Saturday, January 06, 2007

Upholding Episcopal Tradition? Not Exactly

When I wrote, two weeks ago, about the breakaway Episcopal churches in Virginia whose members are so horrified by gay priests and bishops that they are trying to align their parishes with ultra-conservative bishops in Africa, I provoked quite a bit of hostile commentary.

For example, check out this conservative site, where a number of commenters took me to task for my supposed ignorance of how liberals have been perverting the traditional nature of the church. One concludes his (or he) analysis of my errors with the remark, "I would guess he is not an Episcopalian." And commenters right here on World Wide Webers wrote things like this:

Since the conservative, orthodox, whatever we are called these days, are the ones following "the faith once delivered," and the liberals, progressives, whatever, are the ones making the "innovations," perhaps they are the ones who need to find their own path. Why change an organization if you don't like its basic tenets? Just start your own!
But this article from WaPo sheds another light on the controversy. It details how the two leading churches among the Virginia secessionists have, for the past thirty years, been gradually taken over by non-Episcopalians with a style of theology and a form of worship normally associated with very different branches of Protestantism. A few highlights:

Parishioners say it happens quietly, unobtrusively: As the sick make their way to the altar, some worshipers begin speaking in tongues. Occasionally, one is "arrested in the spirit," falling unconscious into the arms of a fellow congregant.

The special faith-healing services, held one Sunday night a month at The Falls Church in Fairfax, are a rarity in the Episcopal Church. But members of The Falls Church have long felt at odds with fellow Episcopalians, who they believe have been drifting theologically in an ever more liberal direction.

Shortly before Christmas, The Falls Church and neighboring Truro Church -- which in Colonial times belonged to a single parish -- vented those feelings by voting overwhelmingly to break away from the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church.

The vote reverberated across the country because Truro and The Falls Church are two of the Washington area's most wealthy, historic and prestigious congregations. Their pews are studded on Sunday mornings with such regulars as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and former CIA director Porter J. Goss.

Moreover, they are reversing the usual relationship between Christians in the United States and the developing world by joining seven other Northern Virginia congregations in a new missionary branch of the Anglican province of Nigeria.

The decision was emotionally wrenching and fraught with legal issues, not least of which is a potential battle with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia for control of the two congregations' land and buildings, conservatively valued at $25 million.

But the votes appear less sudden or surprising when one realizes that for more than 30 years, Truro and The Falls Church have been part of a "charismatic revival" within mainline Protestantism, said the Rev. Robert W. Prichard, professor of Christianity in America at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Charismatic, in this case, refers to an ecstatic style of worship that includes speaking in tongues, a stream of unintelligible syllables signifying that the Holy Spirit has entered the worshiper. It is a hallmark of the fast-growing Pentecostal movement but unusual for Episcopalians, who are so thoroughly associated with solemnity and tradition that they are sometimes referred to teasingly as "the frozen chosen."

Prichard, who grew up attending Truro, said many of its members and almost of all its lay leaders spoke in tongues in the 1970s. "There was a kind of coaching in which people who had spoken in tongues would surround a person who was praying for the gift of tongues," he said.

Parishioners say the practice continues today in both congregations, though not at Sunday morning services. Some members have never seen it.


These days, Truro is a magnet for conservatives across the Washington area, and the percentage of "cradle" Episcopalians among its 2,000 regular worshipers has dropped steadily. In the 1980s, more than two-thirds of its members had been raised Episcopalian, according to church surveys. Today, fewer than 40 percent grew up in the church.


At least two-thirds of the worshipers [at the Falls Church] are Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists, and there is no pressure on them to be confirmed as Episcopalians, said the Rev. Rick Wright, associate rector.

Wright said the diverse membership of both congregations illustrates one of the great changes in American religion of the past half-century: The divisions between denominations are far less important today than the divisions within denominations.

"I tend to feel very comfortable rubbing shoulders with folks at McLean Bible or Columbia Baptist . . . that are real orthodox, evangelical, biblical churches," said Truro's chief warden, or lay leader, Jim Oakes, referring to two Northern Virginia megachurches. "We share core beliefs. I think I would be more comfortable with them than with anyone I might run into at an Episcopal Diocesan Council meeting."

In some popular services, Truro and The Falls Church blend the traditional liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer with such megachurch touches as huge choirs, bass guitars and drums. Neither offers "smells and bells," the incense and chimes favored by "high church" Episcopal congregations. But some parishioners affectionately describe Truro as "McLean Bible with candles."
(McLean Bible is a non-denominational, evangelical megachurch in the Washington, D.C. suburb of McLean, Virginia.)

Reading this story makes me wonder, Who are the true innovators and interlopers here?

I've been a committed (baptised and confirmed) Episcopalian for the past thirty years, serving as a vestry member, Sunday School teacher, and lay eucharistic minister. Over the years, I've had occasion to attend Episcopal services at a variety of churches, mostly in the New York area, and found them all more or less familiar and congenial. The commonalities among them constitute what I think of as "my church," which I have been nourished by and which I love.

I have nothing against Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostalists, and I don't even object to people who speak in tongues. (I've never experienced it myself, and I think it's a little odd that people would pray for this "gift," since it doesn't seem to offer any spiritual or practical benefits--unlike the original episode of "speaking in tongues" in Acts 2, where God enabled the early Christians to preach in many languages so they could proselytize among the many foreigners in Jerusalem, not just to dramatize their religious fervor. But if people find this experience uplifting, so be it.)

However, I do think it's a bit much for these various types of Christian seekers to move into an Episcopal parish, introduce new beliefs and forms of worship, gradually increase their numbers until they constitute a majority, vote to hijack the parish from its original owners--and then claim to represent "traditional Episcopalianism."

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