Friday, June 23, 2006

The Episcopal Church and Plymouth Rock

As I’ve been mulling over the consequences of General Convention, and looking at what others have written about it, a thought struck me. There is a way in which both sides in the American church are reflecting our “Puritan heritage.”

Now, before someone jumps all over me to say they he or she is not Puritan, but their opponent is; or that reference to Puritans is offensive; let me say more about the source of the idea.

I’m not talking about the Puritans of history, but the Puritans of American civil myth. The “Puritan heritage” of America as I was taught it, long ago, was of a people who were oppressed because they were religious nonconformists (only later would I learn that they were non-Conformists), a counterculture group if you will, and so they were forced to flee, to find a safe place where they could build “the city on a hill.” I know that in recent years we’ve been much more aware of how they established their own conformity, and oppressed their own victims; but in my childhood the model of victims seeking religious freedom was what was taught. Now, remember, too, that the vocal participants in these arguments – on both sides - are my age, near enough, and rarely much younger.

Now, how does this play out? One set of neo-Puritans recapitulates that vision as they seek to purify the American mainline tradition, the received tradition in which they live – in this case, 20th century liberal theology based on trying to balance 19th Century modern theology with existentialism and Neo-orthodoxy. They don’t particularly want to go, but feel forced to flee to establish their own purified community of faith.

Another set of neo-Puritans (in this limited sense) recapitulates that vision seeking to purify the American evangelical tradition, the received tradition in which they live – in this case, American religious exceptionalism overlaid with 19th century evangelicalism and Biblicism. To do this they must flee from the larger community into the Episcopal Church as safe place, and seek to build in it the “city on the hill.” They want to live safely in their counterculture.

Both sides embrace their own awareness of being victims (and whether one agrees or not, both side do express that awareness) and their mission into the wilderness to create the holy city. Each alleges the other is allied with an oppressing establishment. Each feels threatened by displacement, being forced out, when all each wants is to live out the Christian faith as each sees it.

These difficulties are, perhaps, so very American in concept, at least within the Episcopal Church. We are all, I think, caught up in this reliving of a foundational American myth. I don’t think we really recognize how that has shaped both sides. I don’t think our colleagues around the world even have the thought that this might be how we see ourselves, whichever side we’re on.


Anonymous said...

Just as a note, historically speaking, the Puritans arrived and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was the Separatists - those wanting to separate from the Church of England - not the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock...

Marshall Scott said...

Well, thanks for the correction. I wondered about that, and almost made the correct citation. I succumbed to my sense that "Plymouth Rock" would gather more immediate attention than "Massachusetts Bay." I also wondered whether reference to Massachusetts might seem too suggestive, in light of recent events. Ah, well....