A Plague on Both Their Houses by Christopher Brittain
By Matthew Maule
July 2, 2015
Christopher Craig Brittain's upcoming book A Plague on Both Their Houses: Liberal vs. Conservative Christians and the Divorce of the Episcopal Church USA ($112, Bloomsbury, July 30, 2015) examines the split of American Anglicans between the newly formed Anglican Church in North America and the historic Episcopal Church through the example of the diocese of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Brittain is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen and has a PhD in theology from St. Michael's College, University of Toronto; he is also an ordained minister in the Anglican tradition. His book provides and interesting and insightful look at the 2008 split within the diocese of Pittsburgh, but his conclusion ultimately fails to address the heart of the disagreement.
In preparation for this book, Dr. Brittain visited the two resulting dioceses from the 2008 split. He made five visits between summer 2009 and spring 2013. While he visited many churches and interviewed many people, his primary research centered on four congregations -- two remaining in the Episcopal Church and two joining the new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Of these, one in each category was a church that overwhelmingly decided either to leave or stay, while the other in each category had a divided congregational response to the separation.
The primary question the book seeks to address is, "If Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, Charismatic, and Liberal Christians could previously live together in the same churches, why did so many feel it to be impossible to do so in the current historical moment?" He denies that this conflict is simply the case of the Church being pulled into the culture wars or that the opposing sides can be clearly delineated "Liberal" and "Conservative."
He begins his book with a discussion of the history of the Episcopal Church, its struggles to assert itself as an American denomination, and the historic tension between Evangelical and High Church groups within the church. He examines the application of the terms "Liberal" and "Conservative" -- terms he ultimately finds unhelpful. He retells his interactions and interviews on both sides of the diocesan split, and chronicles the legal disputes and polemics that followed in its wake. These preliminary chapters are informative and helpful.
Dr. Brittain's conclusion, however, is unconvincing. After acknowledging that the split within the diocese of Pittsburgh is akin to divorce -- with all the bitterness that entails -- he continues to wonder why the split happened given the history of Evangelical/High Church conflict within the Episcopal Church. In the penultimate chapter he suggests two understandings of the nature of the Church that distinguish between Episcopalians and the members of the ACNA: Episcopalians view the church as "sinful and broken" yet still effective and members of the ACNA view the church as "pure and holy."
Despite hearing many members of the ACNA articulate this point -- he records their responses in his book -- Dr. Brittain insists on misunderstanding the problem. Members of the ACNA consistently told him that their problem with the Episcopal Church is primarily about the veracity of Scripture as a whole, and the veracity of the Gospel in particular. When high and prominent members of the Episcopal hierarchy are able to deny key, creedal elements of Christian teaching with impunity, the ACNA members felt that the Church was compromised. The ahistorical and anti-ecumenical approval of women's ordination and the continuously expanding acceptance of homosexual practice within the Episcopal Church were merely the straws that broke the camel's back.
Dr. Brittain ignores this argument, instead choosing to see the split as the result of a sort of puritanical element in the church that cannot live with sin. His solution is for the church to embrace both understandings -- that it is simultaneously pure and holy and sinful and broken. He admits that the Episcopal church is threatened by "diminished theological rigor and depth of commitment" but continues to chastise the ACNA for its "celebration of orthodoxy and moral superiority" and its failure to see that the church "will continue to be broken, as it inhabits a world of sin."
Dr. Brittain's conclusion is problematic because he misunderstands the nature of the Church. While the Church will always be full of sinners, it remains pure and holy through fidelity to the Gospel and by condemning sin and absolving the penitent. The ACNA's problem with the Episcopal Church is not the problem of sinners within the Church. It is the problem of a Church's having abandoned the Gospel both in its creedal sense -- that Christ rose from the dead and that salvation is found in him alone -- and in its teaching about what the Gospel means for Christian life.
Dr. Brittain fails to see that it is the Episcopal Church which is causing the schism, as members of the ACNA stand with the Church catholic both through history and today. The Episcopal Church's deviant theology places them in an extreme minority within those that claim the name Christian. It is they who are causing scandal and schism. Dr. Brittain's failure to consider the historic and transcendental nature of the Church, rather than seeing the Church as merely institutional, prevents him from properly understanding the split. While he is correct that many orthodox, Evangelical believers remain within the Episcopal Church, the trajectory of the denomination is clear.
Because Dr. Brittain does not understand the nature of the Church, he is unable to distinguish between the Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic tensions of the Episcopal Church's past and the tensions of today. The answer is simply that a tacit acceptance of clergy who deny significant portions of Christian creeds and the Episcopal Church's increasing celebration of homosexual practice stand as a novel challenge to the Church. Though the challenge is new, the answer is clear. The Church of Jesus Christ cannot abandon the Gospel if it desires to remain the Church. The Anglican Church in North America understands this.
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