If This Be Heresy
The Bishop Pike Affair
For eleven months, between the meeting of the Episcopalian House of Bishops in Wheeling, West Virginia, of October 1966, and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Seattle last month, Bishop James Pike had his fellow bishops virtually at his mercy. One of the few serious faults in the absorbing study William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne have written about their friend Bishop Pike’s skirmishes with his colleagues was their decision to cast him as the underdog in a battle for freedom of expression.
That the former, now resigned, Bishop of California—who has since become a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara—was battling for freedom of expression cannot be doubted. That he has during the past two years undergone a series of personal upsets and misfortunes that would have crushed lesser men cannot be denied: his resignation from his diocese, his separation from his wife, divorce proceedings, the suicides of his son and also of a close associate. But that he was the underdog in this particular battle with his fellow bishops is almost wholly imaginary.
As is well known, Pike was censured or “rebuked” by the bishops at Wheeling for such alleged faults as “irresponsible” and “often obscure and contradictory” utterances, “cheap vulgarization of great expressions of faith,” and insufficient pastoral concern. The censure motion was a very hastily thought out compromise, aimed—successfully, as it turned out—to persuade a small group of bishops headed by the Bishop of South Florida, Henry I. Louttit, not to press heresy charges against Pike. Explicitly disassociating itself from any judgment either for or against those charges, the censure motion rejected the idea of a heresy trial on the most pragmatic grounds: the damage that such a public trial, of a prelate of Pike’s standing, would have on the image of the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church clearly could not have afforded to try Pike for heresy. Like most religious denominations, it is in deep trouble. For example, during the past two years the total number of Episcopal clergy not engaged in parish work has increased from 25 percent to 40 percent. Among those who remain there is comparatively little vitality or promise of improvement in quality in the foreseeable future. In 1966, a commission headed by Nathan Marsh Pusey, President of Harvard, revealed that 66 percent of Episcopal seminarians had a C average or less in college—or held no degree at all. The adverse effect a heresy trial would likely have had on the morale of an already demoralized clergy and on recruitment of new clergy can hardly be overstated.
Yet Bishop Louttit—to the dismay of most of his fellow bishops—was apparently breathing fire in his determination to try Pike. Moreover, there was virtually no legal way to prevent him from initiating practically irreversible steps toward such a trial. In view of this, and considering that Louttit sprang his plan on his fellow bishops only a few …