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Brittain, Christopher Craig
A Plague on Both Their Houses. Liberal vs. Conservative Christians and the Divorce of the Epis-copal Church USA.
London u. a: Bloomsbury T & T Clark 2015. XVI, 263 S. Geb. US$ 114,00. ISBN 978-0-567-65845-6.
Christopher Brittain is a Canadian Anglican theologian who is Professor of Social and Political Theology at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. His book A Plague on Both Their Houses is a study of the divisions between Anglicans that have taken place in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the United States as part of the wider divisions that have taken place within The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) and the Anglican Communion as a whole.
As he explains in the Introduction to his book, his upbringing in the Anglican Church of Canada meant that B. had »become acclimatized to being part of congregations and attending church synods where Evangelicals, Liberals and Anglo-Catholics would regularly clash over theology, liturgical practice, and the moral issues of the day« (3). This background, he says, has contributed to his bafflement over the divisions that have taken place within The Epis-copal Church and other churches in the Anglican Communion. »Having grown up all too aware of the differences in churches that nevertheless remained unified, it struck me that the reasons for the contemporary schisms in the church are not self-evident. 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?« (3) The research that led to his book was an attempt to find an answer to this question.
This research took the form of listening to the experiences of those involved in the division in the Diocese of Pittsburgh ›in order to better understand their concerns, stories, and ways of understanding their situation‹ (13). To enable such listening to take place B. undertook five research trips to Pittsburgh between July 2009 and February 2013 during which he interviewed fifty five individuals, undertook detailed studies of four congregations, and attended worship services, parish meetings and diocesan synods.
The book which has resulted from this research consists of eight chapters. The first chapter gives a brief introduction to the history of The Episcopal Church and suggests that a number of the contemporary tensions within that church have their roots in this history. Chapters two and three look at the reasons for the division in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and argue that the division cannot be seen simply as a split between ›liberals‹ on the one hand and ›conservatives‹ on the other. Chapter four focuses on four churches in Pittsburgh and »presents the stories of the members of these churches, particularly how the split in the diocese impacted on their lives and their congregations« (16). Chapter five examines the legal disputes over church property that have taken place as a result of the division of the diocese and looks at »how the members of the affected congregations conceive of these legal processes« (17). Chapter six looks at how new developments in communication tech-nology are influencing church conflicts in general and may have contributed to the divisions in Pittsburgh. Chapters seven and eight conclude the book by giving a theological analysis of the findings of B.’s research.
In these two chapters B. contends that the heart of the division in Pittsburgh between those who decided to leave The Episcopal Church and who became part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and those who decided to remain in The Episcopal Church lies in two different views of the nature of the Church. In his words: »The basic distinction I observed can be loosely described as the difference between a vision of the church as ›pure‹ or ›holy‹ and one that accepts that the present church might be sinful but nevertheless takes comfort in the promise of God’s grace. The former model encourages uniformity in belief and practice; the latter emphasizes forbearance, hospitality and forgiveness« (200). B. reflects on these two contrasting visions of the Church in dialogue with two prominent Anglican theologians, John Webster and Ephraim Radner, and concludes that we should accept both of them rather than choosing between them: »in my view, the way to faithfully respond as Christians to the strong binary oppositions that are confronting us in the current historical moment is to embrace both poles of the dualism. If asked to choose between a pure and holy vision of the church and an image of the church as sinful and broken but graced by God, I will choose both« (218).
Applying this argument to the current divisions in the United States, B. goes on to argue that »when confronted by a demand to choose between the weaponized ecclesiologies that fuel the war between the ACNA and TEC, Anglicans and Episcopalians should refuse this false choice and adopt both visions of the church simultaneously. Instead of choosing between a vision of the church that is holy and pure and a vision of a sinful but graced church, both of these poles can be claimed as part of what the fullness of the church embodies« (234).
As B. sees it, if they are to flourish those in TEC and ACNA need to move beyond the polemics of the past and learn from the strengths of each other’s ecclesiology:
»The churches of TEC need to hear ACNA’s call for a renewed commitment to theological reflection, biblical study, and mission, which is embodied in their vision of the church as something called to holiness and purity. For all that TEC is to be appreciated for its hospitality to diversity and to the free exercise of thought, diminished theological rigour and depth of commitment threaten to fester within its congregations.
At the same time, the ACNA’s celebration of orthodoxy and moral superiority has yet to confront the problem of difference, and its frustration with those who are less enthusiastic about their priorities has fostered widespread resentment. For this reason, the ACNA has much to learn from a vision of the church that recog-nizes that, as the Body of Christ, the church is and will continue to be broken, as it inhabits a world of sin. The ACNA’s resentment therefore needs to be interrupted, just as TEC’s embrace of diver-sity requires a deeper engagement and concern for the call to live for the Gospel« (236).
A Plague on Both Their Houses is helpful in allowing the voices of those involved in the divisions in Pittsburgh to be heard. It is also helpful in reminding us how painful the division there was (and still is) and that the division was a complex event that cannot rightly be viewed as a simple split between liberals and conservatives.
Where the book is arguably less helpful is in its focus on dif-ferent ecclesiologies as being at the heart of the division in Pittsburgh. B. fails to show that those who joined ACNA were moti-vated by a desire to see a church that was free from sin or that they rejected the idea of the grace of God working through human brokenness. What the evidence shows they did want, and that they felt the Episcopal Church no longer provided, was a church that was committed in its teaching and practice to a biblically faithful understanding of theology, Christology, soteriology and sexual ethics.