Monday, August 20, 2007

Seceding from The Episcopal Church—some further, tentative, practical advice based upon Hooker’s teaching

A dozen or so bishops, hundreds of clergy, and thousands of laity are seeking to decide whether they will leave The Episcopal Church if its House of Bishops in late September 07 decides not to follow the call of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of the Primates’ Meeting and become “Windsor-compliant.” The expectation is that the House will courteously say “No,” preferring to stay with its innovative and “prophetic” understanding of Christianity.

If those thinking of secession follow the advice of Richard Hooker, the distinguished Anglican theologian (for details of his teaching see my previous essay, That September Deadline for The Episcopal Church), they will follow these steps:

1) Answer the question: Does The Episcopal Church believe, teach and confess that Jesus Christ is the one and only Saviour and that through and in him alone is forgiveness of sins and eternal life? [Implied here of course is that Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate and that God is a Trinity of Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.]
2) Then, if the answer is positive (even in a weak form) answer this question: Do the recent innovations, heresies and errors of The Episcopal Church actually directly or indirectly overthrow the foundation that Jesus is the one and only Saviour? [It is critical that the distinction between directly and indirectly be accepted.]

In order to assist in reflection I offer the following thoughts.

One probably has to accept that at a public level TEC does answer positively to the first question. That is, the uniqueness of Christ as Saviour is the official position in constitution and prayer book, even if it is not personally held by many of the progressive clergy and laity.

So now the question becomes: Does this Church by one or more of its innovations in doctrine and morality of the last fifty years directly overthrow the foundation of Jesus Christ as the unique Saviour? By directly is meant that the holding of this novel doctrine or moral principle actually and straightforwardly in a clear and obvious way (to ordinary common sense logic) denies the confession of Jesus as the one and only Saviour.

One can surely say that the profession of Unitarianism (confession of One God but denial of the Tri-Unity of God as Three Persons, one Godhead), Deism (confession of one God who is not involved in the world), Islam (that Jesus is only a great prophet) and Mormonism (that God is a physical being) all deny directly the foundation.

One can surely also say that other things have the effect of indirectly denying the foundation—for example, ordaining women (indirectly sets aside the unique Headship of Christ and thus his role as Saviour); blessing both marriages within serial monogamy and of homosexual partnerships (indirectly sets aside the authority of Jesus as Lord through rejection of his clear teaching of the nature of marriage and thus rejects his unique role as Saviour); and composing and authorizing liturgies designed to minimize the biblical portrayal of Christ and to dumb-down the clarity of biblical language (indirectly proposes universalism and that all sincere religions lead to God and so denied the unique role of Jesus).

However, in dealing with TEC one has to recognize that much of its innovating and departures from orthodoxy belong to what Philip Turner has called its “practical theology.” This is widely dispersed and assumed but not specifically written into a creed that all recite. And the supreme example of this—which allows in by the front door many innovations—is the simple equation “God is Love = All love is God.” By this practical theology much that has traditionally been judged immoral becomes moral and much that has been deemed to be evil becomes holy. So when TEC responded via its Presiding Bishop and Executive Council to explain itself on sexuality to the Anglican Consultative Council, it produced a book, in which a major theme was that same-sex unions that are based on faithfulness are holy unto the Lord and honor and set forth the Gospel. Here is plainly, indirectly, an overthrowing of the foundation.

I think that anyone, who has a basic sense of what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity,” will most probably decide that TEC indirectly overthrows the Foundation which is Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

I think also that the average type of Episcopalian or Anglican will hesitate to say that TEC actually directly denies the Foundation. (One can only claim direct denial, I think, if one makes one of the following to be wholly excluded clearly and unambiguously by the Foundation itself—(a) anglo-catholic ritual and ceremonial – as did the founders of the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1873; or (b) the ordination of women – as did the Seceders of 1977; or (c) the new sexual agenda -- as did the Seceders of 2004-2007.)

Important further questions to answer—I would think—if one is seriously considering secession and believes that TEC indirectly and practically overthrows the Foundation would be the following:

(1) Is there a sure and safe place to go where there is no immediate risk of denying the Foundation and where the unity of Anglicans in Christ and orthodoxy is a priority? Is the possibility of a new Province only a dream or is it a real, even a guaranteed, fact? Will we jump out of the frying pan into the fire?
(2) Is there a real possibility that it will be possible in safe dioceses or safe large and rich parishes of TEC to maintain the Foundation, despite what happens to TEC (which seems to be going only in one direction, that of liberal progressive practice) for the foreseeable future.
(3) Is the present disordered and dysfunctional state of Anglicanism with its many jurisdictions and groupings and competitiveness within the USA as much an embarrassment to the angels as is the internal state of TEC itself? Will our secession help to heal or to add to this regrettable state of affairs?
(4) How much weight should one put on the holiness of buildings and burial grounds? Is there any Gospel imperative involved in retaining them?

There is no doubt, as American religious history makes abundantly clear, that “the American Way” is to stand on what you believe and secede in order to do what you think is right. Consult yellow pages under “churches” for the results. But is this the way to handle the present crisis of Anglicanism?

I say: Pray, Ponder and be Patient; then make a decision, explain it carefully and humbly and stand by it, yet always being charitable to those who make different decisions and tolerant of those who hold the Foundation but are mistaken, in your view, in what they place upon it.

[Please note that the Preservation Press of the PBS of the USA will publish in September 07 the Tractate of Hooker’s where he discusses the status if the Church of Rome under the title On Salvation and the Church of Rome, and in a contemporary form of English, in order to help the reader quickly receive Hooker’s teaching, and not have to labor over his complex original style. Send $7.50 to The Prayer Book Society, P O Box 35220, Phildelphia, PA. 19128-0220.]

The Revd Dr Peter Toon

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