- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009



By William Murchison

Encounter Books, 25.95, 208 pages

Reviewed by Stephanie Deutsch

The majestic Washington National Cathedral styles itself “a house of prayer for all people,” but the worship there is unmistakably Episcopal. Funerals of statesmen, inaugural prayer services and other events of national importance, like the morning prayer and evensong that are celebrated daily for neighborhood faithful and tourists alike, follow the dignified rites and rituals of the Episcopal Church.

This was, at least nominally, the faith of three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Despite its relatively small number of adherents today (there are just more than 2 million members), the Episcopal Church has an establishment feel about it.

It is in deep trouble, however, according to William Murchison, retired nationally syndicated senior columnist for the Dallas Morning News and a frequent commentator on religious issues. Himself a longtime Episcopalian, Mr. Murchison sees the current travails of his church as part of “the ravages that modern times have wrought upon Christianity in the United States.”

He is not primarily concerned with and in fact scarcely mentions the potential schism as some dioceses separate themselves from the national Episcopal Church following the selection and ratification in 2003 of its first openly gay bishop.

Rather, his preoccupation is with the nature of the faith as it is practiced in the majority of, as he puts it, “mainline” Christian churches — by United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Congregationalists as well as Episcopalians.

In this slim book, Mr. Murchison argues that what is preached from many American Christian pulpits and recited at many American Christian altars has changed so profoundly that the very essence of the faith has been lost.

As Mr. Murchison sees it, today’s grave problems are an indirect result of one of American Protestantism’s finest moments — its engagement with the struggle to affirm civil rights and full equality for black people. He notes that in 1963, “10 Episcopal bishops and some three hundred priests and deacons accompanied [the Rev. Martin Luther] King” to the civil rights march on Washington.

He writes of Jonathan Daniels, a Northern Episcopal seminarian who marched with King in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, worked to integrate Selma’s Episcopal Church and was murdered in Alabama in 1965. He fails to note, though many readers will remember, that King’s last sermon, the Sunday before his assassination in April 1968, was preached from the pulpit of the Washington National Cathedral.

The unforeseen result of the church’s thrilling engagement with issues social and political as well as spiritual was, Mr. Murchison says, the intensification of “a habit growing already in theological circles — that of regarding the Bible’s prescriptions, and those of historic Christian theology, as subject to challenge and change as modern awarenesses blossomed.”

Hadn’t the Bible been used to justify slavery? Might not there be other ways in which traditional Bible-based teaching was no longer relevant? When the issue of the ordination of women arose as it did, hot on the heels of civil rights in the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, it was quite easy for the national Episcopal Church to discard the centuries-old proscription of females in leadership roles.

Conservatives complained, but the ordination of women was in keeping with the changes rapidly taking place in the larger culture. Similarly, as gays gained greater acceptance in American society, many churches and then the national leadership of the Episcopal Church moved to embrace them despite protests and, in some cases, secession by a vocal minority of members.

More and more, Mr. Murchison argues, the churches’ stance toward issues, especially in the area of sexual morality, abortion, marriage and divorce, has become indistinguishable from the world’s.

More deeply disturbing than these changes, though, was the profound damage done by the adoption in 1973 of revisions to the Book of Common Prayer, the work that has guided Anglican and Episcopal worship, with minor changes, since its composition in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. The revision, according to Mr. Murchison, was an “enterprise that has attracted too little attention from analysts of ‘the Episcopal crisis.’”

While some, especially older, parishioners complain that the new prayer book’s language lacks the beauty of the original, it is not primarily this undeniable loss that troubles Mr. Murchison. Rather, he sees in the revised prayer book a lowering of the “confessional temperature” of the original. In many cases, where the old prayer book scripted requests for relief from personal unworthiness, the new one prays corporately and obliquely.

“Sins had been spiritual and moral before. Now they were social and political,” Mr. Murchison writes. “They were not sins at all, in the proper sense, as pertaining to the human condition vis-a-vis God … all were sins against the Outcast, or the Downtrodden.”

The new prayer book, Mr. Murchison says, is tolerant toward the individual sinner while indicting society at large for a host of gross transgressions. “The Christian churches of the United States,” he writes, “grow tongue-tied at the notion of actually rebuking sins that lack a political foundation.”

Mr. Murchison raises more questions than he answers. He mentions that Episcopalians refer to the foundation of their theology as a “three-legged stool” supported by Scripture, tradition and reason but does not delve deeply into what the implications of, for example, a reliance on reason might be. His breezy tone and lively language are occasionally quite bizarre.

He calls the General Convention Social Program adopted by the Episcopal Church in 1967 “an ill-digested farrago of assumption.” He asserts that “few would stare with wild surmise if future historians should declare the civil rights revolution the central event of the American twentieth century.” He refers to “sexual interactivity.”

But these are quibbles. Mr. Murchison’s book is a cri de coeur from an orthodox, traditional Christian disgusted to see the faith he loves become indistinguishable from the coarse, wayward culture around it and “collapse … into the form of a blanket affording generic affirmation instead of highly nonaffirming truth.”

Whether these changes in Christian practice are follies, as his book’s title suggests, and whether or not they will prove mortal, and to whom, remain to be seen.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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