversion classes. But there must be something else going on. Intelligent and informed Episcopalians know that Drinan and Chittister do not represent Catholicism. They know the percentage of Catholic priests caught up in the sex scandals is no greater than that of Protestant clergy involved in the same sort of shameful behavior. We have to look elsewhere.
Some will contend that it is certain Catholic teachings that hold the Episcopalians back, specifically the Church’s teachings on divorce and birth control; that Episcopalians who are genuinely convinced that these practices are not immoral cannot reconcile themselves to joining a Church that forbids them — and which therefore is demonstrably in error, in their eyes. Fair enough. But here’s the rub: Episcopalians who take this position are saying that their forebears in the Episcopal Church who first challenged their Church’s traditional teachings on birth control and divorce — which took place not that long ago — were correct to do so, but that people like Bishop Robinson are not entitled to challenge the current teaching on homosexuality.
How does the logic go? That we should extend the line on acceptable morality to include behaviors and beliefs of mine that clash with traditional Christian beliefs, but not so far as to include those of my less righteous fellow congregants? That sounds like worshipping the spirit of the age to me — just a different spirit of the age. Are we to believe that that is what Jesus wanted for us? I can’t help but think that large numbers of Episcopalians have thought this thought.
Which leads me to believe that there is something else that holds the Episcopalians back, something they would be reluctant to admit to in public, not due to any dishonesty on their part as much as to their characteristic good manners. I submit that becoming a Catholic would seem to them too much a betrayal of their people and their family heritage.
We know the stock images of the Episcopalians: tweedy WASPs, the “blue-stocking” crowd, the upper crust, the guardians of the Social Register, the people who can be found at the opening of the Metropolitan opera and at polo matches in the Hamptons. It is a caricature, of course. Not all Episcopalians are like that. But many are, especially those in positions of influence. Central to their understanding of the Episcopal Church is their belief that educated, refined, high-minded, socially conscious people like themselves do not need Rome to preserve a virtuous social order.
Let me be blunt: their belief is that they do not need the Church of the lower-class Irish, Italians and Slavic immigrants to instruct them on righteousness; that their collective religious endeavors will lead to a preservation of what Jesus wants for the modern world. Turning to Rome would mean abandoning the church that was central to the lives of the men and women of their stock who built not just the businesses, grand homes and country clubs of upper class America, but also the museums, universities, libraries and hospitals that represent the best of the American experience.
It is not unfair to say that Episcopalians have traditionally thought of themselves as the moral guardians that would lift the huddled masses to a higher understanding of how one behaved in a well-ordered society, one more enlightened than the priest-ridden world the immigrants left behind. They were convinced that proper people of their class did not need the church of Bishop Sheen and Mother Cabrini to preserve and extend for future generations the correct understanding of what it means to be a good Christian. The serious deliberations of well-intentioned folks of good breeding were enough for that.
It will not be easy for them to say, “I guess we were wrong.” Better to turn for leadership to an Anglican bishop in Rwanda or Bolivia, who they believe has correctly preserved the dispensation given to him by the Episcopal Church of old, than to Rome. Even if there is no guarantee that doing so will preserve those teachings for any length of time.