Friday, September 28, 2007

1984 in the Episcopal Church

by Christopher L. Webber

Note: This essay was submitted to The Episcopal Majority on September 26. In the intervening days, more events have occurred, about which we will comment. Meanwhile, we are pleased to offer Chris Webber's essay.

George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, is the most familiar statement of the way in which words can be made to say whatever we want them to say. Words can be bent and twisted until they say the opposite of what they once stood for. The Cold War gave us “Democratic People’s Republics” in which there was no democracy and the people had no public voice. William Safire noted recently that we can’t call our soldiers “freedom fighters” because others have preempted the phrase.

Last night on the news there was a story about the Episcopal Church and the division between what the commentator called the “traditionalists” and the “liberals. To give us pictures to go with the words, we were shown “traditionalists” holding up their hands as they sang and swayed to a rock band on a stage at the front of the church. “Traditionalist”? Who’s making up definitions?

Then we were shown “liberals” and they were kneeling quietly in their pews while a vested priest at the altar led a celebration of the Eucharist. It looked very much the way churches looked when I was growing up – which is longer ago than many of these “traditionalists” remember!

“Tradition,” as Alice in Wonderland might have said, “is what I say it is.”

The tradition of the Episcopal Church is to pray from the Book of Common Prayer and welcome all who are drawn to that pattern of worship. Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “I will not make windows into men’s souls.” In other words: "If you join with me in the standard pattern of prayer, I won’t inquire too closely into what you believe." Words can deceive us; what matters is unity in worship.

But the new "traditionalists" of the Episcopal Church have changed the definitions. Now division, not inclusion, is the agenda. Now you have to agree with their interpretation of the Bible or they will refuse to join you in worship. Once Anglicans looked to Scripture, tradition, and reason for their authority. Now we are asked to respond to code words and to let emotion overcome reason.

The tragedy is that so many are being swept along in this emotional, divisive, destructive redefining of Anglicanism into something without any recognizable tradition. Something that has never before been the Anglican way is being raised up into a new religion and called “traditional.”

About the Author: The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is a graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary where he earned two degrees and was awarded an honorary doctorate. He is the author of a number of books including The Vestry Handbook, Welcome to the Episcopal Church, Beyond Beowulf (the first-ever sequel to the first English saga), and the recently re-issued Re-Inventing Marriage, as well as a new supplement to the last title, called Same Sex Marriage and the Bible (available from his website).

In a ministry of fifty years and counting, Fr. Webber has served parishes in inner city, suburban, rural, and overseas communities. He is currently serving as a supply priest on the Diocese of Connecticut. He has been married to the same wife for slightly less than fifty years and is the father of four children and grandfather of four.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

by the Very Reverend G. Thomas Luck

I attended seminary in 1978-1981. Thus, I was in seminary when the 1979 General Convention passed a resolution stating no persons having sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman should be ordained to any order in our church. This resolution was largely seen as a reaction to Paul Moore's ordination of Ellen Barrett, a lesbian, to the priesthood in 1977. It sent shock waves through my seminary, Nashotah House, and not just among the gay or lesbian students [And yes there were both there in those days.] One student, a gay man who I thought had great promise as a priest, decided that he needed to leave seminary and cease being in the ordination process. One of the results of that resolution was that a new organization called Integrity, and a charismatic leader named Louie Crew, became emboldened. I heard Louie preach at St. Francis House in Madison, Wisconsin in that time frame and he was compelling.

What if instead, Louie Crew and many others had simply left the Episcopal Church? What if Gene Robinson, when he clearly did discern that he is a gay man, had decided to leave? On one hand our Church would have deserved it. But thanks be to God they stayed and taught and talked and built relationships, in what must have surely have seemed like a frustratingly endless basic tutorial on human sexuality and the Bible.

In 2003 the General Convention gave its consent for Gene Robinson's election to be a bishop. That was 24 years after passing a resolution saying he shouldn't even be a priest. In the lives of people living in history, 24 years is a long time, a generation. In the scope of Christianity, 24 years is nothing, not even the blink of an eye. Even in the history of the Episcopal Church, it is not that long a period of time. When Gene's election was confirmed we thought that in many ways that the struggle was over, not completely, but much closer.

But then we were reminded that not only are we not a congregational or presbyterian church, we are not merely a national church. We are an episcopal church, and bishops by definition are symbols and even means of unity across the globe. When first Barbara Harris and then other women were ordained to the episcopate we faced the global challenge that people, serving in an order one of whose purposes is unity within the church, would not be received by many within our Communion. We entered a period of "impaired Communion" with many of our dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion. Yet in that case, we could look to resolutions from prior Lambeth Conferences which stated that there were no theological barriers to women being ordained.

When a gay man was elected a bishop in our church, we thought this would be similar, but we were wrong.

We were reminded that – legally and constitutionally – we are part of the Anglican Communion. We were reminded that unlike the ordination of women, Lambeth had said "no" to this move. We have repeatedly been told, and I believe the bishops heard again, that to continue down this path would mean that we have decided to leave the Anglican Communion.

For us to ordain to the episcopate people whose "manner of life" causes a problem for the rest of the Communion [and since I am divorced I may be included in that group] until there is a change in the consensus of the Anglican Communion is to, in effect, leave the Communion. For us to authorize rites for blessing same-sex relationships [something I have advocated for twenty years] until there is a change in the consensus of the Anglican Communion is to, in effect, leave the Communion. My prayer, my hope, and the thing I work for, among others, is the full participation of gay and lesbian people everywhere, and especially in Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, including the Anglican Communion.

I think that the best thing in the long run is to refrain from acting, but to be a powerful and strong voice for advocacy, as Integrity has been within the Episcopal Church. We need to try to have openly glbt people representing the Episcopal Church on the Anglican Consultative Council. We need for our Primate and Bishops to be fully present voices within the councils of the Communion. I think that the Cathedral Deans need to become more creative about building relationships with other Deans and cathedrals across the Anglican Communion, so that the gays and lesbians among us may be heard and seen.

We need to be realistic that all this may take another generation, but I do not think we should walk away from the challenge of transforming the third largest body of Christians in the world, and I believe it will happen. I say all of this realizing that as much as I may preach and teach and advocate, as a married, straight male I am not paying the cost for this journey the way glbt people are. Only the glbt among us can decide if they want this journey and if they are willing to pay the cost. I hope for the sake of God's Church, and even more for the sake of God's Dominion, that they will find the ability to do so.

About the Author: The Very Reverend G. Thomas Luck is Dean and Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Syracuse, New York.

Baptized in Philadelphia, confirmed and ordained in the Diocese of Dallas, and a member of the Standing Committee in the Diocese of New Hampshire, Father Luck has experienced first-hand the breadth of life in the Episcopal Church. His ministry is one of redeveloping communities by building bridges between people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives in the service of God’s mission of justice, mercy and peace, within the Church and the world. He served as a Deputy to General Convention in 2006.

Father Luck says: "I rejoice that the Episcopal Church offers a catholic sacramental life while adhering to the principle of the primacy of Scripture, seeking to drink in all the knowledge of the arts and sciences, and celebrating the ministries of all people, clergy and lay. Educated at Austin College, Nashotah House and Harvard, I have served parishes in growing suburbs, struggling towns, and coastal exurbs. I am currently Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Syracuse which is an urban cathedral offering a variety of liturgical styles and music, including classical Anglican, jazz, and Sudanese Dinka. Among its ministries is the Samaritan Center serving over 200 free, hot meals every day of the year. I also serve as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Central New York."

His wife, Jane, is a Deacon, and they enjoy a variety of music, sports, and museums. Their children are Shannon, a home health aid in nursing school in Syracuse, Ian, majoring in Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Maine, and Ryan, majoring in Environmental Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Bishops Speak

The Episcopal House of Bishops have issued their statement in response to the Primates and the Anglican Communion.

We at The Episcopal Majority are not of one mind about the bishops' statement. Some of us applaud it, and some of us decry it. In the next few posts, we will share those views.

Meanwhile, you can catch up on the current commentary at the sites we have linked before.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Who is Drifting from Biblical Truth

One More Disgraceful Attack on The Episcopal Church is Challenged
by the Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

Editor's Note: This essay was stimulated by a discussion of the remarks of Archbishop Mouneer Anis during Friday's session of the House of Bishops meeting. The archbishop’s remarks reiterated in part the baseless charges that the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Bible.

One of the commenters on the archbishop’s speech scolding the American church was a prominent conservative, Kendall Harmon, whose observations were reported on the conservative website, OneNewsNow:

Dr. Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, says it is very unlikely the Episcopal Church will agree with what Anglican leaders are asking. He says the denomination is in denial about its drift from Biblical truth.

"What's so frustrating about the Episcopal Church," Harmon says, "is they make changes and then when it comes to crunch time, they won't admit that they [made] changes, and instead they play games with words, and they say one thing and do another. And that's what's going to be attempted in New Orleans."

Canon Harmon’s allegations echo old and tired charges against the Episcopal Church. However, contrary to his allegations, this is the hard reality: The Bible is being taken more, not less seriously by the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. This is a truth that Canon Harmon and others in the Network/CANA/AMiA/WhatHaveYa group are unwilling to acknowledge or address.

Biblical scholarship did not end in the nineteenth century, though that is the impression left by those who claim to be the Biblically orthodox. Modern Biblical scholarship seems to contradict nearly every assertion made by those who are charging that the leadership of the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Bible. For instance, nearly every New Testament scholar notes that what once were considered gentle parables of growth (Leaven, Mustard Seed, etc.) have a quite different message – including biting attacks by Jesus on the purity code. It was upon that purity code that Paul based his rejection of homosexual behavior.

When you have Jesus undermining the Biblical basis for Paul’s condemnations, what you have left are Paul’s personal prejudices and beliefs. Was Paul right to condemn promiscuous sex, temple prostitution, and sexual exploitation? Of course he was! However, the evil inherent in those activities has nothing to do with human relationships built on love, mutual caring, and sacramental fidelity. Jesus, apparently, was well aware of the damage done when you impose a purity code onto human relationships filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul, however, must have been out with a cold during that lesson! [Pardon the anachronism.]

Paul corrects his misunderstanding of the continuing authority of the purity code in his long discussions of law and grace in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. However, for a few verses in Romans he seems to forget his own theology – and that lapse has led to the continuing use of ancient rules rejected by Jesus. Worse, Paul's blunder has been used as a weapon to batter and to exclude those we do not understand, as well as to crucify any church that recognizes their full humanity.

Many bishops, priests, and spokespersons from the "right" have derided the growing inclusiveness of the Episcopal Church as though it were a new thing, unrelated to our history. Our history as a Christian church is, of course, a history of ever-expanding inclusiveness. That history of ever-growing inclusiveness began with Jesus and the almost immediate struggles documented in the Book of Acts concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles. That history has continued down to the recent and much, much belated full inclusion of Blacks and women into the full fellowship of Christ’s Body.

How did we miss the persistent witness of Jesus to God’s intention and will that the kingdom be fully inclusive? It is there in plain sight in the parables of the Wedding Feast, the Good Samaritan, the Unjust Steward, the Persistent Widow, and others. In the Marriage Feast, messengers are sent out first to gather the marginalized into the wedding feast and then to those outside the bounds of the faithful in order to make the feast complete. The despised Samaritan is lifted up as the prototype of effective love. The devious steward and the sinful Publican are lauded by Jesus. In the parables of the Lost Coin, the Unjust Judge, and the Leaven, women are used as the metaphor for God. Is it that hard to get what is happening here?

Surely, to accuse a church with a wide embrace for those embraced by Jesus but marginalized by the religious establishment – to accuse us of “abandoning the Holy Scriptures” is to reveal a woeful ignorance of the Bible itself.

When asked about their claims regarding the Bible, invariably the “orthodox” turn to John 14.6, in which John quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” They take that verse of the Bible to have only one possible interpretation, which is – roughly – that it is only through repentance and belief in Jesus that anyone will be admitted to the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately for those who want to use that verse to circumscribe religious reality, several reliable interpretations of that verse contradict theirs, especially when John 14.6 is seen in the context of the struggles between Christian and Jewish sects/communities of the time. If that were not enough, the parables cited earlier and many of the healing stories (including, prominently, the child of the Syro-Phoenician woman) also contradict the "orthodox" interpretation of John 14.6. Jesus is constantly finding and affirming saving faith in those outside the community of faith. For him, that seems to be an occasion for rejoicing, not for hand-wringing. St. Paul, himself, contradicts John 14.6 in his long and often overlooked argument in Romans 9-11, in which he states that the Jews remain the People of God, as God does not break promises. In fact, as Paul notes, because the Christian community has been grafted into Jewish holy history, our relationship to the continuing Jewish community is one of dependence, not as replacements!

For over five years I have asked “orthodox” bishops, priests, and laypeople at General Conventions, diocesan conventions, and in every other forum possible to provide a justification of their "orthodox" stance on Biblical theology that references the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] instead of vague statements about the Bible in general and the usual three to five verses from John's Gospel. There have been no takers. I want to be very clear here: close to six years of asking in a quiet, respectful tone – and no takers. I am amazed that those who are willing to use the Bible as a weapon are unwilling to converse about a central part of it. I keep hoping someone will prove me wrong here.

In a similar vein, I have searched the statements of the Anglican Primates who are most upset about our “abandoning the Bible” for any evidence of the life, the teachings, and the actions of Jesus Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke – and I have found none.

Here are some questions for anyone who wants to charge the leadership of the Episcopal Church with “abandoning the Bible” or failing to acknowledge the real authority of the Bible. I ask these questions not rhetorically, but out of genuine concern:

  • Whom did Jesus heal – and which of the healing stories involve repentance or conversion?
  • How did Jesus choose Levi, the tax collector, as disciple/apostle – apparently without evidence of personal belief or repentance?
  • What do you make of the parables that speak so movingly about sufficient faith outside Jesus' faith community?
  • What is the relationship between Jesus' community and the religious establishment?
  • What is the relationship between Jesus’ community and the marginalized people of his time?
  • Is there any group or class of people that Jesus excluded from his welcoming embrace?
  • How was it, when scholars tell us that Jesus honored women completely, that our church was able to marginalize them for nineteen hundred years?
  • Are there reasons we do not use the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11) and Paul’s list of the indications that the Holy Spirit is present in individuals and groups (Galatians 5:22-23) as the basis for our moral judgments on committed human relationships rather than the regulations of the purity code that even Conservative and Reformed Jews have rejected?
These are not difficult questions. They are questions, though, that reveal the ignorance of the attacks of those who believe that the Episcopal Church does not concern itself with the authority of the Bible. I believe it is disgraceful to ignore the teachings, the parables, the healings, and the loving and affirming relationships of Jesus Christ while charging those who not only affirm, but also treasure those realities with disregard of the Bible.

If there has been a change within the Episcopal Church over the past few decades, the change has come from our reading the Bible and taking its core message with complete seriousness. The change has also come from our willingness to subject our morality to the overwhelming evidence of the morality preached by the Incarnate One – even when it conflicts with the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans. Is that a kind of change to fear or to attack? No, it is not an occasion for attack – or really to fear. It represents the authentic voice of our Lord – and while that voice has often provoked fear, even in the faithful, it is also the path to our salvation.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Where to Turn?

Note: We usually do not post two different pieces in a day (much less a weekend!), so many readers are not used to "scrolling down." But please do scroll down to read Bill Easter's provocative piece on property, which we posted this morning.

There is a great deal of news coming out of the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans, along with a great many leaks and rumors and a great deal of spin. As I said a few days ago, we are not going to try to cover the news or the rumors. However, it may be helpful to suggest who is doing a good job of that coverage.

For those who want to keep up with the news and read some of the commentary, here are a few recommendations.

Episcopal Life Online is providing all its coverage on one page. Click here for it. They are providing photographs and video at their Multimedia page; that page also includes video (in two parts) of the Friday news conference with the Archbishop of Canterbury. [The photo at right is by Matthew Davies, courtesy of Episcopal Life Online.]

EpiScope, the Episcopal Church's official news blog, is providing links to newspaper reports from mainstream media covering the meeting. We cannot imagine how Jan Nunley (the voice of EpiScope) is doing this in addition to all the other duties she must have in New Orleans.

At the Episcopal Café, Jim Naughton and his energetic crew are offering news and analysis at The Lead, with longer reflections and essays at the Daily Episcopalian.

Thinking Anglicans – writing from across the pond – does a masterful job of capturing news stories as well as important blogs and analysis.

Mark Harris is doing much fine analysis at Preludium. In one essay, he discusses the blurring role of reporters and bloggers, and he lists his favorite sources. (We were deeply honored to be included in Mark's "A List.")

TitusOneNine provides a news digest, as well as some original materials. It's probably the most reliable and temperate of the news/analysis sites on the "right" side of the aisle.

StandFirm also provides news and analysis. This tends to be the site that first receives "leaked" documents and news from the Network bishops and other conservatives.

Many on the "left" side of the aisle turn to Father Jake for analysis of the major news.

Kendall Harmon's crew at TitusOneNine has provided a handy list of reporters and bloggers who are writing from New Orleans. Click here for it.

Meanwhile, remember that there will be rumors and gnashing of teeth from all sides. Little of it will matter until the bishops issue their statement after the meeting concludes Tuesday.


Editor's Note: Father Easter's essay was submitted early this month and accepted for publication on September 9. No doubt, some visitors will ask "What the heck does this have to do with the House of Bishops meeting now underway in New Orleans?" We reply: Regardless of the outcome of the bishops' meeting, the regular work of dioceses and parishes will continue. Fr. Easter's essay addresses the discussion of how church property should be disposed, and this is a question that many dioceses are facing and will continue to face.

by the Rev. William B. Easter

Sales of Episcopal Church property are getting headlines these days. We hear stories of the Dioceses of Los Angeles, Virginia, and San Diego where the Church struggles to keep its property from being alienated by people who have left the Episcopal Church. Then we hear of the well publicized "sweetheart deals" in which church property has been sold for what appears to be below market value to departing congregations in Overland Park, Kansas, and Plano, Texas.

Stories about dioceses that sell parish property gives hope to the secessionists. Dioceses that sell property "on the cheap'" are lauded by them as reasonable, pastoral, and orthodox. In contrast, the leaders of dioceses committed to the continuing use of their own property are vilified as insensitive bullies, revisionists holding congregational majorities hostage to the letter of the law. These are the spins that are spun.

What is the cost of this vilification? I believe the defamation involved is a meager cost for what we retain. What we retain is our rightful legacy. We continue to burnish that legacy if we follow a policy. The heart of that policy should be akin to that of an antique shop.

Have you ever been in an antique shop, enjoying the clutter and the aromas of the past's patinas, and suddenly your attention is riveted by a charming piece? Perhaps it has the authenticating maker's mark. Perhaps it is the very same that was in your dear dead aunt's parlor. Alas! your hunt for the price brings you the dreaded news: a label with "NFS" is on it. "Not For Sale" is the shop owner's way of saying what is precious to her or him and what adds beauty to his or her life. The shop owner puts an "NFS" tag on some items because they are too priceless to be sold. In short, not everything has a price. Some things are priceless.

I think this homely example can inform an "NFS" policy concerning church property. Let me count the ways why this may be so.

Most often, a bishop begins the process of sanctifying church property – making it holy – by blessing it and setting it aside with a Trinitarian formula. Then the People of God, often generation after generation, add to the halo of holiness by the constant celebration of the Eucharist, numerous baptisms, marriages, burials, the very cadences of time. To this are added the experiences of grace that come with healing, reconciliation, renewal, and growth, and we perceive a place that has the deep patina of the Holy. In addition, people make their gifts of stained glass windows, patens, chalices, organs, columbariums, and so on. The fact remains that from the very beginning, through it all up to the moment, all took place under the aegis, the umbrella of the Episcopal Church – not from dissenters, not from secessionists, not from the disgruntled, not from the alienated. The genesis of and experiences in a place really do count, measured over the long haul.

How can we possibly treat the church's hallowed property as just another piece of commercial real estate on the market? If that is our bent, why limit ourselves to selling it to the secessionists – especially when they may very well use it as a platform for further disparagement of the Episcopal Church? Why not open up the sale to other Christian traditions or to the other two Abrahamic traditions? Think about it: Could we abide selling our Washington National Cathedral or Canterbury to secessionists? I doubt it. Are the holy places that those leaving the Episcopal Church covet somehow less holy than our cathedrals?

Dioceses' willingness to sell parish property fosters that corrosive attitude of congregationalism, opposed to our belief that we are part of a diocese, a national church, a world wide Anglican Communion, and the body of Christ. The result of this willingness to cede parish property by any diocese encourages the current occupants of a parish to decide they have standing as buyers, a kind of "right of first refusal," as it were. Agreeing to enter into negotiations with such a group disenchanted with the Episcopal Church accedes to them a standing they merely assume they have and raises false hopes in them. When we start to sell our property, we are responsible for raising those false hopes.

Consider this. Why would any church deed over property to folk who wish it harm and to displace it in a wider communion? Why would we deed property to those who also look to intrusive foreign bishops for oversight – those who will continue to act as pirates, sowing discord and making off with more and more of our churches? Individuals are certainly free to leave the Episcopal Church and build another congregation. They just have to do that off the Church's property. Would MacDonald's sell its locations to Burger King in order to further its interests?

Finally, and perhaps most important for the long haul, selling holy places sets a perilous precedent. It encourages those with perceived slights, injustices, and errors to view secession and departure with property as the simple remedy. It would be nice to think that our current cause du jour will be our last. History suggests upheavals are recurrent and have to be lived with and worked through, as we did with the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the ordination of women. Following the rhetoric of those who want to leave and take our property with them, we could have sold away the very churches we now treasure over and over again with each significant change in the way the Episcopal Church has responded to the world. Why aid and abet by selling property to those who care not to stay and tough it out? Rewarding questionable behavior is always a bad investment.

A diocesan policy of "NFS" will allay false hopes, save needlessly wasted time in negotiations, signal to our time and the generations to come what we value as precious – our heritage, the holy places birthed and reared in and by the Episcopal Church, all beyond price.

About the Author: Father Easter served in the Navy six years during WWII and the Korean conflict, mostly as an air traffic controller. He is a graduate of Ripon College (Wisconsin) and a Rockefeller Theological Fellow 1959 graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary. Also he's been director of Human Resources for two Chicago area financial groups. He has served as Rector and Associate Rector in three Texas parishes, where he was a rural dean, elected to a Diocesan Council and did research on sources of clergy restlessness in the late 1960s. He is a trained interim and has served five congregations in that capacity in Chicago and New Mexico and open to more. He is canonically a resident of Chicago and licensed the last 15 years in the Diocese of the Rio Grande.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Peace, Be Still

by Lisa Fox (for The Episcopal Majority)

Surely all readers of this site know that the House of Bishops will convene in New Orleans for dinner Wednesday evening along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, some Primates, and members of the Anglican Consultative Council. It seems that many people and groups are working to create a tone of hysteria around this meeting of our bishops.

In the past month, Kenya and Uganda have consecrated American (and formerly Episcopalian) priests as bishops to serve in the U.S. Now Nigeria has announced they will consecrate four more, and Rwanda will consecrate three more for AMiA in late January. Bishops in Nigeria are calling for the Archbishop of Canterbury to cancel the Lambeth Conference due to the stresses within the Anglican Communion. In the U.S., a few predictable dioceses (including Fort Worth, Quincy, Pittsburgh, and San Joaquin) have announced they may "pack their bags" to leave the Episcopal Church, if the bishops meeting in New Orleans don't vote as they wish.

It seems that many voices are working to create an air of crisis this month. Many want to make us believe that the whole world may change on October 1st if our bishops don't vote the right way. As St. Paul would say, “Let me show you a much better way. . . .” [I Cor. 12:31 (CEV)]

We need to detach from the frenzy and hold onto the deeper realities in this struggle.

Reality One: Our bishops understand “spin” when they see it. Pat Ashworth writes in the Church Times: "Spin-doctors are dismantling the Anglican Communion in line with their political agenda." And "spin" is exactly what the Episcopal Church is seeing and hearing as we approach the House of Bishops' meeting. Powerful forces want to drive our bishops into a paranoid reaction, and they are orchestrating their message. But do not be led astray. Our bishops are a godly group. They show no sign of capitulating to this "spin." They need and deserve our support in resisting the distortions flying around.

Reality Two: There are important issues before the House of Bishops. Over at the Episcopal Café, Jim Naughton offers a helpful summary of the issues now coming before the House of Bishops. He also warns us not to leap upon leaks and rumors coming out of the meeting. The words of this veteran journalist are well worth heeding. We need insight and wisdom rather than power struggles – and for that we all require some inner calm and trust. Our best prayer may be one that echoes Jesus’ prayer when, as the disciples were cowering in the boat, He commanded the raging storm: "Peace, be still." [Mark 4:39]

Reality Three: Following the English Reformation, the life of the church proceeded pretty much as before. In the same way, it will continue in the United States after October 1. Some time after the stilling of the storm, Jesus said: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." [Matthew 6:25-33]

What can we do today?

Do not give into the "bread of anxiety," which some are dispensing. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to God. And God will preserve the Church unto the last day. We are to eat of the Bread of Life which is for all God’s people.

Pray for all those bishops and others who will convene in New Orleans, and for all leaders in the Anglican Communion. This prayer from our Prayer Book seems especially apt:
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. [BCP, pg. 816]
Peace. Be still. Trust in the Spirit, who will guide us – all of us – into all truth.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Editor's Note: This essay was submitted by Bishop Theuner and accepted for publication on September 10, 2007.

COVENANT – with Whom? and Why?
by the Right Rev. Douglas Theuner

Under the entry “covenant,” my dictionary first lists a definition under the category of “Law”: “a contract drawn up by deed.” Then it lists a second definition under the category of “Theology”: "an agreement that brings about a relationship of commitment between God and his [sic] people”.

The proposed “Anglican Covenant” is surely intended to be a legal device – that is, “a contract drawn up by deed.” However, since the preamble to the Anglican Covenant does not even mention “GOD,” it can hardly qualify for the dictionary’s “Theology” definition according to which the “agreement” is between God and his [sic.] people and not merely among individual members or groups of members of “his [sic.] people.”

The historical definition of “covenant” in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that of a relationship between God and God’s people. Although the use of “covenant” as a description of how people deal with one another, under God, holds an honored position in the Reformed tradition, it is not so conceived in the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures.

It would appear that the framers of the proposed “Anglican Covenant” have opted for “Law” over “Theology.” Dare we even speculate about the place of “Grace”?

It is being suggested that Anglicans think in the language of “law.” Therefore, let us consider the great heritage of English Common Law from which our manner of governing ourselves derives.

The “crown jewel” of English law is the “unwritten constitution” by which the British people have governed themselves for the past eight centuries (using Magna Carta as an arbitrary starting point). It is from within this tradition that Anglicanism, particularly its polity, has developed. It would appear that the desire of some contemporary British politicians to compromise this concept in the United Kingdom also infects some of the Anglican Communion’s leadership.

The Anglican Communion is a rather modern invention created at the time of the American Revolution by the necessity of those previously loyal to the Church of England to restructure their governance after the abolition here of the monarchy whose incumbent was Head of both the English Church and State. (No matter that a majority of those Americans loyal to the Church of England were also political Loyalists.)

For a very brief period of time, between the Revolution and the acquiescence of King, Parliament, and Archbishop of Canterbury to the consecration of Bishops William White and Samuel Provoost in 1786, American Anglicans can be said to have been “out of communion” (again for purely political reasons over which church people had no control) with Archbishop Moore of Canterbury, who, nevertheless, considered the consecration of Samuel Seabury by the Scottish non-juring bishops in 1784 to be valid. So, effectually, began the Anglican Communion, a quarter of a millennium after Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

Membership in what we call the “Anglican Communion” continued to be defined by being “in communion” with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was afforded a “primacy of honor” with no metropolitan jurisdiction outside the Church of England. There were no other “Instruments of Unity” until the Lambeth Conference was established eighty years later as a result of church-state concerns in England and questions raised by the teachings of Bishop William Colenso of Natal in South Africa. But at its third meeting, the bishop/bureaucrats [or is that a redundancy in an increasingly institutionalized church?] decided for a permanent consultative body, the realization of which finally came over sixty years later with the establishment of the Anglican Consultative Council in 1968.

With the founding of the Anglican Consultative Council, lay people finally had a place at the table with the hierarchs. But, then, just 20 years ago, the Lambeth Conference established the so-called Primate’s Meeting [so much for the emergence of the laity] as a periodic “get-together,” “kaffe klatch,” “meeting,” or whatever, of the chief doorkeepers of the communion. [That must be what the Psalmist meant when he said that he’d “rather be a door keeper in the House of the lord, …]

And so, the “Instruments of Unity” were complete. Well, not exactly, as both of the last two groups have executive committees of sorts. Then there’s the Anglican Communion Office and various networks, not to mention the ever-proliferating self-interest groups which all purport to know better than the others what God wants for God’s Church. There’s that arcane word “God” again!

Now, coming next to a church near you, is …The Anglican Covenant”!!! (Whoops, there goes “GOD” again… That’s what they must mean by a deus absconditus !)

Our “unwritten” Anglican constitution is to be superceded by an increasing number of bureaucratic and legalistic “instruments.” Someone needs to be in control, lest we run amok with the Gospel and the institution degenerate back into merely being the “way, the truth and the life”!

Since we’re talking the language of “law,” it might do us well to consider the wisdom of the legal, civic arena. For instance, the “Father of our Country” – himself a cultural Episcopalian, though not one that would be considered “orthodox,” “catholic,” or “evangelical” by any definition of this or any other era - notably warned us about “foreign entanglements” in his famous Farewell Address, delivered virtually 221 years ago to the day the Archbishop of Canterbury comes to meet with the American bishops in New Orleans. After all, we are Americans, and that experience has helped to shape the way we experience and witness to GOD in our own time and place. (Yes, GOD is back!) Just to set the context for Washington’s famous remark, he also said in that famous speech:

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest…constantly keeping in view that it is folly for one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance it may place itself in the condition of being given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.
Such honest wisdom from an American President boggles the contemporary mind! But those among us who see things from a theological perspective, those of us who seek covenants with GOD, might be more moved by the words of the Son of God, who surely respected the Scriptures, obeyed Him whom He understood to be His Father and founded the Church as His Body. How might He who founded no institution and appeared to have no great faith in them -- He who is at perfect unity with the Creator and Sustainer of life -- look upon the “Instruments of Unity” drawn up by people who cry “peace, peace, where there is no peace”? Might He say of us “Covenanters,” as he did of our ecclesiastical forbearers:

Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market place and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widow’s houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. (Mark 12:38-40)
The Anglican mansion may be a bit dowdy and in need of rejuvenation but, if it is built neither of straw nor upon sand, but upon the Rock of Jesus Christ, neither the winds of change nor the gates of hell shall prevail against it.

We don’t need another legal document, another covenant with one another, another “Instrument of Unity,” another long robe, salutation, best seat, or place of honor. We need only the grace [Ah, there it is!] of GOD as revealed in Jesus Christ: “the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

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

New Testament Vision of the Church

The earliest Christian movements proclaimed the idea that "community" was not to be based on uniformity but would cut across different social and cultural locations and embrace people very different from each other. Jesus proclaimed a vision of life in the future kingdom in which people would come from east and west, north and south, to sit at the banquet table together. In different ways, the New Testament writers believed that the one creator was now providing the reconciliation that enabled early followers of Jesus eagerly to reach the diverse humanity of all creation. Early Christian communities challenged and empowered people to live by the values that would make such universalism possible -- the love of enemy, the commitment to reconciliation, the refusal to dominate, the willingness to forgive, the eagerness to value the gifts of others, the offer of unconditional love, and so on. Such values fostered great variety in the shape and composition of early communities.

David Rhoads, The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels, Fortress Press 1996

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Archbishop Peers on the Primates and the ACC

Editor's Note: We have received correspondence from Archbishop Michael Peers, in which he offers his reflections on Canon Robert Brooks' analysis of the ACC Constitution and the occasional confusion of roles between the ACC and the Primates Meeting. We are honored that he chose to share his insights with The Episcopal Majority, and we post his essay with his permission.

About the Author: Archbishop Michael Peers is retired primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, where he served as primate from 1986 to 2004. Further biographical details are available at
the Anglican Church of Canada website.

An Amplification of the Brooks Document
by Archbishop Michael G. Peers

I write to give some background in support of Canon Brooks' lucid and admirable exposition of the realities surrounding the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) and its relation to the primates and to the Primates Meeting.

I do so out of a long relationship with, and commitment to, both institutions and to their goals and purposes. In the 1970s I was a member of the ACC as a priest representing the Anglican Church of Canada .From 1986 to 2004 I was a member of the Primates Meeting. From 1993 to 2003, first as Chair of the Inter-Anglican Finance Committee, then as a member of the Primates’ Standing Committee, I attended four ACC meetings (1993 to 2002) with voice not vote, and all the annual meetings of the Joint Standing Committee from 1993 to 2003.

It is important to note carefully the role of the primates referred to in the ACC Constitution in the process of altering the list of member provinces. The primate of each province responds to a proposed change in the name of, presumably representing the mind of, the province. (In the Canadian church, the primate’s positive response to each request to add a province to the list was based on a resolution to that effect by the Council of General Synod, not simply on the primate’s own opinion.) The reference in the Constitution to messages from the primates does not refer to a message from the Primates Meeting; at the time the Constitution was written, the Primates Meeting did not exist. I would contend that just as messages from the primates to the ACC about altering (i.e., adding to) the list of member provinces do not come from a Primates Meeting but from each of the primates expressing the mind of his or her province rather than a collective mind, the same would be the case in a hypothetical instance of deleting a name on the list.

The Primates Meeting arose after the Lambeth Conference of 1978. It is certainly true that, among many bishops at that conference opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, there was a hope that the primates might clip the wings of the ACC which had issued in 1973 a response to the Bishop of Hong Kong stating their opinion that there was no absolute reason why women may not be ordained priests. But the stated purpose of the Primates Meeting was the provision of occasions of mutual support and building of a community of persons of similar ministries within the Communion. The very name and the style of the meetings express it well. Even though a resolution of the 1978 Lambeth Conference refers to a “Primates Committee,” that name was never used. The ACC consults. The Lambeth bishops confer. The primates meet.

Archbishop Donald Coggan, in presiding over the first meeting, made it clear that the meeting was not going to become a resolution-producing body. The Meetings have traditionally produced statements, and the preparation of those statements certainly produces debate; but no resolution is ever taken, or even proposed, about the statement or any other subject. Even Archbishop George Carey, who arguably contributed to the higher visibility of the Primates Meeting by acceding to the request from some members for annual meetings (an innovation advised against by those primates who chaired the Inter-Anglican Finance Committee!), resisted any attempt to introduce the proposing of motions. Such a change would overstep the mandate agreed upon from the first meeting.

Confusion of roles between the ACC and the Primates Meeting is not new. Soon after the 1988 Lambeth Conference, there arose an issue where the Primates Standing Committee (originally simply an Agenda Committee) wanted to act in order to resolve a difficult question concerning the future of the Anglican Centre in Rome. They were unaware that the ACC Standing Committee was also working on the same issue, and the two bodies were soon at cross-purposes. In order to prevent such problems in the future, it was proposed that the two Standing Committees meet jointly. This has been the practice at the annual meetings ever since. The nine members of the ACC Standing Committee and the five members of the Primates’ Standing Committee vote as a body. But, crucially, the Primates Standing Committee members may not vote on the approval of the audited financial statement because the ACC is a legally constituted body, registered with the Charities Commissioners of the United Kingdom, and only the constitutionally elected members are allowed by law to vote.

The ACC has its place and, because it is the only Communion-wide “Instrument” with representation from orders other than episcopal, it was designed to have the greatest authority. I pray that it may have the freedom and grace to use that authority wisely. The Primates Meeting has its place in a church which is “episcopally led and synodically governed” in the words Archbishop Coggan used. I pray that it may have the grace to use its leadership humbly.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Undermining of the Episcopal Church, Part 4

Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final essay in the series. The earlier essays may be found here, here, and here.

"Replacing the Christ with a Code"
by the Rev. Thomas B. Woodward

This will be the most important and also the most difficult part of this series on "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church." It is most important because the notion of a static Christian morality undermines not just the Episcopal Church – but the Christian faith itself. It is most difficult because few of us are able to distinguish the Christian faith as separate from our favorite Christian morality.

The Issue

When the leadership of the Network and similar groups call the Episcopal Church heretical or “non-Christian,” what they are referring to is not our failure to adhere to the historic creeds of the church or to Jesus Christ as savior. What they are referring to is our adherence to a moral code that is not identical to their own! While many “orthodox” Christians may believe their code is moral, as we shall see, that code is not in any way Christian.

When some church leaders from around the world charge homosexual people in loving, committed relationships with sexual immorality or rebellion against the will of God, they undermine the very basis of our faith – not just as Episcopalians, but as Christians.

These are strong statements, and I want to address them – not by adding to the polemics, but by focusing on several crucial underpinnings of Christian morals and morality. In this essay, I will address the nature of revelation, the problem with a single or “authoritative Christian ethics,” the unacknowledged ways moral principles often conflict with one another, the empirical record of necessary and sometimes sudden shifts in Christian ethics and morality at critical times, and the bizarre notion that there is a timeless “faith once delivered to the saints.”

The Nature of Revelation

For Episcopalians and most Anglicans, revelation has not been propositional; that is, it is not a set of precepts and rules. It has been primarily an understanding of the response of Israel to the actions of God in the world and through the person of Jesus Christ. We refer to Jesus Christ as the Word of God in good part because he is “What God meant to say.” After the great dancer, Pavlova, performed one evening, a patron asked her, “What did you mean by that dance?” She responded, “Had I been able to say it in words, I would not have danced it.” So, too, with God. God sent Jesus to live among us because Jesus was "what God meant to say" to us humans.

The Word of God is found primarily in the life, teaching, parables, and actions of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels:
  • the calling of the tax collector, Levi, as apostle [Luke 5:27-32]

  • Jesus' eating (“having table fellowship”) with those branded as the greatest sinners [Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32 and 15:1-2],

  • the Beatitudes [Matthew 5:1-12], in which Jesus describes those who constitute the Kingdom,

  • the parable of the Wedding Feast [Matthew 22:2-14 and Luke 14:15-24], where those furthest from the moral and spiritual center of the community are welcomed and honored,

  • the parable of the Leaven [Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21], in which the Kingdom is described as the mixture of the purity of the flour and the corruption (that is the New Testament usage of the word) of the leaven,

  • the honoring of the Samaritan [Luke 10:29-37], the Syro-Phoenican woman [Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28], the rich Zaccheus [Luke 19:1-10] and the poor [Matthew 25],

  • Jesus’ demand that love – not outward observance – is the measure of morality [see, for instance, Matthew 23:25-26. For an analysis of the rejection of the purity code by Jesus, see “The Parables of Jesus from the Inside,” by Thomas B. Woodward, Sewanee Theological Review, Volume 47:1, Christmas 2003],and

  • Jesus’ constant undercutting of the religious establishment and the purity laws in his parables and teaching.
Is there another strain in the Gospels? Of course there is! Jesus said “not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until all is fulfilled.” That verse seems to be the good news for the “orthodox.” The bad news is that inclusivity, diversity, and grace outnumber Jesus' affirmations of the purity code in a ratio probably greater than 30 to 1.

What Does a Christian Morality Have to Do with Jesus?

Here is what C. H. Dodd wrote in Gospel and Law: The Relation of Faith and Ethics in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1951, p. 39): “Since the church ... is one with Christ as the body with its head, it follows that its members are to find in Him an objective standard of ethical conduct.” That makes sense, doesn’t it? Then why – instead of looking to the Word of God, whose vision of the Kingdom is so expansive – have we spent so many years looking to the words of the author of Leviticus and of Paul? We need to remember that Paul does not claim Jesus as his inspiration for narrowing the Kingdom by excluding those who, from all we know of the Gospel record, would have been precious to Jesus. He does that on his own.

This same concern is echoed by Jacques Ellul, William Stringfellow’s French compatriot:

“… This is why Jesus attacks the Pharisees so severely even though they are the most moral of people, live the best lives, and are perfectly obedient and virtuous. They have progressively substituted their own morality for the living and actual Word of God that can never be fixed in commandments.” (The Subversion of Christianity, Eerdmans, 1986, page 70)
Oddly enough, most unchurched young people in this country seem to have it right. When told of the condemnation of Bishop Gene Robinson’s consecration and of gay and lesbian relationships by segments of our church, they ask: “What happened to Jesus? and what happened to the Christian principle of love?”

Conclusion #1: The preoccupation with homosexual relationships as sinful may be rooted in Biblical material and supported through the church’s tradition, but it does not represent Christian morality except, mistakenly, in name.

Rejoinder: But aren’t there statements in the Bible declaring homosexual activity sinful?

Mark Noll, writing in The Christian Century last year, noted the similarity between our debates about homosexuality and those in 1845 concerning the Bible’s view of slavery. He recounts a great debate in which Nathan Rice argued the specific proslavery texts and Jonathan Blanchard argued for the “general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible” in language remarkably similar to our debates today. While Rice won the hearts of the Biblical fundamentalists, Blanchard’s argument has come to represent Christian ethics by virtue of its links to the teaching and life of Jesus.

Speaking to the same issue, Henry Ward Beecher conceded that a defense of slavery [similarly, I maintain, to a rationale for condemning homosexual relationships] could be teased out of obscure, individual texts of scripture, but surely the defining message of the Bible was something else entirely. In his sermon of January 4, 1861, Beecher strenuously appealed to the general meaning of the Bible, as opposed to the pedantic literalism that undergirded the proslavery view:

"I came to open the prison-doors," said Christ; and that is the text on which men justify shutting them and locking them. "I came to loose those that are bound"; and that is the text out of which men spin cords to bind men, women, and children. "I came to carry light to them that are in darkness and deliverance to the oppressed"; and that is the Book from out of which they argue, with amazing ingenuity, all the infernal meshes and snares by which to keep men in bondage. It is pitiful. [Quoted in Noll]

The Utter Foolishness of a Single, Authoritative Christian Morality

Early Christianity was often referred to as “The Way,” which many Chinese Christians consider to echo or reflect the notion of Tao. [See “These Three Are the Treasures” in our Wonder, Love and Praise hymnal.] One of the benefits of the description is its accurate portrayal of the young church as different from surrounding groups that were dependent on structures with strict rules for the ordering of their lives. Though humankind seems to have a penchant for the security of rules and proscriptions, Jesus refused to give into that penchant. Instead, he spoke of human qualities in the Beatitudes, as Paul did of the marks of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5. In what we have in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus speaks in hyperbole and metaphor, but not with rules and regulations. Christianity is not a set of rules and regulations to which one gives assent; it is a response in faith to the revelation in Jesus Christ.

If we are judged, Paul and Jesus both suggest, we are judged by the quality of our caring and of our relationships. The question is: How do your life, your relationships reflect the gifts of the Holy Spirit? What are the marks of Christlike love in your life with other people? You can’t get there by a list of do’s and don’ts!

We need to remember that our moral life is grounded in faith – in our relationship with God though faith. “We betray ourselves when we identify Christianity with a particular morality,” writes Ellul. “There have been Christian moralities through the ages, but Christianity is a faith and involves a relationship of faith as a community – it has never been a morality, in competition with other moralities, though many inside and particularly outside the church have attempted to make it so.” We must not embrace a morality that transforms our religion of faith and grace into a generalized list of do’s and don’ts that may or may not reflect current circumstance.

Ironically, if there were a perennial Christian morality, it would look much different from ours today. If it were to be patterned only on the words and teaching of Jesus, we would all be pacifists, fully and absolutely committed to the poor, with slight regard for what are now called "family values," and with even less respect for civil authority than what is embedded in our prayer books.

Here is what happens when we base our moral code on selected Biblical passages: in our history, that kind of thinking has led to our providing moral and military support for crusades and the Inquisition, centuries and centuries of church inspired anti-semitism, the segregation of our churches by race, the subjugation of women in marriage and in the culture, and on and on and on. Each and all of these confident moralities of their times fails the tests of divine love and of any real relationship to the person and the teaching of Jesus. They fail especially when compared to Jesus' teaching in the parables of inclusion and reversal, such as the Leaven, the Marriage Feast, the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and the Publican. Yet, despite all we should have learned from that history, we continue to enshrine our personal prejudice into what we hold out as a timeless code of conduct. When we do that, we settle for the antithesis of a Christian morality.

Conclusion #2: Our moral rules, even when blessed with small Scriptural warrant and use over time, may, in fact, contradict the Truth or the Way as revealed in Jesus Christ – or in the overwhelming witness of the prophets and writers of the Wisdom literature of the Bible. When they do, we should abandon them, as our forebears have done over and over again through the centuries. Otherwise, we bring disgrace upon our faith and upon our God.

Morality – Even Christian Morality – Often Conflicts with Itself

I was once involved in a public debate on the subject of abortion with a very articulate and very conservative priest at a clergy conference. He argued sanctity of life, and I argued the spiritual values and principles of several exceptions to an absolute ban on abortions. At one point I said, “I am afraid to say ‘sanctity of life,’ because I fear I may have to give up important exceptions – and you are afraid to allow even a single exception for fear of having to give up your belief in the absolute sanctity of life.” We discovered that we were arguing about a paradox. When we acknowledged that life can conflict with life and that we are not often in a position to choose between good and evil, but among goods or between the lesser of several evils, we found that we could live together with love and mutual acceptance.

Any absolutist version of Christian morality has no place for that insight and reality. Living morally as a Christian is full of doubt and discernment and struggle. While Christian pacifism is thoroughly Biblical and a powerful witness to the teaching and person of Jesus Christ, we stand in awe of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s struggle between that deep, deep strain within himself and the opposing morality of resisting Hitler’s evil with violence.

As an example of how quickly things do change, consider that following World War I, it was largely the influence of ethicists and theologians at Union Theological Seminary that helped our nation develop what some have called a "national pacifism" in response to the horrors of that war. It was in the early 1940s that many of the same faculty at the same seminary helped American Protestantism come to terms with the necessity of Christians to participate in World War II as an expression of their faith. That conflict between religious principles remained through World War II and future conflicts, as young men struggled with the effects of their religious upbringing in deciding whether or not to file as conscientious objectors to participation in armed combat. Many found they could count on their church for support for either conclusion!

Our understanding of Christian marriage has undergone exactly the same kind of enormous changes over the centuries, from a time when polygamy was practiced in parts of the church, through the use of marriage to achieve various political goals, the long history of our subjugation of women, the issue of remarriage after divorce, and our continuing struggle to come to terms with some understanding of equal partnership within marriage. The “good old days” were not good for anyone – neither the men who had most of the perquisites, nor the women who were subjugated.

Conclusion #3: Our increasing knowledge, understanding, and perspective do change the "contents" of our moral response to God.

Rejoinder: Doesn’t that mean that St. Paul may not have gotten homosexuality right?

Given all we know about real people in real relationships, living out their lives with all the marks of the Holy Spirit and in full dedication of their lives together to Jesus Christ, do we even have to ask? Our inherited moral codes regarding homosexual relationships were based on little more than a few verses from the Jewish purity code and the feeling that such behavior was "sick" or “nasty” or “dirty.” Today we have a choice. We can choose to hold on to that inheritance, or we can base our morality in the context of observing the loving, caring, and committed relationships among people we know. Sexual and interpersonal morality should be no different for married heterosexual couples than for partnered same-gender couples; there is behavior that is hurtful and cruel in both, as well as behavior that is loving and life-giving in both. We can tell the difference. Really, we can.

“But I Believe in the Faith Once Delivered to the Saints!”

The obvious question is “Which saints?" David Rhoads, in his recent book, The Challenge of Diversity, identifies four quite different understandings of Jesus’ teaching about love among the four evangelists and three pretty much mutually exclusive understandings of atonement. The diversity of ritual and ethics and theology was incredibly rich and diverse in the first centuries of the Christian Church. So the question is proper: Which saint? Was it Peter or Paul? Matthew or John? Irenaeus or the author of the Didache? and on and on.

When you get right down to it, “the faith once delivered to the saints” usually translates to “What I wish Jesus had established as an ethic for all time.” However, as noted above, Jesus’ ethics bear little resemblance to what those who nowadays call for “the faith once delivered to the saints” have in mind. The use of the phrase, “the faith once delivered to the saints” can mean only one thing: “Beware! Christian hoax ahead!”

Conclusion #4: You have to squash an enormous diversity of insights and awareness if you want to propose an unchanging Christian morality for all generations. When you do that, the result will be the opposite of a faithful response to the Scriptures as the Word of God.

Rejoinder: But isn’t it true that the Bible says certain things are right and certain things are wrong?

It may be argued that, on the whole, we don’t pay much attention to very much of anything Biblical writers urge upon us, unless their urgings happen to match our prejudices.

However, in response to the Rejoinder, the Bible doesn’t say anything. It is more faithful to say “St. Paul says/teaches that . . .” or “The author of Leviticus says/teaches that . . .” The Bible does not teach that women must have their heads covered in worship; Paul does. Because it is Paul who teaches that, not the Bible itself, we can deal with that requirement in the light of everything else we know. That is also true of other matters. (Hint, hint!)

The Episcopal Church has no reason to fear diversity in experience and in faithful response to the loving gifts of God. God did not die shortly after Biblical times. God has not delegated to the Anglican Communion Network or any other group the responsibility to exclude or to impose limits to the elements of Creation eligible for God’s blessing! There has been no parting of the clouds with God’s voice addressing Martyn Minns or any of the Network’s fundamentalist dissidents, crying out: “Narrow the Vision! Narrow the Vision! Punish those who honor my Creation!”

The Proposal

Here is the deal: The Episcopal Church could sacrifice the centrality of our Book of Common Prayer, our reverence for Holy Scripture and its study, our understanding of life as sacramental, our belief in the authority of the laity in the governance of the church, our trust in the vows our clergy make, and our longstanding refusal to countenance a morality which is neither Christian nor moral. Even if we bartered away those topics I have addressed in this series of essays, what would we get in exchange? We would get to revert to the primatial oversight we rejected at the birth of our church – and we would gain the evil authority to proclaim that such people as Michelalangelo Buonarroti, Sir John Gielgud, W. H. Auden, Ned Rorem, Lily Tomlin, and thousands upon thousands of men and women who have given their lives for Jesus Christ have, according to St. Paul’s teaching and Lambeth 1.10, no place in the Kingdom of God.

That is a proposal we can and must refuse. Our bishops must turn it down for the sake of all that we hold precious.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Undermining of the Episcopal Church, Part 3

“A Case of Spiritual Adultery”
by the Reverend Thomas B. Woodward

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in Father Woodward's essay, "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church." Parts 1 and 2 are available here and here.

We urge those who have not read
Canon Brooks' memorandum on the Anglican Constitution here at The Episcopal Majority to do so, as it reflects some of Father Woodward's observations about the current shredding of the authority of the laity by those who want to discipline the Episcopal Church.

We have a curious situation in the Episcopal Church. Several bishops, whose chief duty is the oversight of their dioceses, are publicly opposed to their church – and this is not simply a matter of having serious concerns about one’s church. A number of bishops and others were actively critical of the church in the 1960s and '70s. What is different in the current situation is that these bishops are not speaking primarily from within the church and to the church. Rather, they are placing themselves outside the church and vilifying our church from that "outside" position. In addition, these bishops are active members of organizations such as the Anglican Communion Network and CANA that have been working for years to replace the Episcopal Church! On the whole, their strategy has consisted of public verbal attacks on the church, while seeking alliances wherever they can be found around the globe.

As I noted in Part 2 of this series, their pronouncements on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, their shredding of the authority of the laity in the church, and their decision to substitute the theology and ethics of a misogynist prayer book for our 1979 Book of Common Prayer represent a consistent attack on the very church that continues to pay their salaries. It also represents a repudiation of the vows these bishops and many priests made before God – and without which they would not have been ordained priests or bishops – although few will acknowledge that. There is a name for this – not a pretty name at all – but that will come later.

At the consecration of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, the one being consecrated makes a solemn vow before God. Along with marriage vows, the words and the promise made at one’s ordination are the most solemn any human being can utter. In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer the vow is this:
“In the Name of God, Amen. I, N., chosen Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in N., do promise conformity and obedience to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. So help me God, through Jesus Christ.” (p. 552)
If you chose not to make the vow, you were not consecrated. Note that the vow of obedience is to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church, not to “what I believe the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church should be” or “what primates from other parts of the Anglican Communion tell me it ought to be.” Note, also, there is no qualifier such as “all things being equal . . .” or “. . . until I believe otherwise.” The vow is absolute. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the vow is similar:
“… I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” (p. 523)
This is on top of the vow made at one’s priesting and when being ordered deacon:
“Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” (BCP, pp. 526 and 538)

Why Are Ordination Vows Important?

In our church, we take marriage vows very seriously. The vows made at ordination are equally serious. Why is that so?

First, St. Paul in Romans 9-11 goes to great pains to assert that when God makes a promise, that promise is unbreakable. Otherwise, God would be untrustworthy. The same is true with our Lord's promises of faithfulness to his vocation: for Jesus, the cross is preferable to the slightest deviation from his promise of obedience to the Father.

It is in that context that clergy and religious (monks and nuns) make their vows. When we break our ordination or consecration vows, we undermine the credibility of the Christian Church, the Body of Christ we were ordained or consecrated to serve. When we break these vows and walk the walk of disobedience, we repudiate before our people the unique power of the Cross. Simply stated, we commit spiritual abuse on those who trust us to keep our vows.

Second, when dealing with a married couple when one of the couple wants out of the marriage to begin or continue with a different partner, the advice of professionals is almost always the same: deal first with the stresses and anguish within your marriage, then divorce if you must. Only then – and only after a period of time – should you consider any new affiliation.

The same applies to one’s vows to the church. Spiritual adultery (pretending to be faithful to one while cleaving to another) is just that – spiritual adultery. It is holding onto your position of pledged loyalty and trust at the same time you are betraying it. Spiritual adultery – like marital adultery – tears at the hearts of too many people, including the heart of the adulterer, to be tolerated.

Then Why Do These Vows Seem To Mean So Little?

It is scandalous for ordained men (very few women) to stand in the pulpit of the church that nurtured and ordained them, urging their congregation to break faith with the Episcopal Church. That is a violation on so many levels. It is breaking one’s vows publicly. It is a violation of one’s fiduciary responsibility to the Episcopal Church, to one’s diocese, and to one’s parish church. And it makes a mockery of anything like integrity.

What does a person with integrity do when faced with irreconcilable differences with his or her employer? Do you quit? Do you continue to draw your salary while attempting to discredit, smear, or even destroy your employer? Or do you remain loyal, while working to find ways to resolve what seemed to be irreconcilable differences?

The answer is clear to those in leadership of the Anglican Communion Network and related organizations They continue to draw their salaries and they continue to enjoy the perquisites of their positions in the Episcopal Church while they work nearly full-time to discredit and undermine the church. What is true for them, unfortunately, is true for many “orthodox” parish priests: rather than resign from the church they vilify and undermine, they use the power and prestige of their positions in our church in an attempt to replace or empty it.

It's Gone Way Past Flirting

On another level, there are dioceses – such as the California Diocese of San Joaquin – which are attempting to remove any references to its constitutional dependence upon the Episcopal Church from its own Constitution and Canons. Why would those proposing such a move not simply resign from the church they so despise, instead of undermining and destroying it?

In similar fashion, it is clear that Pittsburgh’s bishop, Bob Duncan, in explaining his reasons for seeking Alternative Primatial Oversight (someone other than our Presiding Bishop) for his diocese, knows and his attorneys know that such a move is illegal and completely against the polity of the Episcopal Church, which he has sworn to honor.

This weekend, Bishops Duncan and Iker traveled to Kenya to take part in the consecration of two American priests as bishops who will represent foreign jurisdictions invading our own church in the United States! The violation of the Constitution and Canons of our church could not be more complete. The only analogy that comes to mind is a few chickens leaving the coop to deliver some steroids to a group of hungry foxes on their way to the hen house.My own conclusion is that Bishop Duncan and others should first deal with their ordination and consecration vows of loyalty to the Episcopal Church and its doctrine and discipline. They should have done so without involving their clergy or the people of their dioceses or congregations.

Bishop Duncan and others in our church could and should have done the honorable thing. They should have taken a leave of absence to sort things out with peers or spiritual advisors. If they decided they could no longer honor their vows, they should have announced their decision to leave the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church. (After all, without those vows, none of these men would have been ordained or consecrated in the first place.) Once separated from their vows, these clergy would be free to seek out whatever succor or position they wanted in the church of God. Alternatively, they might have reached a different conclusion, after which they could have held a private ceremony of recommitment to their ordination and consecration vows.

For a bishop to encourage his clergy [and it is all male bishops at this point] to follow anything but this process is, I believe, “conduct unbecoming” – one of the grounds for presentment and trial of a bishop. From my own experience of leadership in the civil rights movement and the Sanctuary movement, I know how beguiling power and the attraction of being in the opposition can be. Those of us who have been more or less successful in resisting the evil hold of those things are fortunate, while those who succumb to that beguiling promise of self-importance always end up doing more damage than any good they might have envisioned.

The Property Issue

Some of this duplicity is reflected in the various attempts of several bishops and priests to take away the property belonging to the Episcopal Church as they strike out for life in one of the acronymous churches (such as CANA, AMiA, etc.). Who wants to present himself to a foreign jurisdiction with no property, no buildings, no cash, and in desperate need of a copy machine? Is the primate of the Church in Nigeria or Bolivia going to be happy with a new mission of 500 people in New Mexico or Florida, requiring full financial support from their own strained budgets? How about 20 such congregations?

The Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are clear as clear can be about who owns the property. In order to be admitted into the Episcopal Church as a diocese, the petitioners have to agree that all their property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church, governed by the General Convention and Executive Council. When a group petitions to become a parish in a diocese, they have to agree, again in writing, that all their property is held by them in trust for the diocese and through the diocese for the national church. That has always been so in this church.

How can we think about the property grab by those leaving the Episcopal Church? It is probably like a teenage boy who joins a neighborhood basketball game. He plays happily and then discovers that the other boys have made a rule change he doesn’t like. What does he do? He picks up their basketball and goes home.

When anyone claims an independent right to the property of their parish church, they are acting outside church law. When people leaving the Episcopal Church argue that it was their money that built and maintained the church, they need to be reminded that when we donate money or property to the church, we relinquish any right or control over that money. Ask your church treasurer: every receipt of gifts given to the church and every pledge statement is required to note that the only thing you get for your gift consists of spiritual, not material benefits. You can’t claim a tax deduction for a charitable donation to the church, and then claim that it was an investment! The legal consequences of that dodge are considerable.

The particulars about our Constitution and Canons as they relate to our current struggles have been explored in a number of places. My point is that there is a disgraceful lack of integrity among those who remain on the church’s payroll while undermining it and among those who leave while they attempt to take with them the property that belongs to those they call apostate. Let us be clear: their actions and attitudes undermine not only the church that nurtured and (for the clergy) ordained them, but the holiness and seriousness of the baptismal or ordination vows they made.

This is spiritual adultery, and it is time to name it as spiritual adultery. The issues and concerns in our “Anglican Agonies” are not just differences of opinion. This goes way beyond differences of opinion: the undermining of our Book of Common Prayer, our commitment to the full participation of the laity, our long tradition of honoring the Bible and its authority in the church and in our lives, and the holiness of our vows and our signed agreements about property is about destroying the bedrock of our church’s existence. As such, it is an offense not just against those with whom you disagree: it’s an offense against God.

Postscript: Part 4 of Father Woodward's series on "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church" will be published in a few days.