Discipline and the Church

[Update: Bishop Howe of Central Florida has proposed a resolution that is similar to Ephraim Radner's. The only problem is that reappraisers in the church are already poo pooing it because they think it forces the liberal Bishops to make an admission of some wrong-doing, or that it is simply unfair to ask them to absent themselves from the councils of the Communion without the reasserters doing the same.]

I have been following the developments at the House of Bishop’s meeting with some interest over the past several days, as have many within the Anglican/Episcopal fold. I have been encouraged to a small degree by a letter released by the “Windsor Bishops”that might serve as the basis for a resolution for our current conflicts. I say I’ve been encouraged only to a small degree because, while I appreciated the statement and seeing that both our current and retired Bishops of Tennessee had signed it, I haven’t seen anything to indicated that this proposal or anything substantive has really been taken up by the Bishops in their meeting. Every press conference I’ve seen has been discouraging–more ambiguity, more unease, more discouragement for people struggling to stay within the Episcopal Church as it currently exists.

That’s not to say that absolutely nothing is happening. There have been several proposals presented for possible ways forward. The most notable are those presented by the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, and the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, a member of the Anglican Communion Institute and a member of the Covenant Design group.

Both Harmon and Radner suggest that there may be a way forward for the Anglican Communion if Bishops of the Episcopal church voluntarily absent themselves from the deliberations of the communion. (you can see a note of comparison between the suggestions by Matt Kennedy on Stand Firm).

In Harmon’s scenario, the entire House of Bishops would voluntarily exclude themselves from the deliberations of the Anglican Communion, thereby representing our corporate responsibility for the current conflict and resulting loss of trust (this is not an us/them issue). This suggestion has much to commend it, and I think it bears a similar motivation to the reflection/thought experiment I wrote entitled “A Proposal for Repentance: what would it look like?” where I was, at least in part, inspired by Dr. Harmon’s statement at Plano, that we are all under judgment and in need of repentance. Here’s what “Bishop Theophilus Fictitious” suggested then (March of 2006), particularly relating to how repentance might be given liturgical and sacramental expression:

And so, friends, what is it that we must do. I have spoken of repentance, but what would it look like for us, for our church, to repent in these latter days where repentance has all but been forgotten, within the church as without?

I reiterate that this is a repentance of the whole church, not just of those who voted to approve the titular Bishop of New Hampshire. Nor is it only for those who have consented to or actively went forward with either same sex unions or the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. This is a time of repentance for us all, for our failures, for our neglect of Christ and his message, for our failure to serve Christ, to serve others, to set our face and stay the course.

As such, I want to suggest that, from a period determined (either Advent or Lent, depending on the time of year), we as the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church USA, determine and state that we will hereby abstain from either partaking in or celebrating ALL sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, except in cases of extreme illness or imminent death.

We do this recognizing that the Eucharist is not a gift of grace only, but a gift of judgment and discernment for the people of God. Just as the Lord warned the Israelites while in the wilderness to maintain the appropriate boundaries lest he “break out against them,” so too does the Eucharist have boundaries, established by our Lord, evidenced in the fate of Judas, explained by St. Paul, that those who eat and drink unworthily eat and drink judgment or damnation upon themselves. Not only will we as Bishops abstain from the sacraments, but we heartily encourage all our Priests to abstain as well (except in those cases where pastoral necessity may require. i.e. baptism, marriage, moments of death and funerals), and to explain such abstention, its reasons and symbolism to their parishioners. We will compel no one outside the house of Bishops to maintain this abstention, but we recommend that it be a sign of repentance for the whole Episcopal Church.

We will maintain this abstention from communion as a sign of our unworthiness and repentance and as a sign of the communion which has been shattered with our fellow Christians around the world. At the designated time (Appropriately Easter or The Nativity of our Lord), a select foreign Bishop appointed either by ballot at the Primates meeting or selected by the Archbishop of Canterbury, will admit one designated Bishop of the Episcopal Church back into the Communion through a Eucharistic service of repentance and reconciliation.

That Episcopal Bishop will then, the following Sunday or major feast, admit another ECUSA Bishop back into communion, the order (beyond the first who will be picked by the primates) having been designated by ballot in the House of Bishops. Each Sunday or major feast following, those Bishops who have been readmitted to communion will do the same for another ECUSA Bishop, the number growing exponentially.

{read it all}

Kendall’s suggestion, which I think is a good one, is this:

“For myself, I will consider those in New Orleans serious when they consider offering the Anglican Communion something like this statement:

We realize we have caused huge damage to the whole Anglican Communion and therefore, we, as a body, voluntarily withdraw from coming to Lambeth 2008.

Now please note this means ALL the TEC Bishops. No exceptions. It would allow Dr. Williams to get nearly all (perhaps actually all?) the rest of the Communion to Lambeth, and it would show a sense of corporate responsibility for the wrong.

Yes, I know it is not perfect. I also know that it would only be PART of a solution and that there are many other questions which would have to be addressed. I also know it would only happen by divine intervention.

But only things LIKE THIS will really get us anywhere given the degree of damage, alienation, confusion and struggle.”

{HT Stand firm, T1:9}

In comparison, Dr, Radner suggests that only those Bishops who are unwilling or unready to accede to the requests of the Communion should voluntarily withdraw from the life of the communion, while those Bishop’s and Dioceses that are so commited would continue to participate:

My own hope, in light of this limited sense of the Archbishop’s desires, would be this: that the “Windsor Bishops” resolution be voted upon, and that, following that vote, there be an agreement worked out by which those who cannot, in good conscience (and here Abp. Anis’ plea provides a concrete possibility of direciton), abide by the acknowledged teaching and discipline of the Communion, by which they will temporarily withdraw from the Communion’s formal councils for an undetermined time (5 to 10 years was the suggestion of Prof. Grieb at the last House of Bishops’ meeting, a suggestion greeted with much appreciation); and during this time, those dioceses committed to the Communion’s teaching and discipline will move forward with the Communion’s life, and those congregations and clergy in dissenting TEC dioceses will be put under the oversight of Communion dioceses. When this is done, a formal request will be made to the Primates that those providing extra-geogrphaical oversight give up that role, and fold their congregations back into the Communion-linked dioceses and oversight of American bishops. TEC will not cease to exist (though, as with the Communion, not all will participate in its formal life); it will, rather, exist in a state of partition.

Like Matt Kennedy, I find much to commend in both of these ideas. I would be ecstatic to see either one put into place, though I think Radner’s may be less confusing to many orthodox who may not quite understand why their fellowship with the global communion should be so limited.

For myself, I would not only be encouraged to see such a step taken because I think it would provide the best way for the Anglican Communion to not only survive, but thrive, but I would also be encouraged because it would in effect, be a sort of self-imposed discipline that would allow time and space not only for the Communion to heal, but for TEC to re-learn what it means to be Church. What do I mean by that? Lately I’ve been thinking about discipline in the Church; the following is a summary of some of my thoughts. I hope they may be valuable as a starting point for discussion.

Where there is no discipline, there is no Church.

That may be a shocking statement to some, but it is a true one nonetheless. Consider first what discipline means. We think of discipline primarily in terms of punishment, and perhaps that betrays another example of the impoverishment of our language and thought. Consider: to be termed a “disciplinarian” is tantamount to being accused of being totalitarian or abusive. But discipline is not primarily about punishment, though punishment may be one of the acceptable tools to enforce discipline. “Discipline,” like the term “disciple” comes from the Latin word for “instruction,” and a person who lives a “disciplined” life is one who strives to set the bounds of their conduct by a particular teaching–their “discipline.” There is no getting away from discipline in the Church because there is no getting away from discipleship. Our Lord gave us the Great Commission saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”(Matt. 28:19). As Christians we can no more reject discipline and discipleship than we can reject baptism–they require each other, and we are bound to them both by the Word of God, incarnate and written.

The question then, is whether the Anglican Communion in general and the Episcopal Church in particular can truly claim to be part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church when we find it impossible to exercise even the most basic discipline in our common life, save that “discipline” which protects the letter of the law with not even a nod to its spirit. The truth, as hard as it is to stomach, is that if the Anglican Communion cannot find a way to discipline itself, if TEC continues on it’s way without any check, then the Anglican Communion will in effect, as a body, give up any claim to be a functional Church–instead, we will simply be playing dress up, and pretending–“having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). In fact, I think it’s safe to say that TEC has already taken that step–we rejected any notion that we are fully or truly a part of the Church by affirming not just “local option” for the blessing of same-sex unions, but “local option” in the ordaining of non-celibate homosexuals to the priesthood. This point was made quite forcefully in another context, by theologians of the ELCA, our sister church, who stated in regard to their own denomination’s (since affirmed) drift toward local option:

By using the language of “this approach” (8) instead of “this change in policy” the Task Force advocates that the ELCA should “trust congregations, synods, candidacy committees, and bishops to discern the Holy Spirit’s gifts for ministry among the baptized and make judgments appropriate to each situation” (8). In the New Testament, however, the criterion for the discernment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a broadly based, ecclesial determination and not an individual, local preference. If the Report before us were to be implemented, the ELCA, as a national church body, would abdicate its theological and moral constitutional responsibility by relegating the decisions for which it alone is responsible to regional and local components. Far beyond transforming the polity of the ELCA into a congregational one, such an action would so fatally extend the boundaries of diversity in matters of doctrinal and ethical substance that this church would no longer be an effective collaborator either in the communio of the Lutheran World Federation or in the multiple dimensions of ecumenical dialogue. The proposed shift of matters of such enormous import from the national to the local levels will have two adverse consequences: 1. structural dissolution of the ELCA as it currently exists, and; 2. creation of intense division and disunity at the local level, thus effectively undermining “ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements” (5).

{read it all}

In effect, the allowance of local option means that TEC (and now the ELCA) have ceased to be churches in the fullest sense of the word, and have in fact–though in most cases without understanding the ramifications–taken the first practical steps toward dissolution of their ecclesial bodies. Such “solutions” to the disagreements we are experiencing do nothing but provide for further alienation and mistrust and put into practical and theological form the ideological dissonance that has existed for sometime between the various factions within these institutions. The fragmentation that we have seen over the past several years in The Episcopal Church has brought home the reality of this theological bomb.

The ambiguity and anxiety that people feel within the Episcopal Church is the result of the fact that they are actually paying attention to what is going on. People feel a distinct lack of direction and leadership because the institution that our forbears created to further the cause of the Gospel within the bounds of the Anglican tradition is breaking down and nothing new has yet emerged to take it’s place.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?

While this transition is certainly painful and is causing more stress now than any ecclesial conflict in recent memory, I don’t believe that makes it a “bad” thing. In fact, I believe it is the nature of human institutions to pass away–they, like the individuals who organize and support them–are dust and ashes. As an Anglican, I do not believe the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is co-terminus with any man made institution–institutions are created to further the cause of the Gospel–when they cease to do that in any meaningful way they need to be renewed or, when the spiritual gangrene is widespread, they simply need to die and be replaced.

Does this mean I am in favor of starting a new Church? Well–frankly, I don’t know that such is even a possible option. Either one is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church or one is not. I don’t agree with the logic that says “because you (or your congregation) exists within he Episcopal Church and the institution of which you are a part is dying, you must ‘come out’ in order to be part of the Church.” If faithful Christians are part of the Body of Christ, and it’s into the whole Church that we’re incorporated in baptism, then there’s no reason to say that because the brick and morter institution, the money-sharing once-was-missional-denomination is dying, that the gatherings of the faithful associated with it are also dying (though certainly many are). That is not to say that there aren’t practical reasons that congregations have encountered which have led them to exit the institutional structures of TEC in order to fulfill their ministries in as faithful a way as they can.

If not death, then what is the alternative for those gatherings of the faithful that find themselves in stagnant or dying denominations?

As I consider the landscape of our current conflicts I have to wonder how much of them are shaped by a form of “American exceptionalism.” Sectarianism is, along with various forms of gnosticism, a besetting heresy in American Christianity. How often have faithful Christians sought to create holy communities by coming out of sick denominations only to succumb to the same sickness themselves in a generation or two–if not less. Such a view of the struggles of Churches fails to consider the fact that there have been moments of spiritual renewal as well as malaise in many denominations.

Indeed, there is something to be said for the faithfulness that stands and speaks truth to power rather than that which drives us to excise ourselves from the ailing institution in order to create one wherein “we” are the power. I have many friends who have left the Episcopal Church and either they or their congregations have sought some form of alternative Anglican oversight. I don’t begrudge them their decision in most cases. Indeed, there are many places in our nation where I would doubtless have been forced to make similar decisions. But that has not happened in the Diocese of Tennessee. What has happened is that those of us who feel strongly that we must maintain our communion at the international level, that we must be faithful to scripture and traditional Christian moral teaching–have become more and more irrelevant on the national scene. Thankfully, of course, it is not relevance we seek, but truth. And the truth is that discipline, if it is to mean anything must be imposed with some degree of broad agreement if not unanimity by the instruments that our Communion possesses, and others which it may form. If this does not or cannot happen, then fragmentation will occur as different bodies that can enforce discipline within themselves emerge, and the Anglican Communion will cease to exist in any meaningful way.

What this means is that calls for leaving the dead to bury their dead in the Episcopal Church are actually not serving the cause of discipline. They may be serving the cause of creating new ecclesiastical entities that can support discipline within themselves–but they are not actually calling anyone who declines to join them to repentance, nor do they seem to be serving the cause of discipline within the broader Anglican Communion. Indeed, the level of fracturing within the American Episcopal Church serves as a testimony not only to the fact that there are orthodox Christians who are seeking to remain faithful members of the Anglican Communion outside the bounds of The Episcopal Church, but also to the lack of ability the Anglican Communion has demonstrated to enact any sort of discipline. In an ironic twist, by departing the Episcopal Church for greener pastures in which they seek to remain part of the larger Communion, folks may simply be bearing witness to the fact that the Anglican Communion itself is unable to function fully as the Church.

The Discipline we can preserve

And yet, these questions of discipline do not make up the whole of the subject. To speak of calling to repentance and institutional correction is to talk about a limited form of discipline within the Church. There is another form of discipline that can be preserved even within an institution that has begun to cast off the designation of Church. This is the form of discipline represented by our worship, the sacraments and our practices of prayer.

Article XIX of the Articles of Religion states that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The visible Church of Christ is to be found then, in any congregation where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are “duly ministered.” This says nothing of jurisdiction, affiliation or the like. And why should it? Anglicans have never claimed to be the entire church, alone. There has always been a recognition that the bounds of the Church and the bounds of the institution were not one and the same. This is something for us to be particularly thankful for, because, as Anglicanism has never claimed to be the entire Church, sufficient unto itself, it has also never claimed that the sacraments belong solely to her. Instead, the sacraments and sacramental acts are God’s gift to the world through the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church which Christ instituted, and which the Holy Spirit preserves and in which all faithful people and congregations may claim membership.

The first Bishop of North Carolina, John Stark Ravenscroft once preached a sermon on the subject of the Church in which he said:

We cannot help it, my brethren, if persons whose conduct is a scandal to all Christian profession, will call themselves Episcopalians: the discipline of the Church can be applied only to those who are known and received as communicants…1

I would go further than the good Bishop and say that we cannot control the beliefs or conduct of anyone who calls themselves by the name of Christ–and yet, as Christians we bear the repercussions of it, regardless of denomination. At the same time, we also bear a responsibility, not only to give glory to Christ, but to offer support and correction to those who claim to be part of the body.

In order to do this, however, we must “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers,” because this is the primary discipline of the Church, and it is only in this form of discipline that any other can find its grounding.

What say you?


  1. The Works of the Rt. Rev. John Stark Ravenscroft: his sermons and controversial tracts, p 101 []
  • Kenny

    Wasted time, wasted breath and wasted money. Goodbye, Episcopal Church.

  • http://adamantius.net Jody+

    I suppose one could say that about any denomination if that’s all there were. The question really is what makes any alternatives true alternatives? I believe the whole Church is under judgment at the moment, and that one simply leaves one set of problems for another in most cases when one changes institutions. No human allegiance can give the security of allegiance to Christ. Another way to look at it is whether the sacraments can be rightly administered and the Word proclaimed faithfully anywhere within the Episcopal Church. At the moment I think the answer to that is yes, though the number of places it is becoming more difficult has increased. What has also increased is the level of mental and spiritual anguish on the part of those of us who can’t support the false teachings of some in our national leadership. But the reality of the Church is that I should be equally offended by their false teachings and statements regardless of whether I am an Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist etc… the question of institutional affiliation should really only come up when such falsehoods prevent or hinder our ministries.

    That has become the case by now in the whole of the Episcopal Church. The question now is how to respond. I believe that Bishop Howe of Central Florida has given the House of Bishops and the Anglican Communion a way forward in this proposal. It remains to be see whether the bulk of the House will take it seriously. If it doesn’t, then the ecclesial breakdown of the Episcopal Church will continue, and the question of its institutional faithfulness will be moot.

  • Kenny

    You’ve really got a fascinating take (end paragraph 1). At this point in my life, I’m afraid that my institutional affiliation is not only hindering my ministry but my spiritual development, understanding of God and relationship with Christ.

    I actually haven’t walked away yet, or run away screaming as I have wanted to do for the last four years. My initial hasty response was primarily based in frustration and disappointment. I really had some hope left that New Orleans wouldn’t be a massive flop, as some were predicting. I also didn’t think that Rowan would sell out, if that is indeed what happened. September 30 was a starting point, not a deadline? I’m amazed that was even said.

    CANA, RCIA, immersion in academic theology…I’m not sure where this leaves me.

    Luckily, as you indicated, the sacraments remain valid…I wonder if that holds if they are administered by one who claims joint Muslim/Christian affiliation? :)

    Peace!

  • http://adamantius.net Jody+

    Kenny,

    You probably know this, but you are not alone in your struggles. The situation in TEC has reached a crucial point, and it is definitely affecting the ministries and the spiritual lives of a great many of us. I can only call what I have seen an example of psychological and spiritual anguish. If TEC doesn’t recognize this and provide some space for healing and a way forward, to rebuild trust where possible and a route to greener pastures where necessary, then, I believe, the institution is going to die. I know I may be in a minority, even among orthodox, in saying that (TEC has so much money etc…), but I truly believe it. It will lose itself in conflict, suffer from lack of vision and collapse. A shell called TEC may survive, but it won’t be able to even claim effectiveness or any level of “gravitas.”

    Some on the more liberal side believe that with the orthodox gone, they will have a unified vision for the future and all will be well. I don’t believe this to be the case, primarily because the nature of their vision is that it is ambiguous. They will attract only a few people and the result will be the same: institutional death.

    The problem is, as you have already mentioned: what’s the alternative? And, additionally, how many of us are called to stand in the gap and help the people we can by preaching the word with faithfulness where we are?

  • http://covenant-communion.com/ Christopher Wells

    Jody,

    Wonderful essay. Thank-you, and bless you.