Introduction: We are proud to publish the following essay by Fr. Tony Clavier, believing it provides a necessary perspective that has been sadly lacking in the church's wrestling with a number of critical issues. While this essay and the two previous ("Maturity in the Midst of Conflict" and "Sanctification of the Faithful") were written independently and not intended as a trilogy, each contributes in unique ways to a re-evaluation and reframing of many things that are dividing the church. We look forward to your comments, positive and negative, in the hopes that God will bless these explorations into our common life.
Coping with a Sinful Church
by the Rev. Tony Clavier
It seems to me that through the ages the episcopate has tended to assume the mantle of roughly equivalent office holders in the secular world. This has not always been a salutary habit, although it is probably inevitable. I have to remember this at vestry meetings when members reach to their secular experience to describe their religious duties! The fact that something is “natural” does not mean that it is either inevitable or salutary. The Church is in the business of “baptizing” the secular, not of conforming to it.
Baptizing the secular, however, does not mean obliterating it. A church building remains a building after it is consecrated. It becomes a building with a difference. We remain human beings after we are baptized. However, after baptism we are meant to be changed. Whether we are changed or not is not merely a matter of intention, or of triumph, but one of constant daily movement. The movement may be “progress” or “regress.”
Many years ago Charles Gore remarked about “doctrinal development” that not all development is salutary. There are mutations, just as there are in all other evolutionary areas. However we develop as Christians, the “process” is a far from simple matter. In one area or another we all fall off the wagon from time to time. Sometimes the fall is mighty and prolonged; other times it is fleeting – repented and forgiven “in the twinkling of an eye.” It is for that reason that almost all Anglican forms of worship contain provision for confession and absolution. Penitential rites in liturgy are primarily corporate and, within that context, individual as well. The church community is asked to repent. The church community is given absolution by the Lord of the Church. I use the word “Lord” advisedly.
We don’t often consider ecclesial repentance and absolution. Recently the Church of England “repented” of its role in the slave trade. I don’t know whether it received absolution. The Church and the churches do fall. It’s the human part of the divine/human nature of the Church which errs. It is possible, as the old Articles put it, for Councils to err. This was true at a time when Councils, general or even local, seldom met. It is equally true today when councils, at least local or pan-jurisdictional ones, with “legal authority or “merely” moral authority seem to meet all the time. Claims that the Holy Spirit inspires synods or that doctrine develops may be true. It remains inevitable that the Church and the churches, in council or merely in usual activity, err and stray more often than not. That we seem to ignore this fact, or that we naively believe that the Spirit bestows infallibility on our communal activities of whatever sort, is amazing.
To imagine that it is our duty to “leave the Church” when we perceive her to be in error or sinful is wrong-headed and probably a heresy. It is as heretical to stress the Divine over the Human as to stress the Human over the Divine. The human nature of the Church, unlike the human nature of Christ, is tainted with sin simply because we all are tainted with sin. It is true the Church is redeemed from its sinfulness, as we all are who have gone through the waters of baptism. It is true the taint of sin in the Church does not render the Church totally corrupt, although (to quote the Articles again) she often seems very far gone from original righteousness! We get indignant when parishioners leave because someone or other, or the vestry, or the priest have demonstrated vividly their humanity; yet we talk about leaving the Anglican Communion or leaving the Episcopal Church because neither lives up to our expectations.
Of course, if we have taken to ourselves a new religion which either demands an infallible and pure church, or if we have decided that sin is a repressive and old-fashioned notion to be jettisoned, then my argument falls on deaf ears.
On the other hand, should we be content with sin? We used to teach that it is the duty of every communicant to examine “thought, word, and deed, things done and left undone” and to seek godly counsel and advice “from a discreet and learned minister” if we cannot find peace and reconciliation during the penitential part of worship.
In his primatial address to the Canadian Church last week, Archbishop Hutchinson said:
Another way of putting that is, how do we wish authority to be exercised or limited within our family of churches? And perhaps most important, how will our decisions witness to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters within the Church and outside it. There are of course many other questions to consider in the hard work of discernment over this issue. We are taught that the first principle of moral theology is obedience to conscience, and I ask each of you to embrace that principle, and with it the ethic of respect for the conscience of those who disagree with your own. The second principle of moral theology is to inform your conscience to bring it, if possible, into line with the teaching of the Church. And here careful listening using the Anglican approach of Scripture, Tradition and Reason will be helpful.One of the ways our church traditionally examined itself to ensure that it is being faithful to the Gospel was to place its activities, in doctrine, discipline and worship before the bar of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. In a sense, classical Anglicanism taught that all three legs of the allegedly Hookerian stool were about Scripture. Obviously, Scripture is about Scripture. Yet the Tradition is all about how the Scriptures have lived in the life of the Church in the past and in the present. Reason is that faculty, baptized in faith, whereby we do our theology, spirituality and mission “on our knees” as we are taught by the Scriptures. Tradition and Reason are not alternatives to Scripture.
In the best of Anglicanism, the Catholic, the Reformed and the Liberal are not alternatives from which we may pick and choose, or claim “party” allegiance, but rather a living symbiosis. Similarly, Scripture, Tradition and Reason occupy a symbiotic relationship. When that symbiosis is lived vividly in our midst, we witness the Holy Spirit, the “author of unity,” at work in the Church. When we see faction, party spirit and intolerant hegemony, there we see sin at work in our midst.
Despair is a great sin. Despair doubts the purposes and the governance of God. Despair is rooted in the moment, in a belief that everything is in that moment and that all things crucial must dominate that moment from which there is no escape but death. When we give up on the historical Church and our churches, we surrender to despair. That the Church on earth is sinful is nothing new. A student of history knows that all too well. That she remains the Bride of Christ for whom he died, for whom he lives, to whom he gives himself “until he comes again” is an article of faith.
About the Author: Tony has had a varied career and has worked all over the Anglican world. For over twenty-five years, he served as a leading bishop among those who left the Episcopal Church during and after the controversies surrounding Prayer Book revision and women's ordination, beginning in the 1970s. He was, for a short time, in charge of clergy training for the Convocation of American Churches in Europe and has been a parish priest since he was received into the Episcopal Church in 1999. He now serves as priest in charge of St Thomas à Becket Episcopal Church, Morgantown, in the Diocese of West Virginia. Tony edits LEAVEN, the journal of the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations (NNECA). He and his wife Pat live in Morgantown, WV. Tony is suffering from Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia, a rare cancer. He describes himself as a non-party Anglican – he was no good at team sports as a child – who believes passionately in the unity of the church. He blogs at WV Parson.