Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bishop Dan Martins responds to the Presiding Bishop's Acts sermon

It's been almost two weeks since Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached a sermon based on Acts 16:16-34.  I've previously written about the sermon, and I note that in it the Presiding Bishop basically makes the same charge against the apostle Paul that the scribes level against Jesus (cf. Mark 3:20-30).  By doing so, the sermon equates the liberating power of Christ with the demonic, and the demonic with the Holy Spirit. 

One would hope that such an inversion of the Gospel would raise sufficient concern among those charged with preaching, teaching, and guarding the faith of the Church that they would speak out.  But the silence from other leaders in the Episcopal Church has been deafening.  And that is perhaps more disturbing than the sermon itself.  

Having said that, I am pleased to see that last night Bishop Dan Martins of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield posted a response to the Presiding Bishop's sermon on his blog.  Here's some of what he wrote:


This is awkward. Because of my position in the system, Bishop Jefferts Schori is not an abstraction to me. She is someone from whom I have sat across a table in several meetings of the House of Bishops. She is someone who sends me a hand-written note on my birthday and the anniversary of my consecration. She is someone who very kindly checked in on me by email while I was recovering from heart surgery, for which I was immensely grateful.

Yet, I feel constrained by the vows I took when I was ordained a bishop--vows that she herself formally required of me--to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church of God." These vows do not permit me to remain silent, even as I also remain respectful and charitable. ...

To call Bishop Jefferts Schori's exegesis of Acts 16 "strained" or "eccentric" is too mild. It is utterly bizarre. But others have done an adequate job fisking the sermon. I'm going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. The Christian tradition (a term I use in what I think is an Eastern Orthodox sense, inclusive of scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology) is certainly an appropriate object of critical inquiry by detached outsiders, whether sympathetic or hostile. But such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops. It is, rather, the job of bishops, speaking as consummate insiders, to equip the baptized faithful to listen to the voices from the margins and discern between true prophets and false ones. 

As an insider looking out, as an apologist and cheerleader for the establishment, a bishop sits under the authority of the tradition, particularly the authority of sacred scripture. There are interpretive roads that are open to others--outsiders looking in--that are properly closed to bishops (and, by extension, to priests and others who preach and teach). In Acts 16, the author (presumably Luke) portrays Paul and Silas as the good guys, the slave girl as the exploited victim, and her "owners," along with the demon that possessed her, as the bad guys. What Paul did, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit, was to liberate an oppressed person. There is a homiletical treasure trove available here without disturbing this essential dynamic. To stray outside it only tortures the text. And I suspect that Bishop Katharine's concern that we recognize the image of God in one another could have been well-supported by the readings for Easter VII without so straying. 

One of the great temptations for either a theologian or a pastor is to be original. It's a tonic to the ego. Under the right circumstances, a theologian can get away with it. St Paul certainly did! A pastor, by contrast, eschews originality. A pastor, a bishop, is a relay runner, handing along (para-dosis, the root of "tradition") the baton to the next runner, the next generation. Originality is not compatible with that job description. 

I applaud Bishop Martins for taking the charge to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" seriously enough to speak out (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 517).  And I appreciate his noting that a bishop is "by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view."  That strikes me as consistent with the Examination and the Vows in the Prayer Book's rite for the ordination of a bishop.  

Ultimately, it comes down to this: will we who are ordained faithfully submit to the authority of Holy Tradition (which, as Bishop Martins notes, includes "scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology")?  Or will we arrogate to ourselves the right to sit in judgment on Holy Tradition, molding and manipulating it to support our agendas, and even setting it aside when it contradicts us? 

8 comments:

Nurya Love Parish said...

Thanks so much for posting this.

The Underground Pewster said...

I wonder how many of our bishops would agree with +Martins when he writes of a bishop,

"by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view."

How many might consider the following as their job description:

A prophetic witness to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing change to the Church.

While the latter may be compatible with +Martins' description, it can also be perverted by the agenda-driven when playing the Holy Spirit card for whatever heterodoxy you desire to promote.

Bryan Owen said...

You are most welcome, Nurya Love Parish!

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Underground Pewster. I suspect that Bishop Martins' understanding of a bishop's job description is shared by very few of our current bishops. The alternative job description you've offered is likely a more common understanding.

And yes, it is true that appeals to the Holy Spirit can all too easily be covers for an individual or a group's 'will to power'.

It's always appropriate to ask: how do we know that X is of the Holy Spirit?

Stephen Hood said...

I understand your discomfort with the Presiding Bishop's sermon and maybe she has usurped her responsibility as a Bishop to honor the long standing traditions of the church (strange argument considering her service as a bishop betrays long standing traditions of the church), but it seems to me that her sermon fits within the boundaries of an interpretation of the text informed by liberal, progressive, feminist, liberationist, and womanist scriptural scholars. She also seems to discount the idea that the slave girl was possessed by a demon, and the discount of a belief in demons has been acceptable since the enlightenment amongst a broad spectrum of Christians. So if you begin with the assumption that accounts of demon possession were misunderstood by ancient people, than the Presiding Bishop's sermon seems like a reasonable interpretive move, especially when it is understood that the slave girl was speaking the truth about Paul and Silas.

For me the larger question is whether or not the Presiding Bishop can use the scholarship of liberal, progressive, feminist, liberationist, and womanist scriptural scholars to inform her work as a bishop and preacher. You suggest in your previous post that she may be engaging in a sin against the Holy Spirit because her interpretation of the text is driven by her theopolitical agenda. This may be true or it could be that her interpretation of the text is informed by her theological convictions about God and God's love for all creation informed by the movement of the Holy Spirit. I don't think the Presiding Bishop is out of bounds nor do I think she should refrain from being informed by diverse voices within our tradition. Her interpretation of this text may stray well away from the traditionally formularies, but she is not out on a limb all by herself.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Stephen. Thank you for your comment.

I see your point about using "liberal, progressive, feminist, liberationist, and womanist scriptural scholars" to reach an interpretation of this text that inverts the way it has been understood for almost 2,000 years. For some time now, such "scholarship" has enabled persons to do the same with basic tenets of the Christian faith, revisioning and even jettisoning orthodox understandings of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, etc. And yes, the PB is "not out on a limb all by herself" when it comes to such matters. Others who seek to "revise" and "reinterpret" the Christian faith are also out on the limb with her.

The issue is not whether the PB can use such scholarship to draw conclusions contrary to orthodox faith and practice. She can and she does. The issue is what it means to be a bishop of the Church. What does it mean "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the
Church" (BCP, p. 517)? And is the PB's interpretation of this text compatible with being such a guardian?

It's fine for non-believers, critics, skeptics, academics and others to teach contrary to the faith of the Church. But when, as part of the ordination vows, a person answers the question "Will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church?" by saying, "I will, for the love of God" (BCP, p. 518), they have voluntarily given up the right to publicly preach and teach against the very faith they have solemnly sworn to guard and uphold. As C. S. Lewis noted, honesty requires that clergy who wish to go beyond the boundaries of orthodox doctrine resign their orders and change their profession.

And actually, lay persons are also bound by vows that require them to conform to the doctrinal norms of apostolic teaching (note the first question of promise in the Baptismal Covenant on page 304 of the Prayer Book). So all Episcopalians - lay persons, deacons, priests, and bishops - who have renewed their baptismal vows and made additional vows in ordination have voluntarily sworn to conform to doctrinal orthodoxy.

Sadly, it appears that those who sit out on the limb with the PB have forgotten this truth.

C. Wingate said...

Stephen, my experience of womanist/liberationist theologizing is that a great deal of it is explicitly anti-establishment and therefore reactively heterodox. Saying that they are among "diverse voices within our tradition" is therefore a statement I would question. My impression instead is that Anglican refusal to close questions off has been used as an opening to co-opt the church's teaching authority in the advocacy of positions that are really foreign to Anglicanism.

Also, I get the impression that she is out on a limb all by herself, at least in this particular sermon. It gives the impression of being her private interpretation, and while in some larger sense it may be consonant with a pattern of (questionable) liberal interpretation, I don't read it as something around which there is some sort of consensus. The form of the criticisms is constructive: the detractors point to the defects, while the defense is generally that it's OK for her to work this idea. People are not defending her idea for itself.

C. Wingate said...

That should read " The form of the criticisms is instructive"....