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The Episcopalians' Problem -- And Ours

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Friday, July 31, 2009

The Episcopalians' Problem -- And Ours

July 31, 2009

About three years ago while on a flight leaving the Episcopal Church's tri-annual General Conference in Columbus, Ohio, I was reading Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper's "Lectures on Calvinism." 

In the book Kuyper discusses "the sovereignty of the individual person."  This sovereignty, the freedom of the individual conscience before God, is a vitally important biblical doctrine.  But as I read, a conversation began in the row behind me that forced me to ask questions about its application today. 

Two passengers discovered that they had both been volunteers at the General Convention. 

"Were you there," asked one, "when Katherine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop?"  The 2006 General Convention elected Schori, one of the few female bishops, to lead the denomination.

"Oh, yes I was.  Couldn't you just feel the Spirit?"

"Yes, yes.  I could just feel the Spirit."

Now realize that Schori in the sermon after her election announced, "Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation and we are his children." No doubt many in attendance including the two behind me thought this creative gender-bending was somehow profound.  In truth it is self-evident gibberish and heretical gibberish at that. 

But after "creating space for dialogue," emoting and voting, Schori was duly elected Presiding Bishop.  Was this the Spirit's leading the church?  I don't know, but the Episcopal Church under Schori's leadership has become embroiled in numerous contentious lawsuits over church property and continues to hemorrhage members, churches, and entire dioceses at an alarming rate. 

But the two individual consciences in the row behind me insisted that she was God's choice and God's blessing for the denomination. 

At this year's General Conference, the denomination agreed to ordain openly homosexual priests and bishops and perform same-sex ceremonies (not yet defined as weddings).  Is this more of individual consciences before God?  I am afraid it is.

According to Jordan Hylden, writing at First Things, Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington, Kentucky argued that these decisions were long overdue. 

Over thirty years ago, [Bishop Sauls] said, the church had placed pastoral compassion over Scripture, tradition, and the teachings of Jesus to permit remarriage after divorce, and it would be nothing less than hypocritical for the church not to do likewise for gay and lesbian people.

Hylden comments:

According to Bishop Sauls, this was the most important point he made at the convention. Arguably, it was the most important point anyone in attendance made. The Episcopal Church has now, quite definitively, decided to step out on its own, away from Scripture, tradition, and the rest of the Anglican communion. It was a bold and brave step, for with it the church has decided that it is now a church that takes its own counsel, answerable only to God.

Despite the efforts of many evangelicals in the Episcopal Church, the church is now governed entirely by individual consciences and thus free to do as it chooses without reference to the truth of Scripture or the wisdom of the Church.  The result is predictable: theological, moral, financial, and demographic free-fall. 

Is this the inevitable result of a belief in the individual conscience before God?

That is a disquieting question for Evangelicals—especially for Evangelicals.  Evangelicals believe wholeheartedly in the individual conscience before God.  We preach individual salvation, believing that each person will have a conversion experience.  We encourage people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves regardless of age or education.  We make it clear that every Christian is responsible for his or her spiritual life and that each can trust the internal leading of the Holy Spirit.  We talk about feeling close to or far from God who, from time to time, "lays" someone or something "on my heart."  In short, we have a faith with a large subjective component.

That is why the Episcopalians' problem could become our problem.  Unless we protect the individual conscience before God from the run-away individualism and subjectivity that are rampant in our culture, we risk following the Episcopal Church to the cul de sac.

On the positive side, this is not a new problem.  We have always protected individual consciences from individualism with the truth of the Scripture and with the wisdom of the Church.

Kuyper for all his enthusiasm for the individual conscience before God was vehement in his insistence that the Bible rightly interpreted is authoritative, not the individual.

In this way evangelicals stand in contrast with Bishops Sauls and Schori who are equally vehement in their conviction that truth—or at least what they believe is true for this moment—is revealed through individual feelings and collective votes that trump "Scripture, tradition, and the teachings of Jesus."

C.S. Lewis wrote in "The Abolition of Man":

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.

What C.S. Lewis said about the universe applies to the Bible.  How I feel about truth says nothing about truth.  It is instead a commentary on the state of my conscience.

I doubt that anyone honestly "feels comfortable" with all the teachings of the Bible.  This is not because there is a problem with the Bible that we can solve by picking and choosing what to accept and reject.  The problem is our limited understanding and our ill formed consciences.  The solution is to submit ourselves to Christ as our King and let truth heal our souls, rightly order what we love, and form our consciences.  In time, our fickle feelings will follow.

Yet living as we do in an individualistic and subjective culture, we slip into subjectivity.  Even with Bibles open on our laps, by ourselves we lack the necessary range of gifts and perspectives to understand truth.  We need the wisdom of the Church.

Every Christian should read and study the Bible.  Every Christian should think deeply about God and the truths of the faith.  Yet not every Christian is a Bible scholar or a theologian.  Expertise gotten by education and hard work are required.  And even those of us who are trained in Bible scholarship and theology make mistakes.  We all need the wisdom, leadership, and correction that are God's gifts to his Church.

It is right that lay people consult their pastors and teachers who in turn consult scholars.  In addition, pastors, teachers, and scholars need to hear the insights of lay people.  There is a reciprocity and an interconnectedness in the Church and it transcends space and time.

We waste our heritage if we limit our conversations with those who happen to be near by and alive today.  The Church has nearly 2,000 years of Bible scholarship, preaching, and theological reflection on which we can draw.  When we do, it gives us a perspective beyond the narrow confines of our own era with its blind spots.

In the Bible Jesus Christ reveals love and truth because he is love and truth (See 1John 4:8 and John 14:6).  United as they are in the person of Jesus, truth and love can never contradict each other.  As a result we will never find ourselves needing to choose between the two as Bishop Sauls has done.

Many in the Episcopal Church seems to have forgotten this fundamental unity of love and truth.  Our individualistic culture encourages us to forget.  But we dare not give into that temptation lest the Episcopalians' problem become ours.

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