Sunday, February 15, 1998

PECUSA Incorporated: What’s in a Name?

PECUSA Incorporated: What’s in a Name?

IN OUR age of bureaucracy, we accept the inevitability of acronymns and nicknames. Imagine, for instance, "AP reports that HHS is using the IRS to get after deadbeat dads." Unfortunately, the Church bureaucracy is no different. Imagine again, "TLC complains that the CDO office at 815 is sharing private information with the PB."

Now reforming Episcopalians have gotten into the act. Let’s see: what’s the difference between the AAC (American Anglican Council), the ACC (Anglican Consultative Council), and the ACA (Anglican Church in America)? How in the world is the average Episcopalian to keep ESA, EU, First Promise, PECUSA, ECUSA, DFMS, straight? And does it matter? What’s in a name anyway, especially an abbreviated one?

An overview

Let’s get an overview of the situation. After the American Revolution, it looked for a time as if the Church of England would let the Anglican tradition die rather than provide it with a bishop. In an end-run of Mother Church, American Anglicans got two bishops ordained, Samuel Seabury and William White. Under new bishops, the Americans founded a new church in 1789, "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A." This new body, the first independent Anglican church, claimed to uphold the Protestant faith "without intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship" (Preface to the BCP, page 11).

In 1835, the General Convention adopted a new name, "The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A." This new name expressed the idea that the whole church was called to mission and evangelism both at home and overseas. This name also became the official name of the Church (hence DFMS). Despite the official name, the American Church was regularly called PECUSA during most of its history, even in official church canons and publications. In the 1970’s, however, the General Convention, presenting the Church as a bridge between catholic and Protestant, dropped the name "Protestant" and began referring simply to the Episcopal Church or ECUSA.

It was in this context that PECUSA, Inc. came to be, and at this point ironies abound. An Anglo-Catholic bishop (William Wantland) decided to incorporate legally the name of the Protestant Episcopal Church U.S.A. Then the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA (DFMS), who had shown nothing but hostility toward evangelical Protestant "literalists" and who had not used the name PECUSA for years, decided he wanted the name back!

The Board of PECUSA, Inc. has refused to abandon the name. Lawsuits may follow (we hope not), but it looks like PECUSA, Inc. is a done deal.

So what does one make of this new entity? Here opinion divides. Some biblically-minded Episcopalians feel that the incorporation of PECUSA, Inc. was devious and that it will prove a distraction and public relations disaster in the wider debate within the Episcopal Church. Others see it as a bold and necessary act which symbolizes the seriousness of the Church’s identity crisis better than any official statement can. "It’s a junkyard dog growling at those who would say the church is not in crisis," says one supporter.

PECUSA, Inc.has already been labeled "schismatic" by revisionists in the Church. And even supporters have spoken of it as a "lifeboat," tethered to the ship but capable of being launched. Their claim of course is that the very name is a sign that they stand in continuity with the classic Reformation Anglican faith. But then virtually every "continuing" church makes a similar claim.

The AAC and PECUSA, Inc.

Encompass is giving coverage to PECUSA, Inc. and the sister movement "First Promise" because the question immediately arises: what is the relationship of these two groups to the American Anglican Council. Are they look-alikes? Are they competitors? Here are some observations. The AAC Board has stated: "We commend the First Promise Statement and stand with its signers and encourage them in their bold witness to the Faith."

The Board has not endorsed PECUSA Inc., as it is neither a movement nor an affiliated ministry. Bishop Alex Dickson serves as Vice President of AAC and a Board member of PECUSA, Inc., and Bishop Wantland is on the AAC Council of Bishops. AAC President James Stanton was incorrectly reported as being an officer of PECUSA, Inc. and has stated that he does not intend to be involved with it.

The AAC is building a grass-roots network of Episcopalians, many of whom are just waking up to the dangers to the Church from the revisionist agenda. As an "umbrella" for affiliated parishes and ministries, the AAC tends to be cautious about requiring of its members "either/or actions." Thus, the AAC calls Episcopalians to disassociate themselves from unbiblical teachings and practices, whereas "First Promise" signers have declared that those who purvey those false teachings and actions have put themselves out of communion with the body of believers.

The AAC’s strength has been the support of many bishops and its links with overseas bishops of the Anglican Communion. American bishops are cautious, particularly prior to the July Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, about organizations that appear to threaten the unity of the Church. On the other hand, some overseas bishops place faithfulness to biblical truth as a higher priority than institutional unity. "First Promise" rectors are reflecting the views of conscientious parishioners whose denominational loyalty is much weaker than that of clergy and who ask why they should stay in such a messed-up church.

What’s in a name? Who knows? Maybe PECUSA, Inc. will fold and become a tiny footnote of Episcopal Church history. Maybe it will be the lifeboat ferrying folks from the DFMS Titanic. In an August editorial, I noted: "There come times in the history of God’s people when, under divine judgment, legitimate authority breaks down and groups of believers must fend for themselves." In such a time as this, we must be slow to judge, quick to forgive, and ever praying for the unity of the Spirit and bond of peace that unites those who hold the faith of Christ Jesus.

This appeared as an editorial in Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council in February 1998. PECUSA, Inc. unravelled as a scheme shortly thereafter.

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