I haven't spent a lot of time posting here about the conflict going on inside the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, on the grounds that it would be pretty much "inside baseball" for non-Episcopalians. But after one or more op-eds in the New York Times -- not to mention countless others in other newspapers, many by people who have little authority and less information -- I think I'm probably on pretty safe ground to weigh in here as much as any blogger. I've been a Christian all my life, and an active Episcopalian since my senior year of college, lo, those many years ago.
The shorthand for this conflict is "homosexuality," but both sides are quick to say this as much or more about things like "church polity" (i.e., organization and governance) and the "authority of Scripture" (i.e., their interpretation and use of Scripture).
In the course of these arguments, you'll also hear about the "three-legged stool" of Anglican theology and practice, which is another shorthand for the way Anglicans decide things. The phrase is often attributed to Richard Hooker, a 16th-century English theologian. Hooker never used the term himself, and what he did say would make this a decidedly uneven stool. Unlike his fellow Puritans and Presbyterians, however, Hooker said that Scripture does not destroy the truth of nature, but perfects it, and further, presupposes the use of reason.
And as far as "tradition" goes, Hooker talked of "the voice of the Church" -- its councils and creeds, its bishops in conference, and, ultimately, its people in "common" worship. He otherwise spoke rather dismissively of "tradition," particularly when that included those traditions handed down by the Roman Catholic church prior to the Reformation, which seemed to violate (to him) both Scripture and reason ... except when they didn't.
To that end, Hooker would have considered rogue parishes and dioceses far less favorably than those that are in line with the direction and practices of a national church, such as the Church of England or, for that matter, the Episcopal Church. He was all about carving out a "middle way" between strict Protestantism and Anglo-Catholicism, but did feel that bishops (such as Presiding Bishops) should be followed, right or wrong, and that reason and the Holy Spirit could remedy bad authority. He did not view skirmishes over minor doctrine to be worth throwing over the bishops' authority.
In recent months, some U.S. Episcopal parishes, and even a diocese or two, have decided to disassociate themselves from the national church within whose boundaries they sit. This in itself is a greater violation of Anglican "tradition" than any argument over who may be ordained a priest or consecrated a bishop.
To add to that conflict, and an even bigger violation of church tradition, these parishes and dioceses have chosen to place themselves under the authority of Anglican bishops in other national churches. Hence, we have Episcopal parishes who claim to now be under the authority of bishops of Nigeria and Peru -- and these bishops are encouraging such schisms outside their own authority.
These parishes could be considered "neo-traditionalists" -- they generally just call themselves "traditionalists," but their view of episcopal authority is about as close to the traditional view as "neo-conservatives'" views on international relations and federal power are to actual, historically conservative political views.
They claim their objection isn't over the fact that there is now a woman as the U.S. Presiding Bishop (the Episcopal Church's title for its archbishop), but that she herself supported the consecration of an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire -- although it should be said that many of this small number of parishes and dioceses do not believe women should be ordained priests, let alone be consecrated as bishops. It's hard, therefore, to understand how their denial that this has anything to do with a woman Presiding Bishop could be anything but disingenuous.
Some even claim that their objections are due less to the issue of whether homosexuality is a natural condition of humans who are just as beloved by God, than to whether or not "Scripture" will be the highest authority in the church. By which they mean their or their forebears' interpretation of Scripture -- and by which they pretty much exclusively mean their interpretations as related to issue of homosexuality. Some very hollow reasoning is coming out of the pens and mouths of these rogue parishes and dioceses.
Consider the words of the bishop of Tanzania, who was apparently in my hometown of Tulsa this past week to meet with parishes who have chosen to disassociate from the Episcopal Church:
"Our tradition says the authority of Scripture takes precedence over everything else," he said. "When issues come up, the church meets in conference and decides, 'On this issue, the Scripture says no.' And that's the mind of the church. We have decided together."
This is fuzzy thinking at best and bad theology at worst. For one thing, the authority of Scripture doesn't always take precedence over everything else. If it did, Christians would not be allowed to wear poly-cotton blends or eat pork, as the Old Testament famously proscribes, among many others.
But even if they take only the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament as their "authority" -- as many will resort to when questioned closely -- they still interpret selectively and, it should be said, capriciously -- although they admittedly are not the first to come up with these interpretations, usually, but have accepted them at face-value from whoever taught them to them.
But Christians' understanding of their Scriptures have evolved over each century and with each church tradition. These neo-traditionalists' philosophical ancestors in England, the Puritans, would have been appalled at their use of vestments, candles, and other "popish" acculturations -- these are not mentioned in Scripture, for example.
I think it's a mistake to start arguing over specific Scriptures, the letters of Paul, or other verses here and there without acknowledging the history of their use in the church. For one thing, Christianity existed for many years without the benefit of these New Testament texts. In fact, it wasn't until after 300 A.D. that there was an accepted understanding of the "canon" of the New Testament -- meaning, until St. Athanasius in 367 A.D. outlined the books to be read in the churches under his care -- that we had the full list of New Testament scriptures that we have today.
For example, Bishop Marcion, a bishop of Rome in the 2nd century, listed only Luke as a Gospel and only Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, along with Philemon, as accepted texts to be read in churches, although he was aware of other books such as 1st and 2nd Timothy that were also being read in other churches. And as late as Martin Luther, there was still serious question about whether Revelation should be included at all. You can see an example of the controversies among bishops in several online resources, including this one.)
Perhaps more importantly, the universal church did speak in council, three times, about what constitutes the Christian faith. You can find these texts very easily today as the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Creed of St. Athanasius. The Apostles' Creed is generally considered to be the oldest: it says nothing of the authority of Scripture in Christian faith.
The Nicene Creed (originally 325 A.D., amended at the First Council of Constantinople in 381) mentions Scripture only insofar that Jesus' resurrection was in accordance with Scripture -- meaning Old Testament scripture. The Athanasian Creed (actually, more likely to originate in Gaul around 500 A.D., but traditionally ascribed to Athanasius in the 4th century) also mentions nothing of the authority of Scripture in Christian faith.
And even Old Testament scriptural authority could have nuances and variety in Jesus' own time. Not only were the Sadducees and Pharisees of different minds from each other and from Jesus as to what that authority should be (and I think all Christians would be striving to interpret Scripture closer to Jesus than either the Sadducees or Pharisees, or woe betide them), but Jesus quotes Scripture himself in several places -- with a different interpretation than we ourselves use today.
Such as (in Luke 4): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
However, he was reading from Isaiah, and this is what our current Bibles say for that same reading: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion -- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Even if we end it at "the year of the Lord's favor," it is not exactly the same reading as Jesus gave. The reasons for this could be several, not least among them that Luke was providing a selective reading of Scripture. Among other possible reasons: not every synagogue had every scroll, and not every scroll matched word for word every other scroll elsewhere, in 1st century Palestine. Or perhaps Jesus himself was interpreting Scripture differently than it had been commonly understood to that time (he certainly did so at other times, throwing the "scriptural authority" puritans of his day into a hissy fit each time).
None of this is to say that whatever is not mentioned in the creeds is permitted among Christians. Despite centuries of Christian thought evolving on "the Law" as laid down in the Torah, some parts have always held more weight ("thou shall have no other Gods before me") than others ("everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales [e.g., oysters] is detestable to you.") We universally hold that murder, adultery, and dishonoring one's father and mother are sins, according to the Ten Commandments, whereas shellfish and pork are pretty much allowed, ever since Peter saw that food restrictions, at least, have little to do with belief in Christ as the Risen Son of God.
(With this reference to the Ten Commandments, however, it is worth noting that even Jesus said, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." So even that commandment has some alternative interpretations.)
On the specific issue of homosexuality, perhaps these neo-traditionalist would better to say that they "belong to Paul" -- or Apollos, or Cephas, for that matter -- than that they belong to Christ, since they give greater credence to their (albeit questionable) interpretation of Paul's own words than to what Jesus said while on earth about love, forgiveness and literalist scriptural interpretations (as was practiced by the Sadducees at that time).
It's worth hearing from the Bishop of Tanzania on this issue again:
"We live with Muslims, and they use this against us," he said.
The Muslim world opposes homosexuality, and the Episcopal Church's position makes evangelism in Muslim areas more difficult, he said.
"They say, 'This is the church which is doing something contrary to God's word.'
"In Zanzibar [two largely Muslim islands of Tanzania], they say these people shouldn't come here because they support homosexuality.
"If you are preaching Jesus and preaching repentance (and support homosexuality), you don't have the integrity, you don't have the credibility. You are watering down your message, the Gospel. That's what affects us in Africa.
I think this pretty much shows the "scriptural authority" Bishop Gerard Mpango of Tanzania is most interested in: the Koran, and as it's interpreted in his African nation. I'm not dismissing the bishop's challenges for evangelism in his own national church, but his issues aren't our issues -- and to show that his church adheres more strictly to its view of Scripture than his Muslim neighbors adhere to theirs is hardly an argument for literalist interpretation elsewhere in the world, particularly in parts of the Anglican Communion where he has no authority.
The most recent meeting of primates (archbishops) of the Anglican Communion told the Episcopal church to not consecrate any more openly gay bishops ("openly" is the new twist on what has happened at various times in the last 2,000 years of Christianity) and not to bless any unions or marriages among people of the same gender. At the same time, it has demanded that parishes and dioceses that have aligned themselves with foreign bishops desist from doing so.
The latter is a far more serious issue, as Jack Miles in his op-ed in the New York Times seemed to imply: "The flip side of such threats [to align with foreign churches] is that, along the same lines, any British or Canadian or Australian congregations that wished to disaffiliate from their local forms of Anglicanism might well affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In fact, a few have already signaled their readiness, though in the hope of preserving Anglican unity the Episcopal Church has not encouraged them."
Perhaps it is time to see such an Anglican Communion -- one bound not by national or diocesan boundaries, but by common understanding of the secondary issues of faith, such as marriage, sexuality, and the like. If these churches can continue in communion with one another, in such a way -- using a formulation established, for example, in Chicago in 1886, which said: the Old and New Testaments are the "revealed Word of God" (not, you'll notice, the literal Word of God); the Nicene Creed is the sufficient statement of Christian faith; that Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the two sufficient sacraments of the Christian church; and that the churches continue to value and give precedence to the historic episcopate (the consecration of bishops by existing bishops to oversee the church's doctrine and practices).
Every Episcopal Church I've ever been in, whether "liberal" or "conservative," has used scriptural texts as the basis for its liturgy, as well as the lessons read to the congregation and preached upon from the pulpit. And nowhere in any of these services has someone's sexuality been an issue worthy of a church divide if they have followed this established liturgy and lectionary.
For my part, I see no Christian virtue in excluding me, or others like me, from full participation in our communion, whether as bishops, priests, deacons, or laity. Nor do I see how we further the mission of the church, no matter what competing beliefs may exist in proximity, by watering it down to focus on issues of sexuality, gender, or even individual interpretations of our scriptural texts.
Another article in the New York Times, by Laurie Goodstein, summarized the debate thusly: "The liberals are saying, 'Can't we all just get along,' while the conservatives are saying, 'Can't we all just get in line?'
Maybe. I would instead say it's between those who say, "Can't we all just follow the Holy Spirit and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" and those who ask, "Can't we all just follow how we thought we should interpret the Bible?"
I suppose it's pretty clear, now, where I come down on those questions.