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."

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