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?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.
A The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
(BCP, p. 855)
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.