The National Cathedral in Washington: an “Episcopal” church, whatever that means.
Not many people know this, but 100+ years ago at the height of the Oxford Movement, the Protestant Episcopal Church came within a single vote of changing its name to the Catholic Church of America.
Can you imagine? If the vote had gone through it would have changed our identity completely. In good ways, I think, but the change would have been dramatic.
It would have marked the triumph of Anglo-Catholicism over the Low Church/Evangelical/Calvinist/Puritan Party. And considering the changes of the 20th century, that might have done us a great deal of good.
I’m striking out when trying to research this online, however; I can’t find documentation for it. So my assertion relies on a 36-year-old memory of something Howard Galley told us at the National Institute for Lay Training at General Seminary in New York in 1974.
(Sidebar: this speaks directly to a cheerful online dialogue I had recently with Dr. Derek Olsen on Daily Episcopalian, who complained nicely that Galley wrote “the most Protestant” take on priestcraft in his 1989 book, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist. I felt a need to defend Howard’s Catholic bona fides, including his report about how close we came to renaming ourselves the Catholic Church in America.)
One would have to dig through musty books at Church headquarters in New York to compile the documentation. If you know where those records are online, please leave a comment!
I’ve never forgotten what Howard said—or the pride in his voice that his beloved Anglo-Catholics came so close to a total redoing of The Episcopal Church’s identity. My point to Derek was that as General Editor of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Howard was very skilled at honoring both the Protestant and Catholic sides of our tradition. Nor was this strictly political on his part, to get his Prayer Book revision through; he honestly believed in Reformed Catholicism, in the best Anglican tradition. He didn’t have to fake it when it came to his Evangelical credentials; he was himself, as I am, a commissioned Evangelist.
Nor was he in the closet about his Anglo-Catholicism any more than I am. But I’ve got my limits; I really don’t want monstrances paraded down the center aisle, or certain other popish practices, glosses, add-ons and fantasies; but when my brother Dick had lifesaving surgery in 1969, I wore my little Haitian rosary beads out. And Bro survived to this day, thanks be to God.
I now propose, unlike 1880 or thereabouts, that TEC change its name to The Church of America.
Drop the word “Catholic,” which our remnant of Calvinists will never agree to, and identify us instead with our country, just like the Church of England, the Church of Nigeria, the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales. No church deserves this name like we do, and it fits our governing constitution making our Church independent of all other Anglican churches, like our nation is independent of all others while maintaining close ties.
“The Episcopal Church” is an accurate description of who we are—as long as you speak Greek, and I don’t. Neither do you.
“Episcopal” means “the bishops’ church,” as contrasted with a Presbyterian one like the Church of Scotland, “the priests’ or presbyters’ church.” In truth TEC is closer to “the laypeople’s church” than most anyone else you can name, because we actually empower the people in the pews who fund this whole apparatus and do the lion’s share of the work. But yes, Episcopalians have bishops just like all of Jesus’s followers had for the first 1500 years of Christianity. (Presbyterians got so disgusted with the Bishop of Rome they threw all the bishops out categorically. Does this make for better governance? Debatable.)
Empowering the laypeople is what makes for better governance. So TEC is set up just like Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court. If you have the votes you win, if not you lose. For lack of one vote the Catholic advocates got shot down.
The problem for Episcopalians and Presbyterians (who mostly get along great these days) is that Americans don’t speak New Testament Greek, so 300 million of us have no idea what these words mean. Our names have become a stumbling-block (and woe to you if you erect one of those).
“The Church of America” wipes all that confusion away. It identifies us with our Lord, our country, our independence, our liberal democracy, our freedom and our faith.
We don’t promote raw nationalism, so that shouldn’t be an issue, even if it becomes for some a temptation. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with promoting thoughtful patriotism. At times in the past 50 years we could have used the reminder.
We’re the most comprehensive church in the nation, incorporating both Catholic and Protestant traditions. American Christianity includes both, and so do we.
Uniquely among churches we base our faith on Scripture, Tradition and Reason, in dynamic tension. First we look to what the Bible says; then to what the Universal Church has generally taught in most times and places; then we critique those two with the Reason and logic of our God-given brains. That’s why we ordain Gay and Lesbian people, by the way; we know what the Bible says, what the Tradition has taught, but neither one stands up to Reason anymore—nor to the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
As an Evangelical Catholic, I’ve argued for awhile now that TEC’s genetic Anglophilia hurts us in the world today. We love our Shakespeare for darn good reasons—but we’re not English, we’re Americans, and our Church includes Cherokees and Sioux, Inuits and Hawai’ians, not to mention Chinese, Japanese, Haitians, Nigerians, Koreans, Aussies and various nationalities in Europe. We need to de-emphasize our Britishness and connect more strongly with the polyglot nations we actually live in.
I will always love Anglican chant, Ralph Vaughn Williams and the host of other Britannic worthies who have given us a magnificent worship tradition. But we need to burn some sage, too; it’s like incense.
Let’s be Americans; we were one of the first churches here in colonial days, but now we’re our own country since 1776.
Let’s steer past the old questions of are we Catholic or are we Protestant? We’re both, and we’ll never give up either tradition. This is part of what made Galley so brilliant. His evangelicalism is what allowed him to restore the Holy Eucharist or Mass as the principal service on Sundays—a completely Catholic triumph. And he did this while training me and six others as evangelists.
No one else but “Episcopalians” had the chutzpah to raise up a Church of Saints Peter and Paul and call it the National Cathedral. That was us.
Of course, our boundaries go beyond the US of A; we’re active in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Ecuador. But they are all Americans with us here in the New, not-Europe World.
Name change: TEC to the Church of America. Eliminate the stumbling block of an ancient Greek word while we explain ourselves to Generation X, Y and Z. Church of America, always active in the development of our country, from George Washington to George W. Bush. President Obama likes to go to St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square across from the White House.
Honor our Potawatomis and Apaches, Tlingits and Iroquois; no one’s more American than they are.
Honor our faithful who are Black; no one’s more American than they are.
Honor our faithful in Ecuador, the Dominican and the Virgin Islands; they’re Americans too.
Honor our Germans and Brits and Frenchies and Latinos; together we make a nation and a Church. Polynesians too!
Let us always have connections to other national Churches in New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines through the Anglican Communion, no matter how much the Church of England’s Archbishops embarass us with their constant defense of sexism and homophobia. We want post-colonial relationships in the world of today, not yesterday.
Let’s stop having to tell people what “Episcopal” means. It takes a freakin’ hour and even that doesn’t help. The American Church is something most people can get their brains around.
Let’s focus on our countries, our communities, and offer services broadly appealing to all, wherever people are on the Catholic-Protestant scale.
We’re at our best when we’re blessing the whole city, state and nation: cops, firefighters, soldiers, social workers, 9/11 emergency responders, nurses, animals, ambulances and all the ships at sea. We’ve always done this, because we’re a national Church.
It’s time we started acting like it, that’s all. Change the name and get on with our mission.
If you want to grow your parish, make a great big deal out of Florence Nightingale Day. Hold a countywide celebration of nurses, medical professionals, EMTs, physicians, patients and their families. If my stats on the Daily Office blog are at all representative, she’s bigger than St. Francis of Assisi, when he’s got every birder, dog and cat lover in America.++
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