How do you characterize a denomination that is doctrinally indifferent, liturgically lush, culturally elite, politically conservative, socially liberal, and which Thomas Merton once described as little more than an "atmosphere"? Hein and Schattuck have risen to the challenge with this lively, well-balanced and readable book. Part One is a history, beginning with the denomination's Anglican origins in Henry VIII's divorce and tracing its American development up through its election of an openly gay bishop in 2003. It is never quite made clear whether this influential denomination, which has furnished a disproportionately large share of American political and cultural leadership, is actually leading or merely blowing with the wind. This question arises not only with the denomination's vanguard positions on contraception, civil rights, ordination of women and gays, but in its perennial reluctance to address the difficult issues attendant to its Anglican origins, such as William Cobbett addresses in his history of the Reformation in England. Part Two, the largest part of the book, offers a stunning list of biographical profiles, including Robert E. Lee, J.P. Morgan, George Whitefield, and many less-known churchmen, women leaders, and missionaries. Recommended for general readers. Despite one or two historical reservations, a darn good read.
Hein and Shattuck have written a highly readable and inclusive book on the history of the Episcopal Church from the early days at Jamestown, Virginia to the present day. They have divided the book into two sections; the first section covers the broader history of the church while the last section offers mini-biographical sketches of many influential men and women in the Episcopal Church.
Before it became the Protestant Episcopal Church, it was originally the Anglican Church, under the control of the Church of England before the American Revolution. The Episcopal Church is still part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but no longer under direct control from England. The Anglicans were better established in parts of the southern colonies like Virginia than they were in New England, which was by and large inhabited by colonists who have been labeled either as Puritans or Separatists, those who either had cut off connections with the English Church or wanted to purify its teachings. With Britain's defeat after the American Revolution, American Anglicans had to struggle to survive as a vibrant, active denomination, eventually reorganizing into the Protestant Episcopal Church during the 1780s and 1790s.
The Episcopal Church, like many other denominations, has faced many challenges both external and internal. The Civil War briefly divided the church along sectional lines, social and economic conditions challenged the church to respond to those in need, leading to increased activism on the part of many church leaders, and contentions between conservative theology and more liberal, modernist views have threatened the unity of the church. Such issues included the infallibility vs historical criticism of the Bible, leadership roles for women and blacks in the church, as well as the more recent debates over the issue of homosexuality.
Throughout this book we also learn about many important leaders in the church including ministers, bishops, missionaries, educators and lay people. This second section of the book, which is somewhat longer than the first, provides these numerous mini-biographical portraits of influential men and women in the church's history. Many of these individuals I had never heard of, so for me it was quite an education. I suspect many Episcopalians would enjoy learning about some of these leaders who have shaped our church from colonial days to the present.
Personally, I would have liked the first section on the overall history of the church to have been longer. I felt some topics and periods in the church's history were a bit too brief or summarized, like the church during the Civil War period. Other than this minor complaint, this was an excellent book and the authors deserve our thanks. Their research was thorough and their bibliographic section is also great in terms of providing a useful listing of other books and sources on various periods in the church's history.