frgavin on May 31st, 2010

by Brian McGregor-Foxcroft
Special to Virtueonline
May 30, 2010

This is a cautionary tale. It’s one that’s been told many times before, but rarely, if ever, listened to. It might even be appropriate to begin it with: Once Upon A Time, for there is an element of fairly tale about it, except that it lacks a happy ending. It’s a tale that is applicable on both sides of the North American border, and is now playing itself out in the Anglican Communion in the most bizarre ways imaginable.

My story begins with an Anglican Diocese located in the upper left hand corner of the North American map, in place called British Columbia. To be more precise, the actual location is on Vancouver Island, in the Diocese of British Columbia.

This is not just any old Anglican Diocese; this is a diocese with some pedigree in Anglican circles, as a visit to its lovely gothic-style cathedral in Victoria demonstrates. There one will find direct connections to Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, London in its furnishings and commemorative plaques.

The mother church in England showed great interest in the founding of this diocese, and a great deal of money and moral support from the old country was used to help build it. Indeed, the diocese, which includes the whole of Vancouver Island, and some of the smaller outlying islands, boasts some of the loveliest little parish churches in Canada. Tragically, some of these beautiful little churches are facing closure due to diminishing numbers.

The diocese was established in 1859, and it initially encompassed the whole of the geographical province of British Columba. Its first bishop was the godly George Hills, a graduate of Durham University. In 1859, with funding chiefly provided by the Baroness Angela Burdett-Couttes, the consecration of Hills as bishop of the new diocese took place in Westminster Abbey.

One of the co-consecrating bishops on that day was Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, the third son of the famous Evangelical social reformer William Wilberforce. Hills was a dedicated and ambitious missionary bishop, with a single-minded ambition to build his new diocese, and only later, when his wife’s health began to fail, did he retire and return to England. But by then he had built a strong and lasting legacy for the Anglican folk of Canada’s western most settlement.

An early newspaper account of Hills and his work observed: “He could create enthusiasm in his workers and draw out their strong affection. This was partly due to his fine presence, his magnificent voice and his rare power of conversation, but chiefly to his wonderful energy, his great gifts of organization, and his unwavering faith that if a work was God’s He would make it grow in His own time” ( I draw everyone’s attention to the last part of that statement, for it is in stark contrast to what follows.

After Hills the diocese enjoyed a number of able and gifted leaders, and had in its service some very orthodox and gifted clergy. Hills had set a pattern of high churchmanship in the diocese which was still fairly strident into the early 1980s. There was, of course, a liberal element in the diocese, but it was not strong enough in its leadership to have an impact.

The change, when it did come, came not from inside the diocese, but was imposed from the national level, with the successive elections of more and more liberal primates, starting with Ted Scott in the 1970s down to the present day.

These new men were bent on promoting a more progressive agenda, and the ordination of women was at the top of their list. Voices of protest in the Diocese of British Columbia were very loud, and indeed, the diocese initially led the charge against such innovations. Unfortunately, as the old guard slid into retirement, the new men, led by more liberally progressive bishops and clergy took control of the diocese’s agenda.

From that point onward the conservatives were forced to fight a rear-guard action, which finally fizzled out with the quite recent resignations of the diocese’s more conservative clergy; some of whom took their entire congregations with them.

The Diocese of British Columbia is shrinking at an exponential rate. It currently lists its membership on paper at about 13,000 people, in about 55 parishes (less now, since the announced closure of approximately one quarter to one third of them).

The diocese has been bleeding members for the last couple of decades, and this has become a flood with several of its more conservative and financially solvent parishes defecting to other Anglican-style jurisdictions. Money issues are pressing in upon the diocese, which has forced the bishop to cut services, parishes, and staff levels.

Two fixtures which fell victim to the cuts were the British Columbia Diocesan Post, which lost its full-time paid editor, and the Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi, the special Congregational Development Officer that the diocese hired to help it find solutions to its woes. One would think that with such stark and unmistakable handwriting on the wall, the bishop, clergy, and people would be down on their knees petitioning God to sort them out and save them.

But no, this has not been the response. Instead, what found its way to my mailbox was one of the most incredible issues of the British Columbia Diocesan Post I have ever seen. I did a double take, rubbed my eyes, looked at the headlines again, read the items, and still couldn’t believe what I was reading.

The diocese is in crisis mode, and the national Anglican Church is collapsing under the weight of its own liberal agenda, and what does the May, 2010 issue of the British Columbia Diocesan Post dish up? On the front page the headline reads: “Weary of wondering about Diocesan Transformation? Reach for some poetry to transform your weariness.”

This is followed by several pages of poetry, written, presumably, by members of the diocese. But that was just the appetizer. The main dish came in the form of Dr. Gary Nicolosi’s article entitled, “A Case for Open Communion,” in which he argues for a more open and inclusive use of the communion table, and in support of which he invokes the ghost of the colonial pastor, Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729), who was the creator and initiator of the Halfway Covenant (1662), and was the grandfather of the great colonial theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards.

For those not familiar with colonial church history, Stoddard’s Halfway Covenant was created in response to declining church membership in New England. In those days one had to be a baptized member of the church, and be able to give a personal account of salvation to receive Holy Communion.

But the descendents of early New England Puritan settlers seemed less inclined to be baptized or sign on to creedal formulae, and many felt that the profession of conversion was an unnecessary thing; therefore, they were not permitted full membership in the church. The open observance of sincere religion was waning, therefore a more liberal and open approach had to be taken to bolster church attendance.

The Halfway Covenant was proposed as a solution. But the more conservative and orthodox Congregational ministers, like Jonathan Edwards and the New Light movement, to which he belonged, were against such innovations; for such moves, they felt, left the church vulnerable to impure doctrines and practices.

To make a long story short, the Halfway Covenant was initiated by many New England Congregationalists, and this led to a theological war, and a church split, which left the Unitarians in a position to capitalize on and win the day. Unitarian theologians point to the initiation of Halfway Covenant in the colonial church as the defining moment in their denomination’s history.

For it freed them from creeds, confessions, and the rigid orthopraxy of orthodox Christianity. Under the current Unitarian Universalist system any and all persons, regardless of whether they believe or disbelieve are welcome to full membership in the church. Who dares to say that history doesn’t repeat itself (Ecclesiastes 1:9)?

Where is God in all of this? Where is the simple and honest faith of a Bishop Hills, who believed that, ” … if a work was God’s He would make it grow in His own time?” What we are left with is not prayer, repentance, and faithful waiting upon the Lord, but poetry and an open communion table, where everyone can gather together, Zen-like, in a huge circle and contemplate their belly buttons. It looks to me like full blown Unitarianism has finally arrived in the Diocese of British Columbia.

—–Brian McGregor-Foxcroft is a layman, a graduate of Regent College, Vancouver, and a former member of the Diocese of British Columbia.

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