God’s Frozen People

July 19, 2012

Multiple Pages
God’s Frozen People

The religious world is buzzing this week with the unusual results of the Episcopal Church’s latest General Convention. That venerable institution has voted, among other things, to sanctify same-sex marriages, forbid discrimination in parish employment against transgendered clergy and other staff, apologize to the American Indians for introducing them to Christianity, and permit liturgical funerals for pets. To conventional Christians, these measures appear to indicate that the Episcopal Church has gone mad.

I disagree completely.

When I was young, the Episcopal Church was more than a pillar of the establishment; in many ways it was the establishment. Dubbed the “Church of Beauty” by some and “God’s Frozen People” by others, their worship—even of the “low church” variety—was impressive, with candles and crosses, well-trained choirs singing the musical wealth of the 1940 Hymnal, and the sonorous tones of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible rolling off the celebrant’s tongue. Anglo-Catholic worship flew into the liturgical upper stratosphere.

“From the time of Elizabeth I, Anglicanism’s role has been to bless and approve whatever the Anglosphere’s dominant classes have wanted blessed or approved.”

The temples that housed these services were often works of art in themselves, designed by architectural masters of the caliber of Cram and Richardson—and filled with stained glass by the likes of LaFarge and Tiffany. Under Episcopalian aegis were built such patriotic temples as the National Cathedral, the St. John’s Church in DC, the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Patrick Henry’s church, and—for members of the Confederate schism from the national faith—St. Paul’s in Richmond.

But such purely religious efforts were far from the only influence Episcopalianism had on the life of the community, state, and nation. In the military, liturgical Protestant services were based on the Book of Common Prayer. In civil life, quasi-community functions that appealed to the local upper crust such as the Blessing of the Hounds were often performed by Episcopal priests. The web of elite boarding schools boasted a top rung whose members were popularly referred to as “Saint Grottlesex.” This referred to Episcopalian St. Paul’s and Groton schools, as well as the “non-sectarian” but chapel-endowed Middlesex. 

This filtered down to everyday life. The sections on religion in Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette manuals reflected an Episcopalian sensibility, and Church members were popularly supposed to mix the best cocktails and play the best golf. Social climbers new to a community were well advised to put membership in the local Episcopal parish on their “things to join” list, alongside the historical society, junior league, and country club.

How could this citadel of comfort and style seemingly transmogrify into today’s screaming freak show? Well, as with so much of our national life, chronology would seemingly place the change in the 1960s. In Episcopalians’ case, the blame falls in the lap of two bishops: San Francisco’s James Pike and New York’s Paul Moore. The former’s heresy trial in 1967 ended with the verdict that there is no such thing as heresy in the Episcopal Church, absolving that body from any need to conform to doctrinal norms. The latter led the Church away from its former status as “the Republican Party at prayer” into a new wonderland of social and political radicalism. That Bishop Moore was emblematic of the Church’s changes is shown by the touching story his daughter wrote of her posthumous meeting with his longtime clandestine male lover. 

As with the country as a whole, the 1970s, 80s, and 90s saw the headlong flight of the Episcopal Church into a new and undiscovered country. The General Convention formally approved of priestesses in 1976. From that point on, feminists in the EC have not looked back—and via lesbianism in its guise as the supreme incarnation of feminism, gay interests were added as a main concern for the Episcopal Church’s leadership. The election of openly gay Vicky Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire highlighted this development.

Whether or not the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion as a whole is “faithful to the Gospel” or even merely in good taste is beyond the point. From the time of Elizabeth I, Anglicanism’s role has been to bless and approve whatever the Anglosphere’s dominant classes have wanted blessed or approved. Whenever those folk valued good manners, traditional mores, and a certain sense of style and decorum, the Anglican Church leadership complied.

But as those elite classes altered into the sideshow denizens who currently rule the West, “their” churches had to alter to suit them. Our oligarchs are not Christian in any doctrinal sense. They have no use for gender roles, for traditional family life, or indeed for reproduction itself (a bit shortsighted, given the never-ending need for bodies in uniform and obedient taxpayers). So far as many of them are concerned, there is no real distinction between human and animal life. The General Convention’s latest decrees simply put the stamp of religious approval upon the notions of our betters. Far from being a sign of America’s Episcopal Church having gone mad, these measures show she is continuing in her appointed and accustomed role.

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