Bishop Pike and a new kind of church in America

For the national news media, Eugene Carson Blake’s sermon at Grace Cathedral (December 4, 1960) was a major story to be reported as quickly as possible. So too for the Christian Century, the most important journal of opinion in American Protestantism. It took a couple of weeks, however, for editor Harold E. Fey to bring his editorial correspondence into print. In the same issue of his journal (December 21, 1960), however, the article that generated an even greater response was Bishop James A. Pike’s contribution to the Century’s series “How My Mind Has Changed.”

Although the article—“Three-Pronged Synthesis”—had been written and scheduled before the Blake proposal and its impact could have been anticipated, its appearance in tandem with the event at his church was providential. Unlike Blake, who continued at the center of the Consultation on Church Union, Pike was not a member of his church’s delegation. In his Century essay, however, he advocated ideas and practices which were to be at the center of the debates that were to come.

“As to church unity,” Pike wrote, “I am impatient with the snail-like progress on the national level in discussions of various joint committees. Hence I have tried to make every breakthrough I could, in affiliation, in relationship.” An example was his extending of Episcopal orders (ordained status) to the Methodist chaplain of Mills College across the Bay in Oakland, who is “still a good Methodist.”

The second example was eucharistic hospitality. “I believe that the Holy Table is not an Episcopal Table but the Lord’s Table. I have told my pastors that they can announce that adult communicants of other communions who agree that God in Christ really acts in the sacrament (as most of the principle traditions really affirm) and who (like Episcopalians also should) repent of their sins, may be admitted to Holy Communion.”

At that time, I was a doctoral candidate in Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion and on a few occasions attended Holy Communion at Grace Cathedral. The worship bulletin extended this invitation, and years before this kind of hospitality had become common practice I experienced brief moments of inclusion in an extended family that I had never known.

Acknowledging that “denominational guardians of tradition” in his church and others did not like this kind of ecumenicity, Pike then declared: “I shall go on doing the best I can to affirm the fact that all baptized Christians who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are members of the holy catholic church; and if our national bodies can’t grasp this fact, we shall still do our best in the diocese of California to operate on that principle.”

Pike also spoke to the issue of bishops in the life of the church, advancing a point of view that expressed much of the spirit of Blake’s proposal concerning the kind of episcopal office the united church would include. “I’m not prelatical,” Pike wrote, but “I do believe in the experience through most of the centuries and at present in 90 per cent of the whole Christian church of a pastor pastorum. I try to be a good pastor to my 150 clergy families. I do not see a similar officer for the churches not having bishops. There is something existential about this that makes me feel that there has been a divine wisdom in the continuity of the episcopate—not only for pastoral reasons but also in terms of a witness to the fact that the church is a body, not simply a committee of like-thinking people.”

“I just know that there is something different about the relationship I have to my job and to my mission and to my clergy than a transferable and re-electable executive secretary has.”

Pike concluded his essay by declaring (using phrases from his church’s vocabulary) that he was more broad church than he had formerly been in that “I know less than I used to think I knew; I have become in a measure a ‘liberal’ in theology.” He was also more low church “in that I cannot view divided and particular denominations as paramount in terms of the end-view of Christ’s church, and I do regard the gospel as the all-important and as the only final thing.” He was also more high church “in that I value the forms of the continuous life of the catholic church as best meeting the needs of people and best expressing the unity of Christ’s church. These forms include liturgical expression and the episcopate.”

Although many people were deeply distressed by this essay, others found it to be a way of anticipating the future. In more ways than anyone at that time could have anticipated, Bishop Pike and his community of believers in Northern California were forerunners of the church that the Consultation on Church Union would try to bring into being.

Note: The image is taken from David M. Robertson’s book A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike (Alfred A. Knoff, 2004).

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