Letter from America

Ecclesia Contra Scripturas

SINCE THE LAST LAMBETH Conference, the Episcopal Church has changed in two decisive ways.

First, a Church that in 1988 allowed disagreement on women’s ordination, at least officially and in public, now requires its members to accept it, or to act as if they did, which is the same thing. By an overwhelming majority, our General Convention last summer voted into canon law the rule that sex could not be considered in choosing whom to ordain or call to a parish. All five candidates for presiding bishop, including the conservative favorite, voted for the canon.

Second, a Church in which one eccentric bishop, John Spong, proposed approving homosexuality (a few others agreed, but very quietly) now allows bishops freely to ordain men and women in homosexual relationships. The Church’s bishops elected a presiding bishop who has knowingly done so, and about 100 of them, including over one-quarter of the diocesan bishops, have signed Bp Spong’s "Koinonia Statement" saying they will do so too.

In ten years, the Episcopal Church has moved from pluralism to uniformity on one issue, and from (relative) uniformity to pluralism on the other, and both are gains for liberalism.

 

The real question

And, more importantly, both depend upon a new view of Scripture. Charles Bennison, the new bishop of Pennsylvania, one of the largest and wealthiest of Episcopal dioceses, told one of his Evangelical parishes a few months ago that he believed the Episcopal Church should celebrate homosexual marriages, and was asked how he squared this with clear biblical rules against such behavior.

Bennison, who taught pastoral theology at the Episcopal Divinity School before his election, responded that "Because we wrote the Bible and we can rewrite it. We have rewritten the Bible many times."

"The text of the Bible is a conveyance of the word of God but is not itself the word of God," he continued. Therefore we read the Scriptures "for evidence of how our forebears in the faith have struggled with some of the same issues," but our context is so different that we cannot simply accept their answers.

Bennison’s real canon is a subjective one. We know that "this is the word of God and that isn’t" because "in a particular time and place, the reading, the preaching, the teaching of that word succeeds in up-building the community in love." The question to be asked is: "Does the preaching of this word, in this time and place, help people live lives in community and love with one another?"

The new presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last year that "Broadly speaking, the Episcopal Church is in conflict with Scripture. The only way to justify it is to say, well, Jesus talks about the Spirit guiding the church and guiding believers and bringing to their awareness things they cannot deal with yet."

"So one would have to say that the mind of Christ operative in the church over time . . . has led the church to in effect contradict the words of the Gospel."

 

The real division

Conservative Anglicans often say that the brutal conflicts over issues reflect the fundamental division over the authority of Scripture, but I don’t think this is true any more. Bp Spong gamely keeps old-fashioned skepticism alive, but few of his allies join him in rejecting Scripture so thoroughly. He is a Tony Benn in a party of Tony Blairs.

Almost everyone believes in Scripture, these days. Almost everyone believes in the Resurrection and other doctrines Spong dismisses as myths and metaphors. The gap between liberal and conservative is, or seems, smaller than it was.

It seems so because the real division is subtler: it is between those who believe in "the Word" separable from the words of Scripture and those who believe the words of the Word to be inspired and binding. At times, the two will sound very much alike — which is to say, that men committed to the most radical doctrinal and moral innovations will speak, in places like Lambeth especially, as did Cranmer or Hooker or Newman or Temple or Ramsey.

I have before me an interview, a typical one, in which Bp Griswold says simply that "our salvation is in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord." Speaking of his prayer life, he says that "at heart I always remain a praying Christian dependent absolutely on the grace and mercy of God."

I think he is sincere in this, and yet he helped require belief in women’s ordination, promotes the use of feminist language for God, and advocates in word and deed a moral innovation in direct contradiction to Romans 1. He can do these things while declaring his absolute dependence on the grace of God because he rejects the authority of the words of the Word.

 

Failing the test

This is a rejection of the power of the Word to save and it does not bear fruit. They cannot say "Thus saith the Lord," but only "Thus saith the community, most of it anyway, at this point in time, though it has said other things at other times and may change its mind shortly." Not, really, a faith that will change people’s lives.

More Episcopal bishops than before may speak of their faith in the resurrected Jesus, and in some sense mean it, but they will not support evangelism to Jews or Muslims or, really, anyone else. "Anyone who would say that there is no salvation except in Christ has completely missed the point," Bp Bennison said, offering an idea of our Lord’s work that would have surprised St Peter (see Acts 4.12). ". . . I think there are many ways to be saved, and who are we to tell God who God [sic] will receive."

 

Of course we are not telling God anything, but listening to what He has so graciously told us. The position Bp Bennison presents as humbly refusing to tell God what to do is really telling God what He may and may not say to us.

Between those who, like Bishops Griswold and Bennison, believe in an ever-changing word, to be continually reinterpreted by the community — which inevitably means by those in power — and those who know that God has spoken clearly and finally, there is a great gulf fixed. The problem is that we often, and confusingly, use the same words.

 

David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Trinity’s website (www.episcopalian.org/tesm) includes back issues of Mission & Ministry, which he edits. The book he has edited, The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, is being published in July by Eerdmans.

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