Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Conservative vs. Liberal: The Same Tire Old Story

Reading yet another story about schism in Episcopal Church (“More U.S. Episcopalians Look Abroad Amid Rift – Overseas Prelates Lead 200 to 250 Congregations,” June 17, 2007), I found myself growing a little bored with the topic. While we all know that divisions do exist and that some congregations have seceded or are planning to, it gets tiresome after a while seeing the same tired old story repeated for the umpteenth time.

There seems to be a generally accepted storyline that runs something like this: Conservatives vs. Liberals. Traditionalists vs. Revisionists. Conservative congregations are growing like crazy, while the mainline Episcopal Church is hemorrhaging members because it is too liberal. The only problem is the storyline is not a fair portrayal of the reality. Yet it has been repeated so often that the myth has become accepted as fact.

The title of the article itself is an example. The term “rift” makes it seem that a congregational exodus of seismic proportions is underway. Yet 200 to 250 congregations is a minute percentage – less than 3% - of the more than 7,000 congregations that make up the Episcopal Church nationwide. Compare this to the more than 1,200 Southern Baptist congregations that left their denomination to form the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship after the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by its ultraconservative wing. This one breakaway group alone represents almost twice the percentage of congregations which have left the Episcopal Church. Similar migrations of liberal and moderate parishioners have occurred from Episcopal congregations that have grown more conservative. But trends like these that don’t fit the popular presumptions seem to fly under the reporting radar. There certainly do seem to be some significant shifts going on in the Church at present, but the realignment runs both directions.

The content of the article also seems to follow the common “wisdom.” The “overseas prelates” mentioned in the article (and their disaffected American congregations) portray themselves as the protectors of traditional Anglican theology and practice against an aggressively anti-orthodox U.S. Episcopal Church. And this is generally reported as fact. Yet they routinely pick and choose the traditions they want to protect, rejecting traditions that do not suit them in favor of some very non-Anglican practices. The current rush of overseas prelates to outsource the Episcopal oversight of American congregations, for example, violates not only traditional Anglican practice, but ancient Christian practice as well. “One Bishop in the city” has been Christian tradition since the undivided Church of the second century. The reason most often given for violating this ancient tradition is to preserve orthodoxy. But this plethora of prelates raises the question of whose interpretation of orthodoxy will be enforced. Some of these foreign Anglican Churches, for example, accept the ordination of women as orthodox practice, while others do not. And the overarching enforcement body that some of them propose looks very much like a “magisterium” (i.e., top-down interpretation of Scripture by the hierarchy of the Church), a concept the Anglican Church has rejected since its inception.

A related and largely unreported phenomenon is the growing number of churches – our own congregation being one of them – who reject the old conservative vs. liberal storyline. These congregations consider themselves neither liberal nor conservative (though their individual members represent a wide spectrum of theological views). Recognizing that human understanding of the mind of Christ is imperfect at best they choose to make the love of Christ, experienced in their common worship of the Living God, the basis of Christian community, rather than agreement on a broad spectrum of doctrinal principles (unity, rather than uniformity). Not that doctrine is unimportant, only that it is secondary to the love of Christ, and that God is more than capable of sorting us out on these issues over the long haul. This emerging concept of Church is not limited to the Episcopal Church, but is springing up across almost all denominational boundaries. And these churches are growing.

I have friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – from across the theological continuum: conservative and liberal and all points in between. They all have a story to tell about transforming love of Christ. They are all working in their own ways to bring about the reign of God. And as a previous seminary professor of mine once said, “I always agree with my friends.” I just think is always better when we try to speak the truth to each other – the whole truth – and to do it with love.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Episcopal 101: The Anglican View of Orthodoxy

One of the more ironic things as about the current controversy in the Episcopal Church is the way the dissidents – those who have departed or who are threatening to depart from the ECUSA – define their theological terms. They tend to describe themselves as “orthodox” and “traditionalists,” while accusing the Episcopal Church of “heretical” and “revisionist.” But are they using those terms honestly and correctly?

What is Orthodoxy?
These days, when people employ the term orthodoxy, the tend think in terms of a set of correct or acceptable beliefs or doctrines. But the term originally – and literally – meant “right praise.” At its inception, the Church was less of an organized religion than a movement: a way of life centered around the person of the Risen Christ. In fact, the first name the Church applied to itself was “The Way” and the original Greek word for Church literally meant “called out” or “the called ones.” But once it became clear that Christ would not return in their lifetimes, the Church had struggle with the issue of how to pass on the authentic experience and core meaning of the relationship with Christ. As one of my seminary professors once put it, the question was: “What things were so crucial to the story of Jesus Christ, that if they were not there – or if something else were there in their place – it would be a different story?” Over a relatively short time, the focus narrowed to a few key statements, which came to be known as the kerygma (lit. “Key”) – that form the core of the faith:

  • God in Christ fulfills the scripture.
  • God became incarnate in Jesus Christ.
  • Christ was crucified.
  • Christ was buried.
  • Christ rose again.
  • Christ was exalted to God.
  • God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • There will be a day of judgment.
  • Therefore, repent.

If this begins to sound familiar, it is because these went on to become the basic building blocks of the Apostles Creed sometime in the second century, which was further developed into the form of the Nicene Creed by the fourth century. If you read even these later documents carefully, you will find they more map out the outside boundaries of orthodoxy than they specifically define it. Jesus must be both fully human and fully God, without confusion, change, division, or separation, two natures together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis. But precisely how this paradox is achieved is left an indefinable mystery. Similarly, God is recognized as a complex unity – three distinct persons or personalities within one undivided Godhead – but the paradox itself left again left an undefined mystery. Perhaps it was precisely because they knew were dealing with essentially indefinable mystery, that they explained these things in terms that were essential criteria rather than definition. Which is also perhaps why another one my seminary professors once offered this tongue-in-cheek operational definition of dogma: “This is as good as it’s gonna get, so lets stop arguing about it.”

The Traditional Anglican/Episcopal of Orthodoxy
The Anglican approach to orthodoxy is creedal, rather than confessional. What that means is that Anglicans have traditionally been very reluctant to add any requirements to orthodoxy beyond the criteria of the kerygma as reflected in the ancient creeds. Anglicans have never required its members to individually “confess” or “sign on to” to an extensive statement of personal beliefs as a condition of membership in the Church. In large part, this is because the founders of Anglicanism observed what was the sadly ironic effects of such an approach: the wider the number of doctrines to which the Church requires agreement, the more the Church splinters and the more its sad divisions increase.

The way Richard Hooker, one of the founders of Anglicanism, put it was that what made a person a Christian was that the acknowledged Christ as the savior. Failure to believe a necessary implication of that acknowledgement did not make a person a non-Christian. It might make them wrong, but it doesn’t make them not a Christian. According to Hooke, even heretics ought to be considered Christians: wounded and in need of our prayers, but still Christians. The traditional Anglican approach to orthodoxy is nicely summed up in this statement attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity (love).”

An Ironic Conclusion
So while the dissidents may prefer to call themselves orthodox traditionalists, the tradition of orthodoxy which they are trying to promote – and from which they accuse the Episcopal Church of deviating – is not the traditional Anglican approach to orthodoxy. And for that matter, neither was it the tradition of the early Church. Ironically, in light of the accusations of the dissidents, if the Episcopal Church were to accede to their demands for a broad and confessional definition of orthodoxy, then they really would be guilty of revisionism.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Episcopal 101: The Foundation of Our Faith

The "recent unpleasantness" of the secessions of the churches across the river raises some very important questions.

The leaders of those congregations claim that they are leaving the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) to preserve orthodox Anglican Christianity. They claim that they have no choice but to leave because the U.S. Episcopal Church has rejected Christian orthodoxy and Anglican tradition. Implicit in their rationale for schism is the accusation that the national Episcopal Church is no longer Anglican or even Christian.

So we have to ask ourselves several questions? What is the ultimate foundation of Christian faith? What makes a Christian Christian? For that matter, what makes a church Christian?

What lies at the core of Christianity? Is it ultimately defined by a set of beliefs? Or by a relationship with Christ? Our departing brothers and sisters across the river are staking their actions on the former definition: that Christianity is primarily defined by its doctrines and that membership the Church Universal is based on agreement with (or assent to) those doctrines.

Despite our friends’ claims to the contrary, traditional Anglican theology has always held to the latter definition: that what makes a Christian Christian is a relationship with Christ. According to Richard Hooker, one of the founding theologians of Anglicanism, "the foundation of our faith" is the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Savior. In other words, for a person (or a Church) to be considered Christian only belief in Christ as savior is essential; all else is secondary.

That does not mean that the doctrines of the Christian faith are unimportant. On the contrary, they can be very important in guiding us in what it means to be Christian. But they are the Church’s expression of what it means to be a Christian, and as such they can be subject to error. For example, even the Nicene Creed, the quintessential statement of Christian belief and unity was itself the source of disunity for more than a millennium. All over the definition of a mystery: whether the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," as the Western Church held, or "from the Father," as the Eastern Churches have held. Both have recently agreed that it was a distinction not worth splitting the Church over. Even if disagreement over a portion of the Nicene Creed was a valid reason for schism, surely the current controversies over less essential questions are even less so.

Even if the current disagreements were over the most important doctrines, would disagreement with those doctrines render someone no longer a member of the body of Christ? Not according to traditional Anglican theology. According to Hooker, "Only ‘direct denial’ of Christ constitutes apostasy from the Universal Church. Only denial ‘by consequent,’ by failure to hold a necessary implication, does not make a non-Christian. ‘Whole Christian churches’ have so erred and are yet Christian." In other words, even heretics remain Christians. "We must acknowledge even heretics themselves to be, though a maimed part, yet a part of the visible Church."

So there we are. When we acknowledge Christ we become part of one body, one family. No matter how much we disagree, we are stuck with one another.

[I am indebted to the Rev. Alison Quin for the original research on this issue, which is available on the church’s website, www.saintnicks.com, under "Resources for Study."]

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reclaiming Our Anglican Traditions
It's Time for Episcopal Theology 101

[Reprinted from The Abbey - Jan-Feb 2007 Issue]

What with all the uproar "across the river" about several Diocese of Virginia congregations seceding, I was very interested to read the Op-Ed piece from The Rev. John Yates, the former rector of the Falls Church (Episcopal), and Os Guinness, a parishioner, entitled "Why We Left the Episcopal Church." My interest lies in part in the fact that I have read and enjoyed many of professor Guinness's books on philosophy, culture, and religion (his book The Dust of Death still sits on my bookshelf). So I was surprised to find his name attached to an editorial which was so misinformed about Anglican and Episcopal theology and polity.

But I have to thank them for hitting one nail squarely on the head. They got it absolutely right when they said that the current dispute is not ultimately about women priests or the ordination of a gay bishop. Rather, it is about THEOLOGY and whether the Episcopal Church is being true to its theological traditions and understandings. (They cite the "abandonment" of these traditions and understandings as the reason for their departure.)

Unfortunately, most of what they said after that point portrays a profound misunderstanding of our theological traditions and understandings. Time and space do not permit a full, point-by-point discussion of their letter, but let me give one glaring example.

As one of their reasons for leaving, they say that the Episcopal Church has abandoned the doctrine of "sola scriptura" ("by the scriptures alone"). In fact, this has never been an Anglican/Episcopal doctrine. Anglican hold what my fairly conservative former mentor us to call a "high doctrine of Scripture." Anglican doctrine is that Scripture "containeth all things necessary to salvation," and thus commands a privileged position in our theology. Yet we also look to tradition and reason as our guides. In other words, Anglicans believe that, since none of us has a lock on the absolutely correct interpretation of Scripture, the most effective way to determine what God is trying to teach us about God's will is by testing our understanding of scripture by our tradition and reason. Likewise, we test the Church's tradition against scripture and reason, and we test our reasoning (even about our beliefs and doctrines) against scripture and tradition. Many have affectionately called this approach the "Three-Legged Stool" of Anglicanism."

In describing this testing process, I use the term "we" very intentionally. Because the key to this process is that it takes place in the context of the faith community, with the members of the community bringing their differing understandings – even major differences (especially those) – into discussion amongst the community of faith to be tested in the give and take between scripture, tradition, and reason. (It’s actually very much like the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash – well-known and well-used by the likes of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.)

Our forebears in the Anglican faith tradition understood that as fallen human beings (and fallen ecclesiastical institutions) we are apt to get it wrong in any of these three areas. So we are better off with a system of "theological checks and balances."

This approach also means that our theological understandings are not fixed in stone and unchanging. If we can get it wrong in any of these three areas (and our understanding of God's will is never complete), sometimes we have to grow and change in our understanding in order to move closer to the truth. And Anglican tradition is very careful about the number of issues it elevates to doctrinal significance. As Richard Hooker, one of the "founding fathers" of Anglican theology made clear, Anglicans view the Holy Scriptures as speaking authoritatively when it comes matters of salvation, but as providing wider latitude in most other matters.

Ultimately, for Anglicans the primary thing that holds us together is not complete agreement any number of truths, but rather our common worship of The Truth: the Living God, in the form of Jesus Christ.

I think this a great part of what lies at the heart of the current conflict: that a great many of us Episcopalians haven't done a great job educating ourselves and others about these issues (this applies to both liberals and conservatives and everyone in between). And so it becomes hard to give a good answer when someone says they want to secede from the church because it has gone astray from its historical teachings on theology or morality.

I'd like to see us change all that: to shed some light on the subject in place of all the current heat. And so in each of the next several issues of The Abbey I would like to take one or two important Anglican theological and ecclesiastical traditions and explain them in plain English (btw, preaching, teaching and worshiping in plain English is also an Anglican tradition). So watch this space . . .

Meanwhile, if you are impatient and want to "read ahead," just go to the SaintNicks.com website, click on "About the Episcopal Church" or "About Christianity" and start reading.

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