LETTER FROM AMERICA

Bored with Silly Bishops

 

"IN SEMINARY, I was taught that we had to change the Faith to fit a new age," said one of the two bishops of the new Anglican Mission in America, John Rodgers, when interviewed in mid-September.

"But after four decades in which we've changed the Faith over and over again, and people have rejected every single new version, I've realized that the Faith never fits into any culture. So we have to teach and preach the orthodox faith with the expectation that it will change hearts and minds. And of course it does."

One of the "Singapore Two," John is a suffragan bishop of Singapore, while his colleague Chuck Murphy is a suffragan bishop of Rwanda. At the evangelism conference in Amsterdam last month, their bishops and others from Africa and Asia told them to go "full speed ahead" in forming an alternative Anglican body in America, our General Convention's rejection of Christian marriage apparently being the last straw.

Politically, those who want (not always consciously) to change the Faith are still winning, but for the first time, those who love the Faith God gave are beginning to quit playing.

Subversive teddy bear

I am writing of someone I've known for over twelve years, since I came to Trinity when he was dean. John is tough (he was a Marine before he went to seminary) but he is a rather teddy bearish man who very much dislikes fighting ecclesiastical battles. That he is now a missionary bishop tells you a lot about the Episcopal Church.

He studied in the late fifties at Virginia seminary and after finishing his doctorate in Basel (where he studied with Karl Barth), returned there to teach. Though that made him a minor star, his Evangelicalism stood out in a world dominated by that comfortable mixture of Tillich's usefully abstract and impersonal god and the sort of satisfied self-absorption into which psychology seems always to turn in the hands of theologians.

This mixture didn't work. One now reads the books of John's teachers and colleagues and feels that they had the money to serve steak and potatoes and wine and offered stale toast instead. Stale moldy toast. And they were honestly surprised when people didn't eat it, and left to get hamburgers from the fundamentalists.

Their mild liberalism led to the moral innovations of the nineties, in part because it was so trivial and boring. Talking about sex is a lot more fun than furrowing your brow and gazing at your navel. (For a while, that is, till it bears its inevitable fruit in unwanted babies and abortions and diseases and betrayals and broken hearts.)

I bring this up because though clearly a failure, liberalism is still in power, though once again in a fairly bland version that sincerely uses Christian terms. If I understand them rightly, many conservative Episcopalians now want to leave the Episcopal Church not so much to flee the continuing apostasy - though they do - as to stop wasting their time and money fighting pointless battles and to spend them doing what Christians are supposed to do.

Simply intransigent

This is not to say they are only pragmatic. Their theology is an Evangelical one, taken in a new direction. Whereas before they had separated the true Church from the institution and said that Evangelicals, being in the true Church, should remain in the institution even when it liberalized, now many are separating the true Church from the institution, and saying that Evangelicals, being in the true Church, should leave the institution when it liberalizes.

I don't know if John would agree. He pointed to Article 19, which says that "the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance." This means two things, he said.

First, "the Church arises by God's initiative in his Word and therefore exists where he is known and heard in his Word. Unity is a unity in the truth. There is no unity that does not involve truth in preaching and sacraments."

Second, the Article "presupposes discipline. It assumes someone is seeing that the preaching is offering the pure Word of God and that the sacraments are duly administered."

This speaks to the Episcopal Church. "Where the pure Word of God is not being preached and the sacraments are not being duly administered is not a visible Church according to Anglican standards. The article doesn't say that the Church is one in which the documents are locked away in a library somewhere but are being ignored in practice."

Large parts of the Episcopal Church no longer being visible, John and others felt the need to begin their mission. In forming a new body, they are doing three things from necessity, he said.

"First, we are exercising discipline or excommunication in the only way we can. We are asking false teachers to leave, and if they won't leave, we are asking to be excused. The only way we can do this is to appeal to the primates."

Second, "we are keeping parishes who would leave within the Communion, and indeed trying to bring some who have left back in." And third, "We are trying to renew a vision for mission to the lost. The Church can't change the message. God hasn't changed, Scripture hasn't changed, the sacraments haven't changed.

"But we can speak the message in a new way. We have to have confidence that when people come in contact with a vital life, where the Word is preached, they are transformed. If we're in for a time when 'many are called but few are chosen' or for a major revival is not ours to worry about."

In General Convention's ambiguously worded resolution on sex, and the narrow defeat of rites to celebrate alternative sexual arrangements, John sees "no sign of repentance, but only a political conviction" that the changes would cost too much. He thinks the next Convention will approve the rites. "After all, you can only call a Jubilee every fifty years."

Liberalism "really is a different religion. It would be better for everyone to find a charitable and equitable way to go our separate ways and let the Lord decide who is best living out his purpose and plan. We've wasted a lot of energy and money fighting these issues."

John described a meeting in which some of his clergy met with some Episcopal priests, who talked in distress about their bishops. The priests who had joined him "were just bored with talking about the silly things the local bishop had said. When you're focused on reaching the lost, these questions just aren't important any more - even talking about them is a waste of time."

David Mills is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Magazine of Mere Christianity (www.touchstonemag.com) and is working on a book to be titled The Saints' Guide to Bad Ideas (Servant).

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