Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A False Notion of the Unity of the Church

One of the threads in the discussions of the World Wide Anglican Communion over the past several years has focused on the priority of unity within the Body of Christ. In good part, I believe, that discussion has been fueled by the difficulty many are having with one of the central virtues of Anglicanism, comprehensiveness, which allows for differing viewpoints to co-exist within the same congregation, diocese, province and Communion. Against that sense of dis-ease, I note the following about our necessary unity:

First, it is most often that we find or discover our unity with one another in mission or in jointly resisting evil in the world. Councils and committees are important, but they rarely have the power of seeking justice and exercising compassion together in the world. The unity of the church, expressed in public documents comes in a poor second to the unity of the church in resisting evil or promoting the Kingdom of God.

In response to seek to replace comprehensiveness with uniformity, often referring to “the scandal of our divisions,” I fail to see how a wondrous array of perspectives and commitments being lived out through different denominations is scandalous. We are all united in the Risen Body of Christ -- what could be closer What I would consider as scandalous is what the Roman Catholics do and infer -- that is, saying that they are the authentic church of Jesus Christ while others represent different shades and expressions of inauthenticity and untruth.

This is what will be scandalous: It will be scandalous when the Quakers are not allowed or honored to be the very best Quakers they can be -- and the same for the Mennonites, the Baptists, Episcopalians and Orthodox. No one denomination, national or international church can represent the others. While there are strains of the Mennonites in certain enclaves of Roman Catholics, that witness will always be an aberration. In the same way, the discipline of the Assembly of God cannot be integrated within the Orthodox tradition without compromising what is special and unique there. Why compress everything into a shadow of its former self in the name of unity? Talk about your scandal!

The problem is not with our differing denominations -- it is with our lack of humility, charity and ability to see the fullness of Jesus Christ in ways we, ourselves, do not embody. I remember the words of a long dead bishop in the United Methodist Church, “Thank God we are not all United Methodists!” When Episcopalians can say that with convictions, we will be a much stronger and more faithful expression of the institutional life of Jesus Christ.

Bishop Richard Shimpfky preached an excellent sermon a few years ago about the diversity within the Trinity which co-exists with the unity. For Jesus to pray that the church may be one, even as he and the Father are one, does not presuppose a lack of diversity or difference. Diversity and difference are built in to the life of the Trinity.

Consider, too, the life of Jesus. Where in his band of disciples can one discern anything like "unity" within the followers of Jesus? Where could you ever discover such a thing -- even in the early church with its diversity of experience and beliefs? If you want to dispel the myth of “the faith once delivered to the saints” as having anything at all to do with a unified set of beliefs or ways of thinking about divine love, atonement, Baptism or any other core beliefs in the early centuries of the Christian church, read David Rhoads’ “The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels” (Fortress Press).

In the dialogue about unity in the church it is always fair to ask: Is there a way to the unity you are holding up that can come about by means other than strict enforcing of boundaries around theological and ethical formulations and concerns? I believe that the unity God provides the church is the unity which allows and encourages a variety of faithful responses through our varied faith in God.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Fort Worth

On the House of Bishops/Deputies list serve, The Rev. Liz Zivanov writes:

"I don't think the rest of the church really understands the gravity of the situation in Ft. Worth or the other ACN dioceses. Will we (the leadership of TEC, and especially the bishops) continue to watch as this sort of emotional and spiritual violence continues?

First guns from the Stand Firm folks; now guns and tasers in the Diocese of Ft. Worth. And there's not even an effort to hide this violent activity."

My Response:
The subtext of much of the Convention speech by Bishop Iker this past weekend in Fort Worth was full of demonizing and intimidation, while on the surface complaining of intimidation from those threatening to hold him accountable for his leadership of the diocese.

Here is a sampling:
"Wherever Christians gather to take a stand for the Gospel,even in church conventions, the devil will be close at hand, seeking to beguile, divide, and mislead. Watch out!"

Comforting words for those who oppose his agenda!

"Counterfeit Christianity, man-made religion, and revisionist theology must be identified and rebuked for the sake of the unchanging Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Strong words as precursor for honest and open debate about the nature of the Gospel.

"Let us not lose our will to stand for conscience and truth, whatever the consequences or the cost."

The force of this statement is not to honor individual conscience, but the bishop's conscience -- and those who have a different conscience,formed through their own lives in the church and in our seminaries, know well the consequences and cost involved in voicing them.

Granted that near the end of the speech there are notes of graciousness and caring for those who oppose the bishop's agenda; but it is difficult to be caring for those who have just been characterized as on the other side of truth, counterfeit Christians deserving of public rebuke, agents of the devil.

We can all understand the pressures involved when one's world is under attack, as the bishop's world of traditional exclusion of women and homosexuals has been under attack, but Christlike response to such differences is usually couched in prayerful commitment and offers of dialogue,not demonizing and devaluing. The response from those in leadership at this Convention mirrors a different spirituality than that embodied in our Scripture and Book of Common Prayer. We must not demonize them, for they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we must not allow their words or actions to define the presence of Jesus Christ in the world or in the church -- for where they stand is not where he said he will stand.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Rant or Religion?

While listening to a series of audio tapes of notable closing arguments before the Supreme Court, one case in particular stood out. The case was Cooper v. Aaron (358 U.S. 1) 1958 concerning the intention of the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas to delay the desegregation of the their schools. Their case was composed of three arguments:

· the people of Little Rock had different beliefs about race relations than other parts of the country;
· the nation should not impose its beliefs on Little Rock;
· unless the Supreme Court allowed them to retain control of their schools and to operate under their own orthodoxy there would be a massive resistance, possibly including violence.

In speaking to the people of Little Rock, Justice Thurgood Marshall made it very clear there would be no sympathy for those who failed to show proper respect for the Supreme Court on this or any other issue: we all live in the United States and our citizenship is based on respect for Congress and the Supreme Court.
The more I listened to Thurgood Marshall, the more one thing in the life of our own Episcopal Church became very clear. The stance of the dioceses of Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Pittsburgh and others is really no different than that of Orval Faubus, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and other champions of States’ Rights after desegregaton became the law of the land! Both groups oppose what they see as Innovation, whether racial integration or inclusivity. Both share the perceptions of a True Believer, convinced that they alone possess the real truth and morality – and that conviction, they believe gives them the right and the responsibility to resist and to oppose the dictates of General Convention or Congress, whether the moral issue is desegregation of the schools or full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church.

The central issue is remarkably the same: whether the authority of General Convention or of the Supreme Court overrides the assertions of a Bob Duncan, Jack Iker, John David Schofield or an Orval Faubus or George Wallace. The disrespect for legitimate authority in an Orval Faubus is mirrored in a like disrespect from Bishop Duncan, forbidding prayers for the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
These three dioceses, soon to be joined by one or two more, claim a truth and an orthodoxy for themselves that allows them to banish and to harass any in their midst who are seen to be “trouble-makers.” It allows them to raise, in effect, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Confederate flag – a slap in the face to our spiritual ancestors who worked so hard to maintain the comprehensiveness that has marked our unique contribution to worldwide Christianity.

Bishop Duncan’s refusal to pray for our Presiding Bishop is clearly against both the letter and the Spirit of the New Testament. The question surely arises, “How do you fancy yourself as one of the chosen recipients of "the faith once delivered to the saints" while so brazenly scornful of the heart of the faith actually given to the saints?” This is not orthodoxy – it is a pale distortion of Biblical religion, actually more rant than religion.

How do we respond to this substitute for the faith most of us have known? The first thing we must do is to say that we don’t recognize this attitude as having anything to do with the Jesus Christ we know. It is a new religion. The second thing we can say is that, like the opposition to segregation, this new religion seems to be built around collective fears and dislikes rather than upon a faith received.

The third thing we must say or remember is that these bishops and the clergy and people who follow them are our brothers and sisters. We can and must wish them well as they move out of the Episcopal Church into some other faith and practice. We do them no favors, though, in allowing them, in leaving, to take the property which belongs to those for whom they have such little respect.