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.
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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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.