A charge sometimes leveled against The Episcopal Church these days is that we are falling off the cliff into the heresy of universalism. It’s not always clear what, exactly, these critics mean by the term “universalism,” but I take it that more often than not the term is meant to signify the belief that all persons will be saved, regardless of how they have lived their lives and regardless of whether or not they have accepted the saving grace offered in Jesus Christ. (If, on the other hand, by “universalism” one means God’s desire that all may be saved … well that’s another matter entirely.)
It may be true that some individual Episcopalians have endorsed a theology of universalism contrary to the historic Christian faith. But, as my clergy colleague and fellow blogger Tobias Haller has recently pointed out:
“ … the alleged ‘changes’ in TEC mostly consist in comments or opinions expressed by certain leaders. So, officially, the teaching has not changed. It is not up to the PB [Presiding Bishop], or Jack Iker, or Robert Duncan, or Jack Spong, to determine the doctrine of the church on their own, and their individual comments stand or fall on their own merit. You will find off the wall comments from Roman, Methodist, and even Baptist clergy if you look around – yet the doctrinal formularies state the content of the Faith.”
The doctrinal formularies do, indeed, state the content of the Faith. So, just for fun, I thought I’d share the results of my brief look at how the 1979 Prayer Book repudiates the heretical kind of universalism defined above.
In posting this, I am assuming that the words of The Book of Common Prayer actually mean something and that this meaning is normative for all baptized persons who have vowed “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (BCP, p. 304), and to all ordained persons who have vowed to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, p. 526).
Here we go:
Suffrage B in Evening Prayer Rite II: “That we may depart this life in your faith and fear, and not be condemned before the great judgment seat of Christ” (BCP, p. 122). This petition not only affirms a final judgment, but also leaves open the possibility of condemnation at that judgment.
The Great Litany
1. “Spare us … from everlasting damnation” (BCP, p. 148). This suggests that everlasting damnation is possible, else why petition God to be spared from it?
2. “That it may please thee to grant that … we may attain to thy heavenly kingdom” (BCP, p. 152). This suggests that it’s possible we may not attain it.
Collect for the First Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211) – Affirms that we need God’s grace to “cast away the works of darkness” lest, when the final judgment comes, we be unable to “rise to the life immortal.” This is an unnecessary petition if it is not possible for us to miss out on “the life immortal” due to embracing “the works of darkness.”
Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211) – Suggests that if we do not heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, we will not be able to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ.
Collect for Ash Wednesday (BCP, p. 217) – Suggests that we must worthily lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness to obtain “perfect remission and forgiveness.” This is an unnecessary prayer if repentance is unnecessary for receiving remission and forgiveness.
Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent (BCP, p. 218) – We pray God to “be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son.” Suggests that it’s possible to stray from God’s ways and that this is so serious that we need to pray for God’s grace and mercy for such persons that they may return. What’s the point if such straying is no big deal?
Collect for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (BCP, p. 219) – Asks God’s mercy to “walk in the way of [Jesus’] suffering” that we may “also share in his resurrection,” suggesting that without the former, one cannot attain the latter.
First Collect for Easter Day (BCP, p. 222) – Suggests that daily death to sin is prerequisite to “evermore liv[ing] with him in the joy of his resurrection.”
Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week (BCP, p. 223) – Acknowledges that we “have been raised with him,” and then petitions God to grant that we “may abide in his presence,” suggesting the possibility that, in spite of having been raised, some may nevertheless not abide.
Collect for Saturday in Easter Week (BCP, p. 224) – Thanks God for delivering us from “the dominion of sin and death” and for bringing us “into the kingdom,” but then petitions God that, just as Jesus’ death “recalled us to life,” so may his love “raise us to eternal joys.” Surely this is an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible for some to not be raised to eternal joys.
Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (BCP, p. 225) – Affirms that following “steadfastly” in Jesus’ “steps” is “the way that lead to eternal life,” suggesting that not following in Jesus’ steps leads to a different end.
Collect for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday (BCP, p. 228) – Suggests that steadfastness in the “faith and worship” of the “true faith” as articulated in the doctrine of the Trinity is necessary for seeing God in his [sic] “one and eternal glory.” One may legitimately read this as affirming a correlation between salvation (Beatific Vision), orthodoxy (right doctrine), and orthopraxy (here, right worship). This is very traditional stuff!
Collect for Proper 1 (BCP, p. 228) – Although we have been called to God’s service, this collect points out that we still need to be made “worthy of our calling.” This is an unnecessary petition if we’re already so worthy of our calling that nothing needs to change.
Collect for Proper 8 (BCP, p. 230) – Acknowledges that the teaching of Jesus and “the apostles and prophets” is necessary for joining us “in unity of spirit” and for making us “a holy temple acceptable to [God].” Can teachings contrary to the apostles and prophets serve the same end? This Collect suggests an answer of “no.”
Collect for Proper 12 (BCP, p. 231) – Acknowledges that without the increase and multiplication of God’s mercy, we cannot so pass through things temporal” that we lay hold of “the things eternal.” It’s an unnecessary petition if laying hold of things eternal is a foregone conclusion.
Collect for Proper 21 (BCP, p. 234) – This collect is similar to the Collect for Proper 12. It’s an unnecessary petition if becoming “partakers of [God’s] heavenly treasure” is a foregone conclusion.
Collect for Proper 26 (BCP, p. 235) – This collect is similar to the Collects for Propers 12 and 21. It’s an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible to stumble and thus fail “to obtain [God’s] heavenly promises.”
Collect for Proper 28 (BCP, p. 236) – Connects reading, hearing, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the holy Scriptures to embracing and ever holding fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life given to us in Jesus. This suggests several things: (1) Some sort of relationship with scripture is a necessary component of embracing the hope of everlasting life; (2) that lacking such a relationship, we may not be holding fast to such a hope; and (3) that as a hope, everlasting life is not a foregone conclusion. Who hopes for what one already has?
Collect for Saint John (BCP, p. 238) – Asks that we be so illumined by the teaching of the apostle John that we “may so walk in the light of [God’s] truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life.” This is an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible to fail to attain to the fullness of eternal life.
Proper Preface for Advent (BCP, p. 378) – This collect is an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible to stand before Christ at his coming again “in power and great triumph” with shame and fear, and thus be unable to “rejoice.”
from Eucharistic Prayer D (BCP, p. 375) – “And grant that we may find our inheritance with … all the saints who have found favor with you in ages past.” This is an unnecessary petition if obtaining such an inheritance is a foregone conclusion. (There are similar petitions in the other Eucharistic prayers.)
from the “Litany at the Time of Death” (p. 463) – “We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may please you to deliver the soul of your servant from the power of evil, and from eternal death.” This is an unnecessary petition if such deliverance is a foregone conclusion. (A similar point can be made of the other petitions in this litany.)
Perhaps these words from the Prayer Book don’t really mean what they purportedly say. In which case we have to ask the question: why say them at all? Or maybe they do mean what they say and I don't believe it. Well, if I, as a priest, do not believe what the words of the Prayer Book collects and liturgies say, why would I want to stand at the altar week after week and lie before God and the gathered assembly? And why would I want to worship in a church that regularly affirms things in the liturgy which I find unbelievable or even abhorrent?