Irony of Episcopal History

Irony of Episcopal History January 6, 2017

Allen Guelzo observes in his history of the Reformed Episcopal Church that historians of American Episcopalianism are misled by Anglo-Catholicism’s success in establishing “their own vision of Episcopal history, as the single reigning view of the history of the Episcopal Church” (13). It is not, he says, a historical literature rich in self-examination, and h charges that “the easy acceptance of self-congratulation as the primary mode of Episcopal historical discourse has cost Episcopalians an important theological insight into their history,” an insight that will only come by cultivating a Niebuhrian sense of irony (13).

The ironies are ready to hand: “On the one hand, Anglo-Catholicism plunged the Episcopal Church into a world of medievalism, canon law, and prelacy, but at the same time, it allowed the mind of the church to accommodate itself to modernism far more easily than if it had been ruled by the Evangelicals. Similarly, the Anglo-Catholics came to believe that their construction of Anglicanism was irresistible; they did not foresee the strength of the Evangelical resistance, the willingness of one bishop to provoke schism as a response to Anglo-Catholicism, or the ability of the Evangelicals to survive as a movement outside the official boundaries of the Episcopal hierarchy” (14).

Evangelicals “also thought of themselves as a conservative movement . . . , but as the debates over the prayer book and vestments of the Reformed Episcopal Church amply demonstrate, they were perfectly willing to alter those traditions even as they doggedly announced their intention to preserve them. . . . Although the American religious environment is overpopulated by separatist movements that advertised themselves as movements toward unity, few such movements started out making greater promises to promote ecumenical unity and evangelical brotherhood, and yet became so ingrown and parochial, as the Reformed Episcopalians” (14-15).

Guelzo calls the REC a “sampler of the ironies Martin Marty found typical of American religion at the turn of the century—of conservatives who manage to destroy past legacies, of integrators who only end up promoting fragmentation, of controversialists whose complaints are ignored by the real objects of complaint (in this case, the Episcopal Church) and who instead devote their controversial energies to destroying each other” (15).

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad