Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lay Episcopalians are Bound by Vows, Too

“The Episcopal Church permits a wide spectrum of possible beliefs.”

The truth of this statement is one of the reasons why I’ve always felt attracted to the Episcopal Church. The comprehensiveness of the Anglicanism – its ability to “comprehend,” to contain or include, a number of different and at times rival points of view – commends it as a tradition uniquely positioned to bridge the divisions that otherwise separate Christians from one another.

There are many examples of this, but one that comes readily to my mind is the theology of the Eucharist. Here’s how Christopher puts it over at “Thanksgiving In All Things”:

… Anglicanism has allowed for a range of explanation of Christ's Presence without insisting upon one, and indeed, many Anglicans I suspect remain happily agnostic about the “how” of Christ's Presence. While various and sundry argue for one or another theory and each of these “fills up” without exhausting the sign, and though I have my thoughts on the matter which I happily share, I have an even greater interest in keeping room for the happily agnostic among us, not only for myself most days, but for the many other Anglicans who do simply the same—receive Christ.

The Eucharist is a good example of comprehensiveness because, while Anglicanism has allowed for a wide range of understandings of what happens to make Christ present in the sacrament and how it happens (including the “explanation” of not explaining it), the Anglican tradition has also always affirmed that something does really happen to the bread and wine during the course of the Eucharistic Prayer. After everyone says the Great Amen, the bread and wine are no longer ordinary. They’re different. They’ve changed. They are now set apart by prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit as holy, regardless of how we understand what that means. And so the Eucharist is not merely a memorial meal. While an individual Episcopalian may believe that, practically speaking, that theological understanding goes beyond the spectrum of the Church’s theology and practice as embodied in the Prayer Book’s liturgies and rubrics.

My point is that there are limits to the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism. Anglicanism is not an “anything goes” tradition. There are boundaries to the faith, boundaries aptly and succinctly summarized in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s affirmation of four essentials for the fullness of the Church:

  1. The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two Dominical Sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

I raise all of this because I keep hearing statements from laity and clergy that suggest or outright claim, “Episcopalians can believe anything they want.” When it comes to belief, the sky’s the limit. We’re not constrained by anything or anyone beyond individual conscience and personal preferences. True, clergy have made vows, but those may be set aside if good reasons can be given. And laypersons have not made vows that bind them to anything in particular. Our liberty as Episcopal Christians thus translates into license. In my opinion, two particularly egregious instances of this mindset surface in the document “Already One in God” put forth by the Diocese of Northern Michigan back in 2007, and also in the preaching and liturgical revisions of Kevin Thew Forrester, the bishop-elect of the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

I’ve written before about the problem of clergy setting aside the vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. And while it is true that laypersons have not taken that vow, all Episcopal Christians – lay and ordained alike – have made a promise in the Baptismal Covenant that commits us to living within the limits and boundaries of acceptable belief:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

People I will, with God’s help.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304

The language about “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” is not merely nice sounding words on paper. It entails a substantive content. And in this particular liturgy, that content is laid out in the first half of the Baptismal Covenant in response to the questions of trust that precede the five questions of promise. Those questions are:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father?
  2. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
  3. Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

The answers to these questions take the form of the Apostles’ Creed. So when we promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, we are making a solemn commitment to persist in adhering to the doctrinal content of the articles in the Apostles’ Creed. We are affirming that the faith of the Church articulated by this creed (and, I believe, by extension and amplification in the Nicene Creed) is the norm of belief against which our own personal, individual beliefs are measured and found more or less adequate. And we are promising to conform our believing to this creedal norm.

In practical terms, this means that any Episcopalian – not just deacons, priests and bishops, but laypersons, too – who denies the understanding of God as Trinity, or the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Son of God, or the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, or the resurrection of the body, etc., is violating his/her baptismal covenant. Such denial translates not only into abandoning the faith of the Church, but also to saying “no” to one’s baptismal identity as an adopted child of God called to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).

It's true that Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church allow for a wide range of beliefs and opinions on any number of matters. But when it comes to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith, our tradition also affirms limits and boundaries to comprehensiveness. It’s right there in the Baptismal Covenant.


Christopher said...

I couldn't have said it better.

Maurice reminds that The Apostles' Creed, said in every Christian home, is also the greatest preventative against clerical misuses (like that of Fr. Thew Forrester) and enthusiastic guruism.

Our tradition has contours outside of which we no longer recognize ourselves, but within those contours is a lot of room. A purely memorialist understanding of the Eucharist would be one example of being not recognizably Anglican. Denying Christ's perfect humanity and perfect divinity would be another. Using prayers other than those authorized for our central as well as our sacramental rites would be a third, imho.

Bryan Owen said...

Amen, Christopher!

santospopsicles said...

Amen, Amen, Amen,

Thank you for this post...

Just what I needed to hear,

Peter M. Carey+

tjmcmahon said...

Thank you for this fine article. We who were baptised and confirmed under the '28 prayer book often wonder where the "you can believe anything you want" idea comes from. Certainly not from the catechism and Offices of Instruction that we studied in Confirmation classes. As one of the 600 people who attend church in the diocese of N. Michigan, I am especially grateful for the work you and others are doing to bring to light the errors of the bishop-elect.

BillyD said...

But - but - but, I thought that the Baptismal Covenant was just about working for peace and justice...

\sarcasm off

The Underground Pewster said...

I don't have a problem with a wide spectrum of ideas, and freedom to think outside the box, but the problem is teaching outside the box.

Among the problems with "mainline" protestantism (and I am bold to think people keep TEC in that category) one is highlighted by the recent Pew Forum survey of religion where it was found that 83% of mainline protestants "deny" that Jesus is the only way to be saved.

I don't think people who simply show up in church on Sunday can help but be in violation of their Baptismal vows and creeds in one way or another. Again I am brought back to the importance of continuing education and christian formation. Of course, education requires both a willing student and a good teacher.

What to do with the teachers whose wide spectrum of beliefs go outside the creeds, and what do you do to turn average pewsitters into inquiring students?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for more good comments all around.

Those are key questions you've honed in on at the end of your comments, Underground Pewster. I don't have easy answers to them. But I do think that part of the problem is that we have not done a good job of teaching who and what we are, to the point where what's in the Prayer Book and what gets taught, preached and modeled in the parish can be completely different and unrelated things.

How many teachers and/or clergy, for instance, have ever pointed out in a forum, from the pulpit, in a newsletter article, etc., what we're committing ourselves to when we make and reaffirm the particular Baptismal Covenant vow I've highlighted in this posting? I've never seen or heard of such a thing. In the absence of clear teaching, we shouldn't be surprised that people don't have a clue what they're saying and doing when they say these words.

bls said...

Thanks for this, too, Fr. Bryan. I agree completely.

bls said...

(I think you're right that the basic problem is that this never gets taught. In fact, I've never heard it said, either, except sometimes on the blogs - and actually, mainly on this blog!

People are being cheated, in fact, in my opinion. It seems to me that American "individualism" (i.e., "ego") is being stroked, once again - but that just cheats people of the chance to really learn and live the faith. Which is sad, because actually Christianity is radical and exciting, as we've discussed before.)

Bryan Owen said...

I've never quite thought about individualism "cheating" us out of the chance to really learn and live the faith, but that's an interesting angle from which to look at it, bls.

And yes, I think you're quite right: Christianity - the real stuff, not the watered-down versions peddled by syncretists, skeptics and debunkers - is radical and exciting!

plsdeacon said...

I used to think that individualism was the root cause of the downfall of American Christianity. But, the more I think about it, the less I agree with it. I think that "functionalism" and "consumerism" is more responsible for the downfall of American Christianity than individualism. I'm not sure how to get HTML links to work in comments, so here is a URL for it.

Phil Snyder

bls said...

Well, I put "individualism" in quotes for a reason, and added the qualifier, "(i.e., 'ego')" - which is really what's at issue.

It's just that "individualism" is the way appeals to ego are often couched in the United States - perhaps because it's believed that will appeal to Americans.

eric said...

Thanks for this post. I love the distinction between "liberty" and "license." And I agree with the above comments that we often elevate "personal experience" (ego) above scripture, tradition, and even reason.

A few weeks ago, one of the assisting priests in my parish received a nasty e-mail from a parishioner, who was offended that he dare preach a sermon against Gnosticism. She is a self-avowed Gnostic. Oh boy.

BillyD said...

What I have noticed in some quarters is that the believe-anything-you-want-type can become angry at a more orthodox believer simply for being a conventional Christian - it's not necessary for them to have been attacked to excoriate non-freethinkers; the fact that we don't find their "theology" convincing and continue in conventional believe is enough to send them into a frenzy.