Revolution in the Ranks: Episcopalians and Social Activism

By Paul Buhle

Ten years in the making, this history details the remarkable evolution of an “Establishment Church” over the course of nearly three generations. Many history volumes can rightly claim to be comprehensive, many likewise to be well-written, but relatively few are truly thoughtful. Privilege and Prophecy: Social Activism in the Post-War Episcopal Church, by Robert Tobin, a U.S-born priest in the Church of England, with degrees from Trinity College Dublin, Oxford, and Cambridge hits all the high notes.

As the author explains, other denominations have considered themselves “establishment” for a variety of reasons, but only Episcopalians can claim lineage to the Church of England. Never mind that they separated themselves officially and inevitably in 1789. Still, the legacy persists and shapes the history to follow.

The rich history of Episcopalians from the nineteenth century to the Cold War is beyond the scope of this volume but nevertheless provides a useful backdrop. During the Gilded Age, the Establishment church, prominent across the strata of American wealth, power, and influence, seemed impelled to adapt to changing conditions rather than become increasingly irrelevant. Or rather, sections of the church adapted, often in opposition to the more conservative leadership of their denomination. Grinding poverty, the challenges forced by rise of labor unions, and the general social unrest in the last decades of the nineteenth century prompted the rise of the Social Gospel for Protestantism at large and, perhaps surprisingly, for Episcopalians in particular. Christian socialists, labor reformers, and anti-imperialists, Black and white, could be found in every progressive or reform movement across most denominations to follow.

The reigning conservative Episcopalian majority often held firm against these reformers. Still, the reformers’ status within the church positioned them, individually and institutionally, to exert considerable influence, and not only within the church. Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself of U.S.quasi-aristocratic lineage, famously deployed his privilege to direct great social changes and to effect the common touch that could reach across diverse populations with something more than noblesse oblige.

FDR’s unrivaled success, however, did not resolve the basic contradictions that are the heart of Tobin’s acute analysis. At General Conventions in the 1930s, progressive resolutions on a wide spectrum of topics, from labor to social welfare, passed easily, almost without dissent but also without much impact on congregations. The Second World War and the consolidation of anti-fascist sentiment prompted a sweeping convention report, A Better World for All Peoples (1943), that presented a vision of a postwar global transformation. Churchmen and women, directly and indirectly involved in the military struggles against fascism, insisted that Christianity at large now faced a major test. Paul Moore, Jr., William Wendt, Frank Sayre, Joseph Fletcher, and G. Paul Musselman, among others, sought to find the way forward, only to be met with considerable church opposition.

Part of the problem, Tobin explains, stemmed from a remarkable if temporary surge of Episcopal membership, leaving church officials struggling to provide fresh clergy and striving also for a doctrinal renewal suitable to the new times. It was too easy, according to critics like the increasingly prominent layman William Stringfellow, to confuse the prosperity and power of the Episcopal establishment with the reality of the society around it. Pro-labor, anti-racist clergy sometimes outraged high-born church officials and their prosperous congregations, especially in the South. The racism faced by Black Episcopalians at every level likewise underscored the urgency of reform and was also a major shortcoming becoming ever more marked. The fate of seminarian Jonathan Daniels, murdered in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 as he protected a Black civil rights activist, added weight to the charges.

As Tobin explains, reform-minded Episcopalians looked to the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as a proverbial Godsend. Paul Moore, Suffragan Bishop of Washington, D.C., and intimately close to the liberal seats of power, dramatically proposed that another Radical Reformation might be at hand. Meanwhile, and lamentably, the advance of the civil rights movement, especially in the South, deepened the gap between reformers and non-reformers, aka the wealthy, white, and comfortable. Conservatives would later blame activists for the decline in church membership, when Episcopal statistics merely mirrored those of other major denominations. Much later, charges against the late Paul Moore for sexual abuse of seminarians were seen by some to invalidate his activism.

Central to Tobin’s analysis is the impact of activism on theology to the point of redefining the meaning of Episcopalianism: the Movement became the Message. The civil rights struggle would naturally be seen, and not only in Southern congregations, as a test of Christian sincerity. Joining a picket line or sit-in had become as good, for many young Episcopalians, as attending church services, even perhaps better. Tobin offers a wonderful phrase about the younger generation: “they saw the church of their childhood as part of the problem with, rather than the solution to, what was wrong with the world.” (p.180). The large public role of Bishop James Pike, media star from the 1950s until his death, social movement leader and purported heretic within the church, dramatized the outreach of a leading personality and its complications, especially for older, theologically orthodox and politically conservative members.

Efforts to create and introduce new liturgies would inevitably prove traumatic to even many of the most well-intended priests: their way of thinking, deeply bonded to their way of speaking, would be thrown off balance and demand a major adaptation. The depth of struggle within the church hierarchy, according to Tobin, might be epitomized by the issues raised by women’s demands for equality in the church, and then for women’s ordination. The dramatic appearance of Pauli Murray, who attributed church attitudes to “blindness, lack of imagination and lack of experience” on the part of male leaders (p.195), drove the point home as early as the 1960s.  Anti-racist commitments earlier and gay inclusion later would prove less difficult, less divisive, but only by contrast. 

Tobin ends his narrative before the twenty-first century begins. He nevertheless drives home the significance of the persistent tension. In his final sermon, in 1989, Moore, by then Bishop of the Diocese of New York, urged his congregation to “liberate your thinking from the metaphysics of the past to a new dynamic of the Gospel.” (p. 251) As redeeming as this imperative sounds, a poll revealed that in 1980, 69 % of Episcopalians voted for Ronald Reagan and 60% four years later. Here is the nub of the problem. Near the end of the text, Tobin confronts the reality that the “reputation for being elite” (p.250) persists for the most obvious reasons: however much their numbers decline, Episcopalians, as a group, include many members of the upper crust. Even the best efforts to broaden the church and bring in others may appear to church members a presumption at best, prompting resentments and a sort of “institutional coherence” (p.250) that signals an unhappy stasis. And yet church life goes on. The one percent of the U.S. public now identifying as Episcopalian carries very considerable weight in private and public life, and the role of progressives in the church remains highly significant.

Paul Buhle was a sometime contributor to The Witness, long-time literary outlet of Episcopalian progressives. His sister is an active member of a progressive Evanston, Illinois, congregation.

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