Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ephraim Radner, Jerry Bowers, and Loyalty to the Episcopal Church

I recently attended a conference with Ephraim Radner. An Episcopal priest, Radner was formerly the rector of Ascension Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. He currently serves as Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliff College at the University of Toronto. Radner is also a Senior Fellow with the Anglican Communion Institute. The author of numerous books and articles, Radner’s Hope Among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2004) has been described by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as “potentially one of the most important contributions you are likely to read on the current tensions and conflicts over the church's limits and identity.”

Radner has made a name for himself in the Episcopal Church and across the broader Anglican Communion as a conservative theologian whose views merit serious attention. His knowledge of Church history and theology is encyclopedic. His ability to apply insights from the past to the present situation of the Episcopal Church in particular, and to the Christian Church more broadly, is creative and insightful (whether or not one agrees with him). He's open to dialogue and responds graciously to questions and comments even when it's clear that he does not agree with the position taken by the other.

After reading Hope Among the Fragments and spending time with him at the conference in formal sessions and informally over meals, I can see why some conservatives in the Church are upset with him. Yes, he is a bona fide conservative Christian. He makes no apologies for that. But he’s also deeply loyal (albeit sometimes as the loyal opposition) to the Episcopal Church. His loyalty incurs the wrath of some conservatives, as evidenced by his public resignation from the Anglican Communion Network and his rejection of schism (see this and this at “The Anglican Centrist”).

In a passage from Hope Among the Fragments that I take to be the heart of his ecclesial vision, here's how Radner articulates his position. It's a lengthy passage, but worth quoting in full:

One way of looking at the present conflict within our own churches is to see it as an insistence, on the part of various players, to heal that sickness and to rewrite the plot of the drama of which they are parts so as to exclude the length and detail of its anguished elaboration. In contrast, the history of the Church, which is the history of the Lord writ small and long, proclaims: It is for the sake of charity that we suffer our disagreements; it is for the sake of truth that we love the liar; it is for the sake of the bride that it receives as her gift her beloved's body as her own. The irony of Christian patience is that it is an eternal hastening into the midst of this story, rather than one that hurries to break out of it. And we are perhaps called to judge our practical reactions to the array of our ecclesial anxieties - over incompetent and unfaithful bishops, over corrupted prayers and unjust stewards, over shallow understandings and venal missions, over uncaring guardians and unheeding tenants - judge them according to the standard of such a passion. 
No clear directives emerge from such a judgment. Those who wish to know if they must follow this line, or resist along that, or compromise upon this other, are given no certainties in their choices simply because they are subject themselves to the scriptural shape of Jesus' life. But they at least know that they cannot run away - and, because it is ultimately his life, that there is even redemption in staying put! There are not many bodies, some true and some false, some loving and some uncharitable. These are distractions from the one story, and the embrace of this story cannot sustain the parsing of proprieties that today so grips our distorted sense of integrity. Readiness for love - truth bound in unity - is a single and extended temporal exertion. It is embodied in God's subjugation to time in Christ Jesus, and the Church finds its own readiness in his form. There is no escape from this particular fate and promise. And therein are the kisses of God's peace for his people enjoyed (Song 1:2; 8:1, 10). [Hope Among the Fragments, p. 120]


I think that Radner is not only a worthy model for what conservatives can offer the Church and why we need them. He also blows away stereotypes of what conservatives are really like for centrists and liberals who take the time and make the effort to seriously engage his work.

So I couldn’t help but think about Ephraim Radner and what I’ve learned from his work and from spending time with him at conference when I read this piece by a conservative Pittsburgh Episcopalian named Jerry Bowers. Here’s the rationale Bowers gives for standing firm against schism and remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church:


My wife is a reader at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in McKeesport. ... This past summer, Bishop Duncan instructed my wife and hundreds of other readers in the diocese to omit the prayer for Katharine. Katharine Jefferts Schori has been a frequent target for conservatives in the U.S. church ever since she was elected presiding bishop in 2006. Coming on the heels of the installation of an active and outspoken homosexual bishop, the elevation of a woman of liberal sympathies seemed a bridge too far for many conservatives. 
It appeared at the time that omitting the prayer for Katharine was a steppingstone to where the bishop was really trying to take us -- outside of the Episcopal Church. You see, to include Katharine in the prayers was to acknowledge her office, and to acknowledge her office was to acknowledge our obligation to her. 
Our suspicions were confirmed on Nov. 2, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly to change its constitution to permit separation from the Episcopal Church USA. 
When my wife, Susan, asked me for advice about the prayer directive, I told her that Katharine was elected lawfully under the standards of the Episcopal Church. Robert was using his authority to tell her to disregard Katharine's authority. When there is a disruption in the chain of authority, I said, "look to the highest authority." He said, "Love your enemies, pray for those who despitefully use you." If you should pray for your enemies, should you not pray even more for friends with whom you disagree?
I am not a liberal. I think the Episcopal Church made a terrible mistake when it installed Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2004. It did the church no favors when it trod the historic standards of Anglicanism under foot in a rush to make some sort of political point. It did Father Robinson no good to turn this deeply wounded man into a cause celebre with no thought to the pressure it would impose (driving him eventually into rehab). It did the world no favor to turn the church into an echo of the sexual revolution rather than a beacon out of it. Many commandments were broken, most notably that "they should be one, Father, even as You and I are one." 
But the solution does not lie in breaking more commandments. The priests who voted overwhelmingly for secession this month had taken an oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church at the time of their ordination. That oath holds whether our guys win every battle or not. ...
Secession is not the biblical pattern of resistance to flawed authority. Young David served under a tyrannical and apostate King named Saul. David submitted to Saul's authority and he resisted the urge to revolt or secede. He remained faithful to Israel and Saul until the end, and then, because of his patience, became king himself. 
David's great (28 times) grandson, Jesus, was a reader in the synagogue despite its shortcomings. He worshipped in the temple despite its corruption and oppression. King Herod was a murderous crook and the temple priesthood were his hired cronies and yet Mary and Joseph and Jesus were there year after year, making offerings, saying prayers, talking with rabbis. 
When St. Paul was beaten by the high priest he showed him deference, not contempt. "You salute the rank," as they say in the military, "not the man." 
That's because the authority of a priest or bishop doesn't come from him; it comes from God. The failings of the man, or woman, don't erase that authority. Saul would regularly try to murder David. He disregarded God and took on the responsibility to offer sacrifices himself. He murdered faithful priests. Through all of this, David saluted the office long after the man had outlived his merit.
On Oct. 31., the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA sent a letter to the bishop of Pittsburgh, directing him not to split the diocese from the denomination. Bishop Duncan replied by quoting Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other." 
It's a powerful quote, but a misuse of history. Martin Luther didn't leave the Roman Catholic Church; he was kicked out. He decided to "stand" and fight. It's ironic that Bishop Duncan quoted Luther's pledge to "stand" in order to justify his intention to "walk." 
Are my fellow conservatives fully aware of the biblical and patristic teachings on schism? How do they justify a break with the Episcopal Church to which they have literally sworn loyalty? How do they justify taking Episcopal property with them? Given Paul's command to the first-century Corinthian Church not to address church issues in secular courts, how do they justify the inevitable legal battles that accompany a schism? How much will the litigation cost? Will the money come from our offerings? 
There are moral questions, too. If we break with the Episcopal Church in America over gay priests, how can we then align ourselves with African bishops who tolerate polygamist priests? Paul says that a church leader is to be "the husband of one wife." Do we think that the word "husband" is inerrant but the word "one" is not? 
If the Episcopal Church really has become apostate and its current leaders really are enemies of God, then how can we justify leaving the church, its resources and its sheep in their care? If not, how can we justify this separation? 
Yes, there are times when it's necessary to leave one authority for another. When the New Testament writers were forced to deal with this issue, they concluded that they were compelled to obey higher authority at all times, except when it commanded them to disobey God. Roman Emperors were monstrous beasts. The church preached against them and prayed for them to repent, but Christians still obeyed the law. It wasn't until Rome ordered them to stop preaching the gospel and to offer sacrifices to Caesar that the early church was forced to disobey. 
By analogy, New Hampshire can install a whole pride of gay bishops, but we don't break our oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church until they order us to start installing them here.
Until then, the pattern of David and Jesus holds: Be faithful. Be patient. Be active in good works. And be in prayer for all in authority ... "for Katharine, our presiding bishop; Robert and Henry, our bishops; and Jay, our priest, I pray. Lord, hear our prayer."

(Note also Fr. Jake’s take on Bowers’ piece.)

I can’t pretend to know for sure what Ephraim Radner would say about Jerry Bowers’ piece. But given my reading of Hope Among the Fragments and the time I spent with him at conference, I can’t help but think that Radner would probably concur.

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