The Episcopal church, with its grandeur and nostalgia, was a natural spiritual dwelling-place
FOR ANYONE who knows the American religious scene, the Episcopal church conjures up several very different things. First, it is the aristocrat among churches, and a church for aristocrats. Its roots lie in the pre-Revolutionary era, when the Bishop of London dispatched clergy to the New World. It takes cultural tradition seriously and relishes its connections with the England of the Tudor and Stuart kings. At least until recently, it was the natural home of America’s old-fashioned, semi-hereditary elite, a church that upwardly mobile sorts would join to signal their arrival in the social stratosphere, just as they might enter a fashionable country club. But it has also been associated, especially over the past couple of decades, with very liberal positions on ethical, theological and geopolitical issues.
That church, with all its grandeur, nostalgia and contradiction, was a natural spiritual dwelling-place for George H.W. Bush. At certain points in his career, whether serving Ronald Reagan as a loyal vice-president or running for the presidency himself in 1988, he actively courted the approval of more passionate religious types, the right-wing evangelical Christians who were becoming a force in American politics. But nobody was really fooled. Faith was of abiding importance to the senior George Bush, but in the low-key, private and understated way that is characteristic of posh Anglo-Saxons on either side of the Atlantic, whether they are speaking to God or anybody else.
As a child, he was taken to an Episcopal church in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest communities on America’s East coast. His devout mother Dorothy would read to the family from a Book of Common Prayer, whose sonorous language harked back to Elizabethan England. But all this happened behind closed doors. This was not the kind of religion that prompts people to preach in the street or warn strangers that they are doomed. At least three Episcopal parishes featured in Mr Bush’s adult life: Saint Martin’s in Houston, a huge place of worship at the conservative end of the Episcopal spectrum; Saint Ann’s, a seaside, summer-only church near the Bush family retreat in Maine; and Saint John’s in Washington, DC, which many presidents have attended.
Uncomfortable as he was about discussing matters of metaphysics, Mr Bush often referred to two times in his life when faith came into play. One was the moment in September 1944 when, as a naval airman, he plunged into the Pacific after his aircraft had been damaged. This, he said, made him wonder for what purpose he had been saved while many comrades were not so lucky. Another was the death of his daughter, who contracted leukaemia at the age of three. He and his wife Barbara were almost overwhelmed by this tragedy, but found comfort in Christian belief.
What, then, did this lover of ancient certainties make of the fact that his venerable old church was careering towards the ideological and theological left? It probably exasperated him, but he was not the type to go storming out in search of some fuller-blooded spiritual alternative. True, there were some scratchy moments. Shortly before he took America to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq he had a difficult encounter with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, a radical prelate called Edmond Lee Browning who had organised boycotts of apartheid South Africa and rooted for Palestinian rights. To the bishop’s insistence that it would be “immoral” to use force, the president retorted that the Iraqi regime was immoral in the way it had treated its own people and those of annexed Kuwait. In 1991, when the Episcopal church ordained an openly lesbian woman, Mr Bush said with patrician understatement: “Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned but I am not quite ready for that.” Neither incident made the older Mr Bush question his affiliation to the mainstream Episcopal church.
As time went on, American Episcopalianism became a cultural battlefield, especially after an openly gay bishop was consecrated in 2003. Conservative parts of the church peeled off to form the Anglican Communion of North America, which sought allies among the traditionalist prelates of Africa. Last June the global forces of conservative Anglicanism challenged their liberal co-religionists by convening a 2,000-strong gathering in Jerusalem. A few weeks earlier, there had been a spectacular display of liberal Episcopalianism, when Archbishop Michael Curry, the church’s present leader, dazzled the world and startled the up-market congregation with a paean to love at a British royal wedding.
But the cultural battles of his church were not ones that the elder George Bush was especially interested in fighting. As many an English squire would attest, tolerating the eccentricities of the clergy is simply one of the obligations that flow from the ancient principle of noblesse oblige.