Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Who or what is the GOD of the modern, western Anglican Churches?

A discussion starter

The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon

I want to suggest that there is a vast contrast between the doctrine of God proclaimed in the official Formularies and Creeds, and the God of the practical theology which dominates western, Anglican Churches.

Dr. Philip Turner, who has such a penetrating and clear mind and a ready pen, has provided for all who are willing to be instructed, in a recent essay, a description of the God who is named and invoked by a majority of clergy and institutional leaders of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. (See the website of The Anglican Communion Institute for the essay.) I showed this essay to lay folks in leadership positions in the Church of England, and they said that it also well describes what is the prevailing practical theology (in contrast to the doctrines in the official formularies and church texts) of the dear, old Church of England, and the clergy who lead it.

In short, this Deity invoked by modern Anglicans is “the God who accepts” rather than the “God who saves and redeems.” That is, in accepting us, this God is saving and redeeming us. Here is a brief summary of the message in my words:

“God is love and God loves all people. This divine love is particularly expressed in the acceptance of people as they exist in their normality, self-worth, dignity, orientation and searching for God. Thus the Gospel is the message that God in Jesus announces that all are welcome, that all are accepted just as they are, and that the Church is a community of celebration of human acceptance of people of all types. In Christian fellowship, the uniqueness, dignity and worth of all persons, just as they are, is affirmed and practiced. And the Eucharist is the family meal, the means whereby unity is created by sharing in a common meal and affirming one another in the “Peace” and the receiving of the same symbolic food.. It is open to all, whether or not they have been baptized and whatever be the state of their heart and mind. The mission of the Church concerns human dignity and worth, peace and justice for all, since God is the God who accepts all creatures, whoever and whatever they are. So Baptism is the entry into this community of celebration and represents a commitment to the mission of peace and justice.”

In this scheme, Deity, who accepts people as they are, is often described (theologically speaking) in terms of a Trinity (e.g. Three Modes of Being or Three Expressions of Divinity), where Trinity becomes a model for human, fellowship, cooperation and acceptance in the Church on earth. However, in reality this God is more the God of Unitarianism or even Deism, and in some cases even Panentheism, than the traditional Trinitarian Theism of classical orthodoxy. Likewise, Jesus is the Son of God in the sense that he was adopted by God, filled with the Spirit and vision of God, and supremely involved in the mission of God.

Further, the estimate of human beings in this approach is a modern form of the ancient doctrine of Pelagianism. Thus a human being as a creature of God has an inherent worth and dignity, is the possessor of human rights whatever his or her status, condition or orientation, and does not need to be saved from sin. Rather he or she needs to be affirmed, accepted and blessed by God through the missionary work of the people of God. Conversion is being accepted by God and recognizing this. In Baptism each child of God is affirmed, given the right to the possibility of all ministries in the Church (as called to them), and commissioned to work with others for peace, justice and dignity for all. Then in the Eucharist each child of God is affirmed and strengthened for mission. At any stage he or she may feel a call to “the ministry” and thus lead the community in proclaiming the message of acceptance of all by God.

Sin is redefined through the categories of counseling and psychotherapy and thus repentance also has a new meaning – accepting who you are and how much God loves you as you are.

So the Church is a community of celebration, not celebration of the mighty works of God in redemption, salvation and especially in the Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ (though this is mentioned); but, rather, celebration of human community and worth, that God accepts us all whatever be our condition, need and desires.

There is no doubt but that this message and this form of religion is acceptable to many middle-class people for it accords well with much that is taken for granted in culture and society these days. It seems to be so widely embracing, tolerant and affirming of all. It requires little change of heart and mind even if it requires time and commitment, as if it were a primary leisure activity.

There is however one group that it will not tolerate. This is the group who not only hold to the doctrines set forth in the classic Anglican Formularies (BCP, Ordinal and Articles) but also believe them and accept them as summaries of biblical doctrine and morality. These traditionally-minded folks represent an enemy, a threat and a challenge for they undermine the Gospel of acceptance by seeking to proclaim a Gospel of redemption and a Christ of salvation.

And there is one practice that is not tolerated – the attending of the Eucharist and not communicating. This is seen as a rejection of the celebration of community and of everyone who participates. It is not only bad behavior, it is also the rejection of the God who accepts. Clergy who do this in ECUSA can be prosecuted under canon law!

In summary, the real problem facing the Anglican Churches of the West/North is not the arrival of same-sex blessings and the like, it is the rejection of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as he is known to us through sacred Scripture, holy tradition, devotional and worship experience and in the power of the proclaimed Gospel to save and redeem sinful man.

Kyrie eleison.

Peter Toon, January 27, 2005, Septuagesima.

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