Sunday, October 25, 2009

Open Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina

    After several people from around the church objected to proposed actions about to be taken at the Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina, Kendall Harmon, the Canon Theologian for that diocese asked this of me and others: "Why don't you all read the bishops address and see what he really said?" This is where you will find that address:

My response to Canon Harmon and the leadership of the Diocese of South Carolina:
    I have read Bishop Lawrence's address to your convention and find it repeatedly marked by untruths (whether intentional or not), misunderstandings, misstatements and ignorance of the issues he references. On the whole I believe it represents a betrayal of trust towards the people entrusted to him by General Convention.
           Let me be specific. First, when he talks about my and others' "false understanding of the Christian faith" which is "founded upon human speculation rather than divine revelation" he does not know what he is talking about. There is no revelation separate from human experience and discernment. Neither Bishop Lawrence nor his Canon Theologian has an inside track on some Gnostic sort of revelation unknown to the rest of us. It would be interesting to hear about Bishop Lawrence's theory of direct revelation unaffected by human experience, intellect or judgment – such a theory would be an innovation of the first order.
           Second, what he attacks as "the Gospel of Indiscriminate Inclusivity" actually predates his ordination. That Gospel goes back to Jesus' Parable of the Marriage Feast in which Jesus points us beyond our notions of the chosen to two different levels of the excluded. That teaching runs through several of Jesus' parables (available on request). It is also reflected in his actions and in his other teaching. The Gospel he attacks has also been dominant through history, beginning with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Book of Acts and later with such indiscriminate inclusions of Blacks, women and now gay and lesbian people. What is disturbing – and foreign to the teaching of our Lord -- is his Gospel of Discriminate Exclusivity (which, conveniently or not, matches his own proclivities).
           Third, he seems to claim that traditional teaching about Grace, Unconditional Love and God's preferential love for the poor and marginalized have somehow challenged "the doctrine of The Trinity, the Uniqueness and Universality of Christ, the Authority of Scripture, our understanding of Baptism and. .our Constitution and Canons." Where have Lawrence, Harmon and their advisors been when our PB has painstakingly clarified and corrected the incessant and almost instantaneous distortions of her sermons and speeches by the right? Where did they learn there is one and only one understanding of the authority of Scripture? One which, ironically, is closer to that of the Southern Baptists than traditional Anglicanism. As I noted in my "The Undermining of the Episcopal Church" (found on this blog), the real threat to our traditional understandings of the Trinity, the Universality of Christ, the Authority of Scripture and our Sacramental Theology comes from the self-styled "orthodox," themselves.
           I am one of the least of many, many pastors, lay people and theologians who have shown why tradition, Scripture and reason do not support the bishop's claims.  Does he not read anyone outside his own perspective?  
           His charge that "TEC was moving inexorably in what seemed an increasingly unbiblical direction" is the precise charge made by the pro-slavery people in the church against the abolitionists. I do not believe or infer that Mark Lawrence is a racist, but the similarity of arguments and claims should bother him.

I believe the last piece of his address is so wrong it is beyond laughable – and I enjoy a good laugh as much as anyone.  To quote, "When some were taking radical actions, disregarding the creeds and the canons, the defenders of orthodoxy were gentleman (sic) still fighting according to Marques of Queensbury rules. Those pushing the agenda were more like street-fighters."  What is there to compare to the libelous and scurrilous attacks of the DVD "Choose This Day" which was produced to undermine the trust of faithful Episcopalians in their church? Do you remember the language of that production, funded and produced by the people you and your bishop hold up as heroes of civility and fairness? Do "counterfeit religion," "enemies of Christ," "the church has been hijacked," "a foreign and alien and pagan religion," "a non-Christian religion" ring any bells? How about our "ignoring the cross?"  While some of the rhetoric on both sides has been harsh, nothing can compare to that still unrepudiated Trash Document "Choose This Day," followed by the on-going echoes of its irresponsible rhetoric by Bob Duncan and others.

While Bishop Lawrence's allies and others have accused those with whom they disagree as heretics and worse, I believe those so charged have consistently either defended themselves against the charges – or responded saying traditional Anglican comprehensiveness has made room for both our views. No one is pushing Kendall Harmon or Bishop Lawrence out of the Episcopal Church – there is room for both. What is asked of them is that they will cease battering others who, on the basis of our traditional understandings of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, hold a more traditional view of Christian theology and ethics.

Finally, when Bishop Lawrence charges that General Convention "has replaced a balanced piety in this Church with the politics of one-dimensional activism" he simply is terribly, terribly wrong. This claim of his is, strictly speaking, libelous as he is publicly and maliciously attacking the spiritual integrity and faithfulness of the vast majority of bishops, priests, deacons and lay people in this Church. An apology is required.
    I do not question Bishop Lawrence's devotion to our Lord, Jesus Christ or the sincerity of his beliefs. I know him to be a kind and pastoral person. I fault him on repeating slights, misunderstandings and untruths and for directing his diocese on the basis of those errors. My prayer is that he will read things like Tobias Haller's new book as well as the discussions on the more responsible blogs and websites, including Mark Harris's Preludium and others.


M.A.C. said...

Hi Tom,

I hope you don't mind answering a couple of questions I am asking all believers everywhere;

Do you believe that God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to start a new religion called Christianity?

And if yes. Where is the text in the bible that supports the popular Christian belief that God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to start a new religion called Christianity?

Thomas B. Woodward said...

M.A.C. -- great question. I do not believe that God sent his only Son Jesus Christ to start a new religion called Christianity. The religion developed as a response to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus -- at its best it has reflected the gift of God's Son, at its worst it has twisted and distorted that Gift.

hassopheret said...

Dear Tom,
Thank you for your thoughtful, patient responses to these difficult issues.

An Episcopal Sister in Christ

Fr. John said...

Wow! I was just surfing through and saw you living in another universe. You have a very heterodox view of the way of the cross.

In Christ

Fr. John said...

Sorry, I forgot to leave you this:

take a peak into our universe. Jesus is very real in my world.

Thomas B. Woodward said...

Fr. John, thank you for commenting on the article. I would be interested to know how you see my views on the way of the cross as heterodox. While I did not address that specifically in this posting, I think my understanding is pretty traditional.

As to being in a different universe, I believe the universe I live in is the Body of Christ. I remember, though, the line from Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns," when a social worker in an attempt to take Murray's nephew from him, confronts Murray with "Murray, you've got to come back to reality." Murray responds, "OK, but only as a tourist."

Thanks for providing your url. I will check it out.

Thomas B. Woodward said...

Fr. John, I did go to your web site and left my particulars there (the only member of The Episcopal Church to do so!).

I see no real difference in our Christologies, except to note that there is only very thin reference to the teaching, preaching and witness of Jesus Christ in the Gospels reflected in the long statement -- and especially absent from the ethics section.

That bothers me, as I believe those who believe they are the conservative remnant regularly fail to refer to the very life of Jesus Christ which elsewhere they define as definitive for us and for all of humankind. If you read through my blog you will find Jesus Christ is at the center of almost every posting.

Help me out here - what am I missing?

Thomas B. Woodward said...

Fr. John, I meant to include this in my last two comments, but forgot. The red rubber nose signifies my dual career as priest in the Episcopal Church and as clown/fool street performer who has performed in nearly every one of our fifty States and overseas. The role of the clown/fool is a rich one and one that runs all the way through our Scriptures, including Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus and, according to Paul, the Body of Christ.