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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One more lesson from the history of Phillips Brooks

Okay, so today the liturgical calendar celebrates the life and ministry of Florence Li-Tim Oi, the first women to be ordained priest in the Anglican Communion, but before I say something about her, let me say this one last thing about Phillips Brooks, who had his day on the Calendar yesterday (January 23).

This essay by R. William Franklin, at the time, at least, associate for education at Trinity Church in Boston and dean emeritus of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, appeared in what I remember to be an early 2004 edition of "The Episcopal Times," the diocesan newspaper of the Diocese of Massachusetts.

As we consider the current "unpleasantness" in the church as well as the controversies now becoming more keenly focused on the consent process of the bishop-elect of South Carolina, it appears that Phillips Brooks, the best preacher of his day, has yet another sermon to preach to us about the church.

Things theological...
The Trials of Phillips Brooks
By R. William Franklin
From Episcopal Times of the Diocese of Massachusetts

A Massachusetts historian tells how conservative opposition to Phillips Brooks election as Bishop broke the heart of the greatest preacher of his time.

The election and consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire has been treated by many members of the Anglican Communion as an unprecedented controversy. Similarly, Episcopalians in the Diocese of Massachusetts with memories will recall that when Barbara Harris was elected bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in 1988, it was said by some that the Anglican Communion would be fractured forever. Those with very long memories indeed will know that the most controversial confirmation of an Episcopal election in New England was not in 2003 or in 1988 but in 1891, when Phillips Brooks was elected bishop of Massachusetts.

Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church in Boston, was elected bishop of this diocese by an almost unanimous vote of the Diocesan Convention on April 30, 1891. Brooks was descended from two old and distinguished New England families who had come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century. The stories of the Brooks and Phillips families were intertwined with the venerable institutions of this region: with the founding of Andover Academy, with the founding of Andover Divinity School, with Harvard, with the Boston Latin School, with the First Church of Boston and with St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston. Brooks was most famous for moving Trinity Church to Copley Square and for standing behind the building of the current church designed by H. H. Richardson.

He was related through family to Boston leaders in many spheres of activity, and he was beloved by the population of this state, partly because he was the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and also because he was the greatest preacher of his day. Moreover, he was deeply loved because of his friendship with the leaders and people of many denominations of the region, from Unitarian and Congregationalist to Roman Catholic. When he was elected, the Unitarians and the Congregationalists said, “At last we have a bishop of all of Massachusetts to whom we can look for leadership.”
And that was a problem. Though loved in Massachusetts, the confirmation of Phillips Brooks’s election by the other bishops of the Episcopal Church took longer than any process of confirmation in our church, then or now.

Then, as now, a bishop’s election had to be confirmed by a majority of the standing committees and then a majority of the bishops of the church. Usually this process took only a few weeks. In Brooks’s case, though a majority of the 52 standing committees quickly affirmed his election, the agreements of the 52 bishops took more than two months to come in. After weeks of a vicious campaign in the secular press and the church press, and a pamphlet war between church parties, a majority of bishops finally telegraphed the presiding bishop their positive votes in early July 1891, and on July 11 the presiding bishop announced to the world that Phillips Brooks would be consecrated as bishop of Massachusetts in Boston on October 15, 1891. In the end 30 percent of the bishops of the Episcopal Church voted against Brooks, refused to attend his consecration and were reluctant to acknowledge his authority.

What was the issue that bothered the opposing bishops? It was Brooks’s views on bishops, the apostolic succession and the validity of ministry in the American Christian denominations without bishops. Brooks believed that episcopacy was the best form of church government., but he regarded denominations without bishops as still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. Though he was sure that bishops are the successors of the apostles, he also thought that all Christians, by virtue of their Baptism, are the successors of the apostles, and he was reluctant to pass negative judgment on other denominations that were without the institution of episcopacy. He said, “We know where the Church is. It is not for us to say where the Church is not.”

The Catholic Revival within the Episcopal Church in the 19th century had made the identity of the bishop as successor of the apostles—and the consequent invalidity of non-episcopal churches—a core definition of the Episcopal Church’s identity in the United States. The Anglo-Catholics were convinced that the Episcopal Church possessed an “apostolic order” in its bishops that was key to its mission. To deny this would lead to disaster.

And so it was within the Anglo-Catholic party of the Episcopal Church that opposition to Brooks arose. A campaign to discredit him began, in which both the secular and the church press were willing accomplices. It was said that the Nicene Creed was not recited at Trinity Church, that Brooks had participated in an interdenominational service in a Congregational church on a Good Friday, that he had invited Unitarians to the Lord’s Table, that he himself had not been baptized in the name of the Trinity.

Of Brooks’s election George F. Seymour, the former dean of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote: “Satan has now insinuated himself in the very stronghold of Christianity, and sought to enter into a truce with its leaders and its militant hosts.” An anonymous circular was sent to the bishops saying a crisis had been reached in the history of the church, a fundamental question of maintaining the faith pure and undefiled had been raised and no one could foresee “the horrible consequences if Dr. Brooks were confirmed as a bishop.”

A Roman Catholic priest, formerly a Baptist minister, published a pamphlet that said that by electing Brooks “the Episcopal Church is yielding to the rationalistic and agnostic tendencies of the age to a deplorable extent….the surging tide of infidelity will soon destroy it.”

In fact, Brooks’s views of the apostolic succession and of our relations with other denominations eventually did win the day. They stand behind the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, our key ecumenical charter confirmed by every General Convention of the Episcopal Church since the 1890’s, and formulated by Brooks’s Massachusetts friend William Reed Huntington. Brooks’s regard for the ministerial authenticity of non-episcopal churches has now been realized concretely in our full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Yet Brooks’s victory was won at great personal cost. He was humiliated by the press campaign. He refused to acknowledge it by never uttering one public word of self-defense. Brooks remained consistently silent through the 10 weeks of the negative campaign, explaining nothing, giving no answers to defend his positions, making no apologies, no pledges. But privately he was devastated: “We have talked of the old days of witch trials and torture chambers and patted ourselves on the back and said—those things were in the days of our fathers. But scratch us a little and the medieval temper comes freely back to the surface.”

Worn down, he was dead 14 months after his consecration. As the news of his passing spread, the city of Boston came to a standstill. For in a somber generation, bowed down by the terrible losses of the Civil War, he offered Christian hope, his own enchantment with Scripture and the possibility that people of faith might stand together. It is through such vision, and at such a cost, that Christian progress is made.

R. William Franklin is associate for education at Trinity Church in Boston and dean emeritus of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

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