Monday, July 14, 2008

Response to Fr. Wooten’s Attack

Following my talks to the Via Media and Remain Episcopal groups in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Fr. Steve Wooten, a priest in that diocese, published a two part series attacking me and the essays I wrote for The Episcopal Majority entitled "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church" which can be found elsewhere on this blog. As promised to the HoBD list, I am posting my response to Fr. Wooten here:

Dear Fr. Wooten,

I have listened to the first of your two responses to the essays I wrote for The Episcopal Majority and have several concerns, especially as your responses have been widely circulated. I wish you had been able to attend my talk in Wichita Falls – had I more notice about that part of my schedule I would have invited you personally, as I had invited Christopher Cantrell and Dean Ryan Reed to my talk in Fort Worth.

I am not going to engage with you in debate here: however I feel it necessary to clarify some misinformation, mischaracterization and unnecessary confusion.

First, I did not come to Fort Worth from the national church. No one at the national church was consulted about my visit. I came by invitation from individuals who expressed the hope that another point of view could be articulated respectfully within the diocese. I asked Bishop Iker for an appointment before my talks to ask him if he had any concerns about my speaking in his diocese. He was very gracious in meeting with me and he told me of his concerns – which I share. It is my hope and prayer that I honored his concerns and that I mirrored my respect for him to those who attended the talks, including several of your parishioners.

You have my biographical history all wrong. You could have checked it on line at the Church Pension Fund site or in any Clerical Directory. I am a Harvard graduate, cum laude in philosophy, and was graduated from The General Theological Seminary. I have taught at the seminaries in Berkeley, California as well as at Nashotah House. Seabury Press has published two books I've written – one on theology and the other on an intergenerational approach to Christian Education. My work on the Parables of Jesus was published recently in the Sewanee Theological Review and has been under review by Fortress Press.

Your characterization of my work in the Diocese of the Rio Grande was completely wrong and foolish as well. After a disasterous Diocesan Convocation in which Network clergy and laity hurled nasty and scurrilous epithets at moderate and liberal members of the Convocation, Bishop Steenson assembled a group of leaders in the diocese to serve as a Task Force on Communion. They were to help guide the diocese towards a more loving and respectful community and Convocation. The level of venom in the original Task Force was so high that all the liberal members resigned, leaving only one moderate. Bishop Steenson, knowing of my reconciling work in the Diocese of El Camino Real, asked if I would serve on the Task Force. Being a tough old buzzard I agreed to serve. Despite being asked to resign three times by the chair of the Task Force for raising uncomfortable issues and concerns, I ended my service with profuse gratitude from Bishop Steenson and the diocese.

My stance has never been as you characterize it, "if you don't agree, get out." No one has worked harder in this very conservative diocese to hold people and congregations together, except for Bishop Steenson. I have spent over forty years working to build bridges within the Episcopal Church – and many of my closest friends in the church are among the most conservative. Check your General Convention materials: the Network endorsed my candidacy for Trustee of the Church Pension Fund at the last General Convention because their leadership knows me and trusts me, even as we disagree.

I believe there is room in the Episcopal Church for the full range of people in the Network. What I objected to in my booklet is the defamatory language often used by leaders of the Network which is present all the way through the DVD, "Choose This Day." I object in the strongest terms to the use of the slanderous and ugly language that I noted in my booklet. We may have deep disagreements about many things, but neither of us is "non- Christian" or "pagan." That kind of language has no place in your mouth or mine.

I object to your characterization of my understanding of the authority of Scripture and of the nature of revelation. You misquoted me in your talk as you have repeatedly done in your comments on Fr. Cantrell's blog. I believe your view of revelation as a sophisticated kind of divine dictation has not been honored in the history of Anglicanism, though it has its followers among Biblical literalists. My understanding of revelation as a response to the mighty acts of God in Hebrew Scripture and as the response to the life, ministry, teaching, incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been pretty standard for centuries. To characterize my understanding as that of God speaking to me through the beauty of a forest has got to be a deliberate and mean-spirited misunderstanding.

The tensions among Scripture, Tradition and Reason are far deeper than your fairly peculiar notion of Scriptura sola. I don't know of a single responsible Biblical scholar or historian who would would say, in your words, "Scripture trumps all." The Scriptural norm of polygamy, which I object to in the strongest terms, does not trump anything. Let us pray that it never will – and that is one of hundreds of examples. It was, as you know, the church which decided the Canon and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which helps us to understand it.

I object in the strongest of terms to your use of various red herrings to defame the Episcopal Church. The Buddhist, Hindu and Wicca examples you used have all involved depositions or inhibitions by resident bishops. They represent an unacceptable expression of the church – we both know that. Your using them in the way you did would be the equivalent of my referring to the havoc wreaked by Don Armstrong as typical of people in the Network (Don has been a friend of mine, but I find his financial misbehavior terrible).

Your mischaracterization of my concerns about puritanism was unfortunate. Your statement that I and others have no regard for rules is laughable. My life in the Episcopal Church is full of upholding rules – and holding our church and others acccountable to Scriptural norms. Take a look at my piece on "Forty Years of Ordination" at

We do have much to talk about regarding the neo-Puritanism that I believe marks too much of the new "orthodoxy." My concern is that the rules and objectification in your rule dominated ethics and morality have undermined our traditional Anglican understanding of the sacramental nature of life, and thus of our understanding of Trinitarian faith. It is a serious argument and ignored at your peril. Your mischaracterization continued in your calling me a "Christian anarchist." The quotes about God as Love comes, of course, not from Augustine but from I John I. To characterize my discussion of Divine Love as having to do with an old geezer having sex with a 13 year old girl is way, way beneath you. I was happy to hear a parishioner cautioning you that you were confusing agape and eros.

You noted that "If God does not have codes and rules, why did Jesus have to die?" I believe if you look more closely at the Synoptics that you will find that it was largely Jesus' attack on the purity code and its grip on the People of God that led to his crucifixion – not his reiteration of the Ten Commandments. We had plenty of rules and regulations long before the Incarnation: what was lacking was Paul's notion of Grace and Law and Jesus' transformation of the Law into a new ethic. By the way, I do not know a liberal theologian or ethicist anywhere who says anything like what you tag me with, "Don't worry about anything, Grace will cover you." I read Bonheffer: where did you find that???

Again, your statement that I am advocating that the Holy is "found in human experience: just try everything once and you will find God" is gross distortion and has nothing at all to do with what I wrote or what I believe. I am pretty strictly Pauline on the matter of the revelation of the holy in human experience. Your literalism is what is bizarre.

When you begin talking about my discussion of Bedrock, you seem to align me with those advocating gay marriage. Please be careful: you are wrong. You accuse me of "throwing out tradition and discarding the Book of Common Prayer:" again, you are wrong! It would have been helpful for your parishioners to have heard about the traditions I did mention, such as the subjugation of women embedded in our prayer books for centuries.

You told your parishioners I called you a charlatan for accepting your paycheck. Wrong. I wrote of the conflict between being paid by an institution one is working actively to undermine or replace – and how similar that is to a husband who reaps the benefits of being married while plotting with a woman he is having an affair with about getting out of his marriage. I think the moral standard is that one works to preserve the marriage – and when that is impossible, then one leaves the marriage. Period. Bishop Steenson realized he had a deeper conflict with the Episcopal Church than he had previously thought, so politely he announced that he was renouncing his orders. He did that within weeks of his realization that he would be joining the Roman Catholic Church. He left with the good wishes of liberals and conservatives – certainly of my own. I believe that should be the norm – but that's me.

I certainly agree with you that the message of salvation can be "got" by all, despite the nuances of Scripture. Some of us hear that message differently from others. As I took great pains to note, there are different strains in the Gospels about the requirements for salvation. It is clear that you find the major strains of the Synoptics uncomfortable and so not part of the Biblical message. I said that what you are affirming is affirmed in the New Testament – and so is what I am affirming also affirmed there. There is no "winning" here.

I hope you are more respectful to our Presiding Bishop than your use of "Kate Schori" indicates. I know many of the clergy in your diocese disparage her regularly, but I want to remind you that her stance regarding John 14.6 reflects traditional Anglican understanding of salvation and is fully within the understanding of the Roman Catholic church of that scripture as well. Your slur reflects on you, not her. It is that kind of slur against women in authority that has led to a host of terrible consequences for women. You owe your parishioners better.

One last thing ( I know I have gone on too long): you accuse me of Marcionism, claiming that I "do not want your people to read Paul, John, Leviticus or most of the New Testament." On the contrary, I want nothing more than for your people to read those books. I want them to know the difference in quality between the Purity Code and the Holiness Code in Leviticus. I want them to read Galatians 5 and all of Romans. I want them to read of the expansive love of God in the Johaninne letters and in the Parables of Jesus which, over and over again, undercut the moralism which you seem to champion. Read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Mustard Seed and on and on. They represent a different picture than the one you draw. Note that I am not saying your picture is wrong: it is one among many. That concept is hard for a literalist, but easy for one reads the whole Bible.

If you want to have an open and honest discussion with me, I am up for that. From what I saw and heard in Wichita Falls, so are your people. They know that there is more than one respectable point of view on these important matters – I think they are tired of the others being so disparaged. Check with your bishop to see if such a discussion would be a possibility. Check with the leadership in the Network – John Liebler, Kendall Harmon, David Virtue, Bishop Little and others: they will tell you about my integrity and good faith. They will tell you that I make every effort to be fair and kind – and that when I step over the line I apologize honestly and profusely. I hope to be treateed with the same respect.

Tom Woodward

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