Thomas B. Woodward is an Episcopal priest who has served The Episcopal Church over 23 years as university chaplain at a number of campuses and as rector of St. Paul's, Salinas, California, John Steinbeck's parish church. He has written two books for Seabury Press, Turning Things Upside Down and To Celebrate, and his book, The Parables of Jesus Your Pastor Never Preached, is being considered by Fortress Press for publication. He and his wife, Ann, now live in Santa Fe, NM.
One of the most frustrating things about being a moderate in The Episcopal Church is the constant need to respond to various bizarre charges made against you by groups like the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), American Anglican Council (AAC) and allied groups. Those groups have now been joined by leaders in the Nigerian church who are organizing a mission to cleanse our church of its traditional teachings.
These groups justify their attacks on The Episcopal Church by claiming our leaders hold and teach “pagan or alien doctrines.” They seem to take delight in claiming we hold beliefs such as the following:
- Jesus is only one of many paths to God instead of the Only Way (John 14:6)
- Loving a person means acceptance and love of that person’s sins.
- The Holy Scriptures are merely historical relics and are not be taken seriously.
- People can propound any new teaching as long as it makes the listeners feel good (2Timothy.3:3-4).
- Heaven and Hell are only figurative terms used in the Bible; liberals believe it is wrong to frighten people with such old ideas in the modern world.
- The resurrection of Jesus never happened, and
- The Episcopal Church has abandoned its faith and embraced the heresies of Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg.
It is quite possible to find some or all of these views extant somewhere within The Episcopal Church; but to do so, you have to look very, very closely to find them. However, it is dishonest and complete distortion to jump from finding one person holding such a view to charging hundreds or thousands of others for holding the same belief. For example, a couple of years ago a clergy couple was discovered to be interested in Wicca (pagan religion). Anglican Communion Network (ACN) spokesmen immediately rushed to charge the entire progressive leadership of our Church as embracing paganism!
That kind of attack reached its peak in the DVD, produced by the ACN for distribution to households across the country loyal to the Episcopal Church. In it an ACN spokesman charges, amongst even more outrageous statements, that “the leadership [of The Episcopal Church] have embraced a foreign and alien and pagan religion.” That sort of thing takes one’s breath away by its sheer ignorance and vindictiveness.
I hope you can begin to understand the frustration of a solidly orthodox Episcopalian upon reading such accusations. But out of a need for both charity and clarity in addressing the characterization of mainline Episcopalians, we respond as follows:
Charge against Episcopalians: Jesus is only one of many paths to god instead of the only way.
As Bill Coats notes, most in our church believe Jesus to be the sole path to salvation. However, there has always been room for other views, including St. Paul’s argument to the contrary in his Epistle to the Romans (chapters 9-11), where he argues that the Jews remain the people of God and Christians have been grafted into Jewish holy history, a reading which has become the norm in most Christian churches in understanding our relationship to Judaism.
Through the ages, Anglicans have embraced both these views as responsive to the Biblical record – so it is unclear why the ACN and the Nigerian Mission to the U.S. want to insist that everyone submit to their own conclusions or – failing to submit -- be charged as heathen or heretic. Even the Southern Baptist Convention is not that arrogant.
Charge against Episcopalians: Loving a person means acceptance and love of that person’s sins.
This was a charge made against Jesus by religious leaders, that by sharing meals with the tax collectors and sinners, he was not only affirming them as people but also accepting and affirming their sins. The Network people are surely not suggesting that in loving felons, the leaders in The Episcopal Church are condoning or loving the felonies – or that in following Jesus’ command to love our enemies, we are encouraging them to defeat us?
The issue here seems to be the growing understanding throughout the church that the homosexual practice condemned in Leviticus and Romans 1:27 is far different from what more and more Episcopalians know first hand in the gay and lesbian people they see in loving, caring relationships which are based on commitment, fidelity and the desire to reflect the presence of God in their common life. Again, most Episcopalians believe that homosexuality is an inborn affect, something St. Paul did not know. This new understanding then has altered the original context of Paul’s prohibition and allows us to focus on the qualities of intimate relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual, rather than on externals.
St. Paul, himself, shifts the ground somewhat as he moves from his attack on abusive sexual relationships in the first chapter of Romans, where he argues for restraints, to his very powerful statement about how to value and judge relationships which are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.
One thing that has changed is our understanding of how difficult it has become for the church to condemn human relationships that are filled with the marks and the presence of the Holy Spirit. To judge those relationships as sinful when God’s presence in them is so apparent is most likely a matter of a lack of faith than anything else.
Liberal and moderate Episcopalians condemn sexual relationships that are promiscuous, exploitive or outside the bonds of love and commitment. For the Network/Nigerian coalition to claim otherwise is reckless and, basically, a smear job on faithful Christians. It represents a misrepresentation of the Jews, as well, in that Reformed and much of Conservative Judaism have stated that the Levitical laws condemning homosexuality are in conflict with the broader scope of their Scripture which affirms the goodness and holiness of loving, committed relationships between both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
Charge against Episcopalians: The Holy Scriptures are historical relics and are not be taken seriously.
Anglicans around the world have held different beliefs about the nature of the authority and interpretation of Holy Scripture. What is new is the Network/Nigerian contention that there can now be only one way of interpreting the Bible and only one way of considering its authority.
We believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is primary in encountering and experiencing the living God. We value the Bible for what it reveals, which is often in parable and through the experience of those living in the stories, rather than in lists of rules and proscriptions. Most of us believe that improvements in translations of the Bible and the light that has come from recent discoveries and new tools for understanding the Bible can only deepen our understanding of the meaning and message of Scripture.
The majority of Episcopalians believe there is room for various approaches and interpretations of the Bible – and that part of our common life is to be spent in dialogue between and among those understandings. The Network/Nigerian coalition seems to want to excise from The Episcopal Church any interpretations other than their own narrow and restrictive interpretations. It is destructive of the whole church for them to claim that anyone who does not agree with their peculiar point of view is a heretic, apostate, or enemy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We invite them to coexist with us, but not to attempt to destroy us with this new, rigid exclusivism.
Charge against Episcopalians: People can propound any new teaching as long as it makes the listeners feel good.
We find it preposterous and insulting to claim that the Episcopal church espouses a "feel good theology." This is an ideologically motivated fabrication and we reject it out of hand
Liberal and moderate clergy and laypeople have always focused on the Cross as central to our salvation as well as to our understanding of the world – to suggest otherwise is ignorant and mean-spirited.
Charge against Episcopalians: Heaven and hell are only figurative terms used in the bible; liberals believe it is wrong to frighten people with such old ideas in the modern world.
The exact meaning of heaven and hell have been in dispute in Anglicanism, as well as in other branches of the whole church for some time. In fact, there are several conflicting notions of each throughout both Christian and Jewish Scriptures. When the ANC, AAC or any other group claims that those holding a different but valid Biblical position other than its own are heretical or disingenuous, they reveal a spiritual arrogance not seen since the Crusades. While that attitude has marked the multitude of Christian sects around the country, it does not reflect our Anglican tradition of comprehensiveness.
There is certainly room in today’s church, as there has been throughout our history as Anglicans, for more than one interpretation of the meaning and reality of heaven and hell, as well as other key understandings of the Christian faith found in Scripture and our tradition. What is new is the arrogance of dismissing and demeaning any interpretation other than one’s own.
Charge against Episcopalians: The assertion that the Resurrection of Jesus never happened.
The charge that liberal and moderate Episcopalians do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is ill-informed and reckless. There have always been variations of belief in the resurrection, even among the writers of the Gospel and in the Epistles, and those differences persist today in our church as well as in others. Until recently, it has only been in fundamentalist churches that believers were attacked for holding Paul’s understanding of the Resurrection instead of Matthew’s. When we talk about essentials and the heart of our faith, those who are attacking us who believe in the resurrection of Jesus and who hold that this resurrection is the ground of the new life for all believers, owe us a formal apology.
We say the Nicene Creed proudly and we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ every Sunday with great joy and thanksgiving. What could bring anyone visiting our churches and observing the faith and devotion of our people to say anything different? We not only believe in the Resurrection, we are both proud and humbled to be called “resurrection people.” We will not be deterred in our faith by anyone seeking to demean or diminish that resurrection faith.
Charge against Episcopalians: The Episcopal Church has abandoned its faith and embraced the heresies of Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg.
This charge is familiar to those who were on high school debate teams. If you were willing to do anything to win, you would first lay out the extremes of your opponent’s side and then the centrists of your own – and then characterize the struggle as between those two straw men.
Neither Bishop Spong nor Marcus Borg represent the center of the Episcopal Church, but both have contributed to the welfare of the whole spectrum of our church. Bishop Spong does not represent his teaching as a replacement for our Catechism. His life has been dedicated to reaching those outside the Christian church who have found the Christian faith to be incomprehensible. His purpose is not that others believe as he does, but to provide a door into the Christian faith so young and older people outside the faith can hear our preaching and be involved in our worship, and be caught up in the living presence of Jesus Christ in our life in the church and in the world.
If we are going to be open and honest about the accusations about John Spong, it is crucial to know what Bishop Spong is doing: he is not speaking for the church, but to the unchurched – and God has used his peculiar witness for good. If one were to compare records of various bishops in drawing people into the Episcopal Church, often to become some of our best conservative, moderate and liberal lay people, clergy and bishops, the two at the top of the list would probably be Jack Spong and James Pike.
Has the Episcopal Church abandoned its faith and taken on the teachings of Bishop Spong? Of course not. All anyone has to do is to visit our seminaries, listen to the preaching and teaching of our clergy, read through the Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgies of the Prayer Book. It all hangs together as the core of our faith, even though it is not lock-step uniform.
As Episcopalians, we are part of a wonderful whole, with a full spectrum of witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At a recent House of Bishops meeting, note was taken of Bishop Bob Duncan, the head of the ACN, and Bishop Gene Robinson in deep conversation – what a powerful image of our church. We have liberals, moderates and conservatives and everything in between, all celebrating a common faith. May we never be reduced to commonality – for the same reason none of us would ever go to a circus which had only thirty-five elephant acts. I want the trapeze artists, the clowns, the jugglers and lion tamers. We have them all in the episcopate and in our congregations.
Beware, when church leaders want to claim the whole of church for themselves, whether of the right, left or middle. Beware, especially, when those who believe they, alone, are the orthodox begin talking about the real orthodoxy as “the faith first handed down to the saints.” Up until thirty five years ago, “the faith first handed down to the saints” meant no women on vestries, no women allowed in church without a hat or head covering, no remarriage after divorce no matter what the circumstances, separate churches for Black people, no use of birth control measures, and a thoroughgoing marginalization of gay and lesbian people and others.
Change and reassessment of our understanding of Scriptures and our tradition has not been an enemy of the Christian Church over the past several decades. Our task as the Church of Jesus Christ is to hold onto the core of the Gospel handed down to us by the faithful of previous generations, while letting go of the parts of that tradition which contravene and contradict Jesus’ commandment of Love.
The demonizing of John Spong has spilled over onto such Biblical scholars as Marcus Borg, who has also been called a “heretic” by spokesmen of the ACN and AAC. Dr. Borg is not Episcopalian. As a Biblical scholar he has few peers. He is not orthodox in some of his beliefs but he has, like Bishop Spong, inspired great numbers of the unchurched to reassess their faith and to commit themselves to traditional Anglican orthodoxy. One of the great gifts of Marcus Borg is that he makes it possible for large numbers of people to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – and has probably put more Bibles on bedside tables than any other living Christian!
Those who have the most trouble with theologians and Biblical scholars like Marcus Borg are those who insist on the literal meaning of Scripture or something close to that. That quasi-fundamentalist approach to Scripture, so often found in the “orthodox” rants is one, but only one of many strains of Anglican approaches to Scripture – and a recent strain at that. Many in The Episcopal Church believe that approach does not honor Holy Scripture, tending to take a dynamic revelation and reducing it to a dictated document, tied to an ancient culture.
A lively and faithful Episcopal Church will welcome the insights and the prodding of a wide variety of scholars, teachers and leaders, just as we welcome the prophets and sages who prod us into new awareness of the church’s role in the world. This has been our genius.
In summary: I am proud to be a member of The Episcopal Church and I regret with great sadness the attacks from those who style themselves as the “orthodox.” I do not want to impugn the character or the purposes of all who are in the Anglican Communion Network, because I know many who are fully dedicated to the life of Jesus Christ and his Church and who want only that their own theological commitments be more fully honored in the church. I apologize if I have seemed to disparage honestly held opinions about Scripture and tradition by these same people. Of course, there is room for them in The Episcopal Church, just not as the sole arbiters of what God is speaking to us through the Bible or our tradition. The one thing I would ask of those with significant differences from the heart, the majority of The Episcopal Church is that they renounce the tactics and distortions noted above – and that their attacks cease and be replaced with dialogue and some form of mutual regard. Our Communion deserves better than the false accusations addressed in this article. To quote, once more, the wisdom of Bill Coats, from an informal conversation:
“Anglicanism has always been marked by a particular generosity. The various schools within the church appealed to different audiences. Each approach may not be exactly compatible, biblically or theologically, with each other, but the trust which was the glue for the church was that each group intended in their approach that the Lord Jesus be accepted and worshiped. …What made you doubt the same intent and sincerity on our part, particularly when we kept denying as we do now the outrageous charges you make against us? We say speaking openly as Christian brothers and sisters: What happened to your generosity of spirit?”
Note: The quotes containing the language of “heretic, apostate” and the like come directly from the DVD, Choose This Day, produced and distributed by the ACN for distribution to non-ACN households to lure them away from their congregations. You can download the video at: http://www.anglicandecision.com/