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,, under "Resources for Study."]

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