From a leading New York paper:
"The controversy is not a new one to the Episcopal church, but the present crisis has new elements of danger which seem to be fully realized by the leaders of the contending parties. Not the least of these dangers is found in the fact that a new church under the leadership of one who received his ministry and his bishopric in the old church, stands with wide open doors to receive the malcontents. Under these circumstances the religious world will look forward with great interest to the next triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, will will assemble a few months hence. Upon its action largely depends not only the future of the Church as a body, but the individual denominational relations of thousands of earnest Christians in all parts of the United States."
This is a quote from the Times about the Robinson controversy, right? Or maybe about the controversial Forrester Election in Michigan? Or about the schisimatic ACNA church attempting to get recognition? Wrong, wrong and wrong. This is a quote from the May 30, 1874 New York Tribune. (I've removed some wording from the original to make it more current - the original quote is here in footnote three.) The crisis referred to is the Ritualistic Controversy, and the schism cited is the Cummins Schism which created the Reformed Episcopal Church.
So what was this controversy that shook the church of the 1800's so much that a schism occurred and the Tribune questioned the future of the Episcopal Church? Ritualism was the descendant of the Oxford Movement, a movement within the Church of England that sought to restore the church to independence from the meddling of civil authority. The Oxford Movement moved to return the Church of England to a more catholic basis from the perceived protestant extremes of the times. Ritualism was the natural follow-up - if you restore catholic doctrine, should you not also restore catholic ceremonial? In many cases, this meant taking the ceremonial from the then-current Roman mass and tacking it onto Prayer Book liturgy - a somewhat strange fit. In England, this led to riots, legislation, and jailings.
In America, the effects of the Ritualist controversy were less pronounced. One reason for this is that the decision to adopt the Scottish eucharistic prayer for the first American BCP instead of the English one already put the American church on a more "High-Church" footing. The other factor was probably the fact that the American Church's hierarchy was always less monarchical than the Church of England's, so more diversity was tolerated. Nevertheless, by 1873, the Ritualist Controversy was at a head in the Episcopal Church.
What issues were specifically being questioned? There were two main theological issues and several ceremonial issues. The theological issues were:
1. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
Despite the positions of most of the Anglican Divines and Archbishop Cranmer himself, many in the Episcopal Church questioned the doctrine of the Real Presence, considering it too close to the Roman doctrine of Transubstantiation to be trusted. Ritualists fought against this memorialization and insisted that it was proper to adore the consecrated elements - indeed, the Prayer Book rubric that required the people to kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer seemed to command this. Some went to the extremes of Solemn Benediction, but most did not.
2. The doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration
An implied doctrine in the Prayer Book is Baptismal Regeneration, which means that baptism is really a sacrament and that when it is performed it is not simply a symbol, but a means of salvation. People who opposed this claimed that baptism was only a symbol.
The ceremonial issues included the use of incense, clerical vestiture beyond cassock and surplice, vested choirs, flowers and candles on the altar, making the sign of the cross, the use of crucifixes and processional crosses, and several other uses. These were referred to as "Advanced Uses."
To look at an example, we can turn to the tract that the quote from the Tribune above is drawn from. This tract, The Wisconsin Issue, by John B. Pradt, lays out the case that the Rev. Dr. James DeKoven, warden of Racine College, was a poor choice to be bishop of Wisconsin due to his "Romanizing Tendencies." What were these tendencies? He held the views of the Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration, and his chapel at the college included a processional cross, a vested choir, and flower arrangements. He also was known to hear private confession. On the basis of these, he was defeated in the Wisconsin election. At the General Convention in 1874, when the Bishop-Elect of Illinois, the Very Rev. George Seymour, was put forward for confirmation, the House of Deputies met in secret session for six days to discuss his qualifications. When he was denied consecration on the fourteenth day of convention, is was for "Romanizing Tendencies" similar to those that had caused DeKoven to lose the Wisconsin election. It is interesting that all of the "Romanizing Tendencies" that DeKoven and Seymour championed are now within the standard doctrine and practice of the Episcopal Church. Indeed, incense is now used at least occasionally throughout the church - something DeKoven thought was a little too advanced.
What does this teach us? First of all that today's hot issue is tomorrow's cause for puzzlement. Most of us cannot fathom denying consent to an episcopal election because the bishop-elect favors vested choirs or hears private confession. For those in the midst of this controversy, the very future and fidelity of the church was at stake. We can smirk, but only because we are not in the heat of it. I know that people on both sides of the issues that face our church believe that the very essence of the church is at stake, but is it really, or are we just elevating our own preferences and prejudices to a level that will cause amusement in 100 years?
Second, the idea that our current crisis is unique or worse than anything we've faced before is a product of our own obsessions. Although the numbers of possible schisimatics in our current situation is much higher than the Cummins schism, they pale in comparison to the Methodist schism after the American Revolution or the Puritan schism in England.
An article from the Religion News Service about the Forrester election states,
"At another time, a new bishop for a sparsely populated string of 27 Great Lakes parishes might have been the end of the story. But in the Age of the Internet, when all politics are global, it's just the beginning."
It's apparent from the stories of DeKoven and Seymour that this is a little overstated. The Episcopal Church has always been critical of those it consecrates as Bishops. Even before the Internet, the choice of a bishop could resound throughout the church and cause its governance to tie itself in knots. The Internet simply speeds up and democratizes that process.
So, without saying that the issues around Gene Robinson, Kevin Forrester, Same-sex blessings and the Anglican Covenant are of no importance, because they are, can we at least accept that they may not be as important as we think they are? Can we back off of the rhetoric of all or nothing? Can we take ourselves a little less seriously so that future generations don't giggle about our writings when they come across them on Project Canterbury? To quote blessed DeKoven - a confessor for toleration from a bygone time,
"Oh, let us beware of any lack of toleration! It enlists, even on the side of error, generosity, kindness of heart, largeness of thinking, and the love of truth. It stops freedom of utterance, the ready proclamation of belief, the due investigation of subjects. It drives away generous hearts, youthful enthusiasm, loving self-surrender. It narrows and belittles; and whensoever the Church of God surrenders herself to it, be it in never so small a degree, she forgets that she is the Bride of Him who made man in His own image, and the world and all things therein, no less than His Written Word, and herself whom He purchased with his own blood." (From here)
May we be the tolerant church he preached, but seldom experienced.