The Anglican Primates’ Meeting set a deadline of September 30 for the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church [TEC] to respond in the affirmative or negative as to whether it will abide by the recommendations of The Windsor Report (2004) on sexuality. Before this deadline, there will be a meeting of the House of Bishops, which will be addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is desirous to bring the American Bishops into general conformity with the mind of the global Anglican Communion.
Obviously, if the House of Bishops decides by a majority vote to stay with the present position of TEC, then this will mean that TEC will probably walk apart from the global Anglican Communion in the immediate future. Already not a few provinces have declared themselves out of communion with TEC or with specific bishops and dioceses within it and so there is a division already.
If the TEC House of Bishops decides to maintain the status quo then their position will raise a matter of conscience for some members of that house, together with clergy and laity. They will have to decide whether to stay within TEC or secede from it, as have not a few of their friends done in the last few years.
What guidance can be offered to such people as they face this question of conscience?
One possible source of help is to go to the writings of Richard Hooker (d.1600), who addressed with care and erudition in 1586 a question not too different from that faced by Episcopalians today. So let us see what he had to say.
He lived at a time when the Church of England faced pressures from within and without to change radically—that is to abandon the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion of 1559. From within were the Puritans (or Anglican Presbyterians) pressing for reform of the Church of England towards the Genevan model of a Calvinistic Presbyterianism; and from without were the Pope and Spain seeking to restore Ecclesia Anglicana to the governance of the Papacy (and threatening force as came later in the Armada).
Both Hooker and the Puritans believed that the Church of Rome taught and confessed many heresies and errors, but they disagreed over whether or not this Church could be called a Church of God. This difference was the root cause of a controversy in which Hooker published a Tractate of some 20,000 words, with the title A Learned Discourse on Faith, and Works, and how the Foundation of Faith is overthrown. From the content of this Tractate we can discern what Hooker believed about the Church of Rome and whether or not it was right to secede from it. Here in summary form are the positions Hooker expounded and in them is the basis for guidance for present-day Episcopalians:
1) The Church of Rome publicly teaches many heresies and errors which do great harm to souls. These vary from extraordinary claims about the Pope and the Eucharist to false teaching about how a sinner is justified by God the Father through Jesus Christ.
2) However, the same Church does maintain the true foundation of the visible Church of God—i.e., that Jesus Christ is the one and only Saviour of mankind, and the one and only Mediator between God and man.
3) Some of the heresies and errors of Rome do by logical deduction and inference indirectly overthrow the foundation of this same Church. Yet they do not directly overthrow it. (The distinction between directly and indirectly is assumed by Hooker to be an important distinction.)
4)By the mercy and providence of God alone, it is possible to be saved everlastingly while a member of the Church of Rome, despite the presence of heresies and errors.
5) The safest and surest way to obtain salvation and be a faithful child of God is to depart from the Church of Rome and be a member of a Reformed Catholic Church where the pure Gospel is proclaimed and where heresies and errors of Rome do not exist.
Unlike the Puritans, Hooker was not prepared to say that the Church of Rome was totally engulfed in infidelity and fully gone into apostasy. But he did believe that the body of this Church hung on to Christ by a very thin and tiny thread! It was a visible Church of God that like Israel of old which often departed from the Lord its God.
So Hooker addresses Episcopalians today from across the centuries, but within the communion of the saints, with these questions as they ponder what they ought to do on or after September 30:
A. Is TEC still a visible Christian Church in the sense that the fact of Jesus Christ as the one and only Saviour is clearly and unambiguously affirmed by her?
B. Assuming that TEC is truly a visible Church of God (even if united to Christ the head by a thin thread) does She teach and propagate such heresies and errors as directly overthrow this foundation of Christ the only Saviour?
With respect to A, it can be claimed on the basis of her constitution that TEC is committed to the Creeds and thereby holds on to Christ the only Saviour. Yet on the basis of many weekly sermons this claim could be challenged.
With respect to B, it can be argued that despite the Creeds, there is also widespread acceptance of universalism (“all will be saved in the end and there is no hell”) by the leadership of the Church, as well as the claim that all religions sincerely practiced lead to God. But do they contradict the Foundation indirectly or directly? Then there is the acceptance of new sexual ethics and practice which again has to be evaluated as to whether it represents an indirect or a direct overthrowing of the foundation!
So Hooker would say, I think, that the first thing to get clear is whether or not TEC actually and really maintains the true and living Foundation. Then the second thing to work out—if indeed the Foundation is apparently maintained—whether any of the TEC heresies and errors in worship, doctrine, morality and discipline actually overthrow the Foundation directly? If the answer to the latter is yes then secession is morally required immediately! However, if any overthrowing is not direct but by implication and thus indirectly then secession becomes more a question of prudential judgment, than of a distinct moral duty.
[Please note that the Preservation Press of the PBS of the USA will publish in September 07 this Tractate of Hooker’s 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.]