Friday, July 10, 2009

Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Equates Reciting the Creed with Idolatry

Or at least that's the impression that one might get from what she said in her opening address to the 76th General Convention.

Her remarks were first brought to my attention by the Rev. Greg Jones at "The Anglican Centrist." Here's the snippet he quoted:
Reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus ... [is] a form of idolatry ... putting me and my words in a place that only God can occupy ....
My jaw dropped a bit when I first read this. However, it's misleading to say that this is a direct quotation. Here's what she actually said in context:
The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.
The crises to which the Presiding Bishop here refers include "caring for the most vulnerable," "the needs of the poorest around us," "the inclusion of those who do not have full access to the life of this Church," and the lack of "the same kind of financial resources to address [these matters] that we had three years ago." Using the strong language of "heresy," I think she's saying that Western individualism - the belief that each one of us are autonomous beings who are free to act or not as each of us sees fit as though we are not fundamentally dependent upon one another - is a falsehood that not only undermines the Church's mission and ministry, but also misconstrues the fundamentally corporate character of salvation. (I note that the Presiding Bishop is not alone in labeling individualism a heresy. Conservatives like Deacon Phil Snyder have done so, too, as evidenced here and here.)

I think it's important to note this context in which the Presiding Bishop makes her remark about "a specific verbal formula about Jesus" before leaping to the conclusion that she is equating reciting the Creed with idolatry. No doubt, her critics on the far Right will leap to precisely that conclusion. And to be fair to those critics, some of the Presiding Bishop's statements on matters of core doctrine in the past have been, at best, vague and equivocal to the point of suggesting readings at variance with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

Having said that, over at "The Anglican Centrist," Fr. David offers a charitable reading of the Presiding Bishop's words that are worth pondering:
I think that what the PB was referring to is the lone individual who in the dark of the night says, "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior," considers themselves "saved," or "born again," but then never finds a church where they can be a living member of the Body of Christ.
And at the same site, Chad offers another charitable reading:
Words without action are merely words vis-a-vis idolotry.

Just because one merely assents to a creed or a belief system does not make one a "member" or included in the group.

... I think our evangelical brothers and sister do have at least this correct: To merely say that you are x, y or z doesn't make you x, y or z. We shouldn't just say what we believe; we should "live" it. At the end of it all, we truly live how we believe, i.e. if we live charitably toward others, we are charitable. If we merely give lip service to it, yet never engage in bringing about the justice and righteousness of God (mishpat), then we aren't charitable and our statements about our beliefs are an empty crock of you-know-what.

And again:
She is not slamming salvation or the means of grace found in it, but the modernist's insistence that a "personal" relationship with God is all that matters.
Bill Carroll succinctly sums up this charitable reading: "Correct verbal formulae, in the absence of right practice, are not salvific."

While I am inclined to give the Presiding Bishop the benefit of the doubt along the lines of these readings, I also think that Bill Carroll is right to say that her words are "poorly chosen." He explains as follows:
I do think she should have been far more careful in choosing her words. There are plenty of people in the Episcopal Church who would look at any affirmation of basic dogma and say "Your God is too small." This is a petty and dangerous evasion of the task of sound doctrine. ...

I do think that what the Presiding Bishop chose to say (in prepared remarks) was a risky and unhelpful thing to say, given the rather loose attitude toward doctrine that prevails among some in our church.
The "rather loose attitude toward doctrine" in the Episcopal Church is an expression of the individualism which the Presiding Bishop rightly castigates as heresy. And yet, in the very act of rejecting that heresy, her words about the non-salvific character of "reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus" can easily be heard in our cultural context as a rejection of the need for any corporate confession of faith, as though it doesn't really matter what we say we believe as long as we're doing the right things vis-a-vis social justice, etc.

But, of course, it does matter what we say we believe.

Given the rampant individualism, subjectivism and relativism of our hypermodern culture - tendencies which reinforce conceptions of "spirituality" that entail a "drive-thru window" or "cafeteria pick-and-choose" mentality - one of the most odd and countercultural things we Christians do is stand every Sunday and recite the words of a creed hammered out by two ecumenical councils in the 4th Century. It is a radical and even subversive act to not only recite the words of the Nicene Creed, but also to mean what we say.

Here, for example, is what Luke Timothy Johnson writes in an essay entitled "The Countercultural Creed":
Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the creed. Some sleepwalk through it thinking of other things, some puzzle over the strange language, some find offense in what it seems to say. Perhaps few of them fully appreciate what a remarkable thing they are doing. Would they keep on doing it if they grasped how different it made them in today's world? Would they keep on saying these words if they really knew what they implied?

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.
Johnson continues this train of thought in an essay entitled "The (Politically Incorrect) Nicene Creed":
For Modernity, belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure. Creeds involve faith, and faith makes statements about reality that can't be tested. Everyone knows that statements can be true only when they don't really say anything about the world or when they have been empirically tested. Creeds are therefore structures of fantasy. One cannot be both a believer and a critical thinker. Creeds also express convictions held by a group of people, and for intellectual elitists, the many is always a herd, and a herd will always believe what it is told. A creed negates the need for individuals to seek truth as a quest for authenticity. To be authentic, people must own each statement they make passionately and personally, and must accept nothing on the basis of outside authority. Better to stay silent than to speak a single word that is not a personal testimony. ...

I think that the Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time, it communicates a compelling vision of the world's destiny and humanity's role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom. Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them and what they are saying when they mean them. This is the precondition to their celebrating a specifically Christian conception of reality, and the presupposition for their challenging the dominant conceptions of the world.
Given the importance of the Creed for not only laying the foundations for Christian community and commitment, but also for "challenging the dominant conceptions of the world" that precipitate and perpetuate the crises noted in her opening address to General Convention, I wish that the Presiding Bishop would be as clear about the need for right belief as she is about the need for right action.


Joe Rawls said...

The PB also said, "The crisis of this moment has several parts, and like Episcopalians, particularly ones in Mississippi, they're all related." I think this is a bit of gratuitous snark, and since my paternal grandparents were from Mississippi, I was at least quasi-offended. Y'all can't be all relatives, right?

Bryan Owen said...

Joe, I think the "all related" bit refers not to persons, but to the several parts of the crisis she mentioned and which I cited after quoting from her address. It's possible that her reference to MS in this context may perhaps be a reference to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (which our friends on the Gulf Coast are still dealing with). Certainly, the crises of caring for the most vulnerable and meeting the needs of the poorest around us with less financial resources than we should have to do so remains in play here.

But once again, it's not crystal clear that this is, indeed, what she means. I grant that someone else can just as easily hear it the way you did, or worse. She seems to have a knack for that kind of vagueness and equivocation, and that's rather less than helpful.

Anonymous said...

I can't try and give the PB the benefit of the doubt. Frankly, she doesn't respect the individual's right to read and understand the text, to contemplate and accept Christ's teachings, because that individual is one less lost sheep to be preyed upon by her wolves in sheep's clothing. The creed is an affirmation of our faith, a reminder of the teachings of the Christ she tries to marginalize and submerge. The PB, after all demands that we reject Christ as the only path to salvation, she certainly doesn't care for the reminder of that fact in the creed. Also, Christ stated that we as individuals have to make the choice for ourselves to come to Him, repent and sin no more.

We are called to think and consider our sins and repent them. Of course we are part of a community, but we are not only called to pray, open our hearts to God, and come to gain understanding to improve our lives and become better people.

cachez le vin said...

This is what you get when you send in a girl to do a man's job.

When we're done firing this little wicked witch of the west, let's restore the Nicene Creed to the first person singular, as virtually EVERY Latin version gives it.

Why must we hunt far and wide for a marginal "Credimus" when the mainstream says "Credo"?

There is a personal side to this faith as well. Personally, I'm done with the She-Bishop.

Bryan Owen said...

Anonymous and cachez le vin,

Comments and opinions are certainly welcome here, including expressions of strong disagreement. But unsubstantiated allegations, ad hominem attacks, and thinly veiled contempt/hatred for persons will not be tolerated. I'm particularly troubled by the language and tone of cachez le vin's comments.

In the future, such comments will be deleted.

marshmk said...

To cachez le vin: My understanding is that the earliest form of the Nicene Creed, as drafted by the councils, was in Greek and first person plural. Also, there generally seems to be a theological distinction between individuals and persons. Individuals tend to exist in isolation and by defining themselves against another. Persons exist only in relationship, community. This is modeled by the three persons (not individuals) of the Blessed Trinity.

Peace, Mike

Jendi said...

I care about right belief nearly as much as Bryan does, but when it comes down to it, I'd rather worship in a community where I feel safe forming relationships with the people, not afraid that they will judge me and my family for not conforming to their ideas about gender and sexuality. (The misogyny of "cachez le vin's" comment illustrates this.)

Why is there this disconnect between belief and practice? If proper understanding of the Trinity and the Creed really do make a difference in our lives (and I haven't given up the quixotic hope that they do), then why have I found the most hardness of heart among those who seem to understand these doctrines best on an intellectual level?

Bryan Owen said...

Jendi, I'm sorry that your experience has been like this. I've certainly encountered staunchly orthodox Christians who have displayed such hardness of heart. But I've also encountered "liberal" and non-creedal Christians who, in their zeal for "progressive" issues, have also displayed hardness of heart towards those with whom they disagree. In a few cases, I would go further and say that they were driven by hatred for anyone who disagreed with them. And some of these persons were candidates for ordination in their respective denominations.

Without the virtue of love, both orthodoxy as right belief and orthopraxy as right practice can become just as demonic as the worst of heresies.

Bill Carroll said...

If you'll allow a Thomistic excursis:

Orthopraxis is centered on the infused virtue of charity, which guides and directs all the other virtues and forms faith. Charity is friendship with God (and, in God, with the neighbor). It is fundamentally the Holy Spirit, the love of God poured into our hearts, who is both uncreated grace and uncreated charity. Without charity, the pursuit of justice can become a vicious form of zealotry and spiritual violence, with which any peace activist is all too familiar. There is a prophetic zeal that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and fraternal correction is one of the activities proper to charity. But it has little to do with what often passes for "being prophetic" in some circles.

In other words, without charity/love, orthopraxis is not only misguided, it's also not really orthopraxis. True orthopraxis is Christoform.

plsdeacon said...


Good to have you back. I find it odd, however, for the Presiding Bishop to be against "individualism" and, at the same time, cry "autonomy" when confronted by the Anglican Communion over TEC's innovations.

I try, (and sometimes it is rather trying :) ) to read her remarks with charity, but it seems to me that she was trying to equate Anglican Evangelicals with the beliefs of fundamentalists "fire insurance" where the recitation of this specific prayer is all that is needed to be saved.

In short, if we are to practice "unbuntu" rather than just chant the word as some form of incantation, we need to stop this talk of "autonomy" and really consider how our actions and words are hurting our brothers and sisters around the world. Then we should repent and ask forgiveness.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I agree, Phil, that there is irony and inconsistency at work here. I'll bet that, with the best of intentions, the PB doesn't see things that way. Nevertheless, and rightly or wrongly, such irony and inconsistency provides the perfect opening for the Presiding Bishop's conservative critics to hammer away at her.

Nevertheless, and as I hope I've made clear in so many words in this piece, I do not at all agree with critics who charge the PB with lacking "the ABILITY to recognize a Christian act." That kind of accusation is beyond the pale.

plsdeacon said...

I agree that some of the criticism of the PB is beyond the pale.

When she met with the clergy of the Diocese of Dallas, I found her to be a most gracious person. She had the ability to "work a room" like few I've seen. She also had the ability to think on her feet.

However, I found her theological thinking to be a bit blind. She doesn't seem to be ready to answer questions put to her by those who disagree with her. I sometimes wonder if she has not bought into the ideas that those who oppose SSBs are simply homophobic fundamentalists - and, thus, she is not ready for a reasoned argument.

Given her obviously high intelligence and her political acumen, I often wonder if she "mis-spoke" or she planned to create a fire storm with her words and then say "All I meant was...." to make the conservatives look foolish.

The problem with that approach is that there are few conservatives who really care what +Schori (or progressives in geenral) thinks about them.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

When the PB visited St. Andrew's Cathedral last February, I, too, found her to be very gracious and to have the gift of "working a room." And she preached what I found to be a very thoughtful, biblically grounded sermon. However, I don't think that theological precision is her strong suit. That may account for what sometimes sounds (or reads) to me like equivocation. In which case it's not a matter of her intentionally trying to mislead so much as a matter of not having said it precisely enough the first time around.

I'm in no position to say whether or not she misspoke in this opening address, but my understanding is that these were prepared remarks. Which suggests that she (and others?) thought this stuff through.