Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Beyond Revision to Rejection

I recently completed teaching on the Prayer Book tradition. As I reviewed the tradition from the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 to the current American Prayer Book of 1979, I was again impressed by how deeply committed the Anglican experiment is to revision. Openness to change is central to our identity. At the same time, I was also struck by how that openness to change has historically been guided by core theological principles from Christian tradition such that we have not gone off the deep end into post-Christian waters.

I think that James Griffiss sums up this dynamic tension at the heart of the Prayer Book tradition, and therefore at the heart of Anglican identity, when he writes:

“ … our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” [The Anglican Vision (Cowley, 1997), p. 101].

Those thoughts were in my mind today when I came across a fascinating – and for me as a creedal Christian, disturbing – article reflecting on experiences six years ago in the Episcopal Church by Harold Miller, the Bishop of the United Diocese of Down and Dromore in Ireland.

Before I note his concerns, let me say that, within the boundaries of the faith as articulated in the historic creeds, I’m all for flexibility and enrichment in our liturgies, including possibilities for gender-inclusive language. But taken as a whole, the trends which Bishop Miller observed go way beyond the kind of flexibility and enrichment consistent thus far with the Prayer Book tradition. If what he observed is true, and if those trends continue to grow and to spread, then it’s possible that we’re moving well beyond flexibility and enrichment to changing or even jettisoning core tenets of the Christian faith itself. In other words, if these trends win the day, our common prayer as Episcopalians will shape our believing in ways that fundamentally depart from the faith of the Church.

The liturgical trends Bishop Miller observed in his visit to the Episcopal Church include the following (and I’m either quoting or paraphrasing his words):

  1. The gradual replacement of the word “Lord” in reference to Jesus Christ.

  2. The removal or weakening of the title “Father” in relation to the first person of the Trinity.

  3. An emerging new theology of baptism which displaces baptism as the sacramental foundation and the front door of inclusion in favor of a communion table open to all, regardless of belief or lifestyle.

  4. Discomfort with repentance and the confession of sin.

  5. The omission of the Nicene Creed from the Sunday services.

  6. An inclination to find ways of holding all faiths together as believing in a common god.

  7. A rejection of atonement theology evidenced by an increasing emphasis on the Eucharist as a “community meal” to the exclusion of its historic emphasis on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.

For more details on each of these seven observations, I encourage you to read all of Bishop Miller’s reflections.

Here are some of Bishop Miller’s concluding words:

“If God is not Father, Jesus is not Lord, the Son is not unique, baptism is not necessary, the creeds are optional, repentance and sin are dated concepts and the atonement is marginalized or even rejected, where do we go from here?”

There’s an interesting response to Bishop Miller’s piece by Fr. David Simmons at Ayia Iluvatar. Fr. Simmons makes a point similar to one I’ve made in an earlier posting: that the observations of Bishop Miller are really not all that new. For example, by deleting Trinitarian language, the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, and the “descent into hell” clause of the Apostles’ Creed, the proposals for the first American Book of Common Prayer signaled a significant move beyond the historic Christian faith. Here are some questions I raised about all of this in what I’ve written previously:

“To what extent does the fact that the Episcopal Church got its ‘autonomous’ grounding in Enlightenment rationalism and deism help explain a tendency – embodied from the beginning in the Proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1786 – towards an innovative if not heterodox theology? Is it really a departure from Episcopal Church tradition, in other words, if our leaders – lay or ordained – publicly question things like the Trinity, the atonement, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation? Hasn’t that kind of questioning and free-thinking been there from the very beginning of our consolidation as a church body? Isn’t that a part of who we are as an American Church?”

In other words, the seeds of what Bishop Miller observed on his trip 6 years ago were planted when the Episcopal Church was founded. So one can only hope that Fr. Simmons is correct when he writes:

" ... the practices bishop Miller are citing are extant only in small numbers of congregations. They are not new, but a constant presence with us that is a natural byproduct of Christian Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment rubbing together. It is hardly fair to call them 'trends' and rush to snap judgements about the theological future of the Episcopal Church."

That may be true. I hope it's true. Time will certainly tell the tale. (In the meantime, stuff like this doesn't help.)

I would add that the only thing which can keep the seeds of Enlightenment rationalism and deism from taking deep root, sprouting, spreading, and bearing various kinds of post-Christian fruit is the vigilance of those among us who are committed to the historic, creedal Christian faith. If what Bishop Miller describes is happening, it's happening on our watch. And we will be responsible for the outcome.

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