Church History Lives! Especially in South Carolina

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ASCHNew Orleans–Meeting here over the weekend, the venerable American Society of Church History did, as usual, struggle a bit with its problematic name. But there’s good reason not to jettison it in favor of something more up-to-date.

Founded in 1888, the ASCH was for a long time the particular domain of white mainline Protestant males, many of them teaching at seminaries, whose dominant concerns were with “the church” in its Primitive state, its magisterial Reformation mode, and its North American establishmentarian condition. In the early days, membership was by invitation  only. Catholics and those belonging to other Christian streams–Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, the Black Church, etc.–were not in the club.

Over the years the society has opened up. You no longer have to be invited to join, and there’s even a Mormon contingent. A number of women and African-Americans have served as president. And the interests have broadened, not only over time and communities but also toward the spaces outside churches where Christianity is to be found.

So now and then it is proposed that the society unburden itself of “Church History” and choose a more commodious title, something having to do with Christianity in a broader sense. Don’t hold your breath. In her presidential address Saturday evening, Laurie Maffly-Kipp of the University of North Carolina argued that historians ignore the importance of the nitty-gritty of institutional church life at their peril. To understand the lives of Christians of the past, it’s critical to be able to reckon with the intensity of their commitments to the places where they worshiped, the organizations with which they spiritually identified.

episcopal diocese SCAnd not only Christians of the past. Last Friday, the breakaway Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina announced that it had filed suit against the national Episcopal Church (TEC) in order to retain its property. “This is an issue of religious freedom,” said deposed bishop Mark J. Lawrence.

Like our colonial forefathers, we are pursuing the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, not as it is dictated to us by a self-proclaimed religious authority who threatens to take our property unless we relinquish our beliefs. The actions taken by TEC make it clear that such freedom of worship is intolerable to them.

One might, of course, dismiss such a claim as hyperbolic. Surely a given bunch of buildings and bank accounts is not necessary to be able to practice your faith as you see fit. Isn’t this just another case of Episcopalians being too attached to the things of this world–and of schismatic leaders fearing that without those buildings and bank accounts their flocks will not follow them?

But in this vale of materiality, churches matter. And when the time comes to write the history of Episcopalians in the 21st century, Church Historians will be the ones who write it.