31 July, 2008

A Modern Donatism?

Many, in discussing the trials and tribulations of Anglicanism in the 21st Century have compared those exiting The Episcopal Church to the Donatists of the 4th Century, and not without cause or justification. A little history here will suffice.

About a.d. 303, the emperor Diocletian embarked upon a systematic persecution of the Christians, at first demanding that they surrender their bibles, and then demanding that they offer incense to him, both intolerable to the faithful. A number of Christians, however, did in fact offer up the books, turn in other Christians and offer incense to the emperor in an effort to save their own lives. Some avoided having to make the difficult choices and simply fled for their lives. In the year 311, many who had not succumbed to the pressures of the pagan emperor were outraged that a bishop,
Felix of Aptunga, had consecrated Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage. They felt that Felix, by having bowed to the pressures to save his own life, had become apostate and therefore unworthy of his episcopal ministry. A schism ensued which lasted for the better part of a century.

Sound familiar? Many of the themes that played themselves out in the Donatist schism are at work in Anglicanism today, and unfortunately, those of us on the "reasserter" side of the argument are all too open to the siren song of our ancient brethren who, rather than accept the fallenness of their brethren simply wandered off and established their own jurisdiction.

Let's see where this can take us. Are there substantial differences between the Donatist schismatics 800 years ago and now? If so, what are they?

We can start with the fact that those who came to be labeled "tradators," those who offered up the books and incense, did so out of a genuine fear for their lives. Books are replaceable, my life isn't, they seem to have reasoned. In all honesty, while it is easy for us to sit back and judge their actions harshly, who among us cannot understand their impulses, their fear and their very human response? Would we have done any differently? Would we be willing to offer up our lives for a book which would be destroyed after our demise anyway? Are we that brave? Many were. Some weren't. This was the dilemma facing the Church in the wake of the Donatist schism.

The Donatists not only refused to keep company with the tradators, they required that anyone baptized by them undergo a re-baptism because the Church they came from had lost any and all rights to administer the Sacraments by their apostasy. Only the pure church had that right, and the Donatists represented that Church! This was and is problematic on many levels. First, it is not the righteousness of the celebrant of the Sacrament that ensures its efficacy. If it were, then it is difficult to see how any Sacraments could have been validly administered in the history of the Church! It is God in Christ acting through the Sacraments to administer His grace to us. The Sacraments convey grace ex opere operato -- by virtue of the work done. The worthiness or attitude of the minister celebrating or administering the Sacrament matters not (as long as certain conditions are met, of course. A layman cannot validly ordain or celebrate Mass, for example). This, of course means, much to the chagrin of many conservative Anglicans, that even those baptized, confirmed or ordained by Gene Robinson or Jack Spong are recipients of valid Sacraments! Sorry, but that's the way it works out.

This, of course, has echoes in our own Articles of Religion. Article 26 reads in part as follows:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

While I would certainly refrain from characterizing Bishops Spong or Robinson as "evil men," I certainly have problems with their theologies as expressed in print. Nevertheless, even our own historic Anglican faith allows them a place at the table, as does the history of the undivided Church, but with some caveats.

We will recall that Augustine's first response was to reason with his Donatist brethren, figuring that there was something reasonable in them that he could address, something that could convince them to return to the fold peaceably and amicably. It was not to be because their position was too firmly entrenched. A pox on your house! But what of the tradators? What was their status to be in the renewed, post - persecution Church? Augustine reasoned that the clergy who had given up the books, fled or offered incense were to be allowed back into the Church after a time of penance. The Church, he reasoned, is a hospital for sinners, not an ark for saints.

How does this all too brief history lesson relate to Anglicanism today? Many of the parallels are too obvious for me to point out. Some, however, may be a bit more subtle.

In the first place, even those who accuse the Episcopal Church of apostasy on the scale of the tratadors cannot draw an exact parallel because no one in this country is in danger of losing his or her life because of their religious beliefs (Branch Davidians excepted, and then under a previous administration). The same cannot, however, be said of the Church in Uganda, for example, where the faithful have given their very lives for their faith in Christ. Whatever error the Episcopal Church has slipped into has been entirely voluntary, and not because of any threat to the lives of individual parishioners or clergy. The causes of said errors are a subject for another day and discussion, but suffice to say that whatever errors and however grave they may be, they do not affect the efficacy of the Sacraments administered by those in Episcopal Orders, no matter how grave our disagreements with them might be or how comforting it might be to sit back and hurl invective at those liberal heretics! Christ can even work through them -- or us!

Several of the African primates might take issue with some of the above. "After all," they might reason, "our people have died for their faith, which you Americans and Canadians have simply walked away from in favor of the liberal social cause d' jour. What makes you think that you can be on a par with these Anglican martyrs of the 20th Century? What arrogance!" To a large degree, I would almost have to agree. Again, however, their argument misses the point somewhat. Setting aside for the moment the issue of female ordinations and consecrations (an entirely different can of worms), if the worthiness of the minister of the Sacraments does not, as we have seen, affect the efficacy of the Sacraments he administers, can we avoid indictment for the sin of pride when we issue mutual condemnations?

Perhaps avoiding schism over these issues is too much to expect or hope for, failing direct divine intervention. The cynic in me says that it is, that both sides of this debate are hell bent for leather and that nothing short of unconditional surrender will satisfy either side. This seems to be the case. Maybe we are in fact headed for a century long schism like the 4th Century Church was forced to endure. I pray not. The tragedy, and the truth, is that both sides are wrong in this tragedy. Both sides are anxious to excommunicate the other, to declare their opponents apostate, heretical, and either behind the curve or not even in the ball park. Can the Episcopal Church survive? It will in one form or another. Will it be part of the Anglican Communion in 10 or 20 years? We'll find out together. Does it matter to the Episcopal Church? Ah, that's the question.

30 July, 2008

An introductory musing

The other day, I was reading a journal that I started in the late 80s. I had resigned my candidacy for ordination in what was then the American Episcopal Church (now the Anglican Province of America) and was musing that perhaps God was calling me back into the Episcopal Church. After all, it is axiomatic, at least to me, that God speaks to us not only through Scripture, but also through the situations we find ourselves in, if we will only listen and pray about it. That was 1987. 21 years later, I find myself still in the Episcopal Church, but deeply troubled by recent developments.

The Episcopal Church, by any reckoning, has chosen to "walk apart" from the rest of the Anglican Communion and chosen so-called "prophetic actions" as its vehicle of choice, e.g., female ordinations, ordinations and consecrations of openly gay individuals, an approach to Scripture that seems at best tortured to justify their actions, and the like. We have the spectacle of entire dioceses choosing to leave the church for the safer confines of southern jurisdictions, the phenomena of African churches establishing beachheads in the Episcopal Church's back yard and episcopal depositions that, quite frankly, seem to defy the church's own canons. What is a faithful Episcopalian to make of this mess?

Is the exodus to southern and African climes a repeat of the Donatist heresy that Augustine of Hippo battled against [The Church is a hospital for sinners and not an ark for the saints] or is it the natural consequence of an institution gone so far afield that it has forfeited any claim to be recognizably Christian? Certainly those in the "continuing Anglican churches" have answered this last question loudly and decisively. Does this mean that they are right or is there another way?

These are the questions I wrestle with and some of the demons that have beset the Episcopal Church in recent years. As for me, while I am not a fundamentalist (recognizing all the while the contradiction that Anglo Catholicism is a fundamentalism of its own), there are certain biblical teachings that we hold onto for dear life and simply cannot compromise: Trinity, the Incarnation and Resurrection, the authority of Scripture (not to be confused with inerrancy or infallibility), to name just a few. There are others too numerous to list, of course.

Let me start out by saying on the topic of sexuality and ordination that it is too obvious to need explanation that homosexuality has existed ever since memory runneth not to the contrary and it is simply "winking at reality" to posit the notion that gay clergy are a recent phenomenon. While no records I am aware of can tell us reliably how far back in Church history we have to look for gay clergy, I believe we can say with a fair amount of certainty that the phenomenon is centuries old, at least. Does this justify the actions of The Episcopal Church in consecrating the Bishop of New Hampshire? No. It simply means that the issue has been brought to the fore in recent times by the fact that Gene Robinson is the first openly gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church. Other gay clergy, at least had the grace and discretion to remain closeted and keep the issue from becoming a hot button topic. The snake is on the table now, and there is no way to avoid dealing with it. How are we to come to a theology of human sexuality that both is faithful to the biblical witness and speaks to us in the 21st Century?

Catholic sexual morality, we were told in Moral Theology, can be explained in one sentence: If you're not married, don't. This is true and I certainly believe it even today, especially when it comes to the subject of ordination. It makes little difference whether one is gay or straight, in the absence of Holy Matrimony, the standard of the Church for aspirants to Orders is or should be celibacy. What about someone seeking Orders with homosexual tendencies? Celibacy is the norm outside of Holy Matrimony. Furthermore, we have the instructions of the Apostle Paul:

This is a faithful saying: if a man seeks the office of an overseer, he desires a good work. 3:2 The overseer therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, modest, hospitable, good at teaching; 3:3 not a drinker, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 3:4 one who rules his own house well, having children in subjection with all reverence; 3:5 (but if a man doesn’t know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the assembly of God?) 3:6 not a new convert, lest being puffed up he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. 3:7 Moreover he must have good testimony from those who are outside, to avoid falling into reproach and the snare of the devil.

How do we reconcile this apostolic requirement with the modern desire to "honor" the LGBT community by conferring Orders upon them? In my opinion, the two simply cannot be reconciled, because if we agree that the New Testament is the founding document of the Church in the same sense that the Constitution of the U. S. is the foundation of our civic government, i.e., the rules we all have to live by, then how does it not do violence to the notion of the authority of Scripture to engage in acts clearly prohibited in the founding documents, especially in light of the requirement Paul lays down that a bishop must be the husband of one wife? Perhaps it is not a booming voice from Sinai, but to give the founder of the mission to the Gentiles a lesser significance
than our own modern sensibilities seems to me to be somewhat problematic at the very least. True, the Bible is not inerrant, but in the New Testament, we have the record of the original ordering of the Church, the authentic record of the first Church Council in the Book of Acts and accounts of the earliest controversies to plague the Church and how they were dealt with. In other words, we have a blueprint. All the contextualizing and nuancing in the world cannot change that fact. Organisms and organizations grow, develop, evolve over time. This is natural, but authentic growth and development almost never involves an abandonment of first principles. I don't believe that it is fundamentalism to insist that even The Episcopal Church return to the first principles of the early Church, listen to the biblical witness and admonition and learn that it is perfectly okay to utter the word "oops."