[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.
Because I can preach the Gospel without fear of censure, because my people are cared for and our ministry is faithful, because the worst that might happen to me at Diocesan Convention is that someone might roll their eyes at me or I might be placed on a boring committee…well, that doesn’t sound like persecution to me. At this point the only reason I would be leaving the Episcopal Church if I chose to do so would be because of bad press and a tainted brand name. That doesn’t seem to be a sufficient reason for me.
I suppose the place I’ve come to is this: my first loyalty is to Christ and, as a priest, after that to my Bishop and the people whom I serve. One of the things I think we all have to be wary of is thinking that if I do something it will somehow solve or erase the difficulty of these days. I think such beliefs have led many out of TEC and may now lead some in those Dioceses that decide to leave back in. The only problem is that none of this really effects the situation we are in, which is one of being in the wilderness-does it really matter what rock we sit on in the desert? We’re all waiting for time and history to provide some sort of “conclusion” to our current divisions through the collective decisions and actions on such a scale that none of us can claim to play a necessarily decisive role—or not to play one. And of course the only final conclusion and answer to our prayers is the return of our Lord (Come Lord Jesus!). Our call is to faithfulness to Christ where we are. And not just faithfulness in one area or another, but across the board.
I remain in the Episcopal Church not because I think it is particularly virtuous to do so, or because I think it is ecclesiologically more tenable-though it may well be when compared with many options-but because I believe in an equality of brokenness. I am convinced that if I were to depart to one of the various extra-mural jurisdictions, or to AMiA or CANA, I would be trading one set of problems for another and while I might find relief in one area, I would find only conflict and confusion in others-and in the end, all of these options are temporary camp sites on a road to a place we can’t yet perceive (and I don’t think the CCP is that place, though I could be wrong—we will see).
In some ways I have found a greater kinship with those who lived through the reformation-not so much the reformers as the parish clergy and people who woke up one day to find they were in this ecclesial arraignment and then a few years later were working through another. I wish I had the journal of a priest in the Church of England who went through the back and forth and continued to serve his flock through it all, because that’s where I feel myself drawn. If my Diocese where to leave the Episcopal Church I wouldn’t be heartbroken, I’m not sure I’d even be very sad aside from the acrimony and lawsuits that would inevitably result. I would stay with my diocese just as I stay with it now-because it is not for me to work out solutions to grand problems, but to shepherd the people under my care as faithfully as I can manage in the midst of all of this.
The day may come when a priest of my convictions (pro-life, post-critical, orthodox and whatever other modifiers you want) will have no place in the Episcopal Church and they boot me out, but at the moment I feel pretty solidly grounded in my diocese..
IV. The only other reason *I* would have to leave at the moment is bad press.
Because I can’t see how the Gospel I preach would differ in the slightest by changing to another body, and because I see o practical reason to leave the Diocese of Tennessee, the only other reason I can see for leaving the Episcopal Church at the moment is the bad press. The fact that a tainted “brand-name” could cause some to consider leaving strikes me as part of a larger problem.
I mentioned the idea of an economy of icons. This comes from an essay by Ernest Sternberg entitled The Economy of Icons where he makes the following observation:
In one of the strangest turns of advanced capitalism, the intent to sell through images also results in the iconification of the self. Job seekers and salespersons (and the public relations specialists who advise them) have learned from media celebrities: They strive for success and profit by shaping their own personas. As sellers of the self, they adapt their beliefs and conduct to the consumer’s (employer’s, client’s, viewer’s) presumed desire for authority, sexual titillation, human contact, or genuine expertise. (Asheville Reader, 601)
The thing about this postmodern economics is, I believe, that it has been embraced by the larger portion of the Church in the United States. This is not surprising since I think most of us participate in such an economy without realizing it. Indeed, I’ve wondered before if we’re training our children to participate in it. So, rather than show any loyalty to the Church as the body of Christ, many people move from congregation to congregation looking to “be fed” in evangelical parlance or find better programs for their children etc… and the number of people who are actually hard on the road of the Christian life is actually far smaller than the number of folks who claim to be Christian or even the number of “conservative” Christians there are out there (has ever been thus… just read some of St. John Chrysostom’s railings against the social scene in the church at Constantinople).
I don’t know… but I’ve seen some people think of baptism like they think of soap–the first time I got it, it wasn’t the right brand, now I need to go to this other (usually claimed to be) purer church in order to really have my sins washed away.
V. 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.
If the only reason I can see to leave the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Tennessee is perception and branding, that doesn’t seem like a very faithful choice to me. In fact, it seems pretty close to idolatry, because it’s placing something other than faith in Christ as the primary denominator of what it means to be a “real” Christian.
So… that’s where *I* (can I emphasize that “I” enough?) am. Others, I know, are in different places and have good theological justifications. I don’t have the time right now to debate theology, but suffice it to say that I feel like God has called me where I am, and he hasn’t called me out. I’ll let you all know if he does. This also doesn’t mean there aren’t any circumstances under which I wouldn’t decide to leave, it just means we aren’t there in the Diocese of Tennessee… there are other parts of the Episcopal Church where my evaluation might be different.
Why do I remain in the Episcopal Church: at present I feel no practical need to leave, I can find no theological reason to leave my diocese. In regards to the folks I disagree with in the national church, not so much because of their stance on human sexuality (which is important) but because of their ambiguous to plain heretical (and I try not to use that term lightly) understandings of Jesus Christ–I do not believe that they have spiritual authority over my or my ministry, and therefore can exert no practical pressure to depart. The fact that in some cases they deny the divinity of Christ means that I am called to offer correction to them, something I would be called to do whether I was in a separate ecclesial body or not–and I can do it much more effectively in this one. Try as I might I can’t see a justification in scripture for the faithful to leave a Church–cast out the false teachers after correction and reconciliation has failed–but not to leave themselves..biblically we it seems like we should see the reverse of current trends. All of which means that the only reason I would be leaving would be because of the bad press the Episcopal Church has gotten–it’s a tainted “brand”–and that doesn’t feel like faithfulness to me.
I have also been asked to address some fairly specific questions, including:
1.) What is the definition of an Anglican? Is it one who has a plausible claim to communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury? Is it one who subscribes to the Articles of Religion? Is it perhaps one whose episcopate has historical ties to the Church of England? Or is it something else?
I personally like to use Rowan Williams’ definition of Anglicanism (Found in “Anglican Identities“) as a starting point:
The word “Anglican” begs a question at once. I have simply taken it as referring to the sort of Reformed Christian thinking that was done by those (in Britain at first, then far more widely) who were content to settle with a church order grounded in the historic ministry of bishops, priest and deacons, and with the classical early Christian formularies of doctrine about God and Jesus Christ–the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. It is certainly Reformed thinking, and we should not let the deep and pervasive echoes of the Middle Ages mislead us: it assumes the governing authority of the Bible, made available in the vernacular, and repudiates the necessity of a central executive authority in the Church’s hierarchy. It is committed to a radical criticism of any theology that sanctions the hope that human activity can contribute to the winning of God’s favour, and so is suspicious of organized asceticism (as opposed to the free expression of devotion to God which may indeed be profoundly ascetic in its form) and of a theology of the sacraments which appears to bind God too closely to material transactions (as opposed to seeing the free activity of God sustaining and transforming certain human actions done in Christ’s name).(p2)
I would expand on the Archbishop’s definition by pointing to the emphasis on corporate worship, the use of a Book of Common Prayer, a particular “method” of doing theology and only at the very end a direct link with Canterbury. I think there is no way to deny the “Anglicanism” of the various extra-mural Anglican bodies anymore than one can deny that the Non-jurors who weren’t in communion with Canterbury were Anglican. I would say, however, that being in Communion with Canterbury–or at the very least the desire to be–has been necessary for what I would call normative Anglicanism. I can’t say what definitions might emerge. I wouldn’t narrow it down to people who could subscribe to the 39 articles, at least not the way many who would want to make that a criteria might interpret them. I also think it’s a mistake to lift up the Articles as a contemporary confession–they were not written as a confession of faith in their day, and they are insufficient for one in our own. At the same time, I believe they are a pretty good summary of a broad sweep of Anglican theology, if not the whole of it.
2.) Do we remain loyal to the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee largely because our bishop is in communion with the See of Canterbury? If so, is this a defensible and sustainable ecclesiology?
We remain loyal to the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee largely because (as priests at least) we have taken an oath to obey our Bishop and take our place in the councils of the Church. While it is important that our Diocese has affirmed the Windsor report and that our Bishop is not going to pursue revisionism in the diocese, and thus still a full member of the Anglican Communion and in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the deeper issue is that our Bishop has not denied the faith in any way. Because I don’t believe the ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church actually supports a theological authority beyond the diocesan Bishop (the PB being a figurehead with less authority than a diocesan), I cannot justify breaking with him unless her were to do something himself which made it impossible to fulfill my vows to Christ.
As a lay person, the question I would ask in regards to making a decision to leave are similar to the questions I have asked myself as a Priest and come to a negative decision about. As I asked the question “Can I still preach the gospel without fear of censure” so to should a lay person ask that question along with “is the gospel preached in my parish.” If the answer to that question is no, that still does not mean one should leave right away (there have been plenty of horrible Priests in the Church, preaching soft or ambiguous gospels long before now), but instead discern whether one is called to be salt and light and to help proclaim the gospel with other faithful laity. If someone is actively preaching a false gospel, then one has to either challenge it as best one can or leave (especially if you have a family that could be harmed).
3.) What is your understanding of the reliability of the Church? Are the teachings of the ecumenical councils of the first millenium A.D. reliable? Are the teachings of the Lambeth Conferences reliable? Are the teachings of TEC’s General Convention reliable?
The Church at any given moment in time is bound to get some things wrong (Councils can err and all that)–we are promised the the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth–but we’re not promised that we will have it all at once. I am a bit of a historicist in that I believe the earlier witnesses to the faith, being in closer chronological proximity to Christ and the Apostles, are generally more reliable and believe we need to defer to the accumulated wisdom of the Church rather than trust in our own speculations and newfound knowledge. At the same time, I believe that the Church over a stretch of time and geography can come to different conclusions on topics that were once closed (such as women’s ordination). But in all such cases, we have to subject our beliefs and practices to the plumb-line of Scripture. There are some things which are not ambiguous at all in scripture–including homosexuality–and one of the reasons I am a conservative on this issue is that I do not believe the Church can take it upon itself to bless something that is only and always condemned in scripture. (if you want a fuller explanation of what I see discernment in the Church as consisting of, you could read this post from several years ago… it’s still a pretty good summary).
4.) Is it the responsibility of every Christian to continually evaluate the teachings of his church, denomination, or communion? If so, what are the proper standards against which he should evaluate them?
Yes and no. A Christian should always evaluate the teachings of his church, denomination etc… but not in light of personal judgement. Instead it must be done in light of faithfulness to Holy Scripture as mediated through the great tradition. Remember that tradition, as Jaroslav Pelikan put it, is the “living faith of the dead” while “traditionalism” is the “dead faith of the living.” One of the problems with protestantism as it has diverged from it’s original magisterial traditions has been that it lifts individual judgement up and elevates it to such a point that each of us becomes our own personal pope. This is, in many ways, the same error as one sees on the liberal side, except the sources of authority are different.
I would say that my main concern with all of this is that we have started to treat the Gospel of Christ as a commodity and churches as corporations. I almost think the entire idea of “leaving a Church” indicates an error in judgment so profound as to be beyond our ability to deal with on a blog. The problem is probably in the concept of denominations themselves–a concept Anglicans resisted longer than most–perhaps we need to look at why during these times of division and church shopping.