Divided We Stand: A History of the Continuing Anglican Movement. By Douglas Bess. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2006. 291 pp. $20.95 (paper).
“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us…” (Luke 1:1, NKJV). Those words have never been applied to the Continuing Anglican Movement. In truth, few have taken in hand a narrative of the Continuing Movement, which represents the second significant splintering of the US Episcopal Church (after the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the 1870s). A priest within Independent Catholicism named Douglas Bess undertook the project in the early 2000s, which is an important detail, because this work represents a mid-life presentation of the Continuing Movement.
Bess presents his objective in the first sentence of the Introduction:
This book examines the history of a relatively small movement of Episcopalian dissidents who, during the last decades of the 20th century, withdrew from the institutional church in order to form independent ecclesiastical bodies. (11)
Bess sets his stage by taking the reader back to the post-WWII era. In a period of little more than a decade, the Episcopal church (PECUSA, following Bess’ usage) grew to its numerical apex, recorded in the 1960 US census. Yet the church, like the culture at large, was changing rapidly in ethos. Bess argues that a tipping point, at least in the minds of his subject, was PECUSA joining the National Council of Churches. Bess asserts that the belief of the Continuing churchmen was that the mostly negative influence of the National Council of Churches served as a catalyst for PECUSA to tolerate and promote “political or theological radicalism, ordaining women to the priesthood, [and] improperly revising the 1928 Prayer Book” (12). He then makes some comments about how difficult it was to obtain usable data for the book before explaining that his feeling, as he did his research, was that the self-assessment of the Continuing Movement is wrong. He characterizes this self-assessment as a mentality that power-hungry, dishonest, and sometimes clownish bishops were the main source of problems. It is Bess’ contention that a select group of wealthy and influential laymen were equally destructive to the project of Continuing Anglicanism.
The book divides fairly evenly into two halves: Chapters 1-6 and 7-13. The first six chapters discuss many topics. Chapter 1 outlines the problems within PECUSA and each small step that made the Continuing churchmen concerned. Chapter 2 tells the story of James Parker Dees and the Anglican Orthodox Church, while making some unflattering observations about the South in the 1960s. It is Bess’ contention that the segregation issue made Southern churchmen more amenable to breaking away from PECUSA. (This is not entirely unfair, as looking at a church locator for most Continuing jurisdictions will reveal a disproportionate concentration in Southern states to this day.) Chapter 3 discusses several other attempts to form groups in the 1960s.
Chapter 4 proceeds to the 1970s, when activity really began to pick up. Bess discusses the “Philadelphia 11” (the first group of women ordinands in PECUSA). Chapter 5 is focused on the Congress of St. Louis. Here, Bess begins to outline some of the obsessions of the Continuing Movement, specifically valid episcopal consecrations and holy orders. Intertwined with this discussion is the rise of the retired bishop Albert Chambers, who came to be a landmark for many Continuers. Also noteworthy is the division already present, as the several bishops who had been consecrated in the 1960s were not given the proverbial seat at the table due to a disdain for their holy orders. Bess implies throughout this narrative that the PECUSA House of Bishops was very weak in both of these decades. This half of the book closes out by discussing the original Anglican Church in North America—which may come as a surprise to some readers—the church which was formed after the Congress of St. Louis was given that name. Bess lays the groundwork for the second half by further discussing the divisions present within this new church (a familiar narrative, perhaps). But what united them? Bess enumerates uniform opposition to abortion, fornication, and the ordination of women and homosexuals to the priesthood as the unifying beliefs.
The Continuing Anglican narrative eventually always breaks down into the story of jurisdictions. This is true in Divided We Stand, as the second half of the book primarily tells the story of the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC). Whatever other jurisdictions are mentioned, and there are several, are mentioned in terms of how they relate to the ACC. Most of this material is a confusing web of names, both of churches and people. It is better for the reader to skim over this material and focus on the themes which recur. These are primarily issues of contention, such as parish transfers between jurisdictions and congregationalism. Also notable is how the Continuers sought to relate to other global Anglicans, or not to relate to them. For example, some Continuing bishops traveled to Lambeth in 1978 with hopes of being seated at the Conference—they were not.
There are several appendices to the book containing a variety of content. The first reproduces “The Affirmation of St. Louis.” The second more carefully defines the term “Southern Phalanx,” which Bess uses throughout the work to identify a significant group of people who were often vocal and sometimes agitators within the Movement. The third discusses “Episcopal Vagantes”: wandering bishops, usually of ill repute and lacking a recognizable church affiliation. The fourth is a lengthy table of abbreviations for various jurisdictions and para-church organizations. The last is chapter notes, often with interview material that was not used in the body of the text.
What are the weaknesses of the book? Bess interjects rather more commentary than is necessary. This particularly manifests in the open disdain he shows for bishops James Parker Dees, Anthony Clavier, and Louis Falk. And the strengths? Bess begins at the proper place and adequately examines the foundations that underpinned the Continuing Movement. His writing is methodical and organized.
Perhaps the most significant portion of the book is the Conclusion. It is set against some observations on the rise of the then new Anglican Mission (AMiA). Bess agrees with the perception that the Continuing Movement is “a failure at worst, a disappointment at best” (232). But he is astute in noting that there is a gulf between the people that formed AMiA (and the current ACNA) and the Continuing Anglicans which will be very difficult to bridge. This book should be read by those ACNA members who wonder why the Continuing churches have not gotten on board their ark, or who wonder what the future of their jurisdiction could be.