30 September 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (3) Catholicity

Theologically, the catholicity of the church arises out of the incarnation of Christ. As Christ has identified himself with the whole of humankind through taking on human flesh, so his people are called to make his grace known through a costly identification with the world.

Implicit in the church’s catholicity is the call to embrace the whole world, to bring the gospel to people of all nations, classes and cultures and to incorporate them into its fellowship. To quote Geoffrey Wainwright,

The differences which nature provides in the matters of sex and race have often been hardened and distorted by culture to produce division and conflict. The catholicity of the Church’s calling gives room and encouragement for both sexes and all races to place themselves under the sovereignty of Christ, which means, when expressed on the social plane, the gift of self for the good of others and of all.

The challenge that confronts the church in every generation is to be able to distinguish between what is cultural (and therefore relative) and what is divinely ordained. If they are to survive (much less be true to their identity as “catholic”) in today’s society churches have to be able to communicate in a variety of cultural forms. They will be places where people’s cultural differences are celebrated.

This is far from taking the attitude that “anything goes”. Nor is it a matter of the church adopting an attitude of moral pluralism. It will involve pain for many, as they must let go of deeply cherished cultural forms in favor of making the eternal gospel more widely known. Yet the end result will be something that truly honors the Lord before whom every knee must one day bow—“a Christian fellowship that rejoices in its diversity, and where people of different races together offer themselves to God, to love each other and increasingly share their lives”.

While the church must be prepared to speak in the cultural language of its day, it also stands in critical isolation from that culture. Once a church has to some extent become contextualized, the temptation to an uncritical identification with the culture is always present. As a result its evangelistic witness is blunted and its prophetic message compromised.

While we must be careful not to identify the Christian faith with the cause of revolution, it must be conceded that there is a tendency for established congregations to become chaplaincies to their members, instead of engaging them in challenging the idols and shibboleths of the contemporary world.

29 September 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (2) Holiness

As with the unity of the church, the second creedal mark is a deeply theological statement. The church’s holiness stems not from its members but from its relationship to Christ and from the salvation that it enjoys through faith in him. This is made clear in passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14 and 5:25-27. Hans Küng expresses it thus:

It is God who distinguishes the church, sets it apart, marks it out for his own and makes it holy, by winning power over the hearts of men through his Holy Spirit, by establishing his reign, by justifying and sanctifying the sinner and thereby founding the communion of saints.

Holiness in this sense arises out of an encounter with the living God. While it is not primarily an ethical concept, holiness inevitably involves an ethical element. God not only calls men and women to himself through Christ. He also calls them to be holy and empowers them to live in holiness.

The holiness of the church speaks of the sanctification of each of its members and of the ongoing work of the Spirit of holiness in their lives. William Willimon writes of the church as a counter-cultural phenomenon, a colony of heaven.

In its very existence, the church serves the world not by running errands for the world but by providing a light for the world, that is, by providing an imaginative alternative for society. The chief political task for the church is not to provide suggestions on social policy but to be in our very existence a social policy.

Part of the church’s mandate is to encourage, model and teach a lifestyle among its members that truly lays hold of its identity as salt and light in the world. This mandate will be achieved not through an emphasis on externals, but as Christians are drawn into the costly love of Christ and begin to interpret it in terms of their own lives. Donald Bloesch writes,

What is here proposed is holiness in the world, a piety that is to be lived out in the midst of human suffering and dereliction… Holiness is a gift of God, but it is also a goal that we are called to strive for in this world, in this life. We are summoned neither to separation from nor to solidarity with the world but rather to combat with the evil forces of the world, and this means that the way of holiness is also the way of the cross.

25 September 2008

The Creedal Marks of the Church: (1) Unity

What ought we to be looking for in a church? The Nicene Creed provides us with four characteristics: It should be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What does unity mean for the church? Hans Küng remarks,

The unity of the Church is not simply a natural entity, is not simply moral unanimity and harmony, is not just sociological conformity and uniformity. … The unity of the Church is a spiritual entity. It is not chiefly a unity of the members among themselves, it depends finally not on itself but on the unity of God, which is efficacious through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Genuine unity in the church can be conceived of only as oneness in and through Christ. René Padilla writes that “the unity resulting from Christ’s work is not an abstract unity, but a new community in which life in Christ becomes the decisive factor”. A picture of this unity is given in Luke’s description of the nascent church on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47. The members of the first church were men and women who had been “cut to the heart” by the gospel. They signified their acceptance of that message through their submission to baptism and the single-minded priority that they laid on the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

The unity that Christians share in Christ cannot be reduced to mere uniformity or confused with unanimity. Paul’s image of the body of Christ with each member having its own particular function as a part of the whole, makes this clear. The unity that he envisions is a unity in diversity that depends on a delicate balance between individual freedom and mutual obligation. The unity that the early Christians shared in faith quickly translated into a unity in service and action. Such unity in service can only be on the basis of a deep oneness in faith—a shared experience of spiritual regeneration through Christ.

20 September 2008

Where from here?

Along with the two previous articles (“The Episcopal Church and the Lambeth Quadrilateral” and “A Sinking Ship?”, these are words that I wrote to my parishioners earlier this month, before the deposition of Bob Duncan. That event has put parishes such as ours in an even more critical position, as will the reactions that will follow it both in the US and more widely in the Anglican Communion.

We stand at a crossroads. Decisions being made on a global level will have repercussions that may reach down through generations. Although on a smaller scale, the same holds true on the local level as well. How do we remain part of a church that, though necessarily flawed and incomplete, still manages to exhibit the creedal characteristics of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity?

The final paragraph of the Windsor Report, now four years in the past, is both prophetic and sobering:

There remains a very real danger that we will not choose to walk together. Should the call to halt and find ways of continuing in our present communion not be heeded, then we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart. We would much rather not speculate on actions that might need to be taken if, after acceptance by the primates, our recommendations are not implemented. However, we note that there are, in any human dispute, courses that may be followed: processes of mediation and arbitration; non-invitation to relevant representative bodies and meetings; invitation, but to observer status only; and, as an absolute last resort, withdrawal from membership. We earnestly hope that none of these will prove necessary. Our aim throughout has been to work not for division but for healing and restoration. The real challenge of the gospel is whether we live deeply enough in the love of Christ, and care sufficiently for our joint work to bring that love to the world, that we will “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3). As the primates stated in 2000, “to turn from one another would be to turn away from the Cross”, and indeed from serving the world which God loves and for which Jesus Christ died.

There is ample evidence that many in the Anglican Communion, although refusing to acknowledge it, have by their actions chosen to “walk apart”. To date none of the Instruments of Communion, including most recently the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, has been successful in counteracting the trend. It appears that we are witnessing the gradual dissolution of the Anglican Communion, in Bishop Tom Wright’s words, “like a slow-moving train wreck”.

On a pragmatic level, where does that leave us at Messiah? There are a number of options available to us. What follows are five, but no doubt there are others as well.

(1) Do nothing. We could decide simply to hang tight, keep a low profile, and hope and pray for the best, all the time seeking to hold to our distinctives and to remain a place of lively orthodoxy. I would warn that this path is neither as simple nor as straightforward as it might at first appear.

(2) Reaffirm the Windsor Report. The Vestry has already expressed its commitment to the content and recommendations of the Windsor Report. While it seems that forces within the Communion have worked together to subvert the implementation of the report, the time may not quite have come for a final pronouncement of death. The Covenant Design Group continues to meet, and it may be that there is just enough energy left among the orthodox primates and bishops to make it work. In any event, once again endorsing the Windsor Report would be a moderate (some would say minimal) statement to our bishop and diocese that we choose to remain within the mainstream of Anglicanism and oppose the theological and moral innovations of many in the Episcopal Church.

(3) Apply for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight. In March 2004 the Episcopal Church House of Bishops opened up the option of receiving pastoral care from a bishop other than the diocesan. The plan is outlined in a document entitled, “Caring for All the Churches” A number of churches across the country—both conservative parishes in liberal dioceses and liberal parishes in conservative dioceses—have already chosen this option, with varying degrees of success. A proposal to take this step has already been brought before our own Vestry and is under consideration. Presumably the delegated bishop would be available for consultation and godly advice, and for occasional liturgical events, principally confirmation. It should be noted that the stated purpose of the plan is “for reconciliation”.

(4) Seek to negotiate a redirection of diocesan apportionment monies. This is also a step that a number of parishes have taken, again involving negotiation with the bishop and other diocesan authorities. For a number of years the Episcopal Church has given support to a variety of questionable projects and causes. The current multi-million dollar litigations against parishes choosing to leave the denomination is a scandal and as such, insupportable. To allow for some choice as to the designation of apportionment funds, be it on an individual or a parish-wide level, may be seen as an act of responsible stewardship, as well as a grass-roots level opportunity to express opposition to the church’s actions.

(5) Plan to align with the “new province” when it forms. At this stage it appears unlikely that a new province on North American soil will receive broad endorsement from the rest of the Communion. The six GAFCon primates have for the time being held back from recognizing such an entity, perhaps until after the meeting of all the primates early in 2009. In a few days’ time Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will make the unprecedented move of calling upon the Episcopal Church House of Bishops to depose Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, without any previous inhibition, without en ecclesiastical trial, and following canonically questionable procedures. Within a month the convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh will vote on whether to transfer its out of the Episcopal Church and temporarily into the Province of the Southern Cone, joining the Diocese of San Joaquin, and likely to be followed by the Dioceses of Forth Worth and Quincy. This means that within a month or so the whole ball field will have altered, in that, technically at least, there is the possibility of the establishment of such a province. As to what this will lead to in terms of the wider Communion and of the barrage of legal suits that undoubtedly will be launched we can only speculate. Whatever the case, it will be a far cry from Ephraim Radner’s “orderly separation”.

I think we at Messiah need to take a careful look at each of these potential avenues. At this time I cannot tell exactly where that may lead, as I do not know what the future holds. My hope is only that we would do it within the framework of, and out of a deep commitment to, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”.

18 September 2008

A Sinking Ship?

The Episcopal Church has been likened to an ocean-going liner that is headed on a path towards shipwreck. In our case, the captain appears not only prepared to go down with the ship, but intent on herself taking the ship down. Expensive litigation, disregard for the church’s canons, and the rejection of Jesus’ own words in the gospel can only serve to further weaken and divide the church. Meanwhile many of her officers and crew are below decks puncturing the hull.

The turning radius of the Titanic as she approached the fatal iceberg on the Atlantic in 1912 was nearly three quarters of a mile. Many would agree that the good ship Episcopal is already within that radius, headed for unavoidable disaster. “We are in schism,” wrote our own bishop from the Lambeth Conference on July 30. Ephraim Radner, a member of the international Covenant Design Group of the Anglican Communion, has called for “an orderly separation”, echoing the bishop of Winchester’s comments during the Lambeth Conference.

To take the imagery further, many have let down lifeboats. The Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Province of America, the Charismatic Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Episcopal Church and a whole host of forty or more others (most of them small splinter groups), are made up of individuals and congregations that have departed from the Episcopal Church over the past thirty years.

Meanwhile, others have brought their own rescue vessels alongside, with the offer of taking endangered Episcopalian parishioners, congregations, and now even dioceses, into protective custody. The Anglican provinces of Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and the Southern Cone have all taken these measures over the past six years or so.

To join with either of these movements is tempting. Yet there is a difficulty. We know where the Episcopal Church is headed. Yet we cannot be certain that where either the lifeboats or the rescue vessels will take us is any better. Most of the lifeboats are likely to remain just that: small clusters of angry people who find their identity in being in opposition to the teachings of the Episcopal Church, and who will eventually sink into oblivion.

There is considerably more hope in the rescue vessels. Increasingly, they are working in synchrony, under the banner of the Common Cause Partners. In addition, the archbishops of the respective provinces have made it clear that their actions are intended to provide only a temporary sanctuary until a more permanent solution is found—in our case the establishment of a new Anglican province on North American soil.

However, there are factors that make this a very fragile convoy: differences of opinion over the role and ordination of women in the church, the issue of continuing overlapping jurisdictions within the province itself, and the question as to whether the new province will ever gain recognition throughout the Anglican Communion, to name just three. Each of these could seriously compromise the seaworthiness of the new vessel, and potentially cause it to founder.