The Grand Assumption

Yesterday I received an e-mail from the Diocese of Virginia entitled, “All Will be Well:
Reconstituted Congregations Retreat at Shrine Mont” and it opened with this paragraph:

For the 110 Episcopalians who shared their stories at “The Abundance of God’s Love” retreat at Shrine Mont in Orkney Springs, Va. October 7-8, their tales were not entirely unique. Unhappy with the actions of The Episcopal Church at General Convention in 2003 and 2006, their leadership decided to reconsider their membership in The Episcopal Church and The Diocese of Virginia. Parishioners noticed a shift in the climate of their congregations: Episcopal flags were removed, or rectors focused their preaching primarily on “the issues.” They entered into “40 Days of Discernment”–in hindsight, with a sense of naiveté, said some participants. And they all entered into a journey categorized by confusion, frustration and, for some, hopelessness. “It’s like the stages of grief,” said Church of the Epiphany Episcopal, Herndon parishioner Suzanne Fichter. “Denial, anger, acceptance.”

The gathering of 110 people out of the approximately 7,000 members of the fifteen churches that voted by overwhelming majorities to separate from the Episcopal Church was interesting. But I think what struck me most about the article, which you can see in the tone of this opening paragraph was what I might call The Grand Assumption.

What is The Grand Assumption? It came home to me while I was in New Orleans for the Episcopal House of Bishops meeting. There was – in addition to all the other national and international media gathered there – a documentary team from PBS. They were focusing on the Virginia story and talked to me about my experiences. As their questions went from soft to hard, it occurred to me that they also were making The Grand Assumption as well and it was in this interview that, to indulge in a pun, I had what might be called an epiphany.

I had talked in my interview about the rise of small groups at Truro, based on Bible Study and the equipping of the “priesthood of all believers.” In other words, one of the hallmarks of the “renewal” movement in the Episcopal Church had been a virtual turn “upside down” from a clerical-centered church to a laity-equipped church.

In the renewal movement with the rise of small group Bible Studies, the laity were now reading the Bible on their own, studying it, taking courses on it, discussing it, praying through it, and asking questions, questions that were often the center of the study of the scriptures. In other words, the Episcopal Churches where the renewal was alive were becoming biblically literate. No longer were the laity sitting in the pews while the clergy did all the teaching and preaching, now the laity were leading the way in teaching and preaching, from the livingroom to the pulpit.

One of the questions I was asked came near the end of the interview. It was one of the “tough” questions I see now, that the other questions were soft compared to this one. “When did Martyn Minns beginning preaching against homosexuality in the pulpit?” the documentary makers asked me.

I envisioned then a man with an agenda, a man with a mission imposing his agenda on a blank group of laity, just sitting in the pews like sheep, like those stupid sheep just waiting to be pushed off the cliff. I think I nearly jumped out of my seat. “You’ve got it backwards,” I told them in effect. “It was the other way around. It was the laity, the people in the pews who were reading the scriptures and wrestling with some of the tough things in the scriptures – the people were going to the clergy and saying to them, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ The clergy were responding to the people,” I told them.

And that is The Grand Assumption in the Episcopal Church. It is a clerical-centered assumption, much like you would find in a doctor’s office. The doctor went to school, the doctor knows everything, and the patients just come, have their check-up, get the advice from the learned doctor, and go home full stop. The people are dependent on the clergy to know what’s going on, what’s wrong, what’s not wrong, and then they just carry on with their lives.

What an infuriating, pompous,and condescending presumption – and you see it throughout this article propagated by the Diocese of Virginia. The laity are assumed to be a bunch of stupid sheep blindly tossed off the theological cliff by shepherds with nothing better to do. So Bishop Lee turns around and inhibits and then attempts to defrock them all – completely missing the point that it is the people who spoke, the people who voted.

Clericalism and seeking to protect one’s collars and miters may be more at what is at stake here than any sort of theological disagreement. How dare the people actually read the Bible, ask questions, and seek to get those questions answered. Just come, do your prayer book thing, throw your money in the plate and for God’s sake, go home. Don’t actually think for yourself – or worse yet, vote.

You can read the entire article here. But watch carefully the tone and the use of The Grand Assumption.

LATER: One of the ways in which we see The Grand Assumption played out is with the use of the word “congregational” or “congregationalism” or worse, “Baptist.” To levy that word against Virginia Episcopalians or Anglicans is – at best – ironic. It is used by those who either don’t know their Virginia history or seek to appeal to the Virginia (and perhaps more widespread in the Episcopal Church) antipathy toward the “lower forms” of Protestants. It’s not a theological issue so much as a social one. The use of the word reminds us on one hand that we are not part of the great unwashed, we are higher on the social strata, for God’s sake we’re in the same denomination as the the Queen of England Herself. We drink our tea strained and out of the pot, thank you very much, and please pass the gin and tonic.

But on the other hand is it not also meant theologically -as a veiled way of pushing the laity back into their pews where they can sit idly by and wait to be told what to do – or better yet, what to think – next? The term “congregational” is usually said with a sneer or a sniff and it can be said by progressives and orthodox alike. Is it a power-word, class-based and clerically driven and before we used it again, we might want to pause think about just exactly who we are pointing at?

In Virginia there are long memories and when Episcopalians use the word “Baptist” it’s not said in tones of celebrating our fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus. Virginia Baptists, we might remember, used to be Anglicans. Yes, they share the same common heritage as today’s Virginia Episcopalians.

As we recall, Virginia did not see or hear from a bishop for the first two hundred years of the Church. Virginia Anglicans came and went without either a view or touch from a bishop. Some young men were sent back to the Old Country to be ordained, but as the years went by more and more clergy were Protestant immigrant ministers (in my family tree the Anglican clergyman in my family’s hometown was actually a French Huguenot Protestant minister who became the pastor of the Anglican parish in Buckingham Courthouse, Virginia). This arrangement suited folks until after the Revolution when the issue of bishops once again came to the front. The majority of those sitting on Anglican pews did not want bishops (and even those who did, wanted a severely limited in scope and power one – they just finished a War to get rid of the whole lot) and guess who the majority of those Virginia Anglicans became – well, you guessed it. It happened in Buckingham Court House and it happened in Fairfax Courthouse too. Even today you can drive by the site where Payne’s Church of Truro Parish once stood and that site is Baptist. The parish church in Buckingham Court House (which still stands and has others of my ancestors actually buried under it) has been Baptist for over two hundred years, though the building is clearly in the same design as old Payne’s Church was in Fairfax. They were Anglican.

So when we say “congregational” or “Baptist” to Episcopalians or Anglicans in Virginia, it carries with it two hundred years of cultural history. I remember being at a joint meeting of the Standing Committee, the Executive Board, the Deans, and the Presidents with the Bishops at Shrine ont and listening to a presentation by the Church Planting committee that the Diocese had bought an old Baptist Church in Arlington. After touring through the building after it was bought, they discovered that they now had one of the two largest built-in baptisteries in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and that the departing Baptists had left behind a giant supply of two things – old Baptist Choir robes (orange robes as I recall) and a complete set of Baptist Hymnals. It was asked with rolling eyes if anyone wanted the leftover items and I spoke up right away. “Truro will take the hymnals!” I said enthusiastically. I am not sure, even after two years, if I can adequately describe the response. Needless to say, I didn’t mention who had the other largest baptistery in the diocese.

The use of the word “congregationalism” or “baptist” is meant as a slur (whether the users realize it or not is another matter). It’s not a compliment, though especially socially. It’s to denote social status. One must say it with a sniff and a narrowing of the eyes. “Oh please, you aren’t one of them,” you can hear in the voice.

But it’s also meant as a way to keep the laity silent, to keep the laity as victims, to keep the laity from catching on and not putting their cash in the plate. The laity are meant to be seen and not heard and if the laity wake up – well, who’s fault is that? The clergy that woke them up. If they start reading the scriptures on their own, well, who’s fault is that? Real Episcopalians don’t know their scriptures – that’s for the clergy to know. If they do know, well, who told them to do it? Those damn clergy who forgot that it was their job to keep the laity in the pews smiling sweetly and passing the plate. Unseen forces are out there, sausage making and we just can’t have the laity getting their hands messy. And so the laity just sit there and smile, stupid sheep that we are until we wake up one morning and find out the thousands and thousands of the stupid sheep voted.

Laity equipped for ministry, for evangelism, for mission, to pastor, to teach, to preach, to lead others the Christ, is to truly be equipped to be the priesthood of all believers. The clergy’s job is to equip the laity to do the ministry (not the other way around).

This may have been the best kept secret in the Episcopal Church.

Please pass the tea and crumpets.