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This page last updated 5 April 2004  

an essay for Anglicans Online

Thought, Love, and Bishops
The Ghost of James Pike

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
4 April 2004

It all started with wanting to do some theology in the House of Bishops. It resulted in an encounter with the restless ghost of Bishop James Pike. How this came about, Gentle Reader, will take some explaining.

One of the striking aspects of the election and consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire is the lack of virtually any official theological rationale for it. To add to the confusion, General Convention Resolution C051 was specifically amended to eliminate a call for the creation of official rites of same-sex blessings, but acknowledged and tacitly commended the creation and use of such rites at the diocesan level. The resolution also called for the Presiding Bishop to name a committee whose purpose is to gather informational resources on same-sex blessings.

Clearly we have implicitly changed the traditional teaching that sexual love is reserved for husband and wife in marriage. Because the Episcopal Church had not signaled by official action our intent to change this teaching, but rather kept making respectful nods toward it in various resolutions over the years, our Anglican and ecumenical partners were taken aback. As your Bishop in Europe, I can attest to numerous conversations with highly-placed figures in other churches, not to mention media from all over the British Isles and continental Europe, who have told me that the American church has gone about this completely wrong, even if they support the inclusion of gay people in all three orders. The term that comes up over and over is “an ecclesial Iraq”—a high-handed unilateral American action without any clear rationale that has caused others great problems. As a bishop of the Episcopal Church, paid by the General Convention, I cannot give my personal opinion in response to these accusations. What I have done is to describe the process by which we came to the present situation, but without furnishing an official rationale, because none exists.

This started me thinking and discussing with other bishops how to get a process started for the elaboration of a theological statement. As discussions unfolded, it seemed good to craft a resolution for the House of Bishops meeting at Camp Allen that would name a commission of two panels of the best available Episcopal theologians, one to write a positive statement and the other to make a negative statement. Then a third panel, also of top theologians from other communions, would make individual comments on the two statements. The whole to be done by the bishops’ meeting in September 2005.

I contacted the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, and told him of my plan to introduce this resolution. As I discussed the idea of the commission with him, I held up the commission named by his predecessor John Hines to consider the case for a heresy trial for Bishop James Pike back in 1966. Bishop Stephen Bayne, one of the great bishops of the Church, chaired the commission, and the top theologians of our church wrote it. Then great minds of other communions, including John Courtney Murray, the greatest American Roman Catholic theologian, wrote incisive comments upon the report, which the commission entitled Theological Freedom and Social Responsibility. Bishop Pike also wrote a reply. (The report is still very much worth reading.) I had come across it years ago in seminary when I spent considerable time studying the Bishop Pike affair. Bishop Griswold encouraged me to go forward.

After I consulted with Bishop Henry Parsley, Bishop of Alabama and chair of the Theology Committee, and re-written the resolution several times in consultation with him, members of the committee and the Presiding Bishop, the day came when I was to present it at a business meeting of the House. We had already had a tough slog with the plan for alternative oversight, “Caring for All the Churches,” as we called it.

I awoke that morning with a strange feeling. I wanted a committee of the quality of the one Bishop Hines had commissioned to consider the case for a heresy trial against Bishop James Pike, in order to address rather narrowly a particular theological issue. I began to realize that the action I was calling for was actually much wider, for it related to that sad chapter in our history. Many observers over the years have commented that the Episcopal Church, in particular the House of Bishops, never got over it.

James Pike was a brilliant man, raised as a Roman Catholic and trained as a lawyer. He became an Episcopalian after the war and pursued ordination in the Episcopal Church, eventually becoming dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1952. In 1958 he was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of California, and his election narrowly received confirmation because he had divorced and re-married (this was before episcopal permission for re-marriage was allowed). He became known more and more for outspoken views on the irrelevance of classical doctrines such as the Trinity and the virginal conception of Jesus.

Pike’s mediagenic personality and brilliant arguments made him the darling of some and the devil of others. His personal life gradually came apart when his son committed suicide in 1966. Pike started a highly public quest to contact his son through spiritualism. He divorced and re-married again. Many people who knew him have told me they believe he began a slide into manic depression.

Meanwhile, Bishop Pike’s challenges to doctrine in such popular books as A Time for Christian Candor and If This Be Heresy met with growing resistance. It crystallized into a call by several bishops for a heresy trial, which they saw as the last resort in holding Pike accountable as he careered across the pages and TV screens of the mid-60s media.

The commission report came to two important conclusions: the first, that one is an Episcopalian if one can pray the Book of Common Prayer with sincerity and integrity; and the second, that the notion of heresy has fallen into disuse, as the major heresies of the past had all been raised and resolved. Bad theology in our times, the commission members reasoned, is best countered by better theology.

At its meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1966, the House of Bishops censured Pike. They avoided the notion of heresy trial completely. They also avoided the debate on theology that should have taken place, in particular, what is heresy, and its prior question, what is true doctrine and how do we know? Pike had raised a fundamental question, and put it before the Church in the media: do you believe the old formulas still speak to people, or will you teach publicly the modern ideas you express privately?

After Pike came John Shelby Spong, who claimed to be Pike’s disciple, and who put the same question (and many of Pike’s answers) to the Church, again with brilliant use of the media and the same provocative please-put-me-on-trial attitude. More recently, bishops like FitzSimons Allison have taken up the same style of provocative writing and action, but in the opposite cause.

Two trends have continued to emerge in the House of Bishops since the Pike affair: one, better not to discipline people for provocative ideas and behavior; two, better not engage in theological reflection as a House on basic theological issues. The fear seems to be that either will tear us apart. Clearly that has been happening anyway, ever since.

That morning it became clear that what I was asking for was right in the long line of our meetings. After all the impassioned and difficult discussions about alternative oversight, plus the boycotting of our meetings and the Holy Eucharist by a number of bishops, I felt that the ghost of Jim Pike was still at our meetings, restless.

Not literally, of course. Pike left the Episcopal Church and eventually died in 1969 wandering in the Israeli desert, looking for the place where the Dead Sea scrolls had been written. Those bishops who had tried to bring him to trial were actually attempting something loving: to hold him accountable. Pike’s threat to expose Jesus as a revolutionary executed for sedition if he were put on trial (read his essay) may have influenced the way the House dealt with him. Some bishops were doubtless jealous of him. The end result though was unloving: we ran a troubled man out to die in the desert. His ghost accuses us no longer of lack of thought, but lack of love.

Bishop Ed Salmon of South Carolina, the evening before the presentation of the theology resolution, stood up and addressed us saying that we have been for a long time in a “collision of theological world views,” and that until we bishops begin to care and respect each other, nothing else will ever be solved. He named another bishop, diametrically opposed to him theologically, and said that their good relationship of trust and respect enabled them to work together as bishops for the common good despite their real differences. Only love and respect for one another can solve the impasse we are in, Bishop Salmon concluded.

In my remarks to the House presenting the resolution, I referenced Bishop Salmon’s remarks with his permission. (Much wiser and more experienced bishops than I had advised me to say what I was feeling so strongly.) The restless ghost of Jim Pike is still with us, I asserted, because we have never really recovered from that meeting in Wheeling, even though no active bishops remain who were there. Somehow, as the House has changed, the pattern has been passed on. We deal with dissidents with malign neglect, and we seem so paralyzed by the “collision of theological world views” that we never address it as a theological problem, despite the challenges of dissidents demanding we do so. But as much as we need to do theology together, it will not save us. We have never finished what the House began back in Wheeling thirty-eight years ago. We have been stuck ever since. We need to find a way to let Jim Pike go home. As Bishop Salmon said, I concluded, only love can solve our impasse.

The resolution provoked considerable discussion, and an eventual vote to refer it to that committee yet to be named that is called for in resolution C051. I feel good about the outcome, since there is obviously strong support for the need to do theology and to start dealing with dissidents lovingly, including holding them accountable.

But we still have the accusing ghost of Bishop Pike to send not back to the desert, but home to his God. We need reconciliation.

The last word for now, perhaps, still belongs to that great Roman Catholic, whose final words written a week before his death appear in Theological Freedom and Social Responsibility:

The truths of the Church and the forms of her life are supposed to interpret the experience of human life and to give it some saving structure. But is this happening? Many say no, and not without reason. This answer seems to have lain behind John XXIII's distinction between the “substance” of Christian faith and the “forms” of its expression. The distinction could be given a too simplistic meaning, as if only words were at stake. But it points in the right direction, toward a task we must take firmly in hand. We shall do the task badly, of course. There will be lots of “mistakes,” but they are readily dealt with, since they involve no will to error. This latter thing is the danger. How to avoid it? I think the corrective is a will to community—of thought and love.*

*John Courtney Murray, “A Will to Community,” in Theological Freedom and Social Responsibility, ed. Stephen F. Bayne Jr. (New York: Seabury Press, 1967), p. 116.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.