Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Episcopal Patchwork

In a group that has met for years in Kansas City, the varied reasons why the Episcopal Church has become radically different have been discussed over hundreds of occasions. Many of those reasons have been topics of our blog, and perhaps more reasons will be presented. I think each reason has had some validity and usually have had substantive evidence in favor of it. Each reason has also had some tie on to others so that a fabric of explanation seems to weave together. This fabric is what I am most interested in as I see it as a matrix evolving and connecting the whole.

I think a major change in the matrix  began at the ordination of eleven women in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974.  One of the ordaining bishops was Robert DeWitt who had only recently retired from the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Lyman Ogilby was then Bishop of Pennsylvania and who did not participate in the unapproved ordinations at Church of the Advocate in north Philadelphia where Paul Washington, as Rector, allowed them without permission in his church. The justifications for the ordinations had to do with the moral and social  righteousness of the actions by bishops who decided to act individually on their own  opinions of  episcopal authority.  This radical breach of the fabric of tradition and canon law by the bishops was unique insofar as it  had to do with episcopal authority over presbyterate ordination in the Episcopal Church, a central and critical role canonically allowed by a diocesan bishop through the jurisdictional process that  depended on the final and single authority of the bishop to actually ordain someone.

At the time, I lived just a few miles away from the ordination and could have gone as many of my friends did. I did not because of my formal and very personal relationship to Lyman Ogilby as my bishop and very dear friend. While Lyman’s Connecticut Yankee upbringing gave him quite a bit of  lip stiffening, I knew him well enough to know that his friend, Bob Dewitt, and the other participating bishops hurt him deeply as did Paul Washington’s violation by allowing the event in his church. However, Lyman was an old school and loyal graduate of the Episcopal Theological School (EDS) who firmly believed in social justice and therefore sucked up his hurt with little complaint about his violated jurisdiction and authority to manage it.  

Of course, in 1976, the ordinations were regularized.  Soon the new righteousness over female ordination was focused on gaining approval in General Convention to breach noncompliant  jurisdictions. Focus was  on and against dioceses that would not ordain women. By 1997, a committee was formed to go into and check on the status of women in offending dioceses. The three "noncompliant" dioceses were San Joaquin, Quincy, and Fort Worth.  Approved search parties to check on  the status of local women were launched into them to admonish and  gain correction from  the local area native leaders from their aberrant practices.

By the 1980’s with the ordination of women being enculturated and a new Book of Common Prayer becoming familiar everywhere, a new twist in the fabric was occuring. The conservative forces realized liberals had revealed that jurisdictional and traditional lines of all sorts were really no longer solid nor apparently of paramount importance.  As taught to them by the liberals’ actions, dioceses and parishes began to see themselves as more autonomous from bishops with whom they did not agree and General Convention and House of Bishops’ decisions they found offensive. New affiliations were sought across all sorts of lines and the oceans into various dioceses that  are Anglican but certainly not in the Episcopal Church.

By the late 1990’s, an old fabric was fully and finally rendered torn and worn out, one of somber respect for parochial and diocesan jurisdictions and diocesan episcopal authority. A new fabric was designing itself, and an odd matrix of grand variegated associations and authorities became a weaving. The Episcopal Church  was being discarded in its once coherent matrix  for a more elusive pursuit of very particular and atomized ecclesiastical options and autonomy, a patchwork of sorts. More of the story is unfolding. . . .


  1. OMG my long-time friend. This is the first time I realized that you chose NOT to attend that historical event; I thought you were there.
    Well *I* was there (IN SPIRIT).
    Thanks for the enjoyable, historical refresher. The Episcopal Church continues to be a work in progress.. just like the rest of us. Pax, Joy

  2. Hey, you! Yup,I sort of wanted to go but my sympathy for Lyman's plight was very high. I still and will always miss him and Brooke.

  3. Lyman and my father were at ETS together. I can remember calling him, "Uncle Lyman". My Uncle Joe Koci was there as well at serving with Lyman in Pennsylvania. The church they studied at ETS to serve was gone a long time ago. Along with American Anglophiles, the Episcopal Church changed. I remember engaging in conversation at climbers camp in the Tetons a fallen away Episcopalian, who was still livid about the lost of the "the quick and the dead" in the Prayer Book.

    We have asked a lot of these present generations in terms of change--women priests and bishops, inclusive language liturgies, dealing honestly with clergy sexual misconduct, LGBT clergy and marriages. All wonderful in their own way and necessary for maturity in the faith. We can't say it has been the best formula for growth of the community in numbers. Pardon me if I'm not terribly worried about Uncle Lyman's feelings around the ordination of women back in the 1970's. We have all had some dealing with feelings in the contemporary Episcopal Church.

  4. Ron, I have believed for a long time that the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 set the pattern for right wing conservatives in our church to disregard not only canon law, but also the unwritten Anglican synthesis in which we agree without being disagreeable. Unity with diversity used to be a hallmark of Anglicanism, now destroyed by those who insist "my way or the highway." South Carolina is just the latest of these events.

  5. Robert Terrill, the Mainline Protestant transformation from the Republican Party at Prayer to NPR with hymnals probably had more to do with it.
    That and the fact that most of you are "refugees" from Fundiegelicalism who want to show how much more enlightened and educated you are than the poor white trash your grandparents were.

  6. Provost, as usual this is a most enlightening piece - unveiling for me the genesis of our current mammoth ecclesiological challenge.

  7. The refusal of bishops to ordain women to the presbyterate was often linked with refusal to allow congregations to call women priests. I have argued that a bishop's convictions should not be able to trump those of the laity.

  8. This history is all new to me and I thank you all for including me in the notices and allowing me to respond. As a relatively new Episcopalian, I see diversity and acceptance, am attracted by it, and think of it as a strength. Your concluding paragraph leads me to think the patchwork representation of the current church is not necessarily a positive thing for growth or for stability. I can see it is a difficult transition for some people, but imagine it is a strength in the long run.