Skip to comments.Is The Episcopal Church A Sect?: Reflections On “Episcopalianism”
Posted on 03/13/2005 7:36:02 AM PST by sionnsar
I have come to the view, after much struggle and prayer, that the decisions of the 2003 General Convention to consent to Gene Robinsons election to the episcopate and to allow dioceses to experience and explore liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions, while disastrous and fundamentally mistaken, are in some way providential. By this I mean that the General Conventions decisions have forced us to do something that Episcopalians are largely unwilling to do, and at which we are not particularly competent, which is taking a serious, unsentimental and rigorously theological look at our life as a church. We have been brought to an unusual moment of theological clarity: A return to the Episcopal Church ante the 2003 General Convention would not be a return to an untroubled, undivided and unproblematic church.
In my judgment, both the above decisions and much of the reaction to them point to our central problem, of which most of our issues are merely symptoms. The Episcopal Church appears to be losing her sense of what it means to be the Church and is degenerating into an American denomination or,worse, a Protestant sect. Our social prestige, entre to elite culture and our establishment past have blinded us to this problem and, indeed, have contributed to it. When a General Convention puts the Episcopal Church in fundamental error and the response is to merely moan about the pain and divisiveness the error has caused or when the error is justified by an appeal to that amorphous fog known as pluriform truth or by constant reminders that the church is really about relationships and not doctrine, the theological bankruptcy of Episcopalianism should be manifest.
In his controversies with Anglicans who refused to admit what he called catholic principles into the Church of England and who refused to do any fundamental reflection on her theological foundations, John Henry Newman made the argument that such Anglicans believed not in Christianity but in Church of Englandism,a belief in what Nineteenth Century Englishmen regarded as the religion of England. Newmans thesis might be applied to the Episcopal Church today. Having become uninterested in or ignorant of catholic principles and our responsibilities toward the larger Church (with the possible exception of vague commitments to a vague ecumenism), having become thoroughly comfortable with upper middle class American consumer culture and morals, and having become rather theologically self-satisfied, we seem to be losing our interest in Christianity as a defined religion of doctrine and are degenerating into a church of Episcopalianism. In the absence of Newmans catholic principles and largely lacking in the knowlknowledge of and commitment to substantive Christian doctrine, we have set ourselves on a downward spiral into theological, liturgical and moral vacuity, a vacuity appropriately termed Episcopalianism.
The 2003 General Convention was not an event which marked a radical shift in the Episcopal Church. It was not an event which fundamentally changed the Episcopal Church. It merely, it must be remembered, made official what much of the church had tolerated unofficially. In this sense, it was simply yet another point on the Episcopal Churchs downward spiral into incoherence and irrelevance.
In his recent book, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (Morehouse, 2004), Edward Norman, a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge University, provides an astute and unflinching analysis of the Church of Englands downward spiral, an analysis which illuminates the situation of the Episcopal Church. While the conditions of the two churches are by no means identical, much of what Norman says is relevant to our own situation. The following points are worthy of consideration: 1. The Anglican Identity (Crisis): What is Anglicanism? The fact that, as Norman says, Anglicanism has been afflicted with an uninterrupted crisis of identity has a direct bearing on the problem of the Episcopal Church. There are people at all levels of the church who have come to the view that the essence of Anglicanism is a lack of a coherent body of doctrine and moral teaching. Thus, the recurring refrain that it is simply un- Anglican to regard someone as being in theological or moral error. This vacuous view of Anglicanism has led to the situation in which those Anglicans who do acknowledge a body of doctrine and moral teaching are dismissed as conservatives or, even, fundamentalists. As currently used, the term fundamentalist is used to designate anyone in the Episcopal Church who has views which are deemed politically incorrect or traditional. Such a situation is possible because the Anglican Communion has become a body uneasily held together by equivocation and paper compromise; a body, furthermore, with little idea where it is going (p. xii).
2.The Erosion of the Prayer Book Tradition: The Episcopal Churchs most clearly visible bond of unity and source of doctrinal identity has been The Book of Common Prayer. Historically speaking, the Prayer Book allowed Anglicans to offer common worship to God. The assembly of Gods people for the purpose of joining together in the eucharistic liturgy was seen, to use the language of Vatican II, as the source and summit of the Christian life. It also served the vital purpose of teaching Christian doctrine through the liturgy.
The Episcopal Church has, practically speaking, abandoned the Prayer Book tradition. It has become, like the episcopate, a hollowed out remnant of its former self. Worship has become a consumer product increasingly tailored to the needs of individuals and so no longer unites the church but actually fosters divisions. The sharing in a common form of worship is no longer a sign and instrument of unity. Increasingly, liturgy as a means of teaching Christian doctrine has been abandoned in favor of liturgy as a form of therapy and as a means of building community. Ironically, liturgy specifically designed to accomplish these ends actually fails on both counts. We now find ourselves in the strange situation of what might be called liturgical agnosticism, the view which holds that what we believe is unimportant so long as we gather together around the same altar.
3. The Crisis of Authority: Episcopalians seem to be quickly losing sight of what the Church is. This can be seen in the fact that the last thing many Episcopalians expect or want from their church is authoritative teaching on doctrine or morals. What is all too often expected is either vague spiritual advice (what C.S. Lewis derisively dismissed as uplift) or politically correct nostrums which conform to the preoccupations of a materialist culture. The gravity of our situation expresses itself in the perception of many that doctrine is (and should be) marginal to the life of the Episcopal Church.
The question of authority, contrary to the assertions of those who think the question unimportant, is not simply a matter of interpreting isolated biblical texts or a matter of episcopal authority but a matter of whether the Truth has been entrusted to the Church. In our situation, confusion over authority is really a form of skepticism about the Truth. Thus, there is a covert but real skepticism which lurks beneath comprehensivenessand openness. Authority is not a matter of what bishops or councils may arbitrarily impose upon the Church but, rather, a matter of how the Church preserves her integrity. Authority is ultimately about the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, valid Christian teaching from corrupt teaching. Since it has no magisterium, no formal means for identifying and articulating Christian truth, the Episcopal Church apparently does not believe that making such a distinction is possible. In the absence of real Christian authority, our authority has become the secular culture in which we live and our mission has become the effort to accommodate ourselves to it as comfortably as possible.
As Norman makes clear, our evasions on the question of authority have led to a situation in which Christianity itself has become a matter of local option. It has also led to the strange rhetoric of Episcopalian self-appraisal in which chaos is described as order, ambiguity as richness of comprehension, patent diversity as a special kind of unity (p. 132). Episcopalians find ourselves in the strange situation in which, on one hand,we are told that we cannot really know with certainty that homosexual acts are contrary to Christian teaching and, on the other hand, it is held forcefully that the clergy and people of Diocese of New Hampshire who cannot accept the ministry of their bishop have a sacred obligation to obey him. In the absence of a common faith we are left with only power and power used cynically.
4. The (Dis)Unity of the Church: Because we are losing our sense of what the Church is, it is not surprising that not a few Episcopalians understand the unity of the church to consist in a kind of ecclesiastical bonhomie. Instead of judging theological positions in terms of orthodoxy and heresy,we now judge them in terms of whether they promote unity (that is, that they are innocuous) or whether they are divisive (that is,whether they provoke theological reflection and self-examination). The consequence of this is that we have ignored our own state of internal schism. Gene Robinson has not divided the Episcopal Church; his consecration has simply opened our eyes to what we chose to hide from ourselves. The sad thing is that we cannot even live up to our own debased notion of ecclesial unity. We now have bishops who can not serve as the focus of unity for the diocese in which they exercise the episcopal office. But not to worry, for with alternative episcopal oversight, a parish can now select its preferred focus of unity. This is the salient fact about the Episcopal Church: Our focus of unity is optional, just as is adherence to catholic doctrine.
There are indeed many faithful people in the Episcopal Church and many parishes in which the Holy Spirit is powerfully active. But as catholic Christians we are not free to content ourselves with faithful individuals and vital parishes; we must be concerned about the whole body and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, concern is justified.
It is not my desire to join those leaving the Episcopal Church but I find it increasingly difficult to offer arguments to dissuade them. I also find it increasingly difficult to count such people as guilty of schism. One is guilty of schism when one violates the unity of the Church; it is not schism to depart from a sect.
The Rev. Dr. Michael W. Petty is Associate Rector for Adult Education at Saint Johns, Tallahassee
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Thanks, Sionnsar. Very thought-provoking. I had a discussion with my ex last night. He is cradle Episcopalian, goes to a church which has blessed a same sex union (to the consternation of most of the congregation!), and sings in the choir--whose head master is gay and in a long-time relationship with another choir member. I brought up the ruinous state of the church with him, and he basically echoed the feel good sentiments of the liberal church. "I believe the Church is a place where people should feel welcomed..." blah, blah blah. I couldn't help retorting that I think the Church should be a place where sinners come to be forgiven, which means they must recognize their sin and repent. A fair representation of both sides, I would say.
Answer: Yes. End of story
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