Monday, July 27, 2009

Looking Ahead

I am looking ahead to my vacation, much needed. But I am also looking ahead to the future of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

It may be that the Archbishop of Canterbury's notion of a two-track Communion -- first mentioned years ago -- will indeed come to pass.

All of this is very sad in my opinion -- because I am and will remain very much invested in a vision of the Anglican Communion which sees it as an alternative to Roman or Eastern Orthodox churches -- but which still upholds catholicity, etc. I share the dream of a global fellowship of regional churches which profess the one faith of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit -- but which experience a degree of variation in their local interpretation and incarnation of that faith.

I think The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada need the Communion more than the Communion needs us. I am not talking finances here -- or control -- or domination. We need to be in full communion with people who do not live in the contexts we live in. That's what catholicity means.

If they will not have us, because of our choice to do what we think the Spirit is calling for us to do anyway, then this is very sad. I do not think we are to be blamed or need to accept full responsibility for the loss of communion, but we ought to recognize and lament this loss.

I think we need to find a way forward that seeks the maximum degree of Christian unity possible -- not a way that makes possible and comfortable lesser such relationships.

I suggest that one way for us to approach the future -- inside the Episcopal Church as well as in relation to other Anglican churches -- is to redouble our commitments to what we think we are all about any way.

As such, I would like to see an intentional focus on that which we are truly passionately excited about. And it would be my hope that this would be more than talk of programs, or agendas, or single-issue advocacy groups, or things which do not keep the main thing the main thing.

Notably, I'd like to see a bit more cohesiveness and discipline in a church which loves to talk about its canons and how the General Convention is our topmost authority. As such, I'd like to see more folks abiding by the language and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer that we have. More teaching and proclamation about all the elements of the Baptismal Covenant -- and not merely it's last line regarding the dignity of every human being. More teaching about why salvation is BOTH individual and corporate. More teaching about why Jesus Christ is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and therefore, as fully divine, is the incarnate presence of the God who is the unique creator, unique redeemer, and unique sustainer of the world. If he's the Son of God made flesh -- then friends -- of course he's the way, the truth and the light. Pluralism and respectfulness of other faith traditions does not require avoiding, regretting or denying that our most primary tenet is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I'm frankly astonished that anybody thinks we need to refrain from making our core proclamation in pluralistic conversation with other faiths -- because the other partners in that conversation do not. We do not honor the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so forth with whom we are in conversation when we backpedal on our core convictions. They say what they believe -- and we need not be offended; so why should we not do the same?

We need to tell ourselves the truth about our institutional reality: We Are Shrinking. When we lose membership, we shrink. Simple as that. It doesn't matter if we lose people because of lower birth rates, or whathaveyou. Our growth and life depends on including and serving human beings. Nearly every diocese lost membership in the past few years -- and yet the populations of their localities mostly did not decline. What's up?

It's NOT the economy. It's NOT about birthrates. (And, as Diana Butler Bass has argued, it's not necessarily about liberalism either.)

Including and serving people in the name of the Son of God who is Lord of All is our only purpose. Welcoming people, offering them not merely an affirmation that "Questions are OK" but actually providing a few cosmic and beautiful answers (like the Gospel), preaching, singing, working with youth and their families well, caring for people pastorally, feeding, healing, teaching about God in Christ, etc. The basic practices of intentional Christian community are what we are supposed to do, and when we do them, almost certainly, we grow.

I for one welcome a future when we stop fighting over the culture wars and start working together over the peace of God which passes all understanding in Jesus Christ.

Will there ever be a time when leading Episcopalians stop saying that decline is no big deal, that church growth is somehow bad, that strong Christ-centered kerygma is 'offensive'? Honestly. I'd love it if the next General Convention had a single-issue advocacy group with whom some 70% of the deputies were fully in agreement with on the basic issues that we need to get down the basics of preaching and living the full content of the Baptismal Covenant with the idea that God wants us to include and serve MORE people than we are currently including and serving.

The real elephant in the room, in my view, is this: We Are Shrinking. When General Convention passes resolutions which affirm this -- then I will believe we are being authentic in telling ourselves and the world, "This is who we are, we are shrinking, but we want to start growing instead."

When something shrinks for long enough -- it doesn't really matter how vital it thinks it is.


  1. I agree. We can find some hope in passage of resolution A074, "Endorse Theological Statement on Interreligious Relations." It states clearly that there is specific content in the Christian faith as this Church has received it, and that in interfaith dialog our partners need for us to be clear who we are. Thre will be even more hope if we clergy will actually teach it....

  2. Fr. Jones,
    A "pet peeve" of mine is that John 14:6 is often, strangely, misquoted when invoked in support of a religiously exclusive understanding of Jesus' identity. Unfortunately, that misquotation appears in this blog post when you write, "If he's the Son of God made flesh -- then friends -- of course he's the way, the truth and the light." It's "LIFE" not "light."

    More substantively, as someone who has engaged in a fair amount of inter-religious dialogue, especially with Jews, and also with several Buddhists, I have to question the claim that our non-Christian dialogue partners desire no modification in our assertions about Jesus' salvific uniqueness. There are Christian claims about a person's eternal fate depending on belief in Jesus that many Jews find extremely offensive, and much Jewish openness to more positive relations with Christians has come precisely as Christians have in various way softened traditional arguments that Jews have to become believers in Jesus in order to be "saved." See, for example, the statement Dabru Emet (, composed by several prominent Jewish scholars and signed by several people I know, some of them quite well. These are not people who want to hear me assert that only Christians can have access to the Father. If we really are going to be honest about inter-religious dialogue, then we need to be honest about the real offensiveness of traditional claims about salvation.

  3. WilliamK -- vis a vis 'Light' -- I wasn't quoting, I was alluding. Certainly, to John, and certainly to the fact that Jesus is also referred to in John as 'light.' And of course we will offend others when we make truth claims that are either poorly presented, inaccurately presented, OR, when they are challenging to other faith traditions' own unique claims. That's a tension that pluralism of course requires.

  4. Well, there's more than one elephant in the room. As someone who's sympathetic to your "Anglican Centrist" position while disagreeing about same sex blessings and marriage, the biggest problem for me is that TEC has now is finding a plausible way to read scripture that supports, both from a textual and a theological perspective the view that same sex unions have God's blessing.

    This is the big job for TEC. They seem to be confident it can be done, having gotten through WO relatively unscathed and survived earlier controversies, such reconciling evolution with the creation stories in Genesis, higher criticism, etc.

    The problem is, the solutions to these controversies have textual support that justifies and strengthens the theological rationale, while same sex blessings don't. WO, for instance, has conspicuous, if ambiguous support in scripture. Scripture can also be plausibly read to support the idea that, for instance, the creation narratives can be viewed as both historically dubious but theologically authoritative and moreover there's evidence that even the writers of scripture took something like this view. On the other hand, scripture, read solely as a text doesn't seem to be suspectible to any other interpretation than that homosexual practice is condemned. Furthermore, the view that heterosexual marriage is normative is unambiguously taught in the OT and NT and even has dominical authority.

    What same sex blessings proponents seem to offer sceptics like me are either extratextual considerations based on either abstract or culturally relative notions such as justice or inclusion that are clearly read into the text. Or, same sex blessings proponents sometimes support their view with legitimate biblical themes, which admittedly go some way toward helping me understand their position. The problem is, their opponents can develop those same themes just as plausibly and with greater fidelity to scripture as text while arguing against same sex blessing. This makes arguments for same sex blessings look procrustean. Unfortunately, I also often see same sex blessing proponents brush aside well founded and sincere doubts without bothering to address these doubts; evasions and trivialization take the place of argument and hard thinking.

    I can't speak for all who have reservations about same sex blessing, but I believe many of us don't see that they have any objective, textual support in scripture. Without that, theological support won't forthcoming. For me the elephant in the room is how do you show me that the theology of same sex blessing can stand on its own legs. This the job for those like you who clearly support orthodox positions. I don't trust it coming from VGR, Spong, and Schori who strike me as being paint by numbers left wing cultural warriors, let alone of dubious orthodoxy. Yes the same is true for many conservative on the other side of the issue; but the position of ACNA is a classical Christian position that's stood the test of time, not culturally relative or idiosyncratic; their international links also cut across liberal/conservative divide in a way that VGR, Spong, Schori can't.

  5. Todd,

    This is a good thing you are asking for -- of course good theology must be done, and, of course, it must begin in fact with revelation. The best work I have encountered on this is by Tobias Haller in his book Reasonable and Holy. Even if you disagree with his argument in that book, I think you would still very much appreciate how he makes it. It's available on Amazon.


    The real elephant in the room, in my opinion, is not the fact that we are shrinking as a Church, rather it’s the fact that the present leadership of TEC will not acknowledge this obvious fact.

    I suggest that the main answer to this question is that the present leadership of TEC does not believe that the purpose of the Church was delivered to the Christ's apostles by God through the risen One in Matt. 28.19 ff.

    This "Great Commission" states, of course, that the God given purpose (mission) of the Church (every Church, diocese, and parish) is to bring as many people as possible, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into an intimate relationship with the living God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ, and to transform them (those brought in and us already here) through the ministries of the parish church into disciples of Christ who know, love, obey, and serve Christ and the world in his name (which includes social justice and social progress).

    This purpose is at odds with the cultural emphasis upon the religious pluralism of the present and preceding decades, so the members of the leadership of TEC ( deeply influenced by the secular culture) simply do not accept the "Great Commission" as God's purpose for his Church given through Christ and transmitted to us by the Apostolic Tradition written in Scripture and other than written. One result of this is that the decade of evangelism died from starvation before it ever really came to life--starvation for priority and attention from the leadership of TEC.

    Shrinking dioceses, parishes and missions are only problematic if you think the Church should grow. Growth is not the present leadership's measure of success or faithfulness. The achievement of social justice goals and social progress is their measure--and if TEC has to lose a few dioceses and several hundreds of thousands of people over the past three decades to accomplish its social justice and progress goals, then it's apparently worth it from the leadership’s perspective. How else can you interpret the struggle and consequences of the past six years?

    Until the present leadership of TEC becomes aware of the difference between the powerful secularism it embraces and the teaching and practice of the saving revelation of God in Christ transmitted to us through Apostolic Tradition, this “elephant in the room” will continue to trample parts of the deposit of Faith and the Sacred Tradition that are our heritage and link to the revelation of God made known in Christ.

  7. Greg:
    This is one of your finest (of many)posts. I particularly appreciate your comments about the mensing of Catholicity.

  8. "I think The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada need the Communion more than the Communion needs us. I am not talking finances here -- or control -- or domination. We need to be in full communion with people who do not live in the contexts we live in. That's what catholicity means."

    But, if they kick us out, aren't they in turn sawing the branch of "catholicity" out from under themselves? Sure, they'll have a bigger slice of the numbers pie, but if it's all built upon everyone being in lockstep about certain issues, how will they be any more "catholic" than we will be?

  9. I agree that we need more faithfulness in the Church, not less. We need ordained leaders in the Church who will be "loyal to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of Christ as this Church has received them" - not as this Church (or this diocese, this bishop, this congregation, this priest) may elect them to be.

    Before we continue down this path towards schism, shouldn't we repent of our schismatic actions first? Shouldn't we say to the rest of the Communion, "We are sorry that our actions hurt you and we repent. We believe that the Communion is wrong, but we will submit ourselves to the judgement of the Church. We will continue to try to explain our theology, but we will not move forward until we, as a communion, come to some consensus that we should move forward."

    While correlation is not causation, I wonder what the correlation is between Communion without Baptism, denial of the uniqueness of Jesus, determining that we can use our own liturgies for Eucharist, determining that "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Ghost)" is an offensive name for the Holy Trinity, and any number of other theological innovations - what the correlation of these innovations and the support for SSBs and ordination of men or women involved in sexual activity outside of marraige.

    While not everyone who supports SSBs supports those innovations listed above, I wonder how many of those who support the innovations above do not support SSBs.

    Phil Snyder