Sunday, March 11, 2012

What a Difference 125 Years Makes!

I would like to use a lesson from our Church's history to make a point about how far we have distanced ourselves from our honorable forbears in just over a century and a quarter of meeting in general convention as the Episcopal Church (USA).

In 1886, the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA met in Chicago. A contemporary report by a priest to his congregation in Boston -- he was not a deputy, but only a visitor -- tells us what were the general expectations for it at the time:
We have all been looking forward to it for a long time; we have talked of it, prayed for it, and discussed among ourselves what was likely to be done. There has been great interest everywhere in this last Convention, for we knew that questions were coming up before it equal in importance to any which have been raised in our own time. 
First in the minds of all was the Prayer Book of the Church. All have heard so much of this, that they could not but feel anxious as to what would be done. 
Then many of us knew that there would be an earnest effort to revise the Judicial System of the Church, and to create some form of courts of appeal. 
The question of Church Unity was in the air, and it was expected that the Convention would say something about it. 
Then, too, we knew that there was a committee to report on the great question of Marriage and Divorce; and those who feel the tremendous urgency of this matter looked with anxiety for some distinct utterance upon it. 
Besides these things, some great changes were expected with regard to the Church's Missionary work . . .  
Last, but by no means least in importance, we expected that the question of changing the Name of the Church would be brought up in some form; and we eagerly anticipated the discussion that would follow. 
These were the principal things that were in hearts and minds of Churchmen as they watched, or thought of, the gathering of the deputies at Chicago.
Given this list, it is interesting to see which subject the Rev. Osborne takes up first:
I told you that the work of the Convention is partly of a Missionary character: let me speak briefly of this first. You may have noticed that nearly one-third of the time of Convention was taken up with missionary reports and deliberations on missionary work. You must not think that this was wasted time. It was right that the time should be so spent. The Church is charged with a mission to preach the gospel to every creature, to stretch out her arms to bring them into the fold; and not one moment of the time given to this work was wasted. As a result of these deliberations, the whole plan of missionary work has been changed and re-organized, and a great missionary council has been formed. We may well believe that the result of this will be an increased power and energy on the part of the Church, and the gathering into her arms of multitudes who have never yet heard the name of Jesus Christ.
Just for comparison: will General Convention at Indianapolis this summer spend one-third of its time discussing the missionary work of the Church? -- That's right; and no, I was not jesting.

Next, the Rev. Osborne summarizes the changes which the Convention made to the Book of Common Prayer. Some of these are surprising to those of us who grew up believing that the 1928 BCP was the way things must have always been:
First, and chief of all, we have restored to us the Gospel Canticles,--Magnificat, or the Song of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Nunc Dimittis, or the Song of Simeon; and the whole of Benedictus, the Song of Zacharias. A hundred years ago these were dropped out of our Prayer Book, because in those days some thought that they had but a local and temporary signification; that, however beautiful these songs may have been on the lips of those who first sung them, they had no meaning for the Church now. And there was, beside, a mistaken thought that there was something in the use of these Canticles which made our Church unduly like the Church of Rome. . . .   
Another restoration is the word "again" in the Apostles' Creed; so that we shall say, "The third day He rose again from the dead," as the Creed has been recited by every English-speaking branch of the Church except our own ever since it was first translated. . . .
The report continues in a vein which I find wholly, though unintentionally, humorous -- given what the Church calls itself today:
3. Leaving the Prayer Book, we come next to the proposed change of the Name of the Church. 
I. First, we may note that no name was proposed in place of that which we bear. The motion was made by a distinguished lay deputy [Mr. Corning Judd of Chicago] to strike out the words "Protestant Episcopal" from our laws and formularies; leaving the title simply the "Church in the United States of America," until such time as it should seem well that another name should be adopted. In the course of the discussion other names were suggested, as "The American Church," "The Church in America," "The Anglican Catholic Church in America;" but none of these came up before Convention for discussion: the motion was simply to strike out the former title. 
The motion was lost . . . 
"The Church in the United States of America" -- now, there's a title to commend itself to the aspirations of 815 Second Avenue for ECUSA to be all things to all men!

After reporting about the failure of the Convention to adopt a proposal to create courts of appeal -- a measure which did not pass until after the constitutional reforms of 1901 -- the Rev. Osborne next mentioned two items on the agenda which were so important that their consideration was postponed to the next Convention, for want of sufficient time to deal with them properly. The first was the position of the Church on marriage and divorce:
. . . The state of things in our country with regard to our marriage laws, and still more with regard to divorce, is enough to fill any one with alarm. The whole stability of the family life of the nation is shaken at its foundation; and with the loss of stability there, the whole nation is in peril. It is a matter for thankfulness that the Church of God has waked up to a realization of our condition, and is endeavoring to rouse both her own children and the nation at large. 
. . . 
There are two points brought out and emphasized. Let me tell them. First, Holy Scripture and the Church of God allow divorce for one cause, and one cause only, and that is ADULTERY. No other cause can be recognized by any Christian man true to God, his Word, and the Church. There may be reasons why people must live apart, but no other cause than this breaks the marriage bond. 
The second point is this, the guilty one in a divorce for this cause can never marry again during the lifetime of the other.
O tempora! O mores! How the times have changed -- General Convention 2012 will, as already reported here, adopt for trial use rites of blessing for the same-sex unions, and will most probably trample on the Church's Constitution in doing so.  But already in 1886, as the good Rev. Osborne reported, "the whole stability of the family life of the nation is shaken at its foundation . . . the whole nation is in peril." And that was over a proposal to allow divorce on grounds other than adultery -- what would he have to say about the action to be taken just four months from now?

The real reason which caused me to turn at this point to the doings of a long-ago General Convention, however, is not any of the matters reported thus far. No, it was the question of Church unity, which the Rev. Osborne saves for last:
We all desire Christian unity, and long for a time when the various divisions of Christendom shall be healed; but let us understand exactly what we mean by "Christian unity" or "the organic unity of Christian churches." 
For many years there has been a desire for this . . . .  But by that unity we understood a bringing together of the various branches of Christ's Church,--the Anglican, the Roman, and the Eastern,--that some way might be found so that there might again be one fold and one Shepherd, and that all other persons should be brought into that fold and be saved. For this unity we can still pray and work.
As noted, General Convention did not enact any resolutions on the subject of unity; it ran out of time. The House of Bishops, however, published a significant report on Christian unity -- significant, because two years later the Lambeth Conference of 1888 adopted the latter portion of it as a comprehensive statement of the four essential elements on which any such unity should be based:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God. 
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith. 
3. The two Sacraments,--Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,--ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him. 
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
These four points became thereafter known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  Lost in the splendor of their enunciation, however, was the preamble to them which the House of Bishops adopted as well. And it is that preamble to which I finally want to call your attention, in this survey of the Church's memorable past.

For General Convention 2012 will also be taking up a proposal to sign on to the Anglican Covenant. There is little prospect of its doing so -- indeed, the activists in ECUSA have been the most outspoken of any province in denouncing the radical character of the proposed Covenant as thoroughly "un-Anglican." Lately, they have been joined by voices from the Church of England, as it also considers approving the Covenant in its several dioceses before taking up the matter finally in General Synod.

It seems that the denouncers of the proposed Covenant fear that its mechanisms, once in place, will furnish the means of inhibiting ECUSA and the Church of England, under pain of being no longer regarded as members of the Communion, from doing what they see fit to do, in all matters of faith and worship, regardless of what the rest of the Communion may decide or even feel about such matters.

Those who entertain such fears might, if they can do nothing else about them, take some small comfort in hearing the brave words of the Bishops sitting at Chicago in 1886, as they expressed their desire for unity in Christ's church (I have added the emphasis, to make it easy for them):
We, Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in Council assembled as Bishops in the Church of God, do hereby solemnly declare to all whom it may concern, and especially to our fellow-Christians of the different Communions in this land, who, in their several spheres, have contended for the religion of Christ: 
1. Our earnest desire that the Savior's prayer, "That we all may be one," may, in its deepest and truest sense, be speedily fulfilled; 
2. That we believe that all who have been duly baptized with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, are members of the Holy Catholic Church. 
3. That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own . . . .

Q. E. D.

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