Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Universalism Repudiated by the Prayer Book

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) – A
sks 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?


plsdeacon said...

While it is true that the official formularies and doctrine of TEC are Christian and do not support the ideas of "universalism," too many of TEC's leaders (including the Presiding Bishop) do support universalism.

Now there are two meanings of universalism that I am aware of. The first is that all will be saved and the second is that non-Christians can be saved by their own faith or that "all paths lead to God."

The problem is not that TEC's official doctrine is not Christian. The problem is that TEC refuses to discipline anyone who teaches or acts contrary to the official doctrine.

If the speed limit on my street is stated to be 30 MPH, but a police office refuses to stop you until you are doing over 60 and will give you a warning for the first 10 times he stops you, then the speed limit is effectively 60, not 30. Such it the same with TEC. If the official doctrine is not universalism and if the official doctrine condemns universalism (Article XIII), but universalism is never punished nor are those who support universalism ever disciplined or chastised or even verbally condemned by the leadership, then the TEC effectively accepts universalism as its teaching.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Phil. I believe that the meanings of universalism that you note are either entailed within what I'm saying in my first paragraph, or at least complementary to what I'm trying to say.

The issue of how to handle disparities between what Episcopalians in positions of leadership say (lay and ordained) and what the doctrinal formularies say - coupled with the lack of discipline for preaching and teaching things that contradict what the doctrinal formularies say - is, indeed, a troubling instance of anomic Anglicanism.

An important question, it seems to me, is how widespread and genuinely representative of the majority of members of TEC such views actually are. Perhaps there are empirical studies available on this matter of which I am unaware.

I deeply cherish belonging to a church that encourages questions and that does not have pat answers to everything. However, I also find it troubling when the suggestion is made (and I hear it from time to time) that we don't have any doctrine and that everybody gets to decide truth for him or herself. But again, I'm not sure how pervasive such views really are.

Without knowing for sure how widespread this is, it may, nonetheless, point to one of the ways in which a struggle to redefine our identity in terms of either a monolithic or an over-personalized model of the church unfolds. In terms of some of our leadership (and I want to emphasize the word "some"), one could plausibly argue that such a contest currently favors the over-personalized church type.

In thinking about all of this, I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Fr. Tony Clavier: "Anglicanism is a particularly difficult place for those with a narrow view and an easy place for the apathetic."

Tobias Haller said...

A lack of discipline does not necessarily imply consent. Parents may think their children are bad even when they don't punish them. Remember the story of the Prodigal, and the Father's reaction compared with that of the elder brother. You will note at the end of the story that the inheritance still goes to the faithful elder, but in the meantime the father wants to celebrate.

That judgment is suspended does not mean it will never come; most of us are content to refer it to the higher court. That doesn't mean we agree with the mistakes made by those around us, and some do indeed speak out, even if it doesn't rise to the level of formal discipline. Phil, it just seems to me you want a more rigid doctrinal framework than has been traditional in Anglicanism, at least since we stopped burning people in the 17th century or putting them in jail in the 19th or deposing them in the 20th. (Paul Jones -- now in LFF -- deposed for preaching pacifism!)

I'm happy to be in a church in which open discussion is allowed, and in which I am free to disagree with the leadership, and they with me.

plsdeacon said...


I would like a church to follow its own rules rather than an antinomial one. I seem to recall that you and I vowed to be loyal to the "...doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them. I believe that all the clery have made the same or very similar vows.

Now the past perfect tense in this vow is not meaningless. From what I can read, it would be OK to privately hold universalism or even modalism, adoptionism, docetism, arianism, or any of the other heresies. But it is not lawful nor proper to teach such. I am sure that each of use has his or her private heresies - not intentionally, but we do none the less. However, we are bound to teach what the Church teaches. We are bound by our oaths to teach within the bounds of our doctrine (which I agree are rather broad). I find it rather odd that we can hound a diocese out of the Church over an indifferent matter such as the Ordination of Women, but we cannot discipline a bishop for saying that God is not a Trinity or that people are saved through their own experience of the divine.

The boundries of Anglicanism are very broad but they are there. If we ignore them, then they might as well not exist.

Tobias Haller said...

Actually I agree with you, Phil. My problem is that "the church" doesn't have any automatic disciplinary mechanisms. If you want them enforced, you have to do something -- that is, make a complaint, file a presentment, and so on. You may not be aware of it, but Bishops do issue directives and admonitions to clergy not infrequently. People who serve on standing committees have to deal with this on a regular basis.

The problem is that you have set yourself up as the one to decide that, say, a given statement of the PB is heretical. Actually, someone has pointed out elsewhere that her comments about the "vehicle to the divine" and "God in a small box" are actually not heretical, but consistent with a broad view of the mechanism of salvation as enunciated at Vatican II. Ultimately, it is God who saves, not us; and we as Christians believe God does that through Christ. That, I believe, is what the PB meant by her comments, and there is nothing heretical in that. In short, I do not think the PB explicitly intended to offer a Universalist theology. You may think otherwise; but this really isn't for you or me to judge. If you don't like it, then there are procedures in place to commence a legal action. Have you taken them?