Sunday, April 1, 2012

What Heart Will Be Left to the Episcopal Church?

That's the question that Fr. Robert Hendrickson asks in a moving blog posting entitled "A Church's Identity: A Visit to General Seminary with Thoughts on Modern Disputations, Controversies, and Sundry Matters Ecclesial."

Having posted about such concerns on this blog many times under the heading of "Anomic Anglicanism", I cannot help but quote Fr. Robert at length. He just says it all so much better than I ever could:

I joined a church that valued tradition and yet was engaged with modernity. I joined a church that embraced the timelessness of dignity and beauty. I joined a church that was engaged theologically and reasonably rather than emotionally in issues of doctrine and order. I joined a church that was a true blend of Catholic and Reformed. I joined a church that valued the uniformities of the Prayer Book even as it explored how to plumb its depths in manifold ways. I joined a church that was sacramentally grounded. I joined a church that believed that how we pray says something about what we believe.

Just as when I went to General [Seminary], finding the Episcopal Church was a joy and it felt exactly like where I was called to be. I felt at home and it was a place that made sense because there was a there there.

I am not sure where the there is now.

As I talk to priests too happy to ignore rubrics and ordination vows to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church because they have decided their sense of “welcome” is more important than the church’s call to common identity,

as I attended a Diocesan Convention at which we sang treacly hymns with narcissistic lyrics,

as I talk to priests in pitch battles in their dioceses about baptizing in the name of the Trinity,

as I attend Eucharists where priests make up the Eucharistic Prayer on the spot (“meal of power” not Body and Blood and “the systems of the world are broken” at the Fraction),

and as I watch the Church one more time hurtle into a divisive squabble, I am feeling profoundly out of place.

The Church that is slashing funding for Christian formation and youth ministry while hurtling toward “Open Communion” is not the Church I thought I was joining. The Church that has a diocesan convention at which we sing “Shine, Jesus Shine” and ignore the Prayer Book is not the Church I thought I was joining. The Church that is defining sainthood as anyone who has done something good and worthy rather than someone who has done good and worthy things because of their faith in Christ is not the Church I thought I was joining.

The “debate” over Communion without Baptism is opening, for me, a sense of cognitive and spiritual dissonance. It is one part of a broader shift. There are wonderful churches that do manifold things differently than the Episcopal Church. You can make up Eucharistic prayers, communicate anyone who walks through the door, and baptize in the name of whatsoever contortion you wish to make of the Trinity, you can do all of that in other traditions, churches, and faith communities.

That is not what we have done. It is not what marks us as a Church. It is not what gives us an identity. Those things are part of the life of other traditions.

My question for people who wish all of these things is “Why this Church?” Why choose this tradition when those things are available free of charge and canonical responsibility in other places? I would suggest that we are having difficulties as an Episcopal Church because we are, in too many ways and places, forgetting how to be Episcopalians. ...

I realize that perhaps I joined my idea of the Episcopal Church rather than its actuality. ...

There are boundaries within which one says “that is x.” In the past, we have used the Prayer Book to do just that. We have said, this is what we believe. Yet we are not only redefining “x,” we are deciding “x” is irrelevant. We no longer desire to have any sense of boundary, discipline, or conformity. Those things which mark us as a community and a people of faith are being undone with incredible rapidity. Over and over, I hear the language of the narcissistic world that wants its way right away creeping into the language of the Church.

What heart will be left? As we reconfigure the definition of sainthood, dismantle the Sacramental tradition we have been handed from the first Christian communities, ignore the Prayer Book, second guess canons on a parish by parish and priest by priest basis, and so much more, what heart will be left to the place?

A clergy colleague in another part of the Anglican world shared the following in response to Fr. Robert's posting:

Essentially discipline is breaking down ... in each sense of the word (learning, accountability, responsibility, restraint). There are signs of it in our church so I do not feel I am reading about this as in a better place. In the end the thing will have to continue to work its way into churches that collapse through lack of numbers.

It is precisely the breakdown of discipline in the Episcopal Church (and elsewhere) that fosters an ethos of tolerance for false teaching. I'm becoming increasingly aware that this ethos continues to make too many gifted and valued lay and clergy persons in this church decide that they can no longer in good conscience remain Episcopalians. But I've also been told by some that such collateral damage is the price for "progress" in Christianity.

Entering Holy Week with these thoughts on my heart, I am reminded of the portion of the Solemn Collects for Good Friday in which the Celebrant prays:

"Have compassion on all who do not know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel be preached with grace and power to those who have not heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 280).

Lord, have mercy upon us.


Robert F said...

Regarding those who say that "such collateral damage is the price for 'progress' in Christianity": it's ironic that the church of the so-called progressives is a church of purity, for the ideologically and politically pure, rather than the ark of salvation for the pure and impure alike. Such a church is a sect, which makes it the opposite of catholic.

Reformation said...


The questions as subtexts underlying your post are very, very deep and historic here. This didn't happen overnight or over the last 40 years. That's a long, long story.

Best regards to all who explore the assumptions, the subtexts, and the history.

Donald Philip Veitch

The Underground Pewster said...

Fr. Robert captures in well.

Jeff Marx said...

I have sited you in my blog today, in part because I think the people who read me should read you.

The episcopal church is on a trajectory and it is unfolding as I expected. Will we run like the apostles? deny like Peter? embrace the betrayal like Judas? Now is out time to stay awake and pray that we can be faithful.

May your celebration of the holy mysteries be a source of grace and power in the Lord Jesus!

Bill Dilworth said...

To be perfectly blunt, part of the blame for the current problem lies with the past behavior of the orthodox among the clergy, especially in the House of Bishops. The behavior of the court hearing the 1906 trial of the Rev. Algernon Sidney Crapsey certainly seems to show the unfairness of the process from this late vantage point; I don't know if the man was a heretic or not, but he was effectively railroaded. The bishops' handling of the Pike affair in the 1960s was riddled by the sort of sloppy work, poor communication, and bad PR that made the presenters look like bullies. Their successors in the HoB of the 1990s never had the intestinal fortitude to take on Bishop Spong's undeniably heretical views, and instead focused on Bishop Righter in a case that arguably had nothing to do with heresy whatsoever. It would seem that every time PECUSA has tried to enforce the canons touching on the question of orthodox belief it has resulted in leaving an increasing distaste for the very process. The way things stand now I cannot imagine what position a priest or bishop would have to espouse today in order even to be brought to trial, much less convicted.

Bill Dilworth said...

Oops, I forgot Bishop Brown, who was of course successfully deposed for heresy. His Communism and his apparent mental instability made it somewhat easier to depose him for his heresy without the Church looking like it was picking on an intellectual.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks to all for your comments.

And thanks for the citation on your blog and the well wishes, Jeff. I'll definitely have to take a look at what you've written.

And Bill, you may well be right. I would only add that there's probably enough blame to go around for everyone to be found guilty to one degree or another. All of us - regardless of where we fall on the theological spectrum - are complicit in helping to sustain an ethos in which ignoring and violating the norms (or just making up new norms to suit our fancy) seems normal. And so we find ourselves in a position in which (among other things) the necessity of baptism for receiving communion gets called into question in the name of evangelism and hospitality. And there's a very real possibility that in the future, severing the connection between baptism and eucharist may be legislated via General Convention as the Episcopal Church's doctrine and discipline. It's very sad.

Josh Thomas said...

You overstate the case. There will always be people questioning, doubting and denying on the margins, but the Episcopal Church I see is orthodox, vital and devoted to the Prayer Book, the Bible and the Savior they speak about.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Josh. I sincerely hope that Fr. Hendrickson and I are, indeed, overstating the case.

You note that "there will always be people questioning, doubting and denying on the margins." Quite true. I've never been to General Convention, but my friends who have say that those who do this sort of questioning, doubting, and denying are no longer on the margins. They're now the captains of the TEC ship for whom 'orthodoxy' is a derogatory term.

I continue to be aware of the signs of anomie and decline that I and others I know (both lay and ordained) are experiencing in TEC. There are simply too many cases in which we have experienced a complete disregard for the Prayer Book and the Bible in favor of novel and more "relevant" authorities. I predict this will only get worse as TEC continues to decline, and that the next sign of this worsening will be when we debate - and then authorize - Communion Without Baptism at General Convention. What will the next fight on the front lines for "progress" in Christianity require?

Will those who currently steer the ship of TEC and hold orthodoxy in disdain resist such innovations? I doubt it, but I could be wrong. On thing is certain: time will tell.