Skip to comments.Coming Apart and Coming Together [Episcopal Church]
Posted on 01/04/2007 7:33:25 AM PST by sionnsar
I was asked to write the lead article for Trinitys Seed and Harvest magazine. The assignment was to write an article on a theology for the church under judgment. Here is a copy of the article.
I had two very powerful experiences back to back this summer. The week before the General Convention I taught a course on Worship in the Prayer Book Tradition at a Trinity extension site at Northern Baptist Seminary just outside of Chicago. Most of the students were recent converts to Anglicanism from some form of Pentecostalism or Evangelicalism. Some of the students belonged to Episcopal churches and some to Anglican Mission in America churches, a goodly number were graduates of Wheaton College, often called the Evangelical Harvard. It was a good class, keen as mustard and jubilantly engaged with Prayer Book religion. I would describe my own journey in the Episcopal Church as a catholic becoming increasingly an evangelical catholic. If five years ago someone had told me I would be teaching liturgical worship to Wheaton College graduates at a Baptist seminary, I could only have answered, surreal. But there we were and in actuality it was in every way meet and right.
When you are helping people see the reasons behind their instinctive attraction to Anglican worship with a new depth of understanding, when you are dwelling with them on the centrality of scripture in the Prayer Book vision and the degree to which the prayers themselves are simply the words of scripture, when you trace through the centrality of the doctrine of grace, when you carefully follow through the sense of awe and reverence that clings to a service which teaches a real presence of the Lord in the Holy Communion, when you read together and analyze with people who may have never read it before, Cranmers great exhortation before communion or his exhortation in the ordination service, the beauty of the language, the depth and breadth of the doctrine, the utter atmosphere of holiness that breathes through the Prayer Book tradition, you fall in love all over again and I remember what it was that drew me to the Episcopal Church as a young man just graduating from college.
It was a very renewing experience for me. I have with so many people been watching the church I love come apart. I have been watching parishes split, congregations leave, good clergy leave, many laity leaving for another communion or simply losing the will to belong to any church. I have spent a long time feeling that the church that I love has no future and that it was all just coming apart. With this class I felt that I was seeing a coming-together of the church, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic and with a great joy rediscovering the beauty of holiness and the sobriety and dependability and deep Christian formation available in the Prayer Book tradition of Anglicanism. In these students I could see that Prayer Book tradition being infused and re-invigorated with the heart felt religion and missionary zeal of those Pentecostal and Evangelical hearts. I still feel that the present moment is a very bad moment for the church through which I was ordained, but the experience of this class gave me a feeling that it is also a very wonderful moment, a moment charged with a unique potential for fruitfulness, in which to be a teacher of the faith.
The class ended on a Friday and early Saturday morning I was on the way to Columbus to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. In twenty five years of ordained ministry I had never been to a General Convention. I sat in the visitors gallery in both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Occasionally I heard a speech or comment that was recognizable to me as being grounded in the Faith of the Apostles. Most of what I heard was primarily political rhetoric. It was rhetoric about rights and justice. Some of the things that were said about rights and justice were things that I could agree with and that seemed indeed Gospel imperatives, some not. What was really discouraging was the overwhelming and unmistakable note of absolute hostility to anything recognizable as traditional Christian faith and practice. I found two speeches especially shocking. One was a speech castigating the doctrine of the Atonement and the centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ in traditional presentations of the Christian faith as a source of violence toward women and children. Insofar as I could follow this speaker, the preaching of the Atonement should be abandoned. Another speech insisted that the scriptures are inherently anti-Semitic and contain many examples of what is termed hate speech.
I went in rapid succession from an experience of the coming together of the church to an experience of a church that has really and simply come apart at the seams, a church that is not able to hold itself together historically, theologically or practically. Whatever may become of the Episcopal Church de jure, de facto, it is a church whose unity in faith and order and spirit has been broken at a very deep level.
One of the very striking impressions of my time at the Convention was the constant and incessant invocation of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was invoked as the animating source and authority that was leading The Episcopal Church to act in ways that would insure breaking the relationship with the rest of the Anglican Communion and indeed the majority of the Christian world. If the primary gift of the Spirit is love which builds up the church in unity, as St. Paul teaches the Corinthians, I at any rate could find very little evidence of that Spirit at this convention.
These two contrasting experiences have intensified in me a love for the church, a hope for the church and a deep grief that the church I love and for which I have such hopes is nowhere to be found. There are places of refuge, mostly at the parish level and with some moderate bishops, in Anglican Network parishes and dioceses, the extended oversight of overseas bishops, in missionary fellowships like the Anglican Mission in North America and there is the real hope that the possibility of an Anglican Covenant provides for a new coming together of a truly global Christian fellowship which is Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal at the same time. But that is what may be and what is now is the great sadness of watching a great historic church come apart and leaving the faithful in its ranks with at best fall-back positions and temporary shelters. This is sad and I think the sadness and the lostness is just right and just the work that God wants to work in our hearts. We are living through a period of Gods judgment on our churches and the judgment of God is always that we should turn and live. This is true for individuals and for the church. God desires that his church should turn and live and that we should learn the lessons of this time of judgment. So let me share just a few things that I have been learning during this time of both grief and hope. In everything that follows I am deeply indebted to the writing of the late missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin and especially to his Kerr lectures of 1952 entitled The Household of God. I have been learning at first hand lessons he urged on the churches over fifty years ago.
The present crisis in Anglican Communion provoked by the Episcopal Church has brought home to me in a vivid and personal way the limitations of Evangelical, Charismatic and Catholic understandings of the church. The Episcopal Church has maintained its catholic order. One could even argue that the bishop of New Hampshire is a bishop in an Apostolic Succession. Obviously, and I say this as a person who teaches a robust sacramental theology and who believes strongly in the significance of the church as a visible society with visible continuity with the Apostles, it is possible for a church to maintain its catholic order and be deeply apostate. I still believe that the threefold ministry and a visible apostolic succession are Gods will for the church but it is undeniable that there are non-denominational store front churches which have been more faithful to the legacy of the Apostles than the Episcopal Church with its historic institutions of learning. The catholic order of the Episcopal Church has become disconnected from the transmission of the catholic faith. The present chaos is a strong lesson in the proper relationship between faith and order and what happens when the relationship is lost. We are learning again the lesson of the Reformation not as history but as personal experience.
Likewise the Evangelical understanding of the church has been proved practically wanting. The Evangelical teaching that faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ brings one into the one family of God through the blood of Christ has been constantly betrayed and from the earliest days of the Reformation by the absolute inability of the Protestant churches to live in one family. Protestants have often excused their schismatic nature with the teaching that the true church is invisible. This is an idea which may have been a polemical necessity during the struggle of the Reformation but I question its continuing usefulness. Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out that the idea of an invisible church runs counter to the whole biblical narrative of Gods Israel. Israel is both a kingdom of priests and apostate but never invisible. St. Paul does not write to the invisible church in Corinth but to a church that is at once a church of saints and sinners. The emphasis on an invisible church has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. The unity of the church has disappeared into the purely personal, private and spiritual and so we do not struggle for the visible unity of the church in faith and order until it is too late. The Protestant disinterest in ecumenicity, the satisfaction with a competitive denominationalism leads inevitably to churches that cannot hold themselves together. The breakup of the Episcopal Church is one of many instances of the genetic disease to which the Protestant churches are prone. It is striking that none of the daughter churches of the magisterial Reformation have been able to avoid either continuing schism or a thoroughgoing compromise with the spirit of this age.
The present crisis also brings out both the promise and limitations of the Charismatic renewal that swept through the Episcopal Church in the 70s and 80s. The Pentecostal Christian is right to point out that neither right order or right doctrine are enough if the church is not alive in the Holy Spirit. Newbigin has again been helpful to me here. He points out that the Spirit is the last to be mentioned in the creeds but first in the New Testament. It is the Holy Spirit who draws us to Christ, who incorporates us into his body and it is in and through the Spirit that we participate in Christ. It is the Spirit who bestows on the body the gifts necessary for its life and who animates each individual Christian and the whole congregation with the breath of new life. The Charismatic renewal has brought a new wind of the Spirit into the churches but it has not renewed the Episcopal Church. Like the early Christians in Corinth there has been too much emphasis on the more spectacular gifts of the Spirit and not enough on the oneness of the Spirit who builds up the one church in love and into the fullness of him who is its head and cornerstone.
Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostals in the Episcopal Church have all had a hold on something precious and indispensable to the life of the church but what we in our various ways have been holding onto is not and never has been the church in its wholeness, the church as God calls it to be. That any illusion that our partial visions are adequate has been taken from us and that there is really no possibility of returning to them with the confidence with which we once held them is the grace of the judgment of God and the blessing hidden in the present painful moment. There is a tremendous blessing in the fact that we can see no place to find the church our hearts long for except in the future, in the coming together of a church that is truly Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal. It is part of the healing of this moment of judgment that there should be awakened in us an ecumenical passion, a passion for the building up a church that is one in the Lord, one faith, one body and one Spirit. In the way of our Lord this new life will of course not come except through death. It is a great blessing to have the way to the past barred, to be unable to make peace with the present and to have no where to go but forward.
Here is the final thing that I have learned about the church. The unity of the church can only be found in the common mission of setting Jesus Christ before men and women in such a way that he is the one and only point of unity for the human race because he is the one and only possible point of unity between a lost and wayward human race and its Father in heaven. Reconciliation with our brothers and sisters is only possible because of the costly reconciliation with the Father wrought by the sacrifice of the Son. The actual visible unity of the church in faith and order and spirit is built up by the pursuit of that one mission of reconciliation. For most of my ministry the word mission has been constantly on the lips of the leaders of the Episcopal Church. Mission has been taken to mean solidarity in serving the poor. Deeds not creeds, has been the implicit motto. This understanding of mission has been shown to be completely inadequate and has led not to unity in service but to a weakening of the capacity of the church to serve. We are called to be a servant church but as a dimension of our witness to the reality of Jesus Christ as the only-begotten Son of the one Father of us all. Only complete dedication to the mission of proclaiming Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and life for all humanity provides a mission that really can be a source of the unity of the church both within in the Anglican way and between all the fractured pieces of the one body of Christ. This in no way implies a dismissive or contemptuous attitude toward other religions but it does require a belief that the Gospel is true not only for me but for all. For the sake of the mission or proclaiming this universal Gospel to the whole cosmos until the end of time, it is meet and right that we are unable to make camp now where we are and that we find no resting place, but must seek a new oneness in faith, order, spirit and mission and must press forward and run with perseverance the race set before us.
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