Friday, August 31, 2007

Hopes for the House of Bishops

by the Reverend Nigel Taber-Hamilton

On September 20th the House of Bishops will gather in New Orleans to consider – among other things – an appropriate response to the other requests of the Anglican Primates. Pundits throughout our Province and outside it are telling our House of Bishops what they should do. But little is being said about the values they should predicate their decision-making on, and nothing at all on the central values that define their ministerial identity and thus inform those values. Using the baptismal covenant (BCP, p. 293), the examination from the Ordination of a Bishop (BCP, p. 517) and the Catechism (BCP, p. 855) as the best pointers toward these values here are my suggestions to our episcopal brothers and sisters:

1. Remember you are, first and foremost, members of "the Laos," a Greek word which is the original root for our contemporary word "laity" – a word best translated as "the whole and undivided People of God." Remember, therefore, that you are members of this "Laos" by virtue of your baptisms, for baptism is the foundational order of ministry and is much more important than any subsequent derivative Ordering for specific ministerial tasks.

2. Remember that your Ordered ministry is representative: your fundamental responsibility as bishops is to exercise your episcopal ministries on behalf of the baptized, who have called you out to fulfill specific tasks on behalf of the baptized and who have loaned you some of the authority of the baptized for you to do so. You are "stewards of God’s mysteries" (1 Cor 4:1) on behalf of every baptized person, not just some of us.

3. Remember that primary among the specific tasks the baptized have given you at this time is "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" (BCP, p. 517). This surely means to guard the biblical vision of baptism as the marker of all Christians’ common identity and the source of every Christian’s authority to minister; and to guard the authentic vision of Eucharist as God’s welcoming table where none are turned away, and where no discriminatory impediment is placed in the way of the baptized’s authority to select whomever it chooses to represent it.

Reflecting on the March House of Bishops meeting the late bishop Jim Kelsey said this to his brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, but it applies equally to the upcoming House of Bishops meeting. I can think of no better charge than this:

Now it is time to move ahead with God's work of redemption. Hopefully it will be in partnership with others throughout the Anglican Communion. The extent to which others are ready to keep in partnership with us has yet to be seen – but that we are prepared to step out in faith and with courage and determination to celebrate God's liberating work in our midst and in the world, have no doubt.

© 2007 Nigel J. Taber-Hamilton

September will be dawning in a few hours. Certain elements within the Anglican Communion have sought to ratchet-up the noise, seeking to create the illusion that some Armageddon may come down upon us on September 30th, unless the Episcopal Church makes significant consessions to the September 30 "deadline" advanced by the primates in Tanzania.

We invite all our readers to use this space to speak their hopes and prayers to our bishops. What do you hope they will do? What prayers and encouragement do you offer them?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Undermining The Episcopal Church, Part 2

Blasting Away at the Bedrock
by the Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

There are some things that are bedrock in any denomination or church. In the Episcopal Church, there are several things that are bedrock, among which are
  • the Book of Common Prayer;
  • our commitment to Scripture, tradition, and reason as determinative of doctrine; and
  • our insistence on the full participation of the laity in our worship and governance.

Bedrock is important because it gives us a place to stand when all else seems up for grabs. It provides us the safety and security necessary for our life in a terribly complex and often puzzling world. Bedrock also has allowed us over the centuries to be a church with incredibly varied and diverse people and perspectives. Without bedrock there is no security, no dependability, and no way to hold a diverse and sometimes doubting community together.

We in the Episcopal Church have never maintained that we are the True Church, nor have we claimed there is no salvation outside the Episcopal Church. What we say is that we are the church that rests on this particular bedrock – and in doing so we claim a unique place within the full Body of Christ, which is the fellowship of the baptized, whether Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, or Two Seed in the Pod Double Predestinarian Baptists. If the Episcopal Church is not for you, there are a number of faithful churches that can provide you with the spiritual support and challenge you need.

Sometimes a local Episcopal congregation must seem a little like Grand Central Station, with people coming into the church from one denomination at the same time others are leaving for different ones. Some come into us or leave us to become Roman Catholics for one reason or another, while their friends next door decided to join our church when they married or committed their life to a partner who was and remains an Episcopalian. There is a certain integrity in leaving one church for another, especially when the leaving is the result of prayer and consultation.

What is new in the Episcopal Church is that a group of people unhappy about parts of life within the Episcopal Church are not thinking of leaving, but of replacing the Episcopal Church with a church of their own making. Further, they are proceeding in a way that smears the existing structures and leadership of the church, reinvents its history and theology, disobeys its Constitution and Canons, and undermines nearly every aspect of its life. The people who are doing "a new thing" are those who are seeking to undercut or destroy the very bedrock of our church.

How Have They Done This?


Some of the greatest contributions of our church to the world have come through our profound reverence for Holy Scripture and our centuries of scholarship devoted to its study and translation. As new Biblical texts have been recovered, Episcopalians and other Anglicans have assisted in providing more accurate texts, and these have led Christians world-wide into a deeper understanding of Scripture. Churches and denominations from around the world have looked to us for leadership in the study and understanding of the Bible, as well as for steering a course between the equal dangers of fundamentalism and rationalism. We, with mainstream Anglicans, have understood Scripture to be profoundly meaningful and often nuanced and contextual.

What a shock it is now to hear the so-called “orthodox” claim that our centuries of study and scholarship are for nothing, because they have discovered the "one and only" interpretation of text after text that have traditionally been open to several different interpretations and meanings. Against the rich backdrop of centuries of scholarly contributions to the whole church, the "orthodox" have adopted a mantra of defending "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" – a catch phrase meaning “what I very much want Scripture to mean and nothing else, ever.”

The repeated excoriation of our Presiding Bishop and other church leaders over the interpretation of John 14:6 has been perhaps the worst example of this reductionism and impoverishment of Scripture. This is the verse in which John has Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”

Without a doubt, that verse and others in John were important in the early church as it sought to establish itself as different from the rest of Judaism. However, there is a whole body of parables, teachings, and actions of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke which clearly contradict the strict exclusivism demanded by the “orthodox” in their interpretation of the text.

In the past, Anglicans have been able (even eager!) to live with the tension of the different strands in the four Gospels on this and so many other issues in the Scriptures. What has changed is that the “orthodox” have turned that single verse, John 14:6, into a litmus test for faithfulness! If you don’t share their narrow interpretation of this text, "you are not just different – you are not a Christian!” And to think that up until just five or six years ago we all thought that “Christian” meant one who is attempting to follow Jesus as Lord. Now, for some, “Christian” means one who is following one fundamentalist understanding of what one Gospel writer believed about Jesus while others did not. If you think that is convoluted – it is.

When this kind of narrowness is coupled with a selective Biblical fundamentalism of choosing half-verses in isolated parts of the Bible to condemn homosexuality while discarding the other half of the verses, you have something quite different from what we have always known as an Episcopal or Anglican Church.

The “orthodox” are not the first group to cut and paste with the Bible. The heretic Marcion was the first. However, no one doing that in the past claimed to represent the Episcopal Church or anything like it.

I believe we need to say this clearly: if you can’t live with the whole Bible, accepting its authority and meaning with the assistance of tradition, reason, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, you probably belong in a different church.

Let me state my concern succinctly: Those who attempt to impose the results of a cut-and-paste approach to the Bible on the Episcopal Church undermine what we are at our best. We did not accept Thomas Jefferson’s Marcion-like job of cutting and pasting the Bible when it was popular – and we won’t accept the current “orthodox” versions of it now.

Full Participation by the Laity

When we Episcopalians talk about our church to others, one of the things we most often mention is the central place of the laity in the Episcopal Church. Lay people are involved at every level of our church’s life. On a diocesan level, they control the church’s program through their votes at Convention. They also serve as a check on the bishop’s use of power through their membership on our Standing Committees. On both the diocesan and national levels of the church, nothing significant can happen without the assent of the laity. In the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, the laity is listed as the first order of ministry in the Episcopal Church:

Q Who are the ministers of the Church?
A The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

(BCP, p. 855)
It is infuriating to note that over the past several years we have heard much about the power and privilege of bishops and primates from the wider Anglican Communion, but precious little from them about the central place of the laity in the governance of the church. Instead, we are told that “the bishops meeting at Lambeth Palace decided that the teaching of the Anglican Church is . . .” even though Lambeth is only bishops speaking with one another – and has never before been seen as a legislative body. They do not get to legislate in these matters without their clergy and laypeople. To pretend otherwise is to disregard the core of who we are as the Episcopal Church.

It is bad enough that some bishops want to turn the Lambeth Conference – which was intended as a collegial gathering for bishops to consult with one another – into a legislative body. Even worse, just in the last few years, the meeting of archbishops [called the Primates Meeting] has been described as an "instrument of unity," when it is, in many ways, functioning to destroy our traditional unity. Our church, rich in democratic structure, is being asked to accede to the demands of a group that consists, not just of bishops alone, but of primates alone – no laity, no priests, and only one woman in the room (whom many of the men recognize only for the purpose of shunning her).

However, there is long standing tradition in the Anglican Communion that we don’t all have to be in lock step. In some parts of the Anglican Communion, the bishops do make the rules and define doctrine without consultation with anyone. In fact, it is the exception in the Anglican Communion to have bishops who are elected! To my knowledge, outside the Episcopal Church there is no province in which the bishops are accountable to anything like our Standing Committees. That is OK . . . for them. But it is not OK for some in the Episcopal Church who are uncomfortable with our democratic structure to demand that we turn our back on our own history and on one of our proudest possessions. It is not OK for them to attempt to replace our church with a monarchical model of authority that we rejected in our very founding! It is not OK for them to suggest turning our church over to a group of foreign prelates when that very structure was rejected in the very birth of Anglicanism itself.

The subtext of the Dar es Salaam ultimatum presented to our church by the unelected primates is this: “We demand that you act without your laypeople, just as we do, so you can be one of us.” The truth is that we are one of them, by virtue of our baptism; but they are demanding that we sacrifice much of the meaning of our baptism by jerking away the authority which our church vests in all the baptized!! We can be grateful to our House of Bishops for standing up, not just for themselves, but for the church as the body of all the baptized.

It is one thing to disagree about important matters, like the place of the laity in the life of the church – it is quite another to stomp on this part of our bedrock!

The Book of Common Prayer

A consortium of break-away groups of so-called "orthodox" Anglicans in North America have adopted their Common Cause Theological Statement, in which they proclaim their loyalty, not to the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, but to the Prayer Book of 1662! [Click here to see the list of "Common Cause" partners and their theological statement.] Apparently they believe that heresy has ruled the Episcopal Church from our founding – in fact, even a century before our founding! They seem to believe we have had it all wrong for some 345 years – right from the beginning!

All that scholarship, all that liturgical renewal, all those gains in understanding of the Gospel through internationally known and respected theologians, essayists, teachers and spiritual guides is for nothing? Are they telling us it has all been the work of The Great Distractor? That, of course, is not what they say, but that is the only conclusion possible from what they say.

We can only wonder about the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the theology that undergirds it at this time of our lives. Why would anyone go back to it as the source of doctrine, discipline, and understanding of the Christian life? Some may wish to read that early prayer book; click here for the online version.

Here are a few highlights of what the 1662 prayer book includes and which the Network and allied groups apparently want to impose upon the Episcopal Church.
  • The marriage service affirms the ideal relationship between men and women with "I N. take thee, N, to be my wedded husband, to love, cherish, and obey. . . " There is no such requirement upon the husband, of course.
  • In the liturgy for the Churching of Women, women are to come into the church soon after childbirth so the church can pray away their uncleanness, giving further support to an ancient assumption of the innate uncleanness of women, with all the baggage that carries.
  • In the Commination, there is the plea that the public humiliation, punishment and repentance of sinners be reestablished in the church as spectacle. (While this would doubtless prove a boost to attendance near the beginning of Lent with people flocking to observe the degradation of noted sinners in the community, it would probably hurt attendance when newcomers discovered that they could very well be next for the ritual of public punishment and repentance.)
  • The Eucharist, far from a proclamation and celebration of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, reverts back to a Protestant Free Church memorial meal under the 1662 prayer book.

While there are some gems and some wonderful turns of phrases in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it does not take much to see that the move to adopt that prayer book as the standard of orthodoxy for the Episcopal Church is an attempt to undermine that which us at our very best.

Further, one can only shudder at the concomitant resurrection of the Thirty Nine Articles as having authority over our life, but that is another story.

Let me say it again: It is one thing to disagree about Scriptural interpretation, the place of the laity in the governance of the church, and about the wisdom or faithfulness of reversion to a time of misogyny in the church; however, when some people – acting in the name of a false orthodoxy – demand that we repent of our vision and sacrifice our best to their narrow understanding of our faith and life, we must say “No! We will not allow our rich comprehensiveness in theology, liturgy, and governance to be undermined by your narrowing vision.” This is a time for faith, not fear. After all, Jesus said he had come to fulfill the Law, not to strengthen its hold on us. That is a vision worth living and worth protecting.

Author's Note: I am especially grateful for the insight and editorial support of the people at The Episcopal Majority.

Editor's Note: Future installments in the series on “Undermining the Church” will focus on spiritual adultery, the disregard and disrespect for the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church, and the ways a Christian morality can undermine and subvert the Church. These will be published at 3- to 5-day intervals in the coming days.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Speaking the Truth

Episcopal Life Online today published an opinion piece, "Speaking the Truth – with Love," by the Reverend Ken Howard (rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Darnestown, Maryland). In it, he counters some of the media "spin" about the looming schism, and offers a pastoral antidote. Here are few snippets.

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 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 growing. Too-liberal Episcopal Church shrinking. Unfortunately, the storyline does not fairly portray the reality. Yet sheer repetition has given it an aura of "truthiness."

Take the title of the article for example. The term "rift," coupled with the estimate of 200-250 departing churches, makes it seem that a congregational exodus of seismic proportions is underway. Yet compared with the more than 7,500 congregations that make up the Episcopal Church nationwide, even that number barely registers as a tremor. But the article's estimate is much too high. To date, only a majority of members of 45 Episcopal congregations (less than 1%) have voted to leave the denomination (the higher figure quoted by the article includes congregations who were never a part of the Episcopal Church.) [Emphasis added] . . .

The article also reported uncritically the "overseas prelates" (and their disaffected American congregations) self-portrayal as protectors of traditional Anglicanism against an aggressively anti-orthodox U.S. Episcopal Church. Unreported is their selectivity about which 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. 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). . . . God is more than capable of sorting us out on these issues over the long haul. . . .
Click here to read the entire essay at Episcopal Life Online. It's a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Deliberations in New York

The Admiral of Morality has published two new pieces that are part of the Diocese of New York's study and report on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. (Another item in that series was Bishop Sisk's letter, which we published here.)

The first is a fine essay by James Rosenthal (director of communications for the Anglican Communion Office, among other duties at Canterbury). He writes about the challenges of the Anglican Communion in becoming a "global family." Here are a few snippets to whet your appetite:

In the last several years, things have surfaced on the journey of "becoming" that are not foreign to any family in any part of the world: the family feud. . . .

The Communion, as a family with its myriad blemishes, exists to aid those who see their Anglican Christian identity not only as the way to heaven and life after death, but also as a means of living life fully before death. We can't be less than a church that honors its historic formularies and lives its life based on Scripture, tradition and reason. . . . [W]e respect the autonomy of our various churches. There is no Anglican Church, but Anglican churches in 38 provinces in over 160 countries. . . .

What we need to re-learn is the language of Paul and the body of Christ and the words of Teresa of Avila and others who demand that we use our very being to build up, not destroy, the fragile body we are at present. Some seem to choose some sins—or perceived sins—as more defining than others. . . .

The second piece from New York's study is an interview with Bishop Catherine Roskam (Suffragan Bishop of the diocese) by the Episcopal New Yorker (ENY). Bishop Roskam is also a representative from the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Consultative Council. Here are a few snippets from the interview:

ENY: What do you see as the origins of the current controversies in The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Anglican Communion?
Bishop Roskam: The tensions have a long history, but the immediate controversy around homosexuality has been driven by the dissidents in this country. The deeper causes have to do with the wealth and power of The United States and the disregard in the past for the voices from the developing world.

ENY: I'd like to follow up on what you said about the dissidents driving the agenda. What's that about?
Bishop Roskam: Opposition to the ordination of gay and lesbian people and the blessing of same sex partnerships is only the most recent chapter in the dissatisfaction of the dissidents. It began more than 30 years ago with the ordination of women. That is when the primates began meeting regularly.What differentiates these two issues is that women are not in a minority in the Anglican Communion. . . .

ENY: How much is cultural?
Bishop Roskam: Alot. The preoccupation with male homosexuality has to do with issues of maleness. So many parts of the Communion have no experience of Christian gays and lesbians in committed relationships. It's too dangerous for gay and lesbian people to come out. In some countries they can be jailed or even executed. The undergirding issue is patriarchy, and also clericalism.The question is: who decides? Here, we have a highly developed theology of the role of the baptized. We elect our bishops, and many provinces don't do this; bishops are appointed or elected only by other bishops. Some in the Communion would like to see us more hierarchical rather than less. It used to be said that the controversy was about Scripture but I don't hear that as often: people who read Scripture come to different conclusions.
We don't know how many other dioceses are engaging in such a study program, but we are grateful that the Diocese of New York materials are being made available to the wider church.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Undermining the Episcopal Church, Part I

Cheap Substitutions Are Not Acceptable
by the Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

Editor's Note: With this essay, The Episcopal Majority launches a series of articles on the undermining of the Episcopal Church. Subsequent articles will address Biblical authority and interpretation, the participation of the laity in our worship and governance, and the dangers of a Christian morality.

The single most disastrous thing to happen in what some have called our “Anglican Agony” was allowing certain factions in the right wing of the church to define the dimensions of our debate. What has had little, if anything, to do with Biblical authority or interpretation has been framed in just those terms, and the result has been disastrous. What might have been part of our tradition of internal struggles has been turned into the undermining of the Episcopal Church. In fact, there has been very little discussion across the Anglican Communion concerning Biblical authority. Whatever real discussion about the Bible has occurred has been focused on Biblical interpretation, not authority – and that has not been so much a discussion as a hurling of accusations back and forth. While undermining or destroying the Episcopal Church may not have been the conscious intent of all those who now call themselves the “orthodox,” that has clearly been the effect of their actions – and it is past time to demand some accountability.

It’s Not Discussion; It’s Trashing

The most obvious attempts to undermine the Episcopal Church have been political, as with the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes ("ACN") yet-to-be-repudiated DVD, “Choose This Day.” That video was produced to be used by the "orthodox" in visits to faithful Episcopalians, to draw them away from their parish churches into the web of the ACN vision of themselves as a necessary replacement for the Episcopal Church. The DVD consists of conversations with various Network leaders who denounce, denigrate, and disparage the Episcopal Church with one scandalous lie after another. Here are just a few quotes from the DVD:

  • The Episcopal Church is a forgery.
  • The Church has been hijacked.
  • The Episcopal Church and its leadership have embraced a foreign and alien and pagan religion.
  • Through the Episcopal Church God’s Holy Scripture was deliberately altered.
  • They [the Episcopal Church] have opted for revisionism – namely, the desire to reject the Christian faith and embrace a non-Christian religion.
  • They [the Episcopal Church] have consciously, deliberately repudiated Scripture and tradition and embraced a pagan religion.
Of course, all the while accusations have been hurled at us, the Episcopal Church has continued to reverence Holy Scripture, to teach the Christian faith in its fullness, to celebrate the sacraments handed down through the ages, to represent the moral and spiritual vision and life of Jesus Christ in the world we live in, and to embrace the entire creation as the focus for our mission and ministry. What occurs in our congregations and in our dioceses is what has happened decade after decade, generation after generation and century after century. How awful that our faith and life as Episcopalians is now being characterized as “pagan” by a movement that reflects the very worst of Biblical fundamentalism, Puritan moralism, and a recent wave that distrusts ambiguity, doubt, mystery, and the presence of the Holy in human experience.

In the End, It is the Trashing of the Incarnation

Whether the undermining of the Episcopal Church has been conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, it must be confronted and identified for what it is. This and following reflections will focus on just that. This first piece will explore some of the damage done to our church’s basic understanding of life as sacramental.

We are being victimized by a sophisticated kind of “bait and switch” in which codes and rule books are being substituted for a faith based on the Incarnation. The attack is upon our understanding of life as sacramental.

I can’t think of much else that is more important than our understanding of the sacraments and of life, itself, as sacramental. In its simplest form, that understanding underlies our whole notion of love. Thus, Frederick Buechner notes that when we say that God is Love, part of what we mean by that is that all love comes from God. There is no other source. Love is not one of the things that we can manufacture or create – it all comes from God and, further, it happens through us, for the other. In Christian marriage, it is the love of God which flows through the husband for the wife and through the wife for the husband and which so overflows the couple that it begins to fill those whose lives are touched by them.
Grant them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 429)
Much of our understanding of healing is similarly sacramental. We believe that in the Laying on of Hands for Healing it is the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ in the hands of the one praying which is flowing through the healer into the body, mind, and spirit of the one who is sick. We have ritualized that in the sacrament of Unction, with the anointing with oil for healing. We believe that God works through oil in the ministry of his healing.

One of the most startling aspects of the Christian faith is the belief that the miracles of Jesus are not, at least in the usual sense of the word, miracles at all! They are signs of something basic in the universe, focused through one person in time and space. Jesus touches a blind man and through his hands a powerful personal force enters the blind man’s body, reconnecting lost connections, revitalizing dormant tissue – a sign of the basic sacramental nature of Christ's presence in the world.

The world is sacramental. It is alive with the continual sacramental presence of divine love, healing, and reconciling power. And so important to this: nothing is just what it seems. Thus, a kiss is never just four lips in close(est) proximity. With a kiss I can manipulate, I can lie, or I can be an agent of the transmittal of love – that most precious of all forces alive in the universe. What is crucial for us all to understand is that we cannot create love with our lips, our hearts, our spleen, or any other parts of ourselves. God is love – and as Buechner writes so well, whenever love enters this world, God enters.

Over against this basic understanding of the world as sacramental, the so-called “orthodox” seek to reduce our ethics to codes and objectivity that have no relationship to the presence of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit in our lives. As an example, the ethics of human sexuality is being reduced to body parts – to “who can do what with what, where and to whom?” The Christian vision of human persons in community and of human sexuality itself has to do with relationship and trust and fidelity. It has to do with patience, forbearance, forgiveness, sacrifice, and kindness: signs for St. Paul that relationships and communities have already been blessed by God.

We see this worked out in how we think about marriage. For us, unlike so much in Roman Catholic theology, it is not relevant in discerning whether a proposed marriage will be a Christian marriage that a couple be fertile or that all their sexual equipment is in full working order. What has been crucial in the Episcopal Church is that the couple dedicate all aspects of their life together to the glory of God and to God’s service – and that their life together is characterized by the qualities mentioned above and in I Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5.

I believe the standard now is that we believe that God has already, in a real sense, blessed this couple – and the priest will be calling down God’s blessing on the patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and all the other fruits of the Spirit that, through God’s presence, are already part of the life of that couple.

Against that backdrop of the sacramental presence of God in human relationships, the so-called “orthodox” speak of two people of the same gender, having all the marks of being blessed by God, having made all the promises of living a life of hope, forgiveness, fidelity, and faithfulness, simply as “sodomites.” Sodomites. Nothing else matters. For the “orthodox,” it is as if that word describes the totality of two people in their life together. There will be no room for the blessing of that which has already been blessed by God; instead, there is only a squashing of the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ in the loving embrace of two people touched by a love that could only have come from God.

As the voices of condemnation from the fundamentalist right grow louder, the codes of conduct based on ancient presuppositions and fear grow more rigid and have less and less to do with personhood. Our Biblical mandate to look for the signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world is being overruled by their narrow vision of “who can do what with what, where, and to whom?” The next step, of course, will be for them to bring a strange kind of Biblical accountability to our married couples – branding those who engage in mutual masturbation, oral or anal sex as deviants, then sinners, and finally “sodomites.” The only couples fit for missionary service will be those solely devoted to the missionary position.

Hugh Hefner conferred a blessing on what was called the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for the undermining of the Episcopal Church’s understanding of human sexuality. At the heart of Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” was the belief that sexual pleasure was primarily for its own sake, without any necessary connection to a human relationship. The woman was an “accessory” for the man to use for his gratification, period. There was no mystery in his understanding of our human sexuality or personhood, no room for the sacramental presence of love in the Playboy Philosophy – and that terribly destructive way of looking at ourselves and our life together is at the heart of the “orthodox” formula for relationships that can be pleasing to God.

The Abuse of the Sacraments

God will bless what God will bless. And we are fools – and unfaithful fools at that – when we do not open our eyes and our hearts to recognize what and whom God has blessed. Further, we take everything beyond foolishness when we take the sacramental reality of same-gender sexual expression of faithful love and the sacrament of Holy Communion and turn them into means, occasions, or instruments of exclusion and punishment.

Certain Anglican primates will not share in Holy Communion with our Presiding Bishop, because she is the wrong gender or because she expresses her deep commitment to Jesus Christ in different images than they. Some bishops of the Episcopal Church exhibit the same shunning in meetings of the House of Bishops and at General Convention. Now we hear that these same bishops may not even attend the Lambeth Conference next year with one of their own, because he has a human accessory (partner) different from their own. These are not offenses against Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori or Bishop Gene Robinson; they are offenses against the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ in their office and in their ordained ministry.

This is not all about sex and human sexuality. It is about our understanding of the sacramental nature of all of life. When that kind of understanding and faith gets squeezed into codes and rules, it is no longer faith. St. Paul, at his best, noted that we are to work out our salvation by fear [respect] and trembling; he sensed the complexity and the richness of our faith. He knew, as our church has known, that our faith is rooted in a living relationship with an ever-present God, not in a rule-book or set of codes.

As I think about this struggle between sacramental presence and restrictive code and the attempted replacement of our faith by “orthodox” moralisms, the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel jump off the page:

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”
I imagine the so-called orthodox would respond, “So what’s the problem?” Well, there is a problem with substituting cheap codes for grace and ostracism for engagement. Our church needs to keep our larder well stocked with fish and eggs and let those who would undermine our church take their serpents and scorpions elsewhere. This is not the time to accept any cheap substitutions.

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Author's Note: Sources include Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, by Frederick Buechner (p. 50ff.) and “The Mystery of Sex” at Tom Woodward's blog, Turning Things Upside Down.

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About the Author: Thomas B. Woodward is an Episcopal priest who has served the Episcopal Church over 42 years as university chaplain at a number of campuses and as rector of St. Paul's, Salinas, California, John Steinbeck's parish church. He has written two books for Seabury Press, Turning Things Upside Down and To Celebrate; his book, The Parables of Jesus Your Pastor Never Preached, is one parable short of completion. He served recently as a member of a Task Force appointed by Bishop Steenson (Diocese of Rio Grande) to assist the diocese in dealing with its conflicts constructively. He also serves as a member of the Executive Council's Committee on the Status of Women. He and his wife, Ann, now live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Who's Talking Now?

A recent letter from Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola to the Nigerian clergy – which appeared to express his personal anguish about attending the Lambeth Conference and a call for the Episcopal Church to be disciplined, if not ejected from the Anglican Communion – received a great deal of blog-attention this week. The letter was released on the Nigerian website in a difficult format, more readily available from Thinking Anglicans.

Father Jake did a fine job of analyzing the Archbishop's letter and some of its "more bizarre statements." So did Mark Harris here and here and here.

Now, the Episcopal Café reports, "The voice of the Global South apparently emanates not from Abuja, Nigeria, but from Fairfax, Virginia. The Church Times reports that Bishop Martyn Minns, not Archbishop Peter Akinola is the principal author of the recent letter from the Church of Nigeria that bears Akinola's name."

Some Episcopalians will recall that the British-born Reverend Martyn Minns was frequently nominated, but never elected, to be a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Finally, Archbishop Akinola this year came to Virginia and consecrated him a bishop for the Church of Nigeria, where no laity have a vote in episcopal elections.

The Church Times reveals:

A BISHOP in the United States has been revealed as the principal author of a seminal letter to the Church of Nigeria from its Archbishop, the Most Revd Peter Akinola, which was published on Sunday.

The letter includes a suggestion that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s status as a focus of unity is "highly questionable." It also refers to a "moment of decision" for the Anglican Communion, which is on the "brink of destruction."

The document, "A Most Agonising Journey towards Lambeth 2008", appears to express to Nigerian synods the personal anguish of Archbishop Akinola over his attendance at the Lambeth Conference.

But computer tracking software suggests that the letter was extensively edited and revised over a four-day period by the Rt Revd Martyn Minns, who was consecrated last year by Archbishop Akinola to lead the secessionist Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Bishop Minns, along with the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, has not been invited to Lambeth.

Close examination of the document, tracing the authorship, editing history, and timing of changes, reveals about 600 insertions made by Bishop Minns, including whole new sections amounting to two-thirds of the final text. There is also a sprinkling of minor amendments made by Canon Chris Sugden of the conservative group Anglican Mainstream.

Click here to read the entire Church Times exposé.

Writing for the Episcopal Café, Jim Naughton says:

The significance of this development lies less in the fact that Akinola has a ghostwriter--The leaders of many organizations, ecclesial and secular have staff members who handle writing assignments for them.--than that what has long been portrayed as the authentic voice of African Anglicanism is, manifestly, not African, and perhaps never has been.

This revelation is likely to damage Akinola's already sagging prestige in Nigeria, where he may now be perceived as a mouthpiece for wealthy Westerners. And it is likely to damage his credibility with his fellow Primates, who were already weary of his practice of interrupting their meetings to take counsel from Minns and Sugden.

We have contended that powerful, ideological forces in the U.S. are manipulating the effort to undermine the Episcopal Church and create a global schism in the Anglican Communion. This revelation from the Church Times merely underscores our contention.

Update: Father Jake has now picked up this story, and the active discussion seems to be occuring in his "comments" section. StandFirm is bending over backwards to insist the story is entirely irrelevant ... notwithstanding the Church Times discovery that Minns wrote two-thirds of Archbishop Akinola's letter of "personal anguish."

Peace, Be Still

Bishop Sisk's Comfortable Words

Bishop Mark Sisk (Diocese of New York) has a truly pastoral message to his diocese. The letter is not online, but the Admiral of Morality has provided the text. He reports that the Bishop's comments "come as part of a diocesan examination of the current controversies within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion," but which is not yet online. We presume this is part of the diocesan examination of Communion Matters, a study document the House of Bishops released on June 1, which they have encouraged us all to consider over the summer.

Too many strident voices are declaring gloom and doom, predicting the ouster of the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, and declaring that everything will change after the Primates' supposed "deadline" of September 30. Our friend Mark Harris offers wise insights about the efforts to "ratchet up the noise" leading to September 30.

Out of the midst of this maelstrom, Bishop Sisk offers his belief "that the Communion will emerge from these struggles, changed but recognizable" and observes that the Anglican Communion has "a strong tendency to adapt to challenging circumstances rather than break apart over them."

Here is the full text of Bishop Sisk's letter (courtesy of the Admiral of Morality):

The presenting question is: Will the Communion survive in its present form or won't it? To state the obvious: no one can answer that question with certainty. My personal guess is that the Communion will emerge from these struggles, changed but recognizable. I say this not because I think that the issues before us will simply drift away like smoke after a fire. I say this because the long history of the Church suggests a strong tendency to adapt to challenging circumstances rather than break apart over them. Following the American Revolution we in The Episcopal Church were left with no bishops and an unwillingness on the part of the Church of England to help us resolve that crisis. Yet, ultimately, a way was found to restore our claim to apostolic orders, and, in due course, we realized that by that act the Anglican Communion had been born.

The deeper question is this: Just what exactly is the problem anyway? Surprising to many people, serious-minded folks give very different answers. For some, perhaps for most, the answer as conceived by them is a simple matter of sexual morality: right or wrong. Others couch this dispute in terms of the authority of Scripture. Still others argue that not only does Scripture not speak with one voice to the actual question that is before us, but also the insights of science and experience of our faithful gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—integral members of our community—cannot simply be ignored. Yet others see this dispute through the lens of authority: Who has the right to decide? This, in turn, pushes others to state the problems in terms of polity—that is, the way we organize ourselves to make decisions and, at least by inference, obligate others by those decisions. And all this debate takes place within the context of a world of different contexts, a world which seems busily occupied in dividing and re-dividing itself along the countless fissures that are found in the bedrock of the human community.

In my view, it is a mistake to despair at all about this conflict. I am convinced that God works through our struggles to bring us, if we are faithful and charitable in those struggles, ever closer to the Divine Life that unifies all creation. We have no reason to despair. We have nothing to fear. We live in the arms of God's abiding love. God is working in us the Divine will. Through it all, I am convinced that our Episcopal Church has been strengthened, and I have confidence that the larger Anglican Communion, in whatever form it takes, will be strengthened as well.

In the end, if we are faithful, charitable and just, God's will for us and for all creation will be made more evident, more available, more present. What more could we hope or ask for?

God bless and sustain us as we carry out the work and ministry that has been entrusted to us in our generation.

Without a doubt, many Episcopalians – whether in "Network" or Episcopal parishes and dioceses – have felt great pain in the last few years of increased strife. There is considerable evidence the efforts to foment this "crisis" have been manufactured by some well-funded ideologues. But, without a doubt, the strident language has caused pain to many people in our church.

Thus, we are especially pleased to hear Bishop Sisk's calm and thoughtful message. "Peace, be still." So said our Lord in the midst of the storm.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Practice of Discernment (Dutton-Gillett)

by the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett

I have read with interest the comments that have been made on my original essay on The Episcopal Majority. I give thanks for all those who commented. I am always happy when something I write or preach produces further thought and discussion.

And, of course, it's always amusing when some declare me a heretic. After all, some of the greatest thinkers in Christian history (and I am certainly not a great thinker!) have been honored with that label. There were even those who found Jesus to be a heretic relative to the dominant religious ideas of his time. I hope, however, that the day may come when we avoid dismissing one another with such labels.

I want to address a few points that have been raised in some of the comments on that earlier essay. I hope I do not sound defensive, because that is not my intention. I want to contribute, as we all are, to this on-going conversation that is such an important part of our life together.


The first point has to do with my own faithfulness to the vows I took when I was ordained, in which I affirmed my belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation. That is a vow I took seriously then, and continue to take seriously now.

However, I do not understand that vow to mean that the Word of God is to be found only in the pages of the Bible. After all, in John's Gospel we find Jesus assuring us that there are many more things that we need to know, but which will only be revealed to us when we are able to receive them.

We also find, at the opening of that same Gospel, that Jesus is declared to be the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

If we insist that the Word of God is to be found only in the Bible, then we deny the incarnation, because we make it impossible for the Word to have been enfleshed in Jesus. We confine the Word to the written text of the Bible.

That approach also would seem to deny Jesus' own counsel that there are things yet to be revealed to us, things that are not contained within the gospels. Unless, of course, we assume that the sum total of these things yet to be revealed was given to the church before the close of the New Testament canon – an assumption that I find unwarranted and difficult to substantiate. I agree completely that the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation – but clearly that does not mean that everything in the Bible is necessary to salvation. And never in Christian history (until recent days) has it been suggested that this is so.


I am surprised by the suggestion that Christianity is not an experiential religion – that Jesus can only reliably be met in the pages of the gospels and not in the experience of the individual believer. To borrow a line from St. Paul, if that is true, then we of all people are most to be pitied. Do we not proclaim that Christ is risen, and therefore alive? Do we not say that Christians are called to a personal relationship with God through Christ? And do we not proclaim that it is through this very relationship that we receive the gift of salvation?

Nowhere in the Bible, nor in the tradition of the church, is it ever said that we are saved through our relationship with a written text. The Bible introduces us to God. It introduces us to the person of Jesus, and it shows us who Jesus is. The Bible is like a good and trusted friend who introduces us to the most important relationship we will ever have. It is the beginning. It is a constant point of reference. But it is not the end.

Through the Scriptures, through the sacramental life of the church, the Holy Spirit enters into our lives and pulls us into relationship with the living Christ. And that relationship is experiential. What else could it be?

After all, St. Paul himself was not converted to Christ by reading Scripture, though his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible was certainly an important preparation for his conversion. He was converted through a personal, experiential encounter with the Risen Christ, who reached into his life and transformed it completely.

St. Paul's own contributions to the New Testament are some of the fruits of that experience. Are we to say that such encounters are no longer possible? Are we to deny that Christ reaches into our lives today to bring about transformation?

To do so would be to deny that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God through Christ. And if that is so, then the proclamation of Christ as risen and alive becomes empty and meaningless.

Some people seem to think that acknowledging an active relationship with the living Christ opens the door to all manner of subjectivity. They seem concerned that we all might insist that our individual points of view are fruits of our own encounters with Christ. As we survey the variety of points of view that exist among Christian people, we could reach the conclusion that Christ is schizophrenic – that he can't seem to make up his mind.

There are two observations to be made about this problem.

First, there must assuredly be some continuity between our experience of the risen Christ and the Jesus who is proclaimed in the gospels. If we find a radical disconnect between the claims of individual believers based on their experience of Christ and the Jesus revealed in the gospels, then certainly we must question whether the individual believer is indeed "hearing" Christ authentically in his or her own life. This is, in part, why the church has always felt that the common decisions of councils are more reliable than those of individuals. Even the Roman church endorsed the idea of conciliarism until the establishment of papal infallibility (a relatively recent development in church history).

Second, we acknowledge that human beings are broken creatures. When Christ speaks to our souls, his voice must pass through our own brokenness; in that process, it is subject to distortion.

Acknowledging this reality means that we must practice careful discernment when we seek to understand the movement of the Spirit in our own lives, seeking to avoid confusing divine truth with our own personal opinions or prejudices. This, again, is why the church has stressed the importance of councils, believing that groups of believers have a better chance of avoiding these errors than do individuals. This does not mean, however, that councils are incapable of error. It simply means we have a better chance of discerning God's will together than we do on our own.

Discernment and the Bible

When it comes to the Bible, we can see the experiential relationship between Christ and his church at work. I trust we can all agree that the Bible did not fall out of heaven, written by the finger of God in the King James Version. The Bible was created over time, by human beings who wrote of their own personal experiences with God and with Jesus, as well as of the experiences of the communities to which they belonged. The Bible would have no value whatsoever if there were not real personal and communal experiences that lay behind the texts.

Many if not most of the biblical authors did not even set out to write "Holy Scripture." That status was conferred upon their writings by representatives of the communities to which they belonged.

This means that the Bible belongs to the people of God, and that we have the right and indeed the obligation to interpret its meaning.

Judaism has always appreciated this obligation with respect to its scriptural inheritance, which explains the multitude of (often conflicting) rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible that coexist side by side in the same volume.

When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, I am constantly intrigued by the argument that we must condemn homosexual behavior as sinful because there are biblical texts which seem to say that it is so. Why, then, does the church permit divorce, when Jesus makes it clear that divorce is permissible only when one party to the marriage has been sexually unfaithful? Why do we not keep kosher, when the Bible clearly says that we should? There are a host of biblically condemned behaviors that we have decided do not deserve condemnation, and there are things permitted in the Bible that we have decided should not be permitted. These have been catalogued by a number of people over the years.

Acknowledging this should be sufficient to demonstrate that it is never enough simply to say that the Bible forbids or permits something. We must take seriously what the Bible says about any given issue, but seldom is that sufficient to settle an issue. Why? Because our relationship as individuals and as a church with Christ continues to grow and mature. The Spirit still moves among us.

The early church accepted certain texts into the canon of Scripture and rejected others based on the faith experience of those entrusted with the task of discernment. Those early church leaders also took into account the faith experiences of the communities and people they represented. That is, those who established the canon took into account the texts that were being honored as sacred by early Christian people and communities. So, too, we must continue to grapple with the received sacred texts of our faith, seeking to understand where the voice of God sounds clearly and where that voice has been distorted by the broken humanity of the biblical authors.

We must exercise the same discernment with respect to our tradition, seeking to understand where the voice of God seems to be clearly speaking and where that voice has been distorted by the brokenness of the church. As Barbara Crafton pointed out in her essay, it is the ongoing practice of careful discernment applied to both the Bible and our tradition that has led to the ordination of women, the rehabilitation of the diaconate, and a host of other changes in the life of the church that have been broadly (if not universally) accepted.

This practice of discernment is indeed a messy thing. All of us wish it were a neat, clear process. But it is not. It never has been, and it never will be. It is, therefore, a process that all of us should approach in humility, realizing that as convinced as we are of our own interpretations, we can never be completely certain that the voice of Christ that we hear reverberating within our souls is free from the distortion that is surely a part of each of us as human beings.

We are bound to offer to our sisters and brothers the fruits of our own discernment. But those should never be offered in order to heap contempt and condemnation upon others. Rather, they should be offered as a contribution to a larger conversation, one that is bound to lead us together to greater – if not perfect – clarity. Unfortunately, if segments of the church choose to withdraw from this conversation or decline to engage with it constructively, then that greater clarity will be even harder to achieve.

To borrow yet another line from St. Paul, we continue to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.

May God have mercy upon us all.

About the Author: The Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett is rector of St. Elizabeth's Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he served as an Alternate Deputy from East Tennessee in the 2006 General Convention. He is author of "It's Really Not about Sex," published earlier on this site.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Not our Problem (Theuner)

by the Right Rev. Douglas Theuner

Perhaps many of you have already seen the recent essay from the Archbishop of Uganda, entitled "What is Anglicanism?" [Click here to read it.] It is important reading for those seeking to understand the behavior of certain primates of "the Global South" in the current controversies facing the Anglican Communion. In a succinct, rational, and well-presented manner, the Archbishop sets forth his position on the nature of Anglicanism. Like any good logician, Archbishop Orombi states the central piece of his rationale at the very beginning. Following a paragraph of introduction to the topic; he declares: "The long season of British hegemony is over."

This is clear evidence from the mouth of a protagonist of an issue about which I have written earlier: the current controversy in Anglicanism is not about homosexuality, but about the demise of the British Empire and its Commonwealth shadow. This is an issue with which American Episcopalians may well have some empathy, but we left it behind more than two centuries ago. Unlike so many things in today's global reality, this is just not our problem!

The issue of homosexual behavior is no more the reason for the impending breakup of the Anglican Communion than the matter of Jesus' criticism of the religious and imperial leadership of his day is the reason for his sacrificial atonement. That may have been the precipitating occasion, but it was neither the reason nor the cause.

The refusal of the blessed martyrs of Uganda to submit to the coercion of the King of Buganda (discussed by Archbishop Orombi in his essay) had only incidentally to do with the homoerotic nature of his intentions. Had the king been otherwise inclined, the martyrs could have been women of conscience, rather than men. Of course, given the times, to treat women in such a horrific manner might have been considered acceptable by the dominant culture (cf. the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah). Although the source of much anguish, the observation or ignorance of Jewish dietary laws was hardly the determining factor differentiating Rabbinical Judaism and Early Christianity; something much more consequential, in the long run, than the "Anglican Communion."

Archbishop Orombi reminds us of the impact in Africa of English evangelicalism. That is a movement of which most American Episcopalians are scarcely aware, its rise and influence in this country having been largely within Methodism. The Archbishop seeks to draw a comparison between the history of American Episcopalians and today's "Global South Primates." After the Revolutionary War, Americans in the newly-founded Episcopal Church were summarily ejected for a time from communion with the Church of England. But this was for entirely political reasons, over which church people had little control – a majority of those loyal to Canterbury having been Royal Loyalists. Archbishop Orombi seeks to compare that historical event with the present-day primates of "the Global South," who seek to distance themselves voluntarily from the Anglican Communion. Equating the two historical moments is absurd!

Like some of his compatriots in the "Global South," Archbishop Orombi has threatened to boycott the Lambeth Conference because someone else has been invited. What could be more dismissive of the Anglican Communion than a refusal to accept the Archbishop of Canterbury's invitation to the Lambeth Conference on such shallow grounds? (At least Archbishop Akinola can plead that he's staying home because one of "his" bishops has not been invited.) Oy veh!.... Welcome to the sandbox!

I guess Archbishop Orombi has it right: "The long season of British hegemony is over." That's for him and Canterbury to fight out... It's not our problem.

About the Author: Douglas Theuner is retired bishop of New Hampshire. He has previously written for The Episcopal Majority in this essay.