LETTER FROM AMERICA OCTOBER 1997
IF YOU had known Mother Theresa, you would react with irritation to someone who invoked her support for abortion or Richard Holloway's latest book, or said she was six feet tall, blond, and loved to wear bikinis. You would suspect that he had invented a Mother Theresa more to his taste than the devout, ascetic woman who served the poor and obeyed the Pope -- she is an authority worth invoking, after all.
THEY KNOW THE LORD
The Evangelical rectors who, meeting in early September, issued a rather bold statement titled "The First Promise" felt something of this, I think. They know the Lord, which knowledge makes one increasingly cross with those who claim His intimate acquaintance and to speak with His authority, but seem never to have met Him, or else having met Him to have decided to treat Him as only one partner in the dialogue.
Knowing Him, they also know that His Gospel works and that the revisionist's alternatives do not -- or rather that they work for other ends. As parish priests, they are concerned for the salvation of human souls, which is not served by theologies that deny the biblical revelation and encourage commitments it forbids.
The 25 men who signed the statement -- some members of the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA) -- represent roughly 25,000 practicing Episcopalians and combined parish budgets of $30 million or more. They were joined by Jon Shuler, the founder of the North American Missionary Society, who has said NAMS is willing to start new parishes in dioceses which need orthodox parishes, even those whose bishop objects.
The signers began by declaring "that this church must repent for its failure to fully obey the Great Commission" and that the national structures and General Convention "have departed from 'the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them'." The authority of these structures is therefore "fundamentally impaired."
As examples of this departure from orthodox Christianity they cited three actions of this year's General Convention: "the election of a primate [Frank Griswold] who has departed from the teaching of the apostles; the mandatory and coercive enforcement of the ordination of women; and the failure to uphold and require a biblical sexual ethic for this church's clergy and people." Because "[t]his departure from apostolic truth must be stopped," they said they were taking several actions immediately.
They endorsed the Kuala Lumpur Statement and called "the bishops of the Anglican Communion to endorse it as such and to discipline those who have departed from it." They intended to "be in communion with that part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principles aforesaid and not otherwise."
Noting that they must use their money "for the spread of the kingdom of God," they said they would "support, and urge our people to support, only those mission agencies and ministries which directly further the Great Commission." They refused to support "any legal institution, organization or person whose actions aid or further teaching contrary to the above principles."
They will "not receive any canon nor submit to any ecclesiastical action which ordains that which is 'contrary to God's Word written' (Article XX)." Nor will they be bound "by the legal or geographical boundaries of any parish or diocese, if those boundaries are being invoked to prevent the preaching and teaching of 'the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them'."
They closed by pledging "to remain under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of faithful bishops who uphold our heritage in the gospel, seeking alternative episcopal oversight if necessary" and "to come to the aid of any brother or sister in Christ who is being persecuted for the sake of the gospel." They appealed to "the bishops of the Anglican Communion to reassert the apostolic truth and order which we have received in the gospel of Jesus Christ, to affirm and support theologically orthodox Anglicans in America, and to discipline those members who have departed from it."
They supported these actions with an exposition of their ordination vows, pointing out that their first promise (hence the statement's title) was "be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them." This they defined as "the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world" -- not, pointedly, as any and all actions of the General Convention or diocesan bishops.
EVANGELICALS AND COMMUNION
"The First Promise" is much like the "Good Shepherd Statement" the ESA issued at our meeting in late July, after General Convention. It marks movement among Evangelicals to take more seriously the nature of the Church and the doctrinal conditions of her unity, particularly as those are expressed in communion.
In my experience Episcopal Evangelicals tend to understand communion as general statement of fellowship, and by "excommunication" to mean only a statement of serious disapproval. One who spoke seriously of excommunication was likely to be accused of "Donatism" or of "politicizing the eucharist" or "dividing the Church." The true Church being invisible, the visible structures could be used but did not bind them. The visible structures now being so troublesome, however, many Evangelicals are coming to see that a fellowship has doctrinal boundaries and limits and that others may say or do things that put them outside it. They are asking what possible sense it makes to gather round the Lord's Table with people who do not believe in the Lord, or who may call Him "Lord" but will not do His will.
"The First Promise" marks a second movement among Evangelicals, in its making the Convention's "failure to uphold and require a biblical sexual ethic for this church's clergy and people" by itself a departure from orthodoxy. Evangelical leaders have tended to argue that the Episcopal Church's formularies are sound and that the Church has not officially done anything unorthodox, so radical resistance was not needed.
The "First Promise" signers argue, as many of us in the ESA have done, that the failure to articulate the Gospel when it must be spoken clearly is effectively to reject it. They see that the tolerance of apostasy, as exhibited in the acquittal of Bp Righter and Convention's refusal to overturn the decision, is itself an act of apostasy. I think ESA members can only see "The First Promise" as a sign of hope. The signers articulate a more Catholic understanding of the Church than has been common among Evangelical Episcopalians, while bringing an Evangelical seriousness about evangelism and discipleship. And they are, the ones I know anyway, men who will do what they say.
David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of the Episcopal Synod of America's journal, The Evangelical Catholic.
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