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Episcopal Extremists



To the editors:

I have a number of reasons for having been fascinated by Bryan Miller's article "Is Nothing Sacred?" [June 9]. Christened into the Church of England, I joined an Episcopal parish when I moved to the United States fifteen years ago. Since then I have attended both St. Paul's-by-the-Lake, home to many of the most committed adherents to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and St. Luke's Parish, Evanston, which combines incense, a boys' choir and the Great Litany with an ordained woman on its clergy staff. Throughout, as a student and now a professor of the history of the English language, I have watched the debate over liturgical language with close professional interest.

Ms. Miller seldom puts a foot wrong factually, although her depiction of the Church of England as adhering to the 1928 BCP will not ring true to those who have attended services in British churches during the past decade. She also achieves a kind of balance whose point-of-equilibrium, if you like, can be located in the opinions of moderates like the Reverend Gregory Norris or layperson Louise Gilliom. What I regret about Ms. Miller's article is the overall impression it creates of an institution in acrimonious uproar. Advocates for opposing extreme positions are quoted as calling one another "swine" and "fossils" (as extremists in all disputes are wont to do), but little space is devoted to the substantial, thoughtful and by no means uncritical silent majority.

The American Episcopal Church is not a "church-by-law-established." When I first came to Western Massachusetts from a small British parish, I was struck most forcibly not by doctrinal or linguistic differences but by the essentially democratic and open manner in which issues were approached and resolved. Each parish employed its own rector, set its own budget, and retained (by comparison with its British counterpart) great autonomy in liturgical affairs. (Such a thoroughly American approach may have a great deal to do with the tendency that Miller finds so baffling for US Presidents to find Episcopalianism congenial.) It does some disservice, I think, to the truth to translate vigorous debate preceding democratic and prayerful decision-making into mere mud-slinging. As Fr. Norris is quoted as remarking rather wistfully, "it's painful to change"; the pain is not experienced as acutely, however, by all members of the Church as by some of those with whom Ms. Miller spoke.

T.R. Austin
Highland Park

Bryan Miller replies:

Although I have not lived in Britain for well over a decade, on a visit a couple of years ago I attended several Sunday services and a half dozen evensongs in various churches (it was Lent, and, as a professional singer, I like to catch other church musicians' acts). Every one of them used traditional language and music. Maybe I was just lucky.

I do not find it the least bit baffling that U.S. presidents (and others of note) should be Episcopalians. I do find baffling Mr. Austin's remarks about "democratic and prayerful decision-making." There has been precious little about this whole process that had anything democratic about it; the changes have largely been imposed from above, and against, as I noted in my article, the expressed wishes of the majority of Episcopal laypeople. And does anyone really think that prayer had anything to do with any of this?

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