In the extended online interviews for “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” this week, Bishop Duncan of The Common Cause Partners states:
The last time that Episcopal dioceses separated from the Episcopal Church was in the American Civil War. Nine dioceses actually separated for a period of years. When the war was over the Episcopal Church came back together. There was an important social issue, I mean the whole issue of slavery divided the nation. The North and the South were divided. When the issue was settled the church came back together. Where we are right now is seeing the church moving in two distinctly different directions on issues of Christian morality quite different than the slavery issue.
Bishop Duncan’s account is telling both for what he omits and what he includes. First of all, from The Episcopal Church’s perspective, those southern dioceses were not “separated” — their bishops were “absent” but the roll was still called down yonder wherever the General Convention met.
More importantly, the rationale given for the separation by the separationists was the importance of defending the integrity of the national church. Since the Confederacy was a new nation, it was necessary for a new national church to be constituted for this new nation — just exactly as it had been “necessary” for the The Episcopal Church to separate from the Church of England at the creation of the United States, as the preface to our first BCP notes. Civil War veteran chaplain, and historian of The Episcopal Church, Archdeacon Charles C. Tiffany recorded the actions of the first Confederate Conclave:
It was unanimously resolved that the secession of the Southern States from the United States, and the formation of the government of the Confederate States, rendered necessary an independent organization of the dioceses within the seceded States. (496*)
So the reason for the “division” in the church was not disagreement over slavery, but the concept of the integrity of a national church — the very thing Duncan’s movement contradicts. To our shame, slavery was not the issue that “divided” the church — the church had, on the contrary, refused to take a national position on slavery in the interests of keeping the peace. As Tiffany put it,
The Episcopal Church as an organization had, from the beginning, determined to keep aloof from party politics, and, more fully that other ecclesiastical bodies, had done so. Her membership was very varied among the influential classes of society. Many of the distinguished statesmen of all parties were of her communion. They acted in their several political spheres as citizens and as churchmen, neither gave nor withheld their countenance in political action. The triennial meetings of the General Convention had made the clergy and laity of the North and the South familiar and friendly with one another. The sectional institution of slavery, which occasioned the secession movement, had not been made the subject of general ecclesiastical legislation. It was left to the regulation of the dioceses in which it existed. (494)
Thus, by allowing for local option on the question of slavery, The Episcopal Church was enabled to remain united, until the matter boiled over in the secular arena.
Finally, it is fascinating to me to see that Bishop Duncan appears to think that our present divisions over sexuality are of quite a different moral significance — and obviously far more important — than the question of slavery. It seems to me that this sad past chapter of our national history offers little to support his present pressure for division.
Tobias Haller BSG
*The citations from Charles C. Tiffany come from his History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, 1895.