Mark Tooley–the TEC Faith of the Genteel Virginia of the Past

Former U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, Jr. was buried on Saturday in Winchester Virginia after a brief funeral at Christ Episcopal Church, with which the Byrd dynasty was long associated. Presiding at the funeral was his former colleague retired U.S. Senator John Danforth, an ordained Episcopal clergyman who also presided at President Reagan’s funeral….

At the funeral at Christ Episcopal, Danforth, who said Byrd invited him to conduct his funeral several years ago, hailed Byrd for his “cheerfulness and civility.” The old Episcopal elite is largely fading from the scene, as that denomination becomes marginal, and its historic ethos, once rooted in Virginia’s socially stratified agrarian Tidewater, is mostly forgotten in the modern world of suburbs and megachurches.

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2 comments on “Mark Tooley–the TEC Faith of the Genteel Virginia of the Past

  1. New Reformation Advocate says:

    As someone who has lived in VA for a quarter century, I can recognize the “genteel” heritage that Mark Tooley is recalling with notable nostalgia. But the luster of that distinguished legacy has faded and virtually disappeared. I can scarcely recognize the Diocese of VA as it exists today; it’s so vastly different from the stalwartly traditional Episcopal Church I once knew.

    And yet the seeds of that fateful decline was always present, and we shouldn’t romanticize the past. There were pestilent weeds in the garden of that old aristocratic diocese all along, and I’m afraid that a great deal of it had to do with the cozy alliance between the leaders of “The Protestant Episcopal Church” (as it was then proud to be called) and the social, economic, and political elite in VA. For me, the prime illustration of how fatal that corrupting alliance was can be seen in how Thomas Jefferson was able to function for most of his adult life as a vestryman of some parish or other. That is, despite the fact that he wasn’t even a Christian, but rather a Deist who made no pretense of believing in traditional, orthodox Christianity and who openly scorned the notion of a Triune God, nonetheless Jefferson was warmly welcomed into the rarefied circle of those powerful men (and they were all men back the, of course) who handled the affairs of the Church. The reason why is obvious: Jefferson was of the right social class: wealthy, well educated, socially refined, and politically connected. That trumped his religious deficiencies by a country mile.

    The final irony was that Jefferson turned on the established state church after the Revolution was over, and he led the fight to dis-establish the Anglican Church in Virginia. On his tombstone at Monticello, Jefferson boasts of his three greatest accomplishments, and being President of the US or Governor of VA weren’t among them. Rather, Jefferson wanted to be remembered as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and as the founder of the marvelous university in Charlottesville that still treasures the buildings that he designed for UVA. But last and not least, he wanted to be remembered as the author of the Virginia Statue of Religious Liberty in 1785, that preceded the First Amendment in the national Bill of Rights by some four years. The sudden dis-establishment of the Anglican/Episcopal Church left it bankrupt and so weak that it almost completely collapsed.

    So yes, the problems with that grand old VA heritage go way back, long before the currently fashionable Liberalism took over TEC. The Byrd family was a noble family that in some ways does indeed embody well both the strengths and the weankesses of that long and strong alliance between Church and State in VA. But that era is over.

    I, for one, won’t miss it. The Christendom era is truly over, even in VA. Today, for the first time in roughly 1500 years, European-based Christianity has the chance to rediscover the vitality and authenticity of the pre-Imperial Church of the first several centuries, the Age of the Martyrs. To me, the gains, or at least the potential gains, outweigh the losses, but time will tell.

    David Handy+
    Richmond resident for over 20 years

  2. pendennis88 says:

    The distant past, and a reminder of an elitism that was not the best part of the episcopal church. I think the revisionists and the institutionalists of TEC rather liked this kind of thing, though, and thought themselves part of the gentry. They believed they could run off the evangelicals while keeping the country club folks around to write the checks. After all, that worked with the anglo-catholics and the prayer book. I think they are still surprised to see it slipping away so quickly and completely.