[Note: I’ve held onto this for a few days, hoping to smooth it out in places or expand on some of what I’ve written, anticipating some of the questions my musings might bring…but honestly I don’t have any more time to put into it right now. We’ll see about the future, though with Lent coming up, I somehow doubt I can sustain a long and extremely in-depth conversation. Oh well… maybe it will inspire some thoughts.]
Many questions have been raised recently about the motivations of clergy and laity who decide to depart from or remain within the Episcopal Church. Since I am a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee and two priests and congregations with whom I have close relationships with have decided to affiliate with other Anglican bodies, several people have asked me why I have remained. Sometimes the comments have not been so much questioning as accusatory. (I do want to say, that no one actually associated with these two congregations has acted negatively toward me-we know and love each other too well for that I believe). I want to caveat my comments by saying that, in this moment in time, because of the stage and degree of conflict the Episcopal Church is experiencing, it is wrong for people to cast aspersions on those who come to different conclusions than they do. This is a sketch of my personal reasons for remaining where I am, and no one else should assume this is a demand that they agree or come to the same conclusion.
At times I am tempted to classify myself as an “ecclesiastical cynic.” What prevents me is that such a terminology might indicate that I do not have hope for the Church, which of course I do as a follower of Christ. But what I believe is expressed in that joking moniker is the fact that I don’t expect very much of the Church as an institution because I don’t expect very much of people in general. There are times I have been disappointed, certainly, but whenever I feel that way (or worse, feel as though someone has done something negative to me personally) I try to take a breath, think about it and remember they are sinful people just like me. Perhaps because such an experience of equality in sin and brokenness lies at the heart of my call, I strive to recognize the great capacity for the good and the bad within all of us and by extension the institutions we inhabit. But because I don’t expect very much of the Church, I suppose many of the failures of the Episcopal Church have struck me somewhat less deeply than some of my friends and acquaintances—especially those who grew up in the Episcopal Church and can remember the “good old days” before heresy and…for lack of a better descriptor, silliness, became the rule of the day.
I can understand the desire of my friends to disaffiliate from TEC and move on to a better place. Where I believe I part company with them is that I’m not sure such a place truly exists. Oh, I’m sure that they don’t waste their time fighting some of the battles that are now being fought within the Episcopal Church, but I’m confident they will find other things to argue over eventually. I’ve seen it happen already in a few congregations, if not on a broader scale yet. And while I may personally prefer some of the possible disagreements within some of the newer Anglican formations in North America, God has not placed me there. I am where I am, and to not deal with that unless and until I am called out would, as I see it, be unfaithful.
But what, some might ask are my underlying assumptions that would enable me to have a clear conscience while being an orthodox priest in what appears to be an increasingly heterodox body? The list below is a summary which I will expand on in greater detail and explain their interrelation:
- We have unity with all baptized Christians, and share communion with them based upon their word.
- Leaving the Episcopal Church doesn’t separate us from our errant brothers and sisters, remove the stain of guilt from us or lessen our responsibility to call them back to faithfulness.
- I have not been hindered in preaching the Gospel and don’t feel a practical need to depart.
- The only other reason I would have to leave at the moment is bad press.
- That may border on idolatry. It’s part of an economy of Icons where people gain worth from something other than their identity in Christ and as people made in the image of God.
I. We have a unity with all Baptized Christians (whether we want to or not.)
Within Anglicanism—particularly the Episcopal Church—we practice what in the 19th century was termed “open communion.” That’s not the same as the contemporary discussion of whether or not to commune the unbaptized, rather it refers to the practice of allowing all Baptized Christians to receive, regardless of denomination. This Eucharistic sharing is rejected by some denominations because, in their understanding it portrays a unity that doesn’t exist. The flip side of the argument, which is the basis for open communion among Christians, is that there is already a unity that cannot be denied.
On a related note, the only real form of discipline available to Anglicans is Eucharistic discipline. This is why I do not think it wrong for orthodox to refuse to commune with those with whom they are not in love and charity or vice versa. At the same time however, the only way this can be discipline is if we recognize we are part of the same body. Otherwise it is simply personal piety and has no real effect, just as it wouldn’t really have an effect if a Roman Catholic chose not to commune at an Episcopal Church–it simply serves as a testimony to what is.
II. Leaving the Episcopal Church doesn’t separate us from our errant brothers and sisters, remove the stain of guilt from us or lessen our responsibility to call them back to faithfulness.
Someone left the following comment on my website recently:
“Wasted time, wasted breath, wasted money. Goodbye Episcopal Church.”
I suppose one could say that about any denomination if the denomination where what one was concerned about. The question really is what makes any alternative a true alternative? I believe the whole Church (or at least the greater part of it in the west) is under judgment at the moment—we’re in a wilderness as Christians—and a failure to recognize that simply leads one to exchange one set of problems for another in most cases when one changes institutions. What we need to recognize is that 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 unity 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… to say nothing of a fellow Anglican, whether we share an institutional framework or not. The question of institutional affiliation should really only come up when such falsehoods prevent or hinder our ministries. At the moment I cannot see how my ministry would be any different in a body other than the Episcopal Church. My sermons would be the same, my counsel to my congregation wouldn’t change, and indeed I would have the same set of worries that I do now.
I used to be very concerned that in bringing people into the Episcopal Church and preaching the Gospel to them I was perhaps “setting them up” to move on later on and be taken in by some wacky theology at another Episcopal Church. What I realized is that most people no longer have the same “brand loyalty” that clergy have. My experience has been that the most faithful Christians I’ve met in the Episcopal Church don’t really care so much about the denominational accretions as they do about the Eucharist and being part of a believing community. Many share my conviction that the three-fold ministry is the most faithful way of forming the church and have a deep affection and love for the prayerbook tradition, but as far as “the Episcopal Church…” that’s just the name on the letterhead. They want a place where they can worship and receive the sacraments.
At the same time, while in prayer about this issue I had the realization that my primary concerns would be the same if I were in an independent Bible Church or a Baptist Church or what have you. I come from a Southern Baptist background, and I know there is theology there that is at least as bad as some that comes out of corners of the Episcopal Church (though obviously with different tendencies). So in any case, my responsibility to my people is to preach the Gospel faithfully and give them the tools to recognize crap whenever and wherever they hear it, whether it comes from someone in a pointy-hat or a televangelist etc…
III. I have not been hindered in preaching the Gospel and don’t feel a practical need to depart.