Sunday, January 21, 2007

Anglican News

Why the Virginia Parishes’ Departure Is Not Fundamentally About Homosexuality, Part One: The Authority of Scripture by Ralph Webb

You would think that after more than three years of stories about divisions in the Episcopal Church (TEC), it would be clear that the conflict is not all about—or even fundamentally about—homosexuality. True, the crisis gained widespread press coverage during the denomination's 74th General Convention, held in 2003. That convention is well-remembered as the one at which the Episcopal Church confirmed the election of the openly homosexual Gene Robinson as a bishop. It was also the convention at which local parish blessings of same-sex unions were "recognize[d]" as being "within the bounds of [the Episcopal Church's] common life" as long as they had the approval of the diocesan bishop. Still, those actions only inflamed deeper divisions, the roots of which first appeared decades earlier.
So it has been disappointing to see recent reports simplistically identifying conservatives breaking with the Episcopal Church as "anti-gay." To be fair, some reporting has gotten better: instead of claiming that homosexuality is the reason for the turmoil in TEC, many reporters now are noting that there are other issues involved. Nonetheless, it's still all too easy to conclude from some news stories that the primary reason why the Virginia parishes are departing involves opposition to homosexuality.
Representatives and members of the parishes disagree. They have given three primary reasons for leaving: the authority of Scripture, the mission of the parishes, and wanting to stay in the Anglican Communion. This piece covers the first of the three reasons; the other two topics are left for future articles.

The Authority of Scripture
The authority of Scripture is an issue that goes well beyond the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson or permission for same-sex blessings. Those innovations within the Episcopal Church raised the question of scriptural authority, because they seemed to go so clearly against the common Christian understanding of what the Bible teaches about marriage and sex. Orthodox Anglicans and other observers have felt that Episcopal leaders have not demonstrated credibly how the Scriptures can be read to affirm either homosexual relations or other sexual relations outside the marriage of one man and one woman. Moreover, those leaders often seem to discount the Scriptures, suggesting that biblical prohibitions do not apply to today's same-sex relationships—or even that the Episcopal Church has had a new revelation superceding the biblical prohibitions. The acceptance of such strategies for setting aside the Scriptures has serious implications—far beyond matters of sexuality.

For this reason, the ballot question used for voting in some of the Virginia parishes specifically contained a clause relating to scriptural authority. It stated "that The Episcopal Church has departed from the authority of the Holy Scriptures and from historic Christian teaching on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior of humankind."

Notice that the clause charged TEC with departing not only from the Scriptures, but also "from historic Christian teaching." Another term for "historic Christian teaching" is "tradition." Anglicans, including Episcopalians, have long upheld an image of a "three-legged stool" as the basis for Christian decision-making. The three legs of the stool are Scripture, tradition, and reason.

What the departing parishes are saying is that one leg, Scripture, has totally broken off of the stool. A second leg, tradition, has also broken off. And if you read enough writings of orthodox Episcopalians, you can see that they believe that reason, as well, is at minimum proving to be a very wobbly leg.

Salvation through Christ Alone
The ballot question, significantly, said nothing about homosexuality. The charge that the parishes made was that the Episcopal Church has left Scripture and tradition "on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior of humankind."

What is this all about? At General Convention 2006, proposed resolution D058, "Salvation through Christ Alone," stated in part the following:

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 75th GeneralConvention of the Episcopal Church declares its unchanging commitmentto Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any personmay be saved (Article XVIII); and be it further
Resolved, That we acknowledge the solemn responsibility placed upon usto share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, "I am the Way,the Truth, and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me"(John 14:6).

This resolution takes its beliefs from both Scripture (i.e., Chapter 14 of John's gospel) and Article XVII of Anglicanism's Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (hereafter shortened to "Articles"). The resolution was never brought before a vote and, consequently, was discharged. Since the convention, new Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori repeatedly has said that Jesus is not the only way to God. This is an issue far more fundamental to the parishioners who voted to leave TEC than anything relating to homosexuality.

Some progressive Anglicans have tried to portray the bishop's remarks as in line with mainstream Christian teaching. They have argued that Christians throughout history, and in fact the Roman Catholic Church today, have believed that people can be reconciled to God through other religions. That argument has a ring of truth to it, but only a faint one. The Roman Catholic Church indeed believes that people who have not heard of Christ may be shown mercy by God. Paragraph 847 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes a Vatican II document on this matter:

"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation."

However, the Roman Catholic Church also holds that such people are reconciled to God only through Christ. Paragraph 846 of the Catechism states that "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body."

From this standpoint, nobody is beyond God's redemptive reach—regardless of historical or cultural circumstances. Still, the only means of reconciliation to God for anyone is through the work of Jesus Christ—the work completed in his life, death, and resurrection. And the usual way in which persons receive that work of salvation is by "faith [that] comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17) as proclaimed by the Church. This has been the normative position of the Christian Church down through its history.

This view is not just held by Roman Catholics. Many, though far from all, orthodox Anglicans and other mainline and evangelical Protestants hold to this view. However, that belief is not one that the presiding bishop has confessed in her interviews. She instead contended in Time magazine that Jesus Christ was the Christian's "vehicle to the divine" and, more explicitly, "that doesn't mean that a Hindu doesn't experience God except through Jesus." More recently, she elaborated on her beliefs concerning the second half of John 14:6, "No one comes to the Father except through me," in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette:

[I]n its narrow construction, it tends to eliminate other possibilities. In its broader construction, yes, human beings come to relationship with God largely through their experience of holiness in other human beings. Through seeing God at work in other people's lives. In that sense, yes, I will affirm that statement. But not in the narrow sense, that people can only come to relationship with God through consciously believing in Jesus.

Bishop Jefferts Schori's use of the word "consciously" might make her remarks acceptable to some orthodox Anglicans. However, in describing her beliefs, she provided a self-professedly "broader" definition of coming to God through the "experience of holiness in other human beings…[and] seeing God at work in other people's lives."

Certainly, people come to faith through the positive examples of other Christians, but is Jesus any more than one of many examples of holiness? Jefferts Schori unquestionably has answered "yes" for the Christian. But what about the uniqueness of Christ for those who are not Christian? Absent in all of her discussions is a proclamation of Christ as "the only name by which a person may be saved," as Article XVIII of TEC's Articles state. It's this absence that concerns the Virginia parishioners.

Some who opposed the 2006 resolution on "Salvation through Christ Alone" maintained that it was unnecessary, as its subject matter was already covered in the Book of Common Prayer and past General Convention resolutions. Such a consideration is not persuasive for the Virginia parishioners and other orthodox Anglicans. When the General Convention has cared deeply about a subject, it has reaffirmed prior resolutions. For example, the 2006 resolution A167, "'Full and Equal Claim' for All the Baptized," in its final approved form reaffirmed three resolutions—one each from 1976, 1997, and 2003—concerning equality for gay and lesbian Episcopalians.

Recent Resolutions on the Authority of Scripture
This was also not the first time by any means that a resolution related to the authority of Scripture had been dismissed, rejected, or greatly revised at the General Convention. In 1991, resolution C047, "Affirm the Historic Anglican Appeal to Scripture, Tradition, and Reason," was approved at the 70th General Convention only after the elimination of six introductory clauses describing the authority of the Bible in the life of TEC. These clauses appealed to Scripture, the Articles, and the Book of Common Prayer for the resolution's justification.

A harsher fate awaited resolution B001, "Endorse Certain Historic Anglican Doctrines and Policies," at the 74th General Convention in 2003. It was rejected by a vote of 84-66 in the House of Bishops. The resolution itself appealed to two of the Articles and asked the bishops and deputies present to affirm that Jesus' teachings as recorded in Scripture were binding on Christians' consciences when churches went astray. Its defeat was seen by many orthodox Anglicans as a watermark that painfully revealed how far the Episcopal Church had left its scriptural and traditional moorings.

This issue came up again at the 2006 convention. Resolution D069, "Supreme Authority of Scripture," asked TEC to "[acknowledge] that the Bible has always been at the centre of Anglican belief and life, and declares its belief that Scripture is the Church's supreme authority, and as such ought to be seen as a focus and means of unity." This language was taken from the October 2004 Windsor Report. The Windsor Report was completed by a commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury to seek ways in which Anglican provinces could maintain the highest degree of communion possible given the developments relating to homosexuality in TEC and the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada.

The "Supreme Authority of Scripture" resolution was approved, but in a drastically revised form. The previous stronger language from the Windsor Report was replaced with an acknowledgement of "the authority of the triune God, exercised through Scripture." That revision is an acceptable statement of one facet of Christian belief, but it is not precisely the same topic addressed in the original resolution. Furthermore, the sense of the resolution being a response to the Anglican Communion was lost by the removal of the original Windsor Report language. Even more critical was the impression left by the rewrite. In effect, by so drastically rewording the resolution, the 2006 General Convention arguably suggested that it disagreed with the Windsor Report's language concerning the Scriptures.

Scripture as a Point of Division
Given all of the above, it should be no surprise that Scripture sadly has become a point of division as opposed to unity among both Episcopalians and, more broadly, Anglicans. The Episcopal Church's rejection of Scriptural authority on both theological and social issues has led to the current crisis within the denomination. Many progressives argue that agreement on scriptural interpretation among Episcopalians as a whole is both impossible and undesirable. In contrast, the Virginia parishes and other orthodox Anglicans clearly see that a common allegiance to Scripture ought to be a uniting element. These important differences are being played out today and are leading many Episcopalians to separate from their denomination.
Date: 1/19/2007

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