How is it possible? A denomination so proud of its inclusivity. Have I advocated false doctrines? I accept wholeheartedly the faith expressed in the creeds and in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the doctrinal statement of the Anglican Communion. Do I perhaps have a shameful past of racism or gender insensitivity? I walked across that bridge in Selma with Dr. King in 1965, and for two decades enforced the educational equity laws of the most progressive of states. So how have I offended, that my credentials to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments in the Episcopal Church should be revoked?
I predicted this painful experience in an article for First Things many years ago.
In 1992, a group of dissident bishops of the American Episcopal Church held a meeting after that denomination’s triennial general convention—the notorious convention whose delegates had failed to agree upon a resolution calling for bishops and priests to be sexually continent outside of marriage. The dissident bishops proposed a new structure, a missionary diocese as wide as the entire country. They declared their intention to “spread the Gospel in places where the present Episcopal leadership continues to suppress and persecute biblical Christianity.” This initiative has since developed into the Anglican Church in North America, which now claims more than a thousand congregations. It is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which exists alongside, but in rivalry with, the American Episcopal Church.
I wrote for First Things a brief satirical piece (“Hairy Men and Smooth Men,” April 1992) applauding the dissident bishops’ initiative and mocking the response of denominational leadership. As a professor of administration and policy and author of a book on the moribund communist regimes of Eastern Europe, I was fascinated to find that the reaction of denominational leadership was exactly what organizational theory would predict.
There had apparently been no pause to ask why a number of bishops felt it necessary to take this drastic step, resolving to “do all we can to ensure that an authentic Christian witness and biblical doctrine, morality, and order are maintained among Episcopalians.” Instead, the presiding bishop warned that “those persons—lay or clergy—who ‘transferred’ to a ‘missionary diocese’” would “put themselves outside the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.” In short, they would be excommunicated.
Catholic readers might not be startled by such a response to a challenge to hierarchy. But consider the Episcopal Church: For an Episcopal priest or bishop to be rebuked for anything he or she might teach, including the most hair-raising forms of New Age mysticism, is unheard-of—so long, of course, as it does not violate political correctness. “Heresy” in the sense of incorrect teaching on religious matters is quite literally impossible.
In 1992, I pointed out that in many dioceses, it seemed impossible “to go too far in personal irresponsibility or sexual extravagance.” It had become the norm, at least in my part of the country, to “celebrate, every accommodation to the spirit of the age. Preach what you will so long as you are sincere; do what you will, so long as it feels good and is an occasion for displaying ‘authenticity.’”
But beware, I warned,
of trespassing upon the exclusive franchise granted to each diocesan bureaucracy in its territory. That, and that alone, will make you anathema; that alone will lead to excommunication. This from a denomination that salutes shamanism and every variety of religion as “engaged in the same spiritual pilgrimage.”
As it happens, I was active in an inner-city Episcopal parish in Boston in the early 1960s, when the bishop decided it would be useful to ordain me a deacon and then a priest, even though I had dropped out of seminary. For more than fifty years, though, I have not earned a salary as a clergyman. From 1970, I was a state government official, and from 1991, a professor at Boston University. Nevertheless, the Diocese of Massachusetts continued to carry me on its books, and most years at Christmas my family received a much-appreciated box of chocolates from the bishop. Meanwhile, my wife and I attended various evangelical churches and, a few years ago, followed one of our children into a newly “planted” Anglican church full of enthusiastic young graduate students and techies.
Each year, the diocese has sent me the one-page form it sends annually to non-parochial clergy. This year, I decided to explain that I was attending an Anglican parish and had been accepted there as a priest, though I added that I had preached only once and exercised no other ministries over the past several years, other than handing out bulletins at the door. I might also have mentioned that I am on the board of the little “Bible church” near our place in New Hampshire and sometimes preach there, but I suspect this would not have caused the same offense.
The reaction was just as I might have predicted in 1992. I received a formal letter from the bishop, informing me that in consequence of my apostasy, I had been “deprived of the right to exercise in The Episcopal Church the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred in Ordination.” And lest a man in his eighty-first year who has not officiated in an Episcopal church for some four decades mislead a congregation somewhere in the country by uttering a public prayer or blessing, the bishop ensured that a declaration of release and removal, pronounced by me in the presence of two priests, would be entered into the official records of the Diocese of Massachusetts, together with my certification that this action was taken for causes that do not affect my moral character.
I was informed that “written notification of this action” had been sent to all the clergy of the diocese, and to the vestries of each parish, to the “Secretary of Convention and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and to all Bishops of The Episcopal Church, the Ecclesiastical Authority of each Diocese of The Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop, the Recorder of Ordinations, the Secretary of the House of Bishops, the Secretary of the House of Deputies,” and so forth.
An all-points bulletin, in other words, lest I presume to preach the gospel. Fame at last, coast to coast!
More seriously, as I wrote in 1992, “There is, of course, every reason for a church to exercise authority. The Episcopal Church has failed to do so where it really counts: in what we teach and how we live.” I would accept gratefully a correction (if it were convincingly based in Scripture) of my beliefs or my behavior, but it is unclear how I have offended so grievously a famously tolerant denomination by attending a church of another part of the Anglican Communion.
I answered the bishop’s letter, thanking him for the assurance that there were no questions about my moral character (though, as a Calvinist, I have every reason to question it myself!), and explaining that “I have found myself needing to be part of a Christian fellowship faithful to Scripture rather than to current fashion, and yet loyal to the Anglican tradition.”
I’m sorry to have been cast out by a church that has been important to my family for generations, and in which I have many friends. My late father was rector of St. John’s, Lafayette Square, the so-called “church of the presidents,” and died after conducting a service at Washington National Cathedral.
My prayer for the Episcopal Church is that it will experience a revival of faithfulness to the gospel. After all, we are enjoined to pray that all Christians may be united in faith.
But my family will miss the annual box of chocolates . . .
Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.