When I went to college I was introduced to the Episcopal Church by Susan (later my wife). I had never thought seriously about the difference between the churches — my upbringing was Christianly serious, but more “mere Christianity” than “why-we’re-Presbyterian-and-not-Methodist.”
After a period of study and prayer, I decided I should become a “catholic,” and I saw three options. There were the Orthodox, but they seemed inextricably tied to particular ethnicities (Greek, Russian, and so on). There were the Roman Catholics, but this was 1975 and they were in a banal wasteland of liturgical and doctrinal confusion. And there were the Episcopalians, who seemed to have a plausible claim to be the catholic church for English-speaking people. So, I was confirmed, and in a few years married in the Episcopal Church, which also sent me to seminary and in which our children were baptized.
We move forward a generation. When our children were in college, they similarly faced the differences between the churches. For them, it did not seem plausible to consider the Episcopal Church at large as a catholic church; after their own study and prayer, they were confirmed as Roman Catholics.
This was painful: the division of the churches sliced right through the middle of our family. I joked (half-joked?) to a friend that it would have been easier if they had become atheists — at least, in that case, it would be right for us to be divided on Sunday morning. Yet I understood their decisions. If I were, today, to be looking for a catholic church, the manifest confusion and decline in what we now call TEC would not commend it to me.
Why then do I stay in the declining, once-mainline, Episcopal Church?
First, a principle: Church unity, which we are commanded to long for, is not advanced by individuals moving from one ecclesial body to another.
Now, any individual person may become convinced in her conscience that she must leave one church for another. If so, then she should. But such a move will not advance Church unity. It is, perhaps, partially analogous to a marital separation. It is possible that, in an extremity of need, one should leave one’s spouse. And if one should, then one should.
From this principle (that Church unity is not advanced by individuals moving from one ecclesial body to another) comes the corollary: such a move should be made only rarely. I have felt that my college-age decision to become an Episcopalian was fundamentally determinative of who I am. Susan and I decided to marry each other, and so we remained till death us did part (in 2012). I pray God that I remain his priest until I die, and his servant and friend for ever; to do that (on this side of death) calls for my stability in an ecclesial location, which, for me, is given by the Episcopal Church.
There is a subtle temptation (and a great danger) that whenever we move from one church to another, we will have an unconscious motivation, namely, to find a church “that’s just like me.” The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion was once described to me as thousands of people getting together to ask a single question: “What would a church look like if a church looked like me?” That’s not altogether fair—a lot of the AAR has no interest in church. But you see the point?
I remember a man who married a parishioner of mine (this was decades ago). He had been in a non-denominational church, very small, perhaps only a dozen or two people on Sundays. And they split! He told me with a wry smile that it was over the use of styrofoam cups in coffee hour.
Here therefore is Austin’s rule: If you feel conscience-bound to change denominations, never join anything smaller. The danger of self-deception is too great
There are also positives to staying in a declining church. First, one may be called to be a missionary. If you think the church you are in is straying from Christian truth in what it teaches and/or what it does, consider whether God might be calling you to understand that church as a missionary field. Not all missionaries have to travel to find “unchurched” people. Our very churches are replete with “unchurched” folk.
This is a point especially relevant to clergy. We have been ordained for the sake of others, not for our own self-fulfillment. Again, consider an analogy to the marriage vow’s language of commitment “in sickness and in health.” We may feel our own church has turned in a grievously wrong direction, that its teaching is confused and its practices more shaped by secular trends than by enduring Christian truth. But nonetheless, one can find part of that truth still proclaimed, and some of those practices still largely intact. However extensive the sickness, there is still some health in there. And there are people, faithful and committed Christians, whom you, if you leave, will leave behind. Clergy especially may be called to stick around as missionaries and pastors.
Second, it is possible that the “illness” of one’s church is God’s punishment upon our past infidelity, and like Israel in exile, our call is to accept it and endure it. Ephraim Radner has made this point in countless ways; one shorter piece I remember was an article in the Anglican Theological Review whose title tells it all: “Bad Bishops.” If we have a bad bishop, God’s call might be for us to recognize and accept that we deserve no better.
The deep reason why Christian unity would not be advanced if, say, tomorrow everyone became a Roman Catholic, is this: Church unity must be truly catholic, a big tent with a place for the valid charisms developed in the various divided churches.
This is part of the mystery of sin — it can lead to good things which we would never have known otherwise. Of course, we should not sin that grace be multiplied! But nonetheless, in God’s economy of providence, our sins have led to grace.
This is true even more broadly of simple finitude and illness. Sign language is a beautiful and remarkable thing. But if there had never been deafness, it would never have been discovered, and that part of our brain (that way of language, different than all spoken languages) would have lain fallow, uncultivated. We should not wish for deafness, but we can celebrate the good that can come out of it.
We should not wish for Christian disunity, but we can properly celebrate the particular charisms that have arisen therein. One needs discernment: not everything the Episcopal Church has done is a true charism! But there are identifiable, characteristic Anglican/Episcopal strengths and gifts that should be received by a reunited Church.
Four such charisms occur to me (hardly a complete list):
1) Language for prayer that is dignified, exalted, biblically saturated, and resonates.
2) A trust in the power of the Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike, to form a Christian people as they are read sequentially, day after day, morning and evening.
3) Epistemic humility, which does not claim greater doctrinal precision than words can give, yet does not deny that truth can be known and some error, at least, can be recognized.
4) A concern for government, for the social order as politically structured.
With regard to that last one, I remember noticing in ecumenical dialogue that while we Episcopalians tend to speak of “immigration,” Roman Catholics tend to speak of “migration.” Neither is wrong; both are necessary. But with our national and, in England, establishment tradition, we tend to have a special care to pray: “Lord, keep this nation under thy care.”
So a final reason for staying in the declining Episcopal Church is to preserve the particular gifts of the Anglican tradition so that, when all the churches come together, we may bring them as our gifts to the one altar of the Lord.
The Rev. Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.