Sunday, January 07, 2007

"All or Nothing"?

Will It Be "All or Nothing" or the Wholeness of Christian Revelation? (by The Reverend Thomas B. Woodward)

An old friend, now a member of The Episcopal Majority, reminded me that one of the Episcopal Church's noted canon lawyers (who taught canon law at the Philadelphia Divinity School), writing some 40 years ago, noted that the Episcopal Church had kept regulations to the “minimum required for fellowship and faith ... [with much left] deliberately unspecified."

He went on to say:

We insist on the indispensability – and hence, in some sense, the theological importance – of the Bible, the creeds, the sacraments, and the episcopate. Yet, we have no official interpretation of biblical inspiration, of sacramental theology, of episcopacy, and no single, binding dogmatic system.... The ‘all or nothing’ … alternative has seemed superficial. The wholeness of the Christian revelation and of the life of man has always seemed bigger than any of the tidy, complete formulations available. Thus, largely due to historical circumstance, Anglicanism (and Episcopalians … have) ... avoided ... becoming doctrinaire or rigid.” [Stevick, Canon Law]

Why would anyone want to sacrifice the wholeness of Christian revelation to an "all or nothing" religion which hacks away the ambiguity, the mystery and the fullness of our tradition? Why would anyone want to attack such comprehensiveness which alone can preserve the whole? Over the centuries we have been willing to let others press the fundamentalist and literalist claims for an "All or Nothing" religion – and they, by and large, have been happy for us to be who we are. This phenomenon of reductionism and neo-puritanism is not new in the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion. What is new is its sudden claim that it, alone, has the truth.

This is not a fight we need to fight. We can give our best wishes to those who wish to leave the Episcopal Church with their certainty and rigidity and become a part of another movement within the wider church in their quest for authenticity. What we cannot do is to allow them to use the name or the property of the church described by Father Stevick.

Our situation is similar to the religious landscape of Jesus' time. There were many expressions of the Judaism of his time. One group was the Pharisees, perhaps the group which took its religious duties and responsibilities more seriously than any other. There was much to admire in the Pharisees – in their moral seriousness, in the ways they stood up against secularism, and in the seriousness of their study. In the end, though, they claimed to be the only "orthodox" among the various expressions of Judaism –much as is happening with their spiritual counterparts in the Episcopal Church today. What began, in both instances, was an attempt at renewal of a religious tradition through the imposition of a stricter and more restrictive morality. Both attempts, however, ended in an increase of moralism, often cut off from our religious roots and attached primarily to the fears and judgmentalism of their followers.

My first prayer is that we all will find a way of living together and benefiting from the strengths of one another. That, however, can only happen when neither group is demonizing the other. My second prayer is that we will allow those who cannot affirm themselves within the Episcopal Church as we have been from our beginning to leave with our prayers and well wishing. May we do so with grace and with an absence of any form of the rigidity we have resisted for so long.


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