Friday, February 5, 2010

Bishop Gray's Response to the Challenge of Church Conflict

I'm writing as we're wrapping up the first evening of the 183rd Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. I was struck by some things Bishop Gray said in his opening address tonight in response to the "ongoing disagreements" that pose a challenge to the mission of the church. And since I happen to have a copy of the address, I'm sharing that portion of it:

Many have rightly noted that the church has lived with conflict throughout its history. That is, indeed, true. What seems to be different in our age is, first, the speed of communication that provides data without context and makes us assume that we know all there is to know when we have barely scratched the surface. Reflection and the wisdom the proceeds from that are in short supply. The second thing that makes conflict difficult in our age is that we all drink from the same cultural cup that seeks to caricature, stereotype and demonize those with whom we disagree. "Homophobic" or "revisionist" are not used as comments about someone's ideas, but are rather meant to suggest ontological statements about another person's very being.

May I suggest we return to the earliest Christian creedal statement - the one that came out of the mouths of those first followers of Jesus, two or three centuries before the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds. Quite simply, they claimed "Jesus is Lord."

Disagreements have always been a part of the church's life, but the intensity of our current conflict, the name calling and the drawing of lines in the sand so that there can only be winners and losers, suggests to me that this radical, revolutionary statement, "Jesus is Lord," is often forgotten. To say "Jesus is Lord" means that everything else that I claims as true - my theology, my deepest beliefs, my worldview - must be subordinate and under judgment, or it has become an idol, replacing Jesus as the Lord of my life.

All theological positions, all biblical interpretations, all denominations, every political party, all economic systems, every country and nation stand under the ultimate judgment of the one we call Lord. All are imperfect, all are impure, all are incomplete, all fall short of the Kingdom, all are in need of forgiveness and redemption.

The value of everything - everyone of us and every system we inhabit - rests ultimately, not on its own merits, but on the grace of the living God - a grace we experience in Jesus, our Savior and Lord. My value - my salvation - is not dependent on my being right. It is finally in the hands of the one to whom I wish to offer my life.

Thus, to claim that Jesus is Lord over our lives, and nothing else is, should call us into a posture of profound humility as we seek to be the church together, in the midst of deep disagreements.

As I listened to this part of the bishop's address tonight, I heard echoes of both Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. I was intrigued and heartened by the turn to an ancient creedal statement as a substantive theological antidote to the self-serving politics of polarization and division. And I was reminded once again of why, in spite of the many ways in which we fall short of the mark, it is good to serve as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.


Christopher said...

I would say this: "Homophobic" or "revisionist" are not used as comments about someone's ideas, but are rather meant to suggest ontological statements about another person's very being" cuts both ways. How often have I had my person, my relationship, and my beloved slandered by other Episcopalians and Anglicans? Even threatened with physical violence on a couple of occasions. And elsewhere, were I to live, threatened with imprisonment or death. This statement is too one-sided. Jesus is Lord also means that I don't have to put up with treatment like that from heterosexuals trying to lord it over me.

Christopher said...

Which is to say that it keeps positing my personhood within the conflict of two different groupings of those who presume that they are the one's who decide who is in. My personhood is lost in this conflict as both sides reduce us to categories of moral ideas. I am not a category of a moral idea to include or exclude, but a human being called BY GOD in Holy Baptism as much as any other Christian. This is still too much the conflict of liberals and conservatives with centrists trying to smother over that real flesh and blood persons are getting hurt by all of this.

Bryan Owen said...

Back in my days as a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University's Graduate Department of Religion, I took a course called "Methods in Ethics." In that class, we read some of the real classics in the field of moral philosophy.

I remember my amazement when, after reading John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, several of the women in our class went absolutely ballistic in response to the text. It was as though the very ground Mill had walked on was cursed and anathema to feminism. I simply could not understand why they would react this way to Mill when they had no negative reactions to figures such as Aristotle or Augustine.

I shared my frustrated amazement with the professor of the class, and I'll never forget his response. He said, "Choose your enemies wisely."

bob said...

It's sad to have to point out that people trying to be "Deep" when they say this are actually being as shallow as possible. Let's just say "Jesus is Lord". Since in the Episcopal Church it can mean literally anything, it means precisely nothing. That's how you get to be a bishop. You get a gift for saying things that *almost* mean something until people actually think about them. The uselessness of the phrase is why councils like Nicea were held. The bishop is clearly uncomfortable with it.

Bryan Owen said...

With all due respect, bob, I believe that you are in error in these comments. The confessional statement "Jesus is Lord" is far from "useless," and Bishop Gray is more than comfortable with the historic creeds. They inform the core of his theology as they do mine.

Anonymous said...

The bishop is in many ways correct, but the fault in the presentation is that there is such a thing a heresy.


Bryan Owen said...

I don't see the presentation here denying that there is such a thing as heresy, Scott+. Indeed, one could interpret Bishop Gray to be saying that the denial of the creedal statement "Jesus is Lord" is heretical insofar as it elevates one's own personal, partisan perspective to the status of divine truth.

Anonymous said...

Brother Owen

Clearly it is a matter of "being there." Interesting that what we found so moving in life, others find so empty on paper.



Bryan Owen said...

Well said, brother Alston. Well said.

plsdeacon said...

As you know, the reason for the development of the Nicean Creed is that the earliest "creed" (Jesus is Lord.) was not sufficient to defend the faith against heresy. The Gnostics could easily proclaim "Jesus is Lord" but so are we all, if we only have eyes to see it. The Docetists said "Jesus is Lord, he just wasn't (fully) human." The Adoptionists said "Jesus is Lord, he just wasn't (fully) God." Arius said "Jesus is Lord, he just isn't fully human or fully God." Marcion proclaimed that Jesus is Lord.

So, we need more than "Jesus is Lord." If we are going to stop the bickering and infighting, then I suggest we return to the teaching of the Church and do the theological and moral work to convince the rest of the Communion that these innovations that we are practicing now are more in line with God's will.

To act on a new understanding in the face of universal disapproval from the rest of the Church is not prophetic. It is schismatic.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

You're quite right, Phil. We need more than "Jesus is Lord." But we also can't do with anything less. And precisely for the reasons that Bishop Gray noted.

plsdeacon said...

I would say that we cannot do with anything less than the Nicene Creed. The kicker comes when we consider the implications of "Jesus is Lord," especially when we consider that the Church is the Body of Christ and, therefore, the continuation of the Incarnation. I would say, then, that to violate the teaching of the Church - especially teaching that is thousands of years old - is to deny that Jesus is Lord.

When we challenge the current teaching or practice of the Church - like when Luther did - we must be able and willing to show how our understanding is a better example of God's mind and will than what is currently being done.

To do otherwise is to deny the teaching authority of the whole Church as the Body of Christ. Rome embodies that authority in the person of the Pope with the Magesterium. Constantinople embodies it in the ecumenical councils and allows for very limited change in either teaching or expression. Anglicanism, on the other hand, embodies it in the councils of the Church and allows for each culture some freedom to express that truth. The thing I love about Anglicanism is that it proports to not innovate in the faith, but to hold the faith as it has been given to us. TEC's innovations show that, for many in TEC's leadership, Jesus is not Lord because TEC is not willing to listen to the Body of Christ. We refuse to listen to Canterbury. We refuse to listen to Rome. We refuse to listen to Constantinople. We refuse to listen to anyone except those who say what we want to hear.

So, let's return to Jesus is Lord and return to the practice of listening to the whole Church on matters of faith and morals.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Phil, I'm certainly not going to argue that we can do without the Nicene Creed! I do believe that it is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (BCP, p. 877).

My point here (and I think this is faithful to Bishop Gray's point, as well) is that we need to remember the heart of our faith and the One to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance, particularly insofar as we are regularly tempted to substitute someone or something else as Lord in place of Jesus. Rightly understood in the light of scripture and tradition, "Jesus is Lord" can help us do that.

To be sure, affirming "Jesus is Lord" is not a magic formula which can solve the Church's ills all on its own. But as I've reflected on Bishop Gray's address to our annual diocesan council, it can put our divisions and pet agendas in a larger context - which you have rightly noted is the Body of Christ understood as something much, much bigger than the Episcopal Church alone.

By highlighting it in his opening address, and allowing time the following day for presentations, Bishop Gray was making that connection to something larger than ourselves concrete by highlighting our diocese's missionary and collegial relationships with Honduras, Panama, Haiti, Uganda, Sudan, and the Virgin Islands. And speaking to the clergy and delegates of council on Saturday, Bishop Gray also made it clear that these relationships signify the critical importance of the Anglican Communion. By saying that, I think he was also saying that maintaining and building these relationships and with willingness to be held accountable to each other is one of the ways in which affirming "Jesus is Lord" becomes more than just empty rhetoric.