Sunday, December 9, 2007

San Joaquin Departure

I normally don't weigh in on Church politics, preferring to leave such postings in the more capable hands of others in the blogosphere. But I feel compelled to express sadness and disappointment over the decision made yesterday by the diocese of San Joaquin to leave the Episcopal Church.

I believe that it's difficult to reconcile this decision - and the consequences it will unleash - with our corporate affirmation (using the words of the Nicene Creed) that "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." Decisions that push others to break away and decisions to make the break share one thing in common: they undermine the credibility of these words we recite in the Creed, and so weaken our witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As recorded in the Gospel according to John, our Lord's fervent prayer on the night before he suffered and died for us was this:

"Holy Father, protect [my disciples] in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one" (John 17:11).

And Jesus continues by linking the credibility of the Church's witness to him to our visible unity:

"The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:22-23).

I am aware of the complexity of the ecclesial and ethical issues that have brought us to this point. There are serious and substantive issues at stake, no doubt about it. And it won't do to paint those issues over with carictures, as too often seems to happen.

I am also aware of the charges levelled against our Church's leadership by some conservatives who say that our leaders are apostates and heretics. While I have some sympathy with their concerns (I do wish, for example, that our Presiding Bishop could simply say "Jesus is Lord and Savior" without qualification or apology), I also think that some of the charges paint with too broad of a brush.

And so, while I have no doubts about the integrity of those who made the decision to leave, I do not believe that departure from the Episcopal Church is the right response.

It's for this reason that I believe the comments of conservative Episcopal priest and theologian Ephraim Radner in the wake of the decision made by the diocese of San Joaquin merit careful consideration. Here is Radner quoted in today's New York Times:

"It will be a huge, huge legal battle," said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. "The costs involved will bleed the Diocese of San Joaquin and the Episcopal Church, and it will lead only to bad press. You have to wonder why people are wasting money doing this and yet claiming to be Christians."

And here is Radner again, this time at the "Covenant" website in response to his conservative critics (my highlights):

My comment in the NY Times, accurately quoted, was aimed at all parties. I have no problem stating that outright. Once Christians go down the litigation road within the church, we’ve lost our way. Wake up.

I am more than willing to place the initial and weighty blame for this fiasco on the leadership of TEC, its Executive Council, its PB’s, its General Convention, its unbending advocacy groups and so on. They have much to answer for, before God and before the larger church. But that doesn’t let their opponents within the church off the hook for not embodying some simple prudence and more substantive wisdom. If we are dealing with people who are bent on having their way, come hell or high water, to the destruction of common life in Christ—and so, I agree it seems with respect to aspects of the TEC’s leadership—then pursuing actions that can predictably draw them on in their destructive paths is neither prudent nor wise. And this is what is going on in the litigations that are unfolding, and in the engagement of communion forces (e.g. extras-provincial interventions) that are bound to further fray the fragile fabric of our larger Anglican body.


I have every sympathy for the basic motives of those in San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia, Common Cause, AMiA, Network and so on. But they have passed the bounds of prudence and wisdom in the responsive choices they have made. It’s now become like someone going to Vegas to gamble in hopes of raising money for the poor. Things are going down the tubes, whatever the motives, because the methods now are turning against the Gospel and the witness of the Body of Christ as a whole before the world’s eyes.

Anybody who thinks that this unfolding drama is an inspiration to most Anglicans, let alone unbelieving onlookers, had better think again. There are plenty of other Christian churches, traditions and denominations out there — "evangelical", "reformed", "liturgical", "catholic", and the rest — who are not driving themselves into the courtroom, sowing seeds of antagonism around the world, and filling the blogs with mutual hatred, no matter what their first motivations might be. Don’t kid yourselves: this is not Athanasius contra mundum, however exciting the struggle may appear in the midst of the fray; it is the embrace of ecclesial irrelevance.


I am saddened and disappointed by those who have decided to leave. I wish them well and hope that, somehow and someday, the breach can be healed. Given the sad likelihood that San Joaquin's departure is just the beginning, I think we would do well to heed Radner's words about how all us - even with the best of intentions - embrace ecclesial irrelevance for the sake of our own agendas. And so I think that all of us - whether we find ourselves on the Right, the Center, or the Left (or even that place along that spectrum that fancies itself as "refusing the spectrum") - have a share in the blame for the events that have pushed us towards schism and the ecclesial irrelevance it entails. For the truth is that whenever people leave (regardless of the reasons), the Church fails to be the sign of God's reconciliation of the world in Christ.

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