Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Proclaiming Unbelief from the Pulpit

This morning, while reading the Rev. Dr. Canon Neal Michell's conservative reflections on the positives and negatives of General Convention 2009, I was struck by an experience he shared in the comments to his posting:

While I am not personally acquainted with many of the social liberals who have abandoned the Nicene faith, I do know many who have said they affirm the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, not for the truth they articulate but because we stand in procession of those who have affirmed those words.

However. . .(and this is a true story) sometime around 1996 or so, I was taking a class at Fuller Seminary during the two weeks following Easter. On the Sunday following Easter I attended All Saints, Pasadena. The preacher that Sunday was an assistant on the staff; I do not recall his name. He stood in the pulpit and announced, “It has been one year to the day when on the first Sunday after Easter last year I stood in this pulpit and announced that I no longer believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I must say that after a year of reflection, I have not changed my opinion.

“As you can imagine, I got lots of cards and letters and telephone calls some supportive, many complaining about how I had left the faith. I want to share one in particular with you. It was sent to me by Miss Louise (not her real name). Many of you know Miss Louise. She has been a stalwart member of this parish for over seventy years. She wrote, ‘Dear Father So-and-So. Thank you for your honesty and courage in announcing to the congregation that you no longer believe in the resurrection of Christ. I must say that I have from time to time shared your doubts. However, when the time comes for my funeral at All Saints, please have one of the other members of the staff conduct my funeral.”

The congregation laughed, and I got up and walked out of the church.

Well done Miss Louise and Neal.


The Postulant said...

I believe in both the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the deposition of heretical clergy, though I have no first-hand experience of either.

Bryan Owen said...

Awesome comment!!

plsdeacon said...

The problem is not the blessing of same sex unions. That is a symptom. The problem is one of lack of any enforced doctrine - the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, Communion only for the baptized, etc.

One of the problems that post-modernism has brought to us is the idea that we can each have our own definitions for words and, so, we can all affirm the Nicene Creed - so long as we get to define the words to mean what we want them to. So, instead of conforming our beliefs to the creeds, we are conforming the creeds to our beliefs.

A great example is this priest that Canon Michell mentions. He simply redefines "Resurrection" to be something that does not include the physical body. Likewise, I've read remarks from clergy to say that Jesus was born of Mary and we title her "The Virgin Mary" because that is what the church has always called her, not because she was a virgin when she conceived Jesus.

This is the sort of thing that has lead to where we are as a Church. We are not willing to discipline our clergy when the violate the plain meaning of scripture or the creeds and we wonder that the Church is in a mess!

Phil Snyder

BillyD said...

Well, it didn't start recently. As I commented elsewhere, the affaire Pike killed the possibility of enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy in any meaningful way.

plsdeacon said...

So, how do we fix this - or has it gotten so bad that "theological diversity" means "no boundries" Should we start brining charges against bishops and priests who spout rank heresy from the pulpit or in their newsletters? What do we do if we discover there is no discipline forthcomming?

Phil Snyder

BillyD said...

Compounding the problem is the perception that heresy charges are not always strictly about heresy. After letting Bishop Spong get away with theological murder for years, the "conservative" faction in the HoB tried to bring up Bishop Righter on heresy charges for ordaining an openly gay man.

I don't think that there is the political will to start enforcing orthodoxy by means of the Church courts now. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I don't think heresy trials are it.

Jendi said...

Deacon Snyder, though I disagree with your (apparent) opposition to same-sex unions, I am grateful for your respectful comments.

Still, I think it's a very false choice between "anything goes" and "nothing can change". Recognizing that the heterosexually privileged have excluded GLBT Christians from the conversation over what the Bible means, and revisiting our interpretations in response to the new voices in that conversation, does *not*, as far as I can see, logically entail throwing any other unrelated doctrines out the window.

Unless, that is, we are worshipping tradition for tradition's sake, and not because the statements in the Creed make sense to us in light of experience, reason, the promptings of the Spirit, and the witnesses that have come before us. I don't see the Jesus of the Gospels as holding any particular brief for religious authority as such, irrespective of its content and particularly of its impact on the marginalized.

plsdeacon said...

The reason that +Righter was chosen (and he was chosen to test this) is that he was retired (and had little financially that could have happened to him) and the worst that could happen to him is something like a letter of reprimand. By going after +Spong, the trial would have been against a sitting bishop who might lose his job and pension.

Had the Righter trial gone the "correct" way, there would have been precedent to not ordain other sexually active homosexual men or women and a lot of the unpleasentness in the Anglican world would have been avoided. Remember that AMiA was a reaction to the Righter trial (among other things but the Righter decision was the proximate cause).

Phil Snyder

BillyD said...

I must say, Phil, that that sounds like a lame reason for choosing Bishop Righter. "We demand strict adherence to orthodoxy (but not if it's going to cause problems for a brother bishop)." And the perception given was that "conservatives" will sit still for denying the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection - but let an honest gay man into the ranks of the clergy and it's Katy bar the door.

"...a lot of the unpleasentness in the Anglican world would have been avoided."

No - there would simply have been a substitute mess of unpleasantness presented.

WilliamK said...

The candor of Phil Snyder's post is helpful, I think, in clarifying the "politics" of this issue. Very simply, the affirmation and inclusion of LGBT folk in TEC depends on the strength and support of various people with various kinds and degrees of scepticism about traditional creedal doctrines; without them, LGBT folk, no matter how "orthodox" they might be, would be at best marginalized (and most likely, simply excluded outright). We can see what TEC would be like without its strong "liberal" wing by looking at the Southern Baptist Convention or the Roman Catholic Church (especially now that Ratzinger is Pope). It looks like Phil would like a church more like the SBC or the RC, with strong doctrinal and moral discipline. But, I wonder, is this the kind of church BillyD, The Postulant, Jendi, and Fr. Owen want? Do you want the kind of docrinal discipline that could silence an Episcopalian Hans Kung or Edward Schillabeeckx?

Somewhat shifting direction from notable theologians and ordained clergy, I'd like to ask for some personal advice. I have been a member of the Episcopal Church for five years, having returned to Christianity through it after 10 years away, having originally dumped Christianity when I dumped conservative evangelicalism. I'm basically in sympathy with Marcus Borg's approach to Christian teaching as metaphor, and I belong to a parish where this approach is strongly affirmed. In short, I'm gulty of just the fault Phil Snyder notes (as are most leaders and members of my parish): I don't take the affirmations of the creeds literally as statements of objective reality... "He was born of the Virgin Mary" is not for me the same as "the human body is 61.8% water by weight." So, simple question: Should I stop identifying as a Christian? What advice do you have for me and for others who don't accept all the traditional creedal doctrines literally? Should we leave the Episcopal Church? If we don't, would your ideal scenario be our excommunication?

plsdeacon said...


First, I would say "welcome" to the Episcopal Church. Even with your doctrinal fuzziness, I would not ask you to leave the Church. However, if you were to come before the Commission on Ministry for ordination with your doctrinal fuzziness (or denial) I would vote against you moving forward in the ordination process.

I do not want a church that in uniform in all its beliefs. There is a lot of room within the orthodox faith for many views. But there are limits as well. I agree that the theological statements of the Nicene Creed are not facts that can be proven like you can prove that objects fall to the earth at 32ft per second squared in a vacum. However, they are true in the sense we believe (=faith) them to be reliable statements about the nature of God, of man and of salvation.

It has been my experience that lack of faith - particularly on issues like the Virgin Birth and the physical Resurrection are more an issue of the will than the intellect.

So, welcome back! I hope you will continue to grow in faith and in the Faith.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...


First let me say that we welcome you and we need you in the Episcopal Church. And you're not here by accident. You have responded to God's call in your life. And so I'm thrilled that after years away from the Church you have come to us!

My answer to the question "What kind of Church do I want?" is one that embraces the generous orthodoxy which has historically characterized Anglicanism. I note that this generous orthodoxy gives wide elbow room (hence its generosity), but also affirms and maintains certain doctrinal boundaries as indispensable for the Christian faith (hence its orthodoxy). And so, as I wrote on one of my first blog pieces over two years ago, I tend to shy away from monolithic and overpersonalized models of the Church.

As to your request for personal advice, let me say that I resonate with what you've shared about your story. When I returned to the Church after years away, it was to the Episcopal Church. And it was a liberal parish in which the rank-and-file were basically affirming of the kind of Marcus Borg "it's all just a metaphor, nothing really happened in history to Jesus' dead body, etc." perspective.

What happened to me was the liturgy. IMHO, the liturgy of the Prayer Book is orthodox. So while we might have trumped everything in the Creeds during Sunday school, when we went into the Church for common prayer, we liturgically reaffirmed everything we had just questioned or denied. Over time (quite some time!), the repetition of participating in liturgies that are theologically in synch with the historic Creeds converted me to the orthodox faith of the Church.

My counsel is to submit to the week-in, week-out rhythm of the Church's common prayer in the Sunday Eucharist. Our emphasis on common (rather than individual) prayer indicates that we understand that the faith of the Church, while always personal, is never individual. It's always corporate. So let the corporate character of the faith as liturgically enacted by the Prayer Book - let the words and actions of the Sunday Eucharist - shape you and form you. Once I gave myself over to that process over an extended period of time, words I used to choke on when trying to say the Creed or sing some of the hymns suddenly "clicked" and made sense in a new way.

And speaking of the Creed, you may find a couple of other postings here helpful: The Radical Creed and Credo: Taking Refuge.

I don't know if this helps or not, but I do wish you well as you continue to grow in Christ as an Episcopal Christian.

The Underground Pewster said...

We all have doubts, and there is a time and a place to discuss these. Affirming a disbelief is quite problematic if it comes from the pulpit. I think this thread is leading me to wonder whether the Episcopal church has any doctrine that anyone can be accused of abandoning?

Years ago, the Episcopal church introduced me to Marcus Borg too. I found him initially pleasing to my doubting mind and persuasive. Later, after a period of reflection, I could see where he was taking me. I am afraid that his approach was creating more doubts and leading me away from my own Bible study. Since then, I have gotten back to the discipline of daily reading, and find myself further and further from Borg's ideas. Happily, where will I be 10 years down the road is no longer for me to say.

Metaphor/history/poetry/fact, let's face it, the Bible has it all.

WilliamK said...

In response to Underground Pewster, and to clarify a bit more about where I am coming from, I'd like to clarify that the Episcopal Church didn't introduce me to Borg, and I didn't really get my ideas from him. They were already in formation when I encountered Borg's work, and I simply found him a helpful "dialogue partner." As I wrote above, I'm "in sympathy" with his views; I don't see myself as some kind of disciple of Borg, dependent on him for my ideas.

The interesting thing for me about Underground Pewster's comment about Bible study is that I have had the exact opposite experience. I'm a professional biblical scholar (and teach at a major university); it was the process of getting advanced degrees that played a significant role in my move away from evangelical protestantism. My struggle to find a way to be a Christian took place as I developed my scholarly career. In my case, at least, the more I read Scripture (and I combine reading for my research with Daily Office reading, so that I read and think about a lot of Scripture every day), I have become more and more sympathetic to a "Borgian" approach, not less so. Lately, working my way through 1 Samuel with the Daily Office has been especially illuminating.

I do appreciate the responses to my questions about my personal situation... but I'd really like to see more reflection on my general question about the kind of church folks want. Fr. Bryan, I do understand that some of that answer is in your other linked posts. But I don't see them as really addressing the practical "problem" of what you would do about clergy who don't fully adhere to traditional creedal orthodoxy... and what you would do about the many congregations that want to be led by such clergy (including the congregation where I'm a member). My question remains: What would TEC end up being if The Postulant could get his wish and "heretical clergy" could be deposed? Would it be a church that I could still belong to... and if it had been such a church five years ago, would I have joined it? (I really don't think so; I'm pretty sure I'd be a member of the United Church of Christ today.)

[I could write more, but I don't want to post an excessively long message.]

Bryan Owen said...


Your questions are not easy ones to provide overly generalized answers to. There are practical and pastoral issues that can mean handling a specific case differently than other cases. So I'm not sure that a one-size-fits-all response to the question of what to do about heretical clergy is particularly helpful. Even those of us who espouse creedal orthodox have our heretical moments!

Nevertheless, I do think that the problem of clergy who openly teach and preach against the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church (to which clergy have solemnly vowed to conform) is something that requires discipline. When clergy openly reject the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, they are not only violating their ordination vows, but also breaching the boundaries of the generous orthodoxy of our tradition.

At some point along the line, it may well be the case that some individuals, and perhaps even some parishes, would be more at home in a different tradition than ours. I think, for instance, that someone like Bishop Spong would make an outstanding Unitarian. Based upon the work of his that I've read, his theological views simply do not represent the Anglican tradition as the Episcopal Church has received it.

BTW, I've written before that it's not just clergy who have taken vows to conform to doctrine. In the Episcopal Church's Baptismal Covenant, laypersons also solemnly vow to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (BCP, p. 304). Although the implications are rarely taught, they are quite profound in terms of the doctrinal boundaries laypersons voluntarily consent to living within. I've written about this in my blog posting entitled Lay Episcopalians are Bound by Vows, Too. It's one of the Episcopal Church's failures of Christian formation that we have allowed laypersons (and clergy, too, for that matter) to think that we are an "anything goes" tradition without doctrinal boundaries. It just ain't so!

If someone says she has to hold her nose to say the Creed, that she doesn't believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine or that he was really raised from the dead, or that God is three persons in one essence, or that Scripture is anything more than a merely human artifact, etc., etc. - well, at some point the question must be asked: why would such a person want to worship in a tradition whose history and Prayer Book liturgies affirm all of the things she denies? Why would such a person voluntarily promise to continue in teaching which she rejects or even finds offensive?

Jendi said...

Good questions, WilliamK. I need a reminder every so often that the broadness of our orthodoxy is the reason I joined the Episcopal Church, rather than some other church, when I converted to Christianity 8 years ago. I've moved in a more creedal-Trinitarian direction as I've learned more about what those doctrines have historically meant, but I'm glad TEC was a welcoming place for me even before I came to those opinions. Glad you have had the same experience.

Which leads into my next point: the only reason I even understand the creeds etc. (as much as anyone does!) is because I had a high school history teacher who taught us theology as part of Western Civ. Before even getting into the question of church discipline, we need *education*.

Lay people, even those who are very educated in secular subjects, often have a shallow and distorted idea of what traditional Christian doctrines really mean. This is compounded by ministers who don't believe those doctrines in the traditional way, and take advantage of parishioners' ignorance (or share it themselves) by setting up a doctrinal straw man that is easy to reject. If Catholic-style uniformity isn't our style, let's at least insist that our clergy explain the alternatives and let the people decide!

Jendi said...

P.S. -
Bryan asks, "why would such a person want to worship in a tradition whose history and Prayer Book liturgies affirm all of the things she denies? Why would such a person voluntarily promise to continue in teaching which she rejects or even finds offensive?"

I used to ask the same thing, but I can see that the personal bonds we form with our fellow parishioners makes it hard to leave St. Whatever's despite our disagreement with the official program. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing; it could mean that we're taking the "body of Christ" and "church family" metaphors seriously.

Also, as I've mentioned here before, sometimes you have to choose between a doctrinally ideal congregation and one where it's psychologically safe to share your inner struggles with the rector and small-group members.

Of course this is from the lay person's perspective - it creates a whole new layer of credibility problems when the person in charge is saying liturgical words that his sermon undercuts. That person may need to make the sacrifice of resigning or changing denominations. But as Bryan said, church discipline is not a one-size-fits-all thing.

Bryan Owen said...

Outstanding points, Jendi. I totally agree that we need to do a much better job of education in the Episcopal Church. I think that's one area where we've failed, as I've written about on this blog a number of times.

I hear your point about wanting to stay in a church setting in which the words we say in our worship affirm things that an individual may deny and/or find offensive because of the personal bonds and relationships that exist among the people there. I certainly do not wish to drive such persons away from the Episcopal Church. At the same time, I also don't want to affirm that it's okay for such persons to press for the Episcopal Church to change its core doctrine, discipline and worship to suit preferences for heterodoxy or even heretical views. In the past I've gotten the feeling that some people (clergy, too) want us to do precisely that.

Jendi said...

I'm so glad this conversation is happening in a thoughtful and nuanced way. I second Bryan's comment: "At the same time, I also don't want to affirm that it's okay for such persons to press for the Episcopal Church to change its core doctrine, discipline and worship to suit preferences for heterodoxy or even heretical views."

Let's hope that there is no BCP revision for another generation at least!

Speaking of which, do you think it's a generational thing - the push for watered-down Christianity coming from folks who grew up in church and now don't believe in the same way as before? Whereas younger questioners and agnostics, lacking that sentimental attachment, just don't bother coming to church at all?

Bryan Owen said...

Good question about whether or not this is a generational thing, Jendi. I don't know. I do think that the Episcopal Church is paying a price for having neglected the importance of Christian education for all ages for too long. In my experience, a lot of Episcopalians grew up in an ethos that said you've basically "graduated" from Christian ed after confirmation class. Programs like EfM and DOCC are helpful counters to this, but not easy for smaller parishes to sustain.

bob said...

Oh dear, what a joke. The word "orthodox" (small o) mentioned in the same breath as Borg. Simple. Listen close: Borg isn't a christian. No wonder he does so well in ECUSA. As long as there are people who think this way, he'll always have an income, but ECUSA will still be less and less christian. And it will still be "discussed" by dilettantes.