It's all about theology.

>> Monday, October 26, 2009

In a previous post I provided background of the chaos going on in the Episcopal Church right now, as well as a link to the address from our Bishop on August 13th. This past Saturday the diocese met in a Special Convention in order to vote on five different resolutions meant to clarify our position on the votes from the General Convention in July. There are a lot of articles responding to this Special Convention, some which are accurate and some which are not, as the local secular newspapers have reported on it nearly as much as the Church has. And, as with anything done within a somewhat political arena, even the reports from affected groups tend to vary as to the report of the purpose and intent of what happened on Saturday.

Suffice it to say, what's been done here doesn't appear to have ever happened before, and we have no idea how the impacts will play out. Someone interviewed by one of the secular papers pointed out that when you are a willing member of an organization that utilizes a hierarchy for decision making, you can't just go ahead and make up your own rules when you disagree with the people in charge. But this is more or less what we've attempted to do; what other option is there when the leadership of the church decides on things that appear to be contrary to Christ? If Christ isn't the head of the Church, how can it be called a Christian church? Bishop Lawrence's address (click for the .pdf) clarifies the purpose of the meeting, the specific resolutions that were voted upon (four of five passed overwhelmingly, the fifth was put off for later to be better worded), and what he views for the future of the Diocese.

So now we've come to the point where I give my own personal opinion. I've lately been accused (rightly, though negatively) of having a very black and white view of things, but in the case of theology, I firmly believe there is One Right Way. Just like scientists acknowledge a fundamental (read: "basic and underlying") natural law that creates gravity and seasons and also acknowledge that there's an awful lot of natural law that we are still discovering, I also believe that there is a fundamental spiritual law that creates the reality of the spiritual dimension of our current lives, past, and our eternal future. We know that the law of gravity is right and good and that if someone figured out how to turn off the gravitational pull of the Earth, we'd most likely all die horrible scary deaths. In the same way, I know that the "law" (read: system) of grace and salvation simply Are, and that if someone figured out how to turn off that system, every one of us would die horrible scary deaths in eternity. Most people would call it belief or faith, perhaps a very very deep sense of faith. But I feel it so much more deeply than that; belief and faith waver. My understanding of the framework of spiritual reality simply IS in the same way that I know that if I get up off this sofa I won't just float away. All of this simply to say that I am reacting to the situation in the Episcopal Church with a very clear black and white response: This is about theology. This is about a church and theology. If a church refuses to address theology, then I guarantee you Satan's having the biggest party this side of the one he threw at 9/11 or the Crusades.

Here's what I'm thinking: One of the topics voted on on Saturday is titled "The Lordship of Christ and the Sufficiency of Scripture". Such is the chaos of the Episcopal Church that the Diocese of South Carolina had to have a special meeting to visibly agree that Christ is Lord and the "Scriptures contain everything necessary for salvation." How can we be disagreeing on this in the greater Communion!? This is all about basic and vital theology.

One of the topics voted on is the SC response to the issue of appointing practicing non-heterosexual priests (and other topics related to that issue). *Let me clarify: The resolution on Saturday was not a re-vote on the homosexuality issue, it was a statement of how the diocese will adjust its participation in the national Church in response to the vote in July. My comments here are related to the July vote and not the vote on participation.* I may have said this before, but one role of the church as I understand it is to clarify with Scriptural basis what is a sin and what is not a sin. In fact, churches have been lambasted from the secular community for doing exactly that: being judgmental and too "thou-shalt-not". Everyone who appears to be happy with the decisions from General Convention are those who see this as a social or political issue; by adding too many "thou-shalt-nots" we alienate people from Christ. They find it acceptable to bend the theology to make sure people feel loved and welcomed by the church. I guarantee you that Christ loved the rich young man who asked how he could follow Him; but when the man wasn't willing to sell all he had and never look back (which was what Christ required of him at that time), Christ didn't say "Oh, well, I love you too much... why don't you just sell half of it?" He said, (with disappointment), "Well, then, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is." The church MUST stand firm on theology. This is not a social issue or a debate about loving our neighbors. This is about theology.

(An aside here: Everything I've read in this whole thing also states "tradition" and the "creeds and canons" next to "theology". What the unfamiliar reader needs to understand is that the theology (Holy Scripture) came first; the tradition, creeds and canons are built upon it and create the structure through which the Anglican Communion experiences the theology. Nothing in the tradition, creeds or canons may contradict the Scriptures, according to their own rules for creating them. So when the General Convention contradicts Scriptures, it is also contradicting the basic rules and tenants upon which the denomination was built.)

Okay. So. General Convention wants to allow practicing non-heterosexual people to become priests. I believe the wording was something along the lines of agreeing that "people who believe that they are non-heterosexual may also be called to the priesthood." I agree with that, God can call anyone. However, I take issue with the "practicing". In my understanding of spiritual reality, non-heterosexual practice is sin. I have yet to be presented with any adequate proof in the original Biblical languages or arguments to convince me that it's not a sin. Can I show Christ's love to folks who practice this way? Sure thing! However, if the Church preaches that homosexuality (and other non-hetero practices) are sin, then they should not become priests! No congregation would willingly and excitedly place a kleptomaniac priest who's proud of what he steals in the pulpit, because we all know that stealing is a sin. No congregation would excitedly call a priest who publicly brags (and provides proof) about how many times he cheated on his seminary exams, because cheating is a sin. If the Church believes that non-heterosexual practice is a sin, then these people should not be in the pulpit without repentance and a change of ways! However, if the church does not believe that it's a sin, then why are we discussing it? If it's a non-issue in theology, this would hold the same place as restricting someone from the pulpit because their hair is brown. As in all things here, this is a theology issue.

The third resolution has to do with our diocese helping to seek out and support smaller congregations around the country who are also baffled by the current events, but are either too busy or too small to have any impact. It's basically an outreach mission to our own people who haven't had a voice. The fourth resolution (I think) has to do with how we can change the Anglican Church in theologically sound ways to be applicable to the 21st century. I'm kind of unclear on that one, but we're getting there.

The other interesting event in the life of the church was the Pope's official invitation to disillusioned members of the Anglican Communion (Episcopal Church) to "rejoin" the Catholic Church, making exceptions for them in various traditions and so forth. And there's (surprising to me, but probably shouldn't be by now) quite a bit of positive response to the offer from the Anglican perspective.

This is another area in which my black and white understandings of theology rear their heads. Hopefully all of you have heard of this little bitty thing that happened way back when called the Reformation. Protestants happened (including The Protestant Episcopal Church of America) because people believed that the theology of the Roman Catholic Church was incorrect. The biggest difference, and an exceptionally vital one, was the understanding that Christ's resurrection brought us back to God through grace alone. Roman Catholics have a list of days they must attend church, a system of confession and penance in order to try to make up for their sins on their own. That fundamental theological difference demonstrates a different understanding of why Christ was even on the earth, and when you start changing that, the entire Bible (which ties together in purpose and understanding of God and spiritual reality from beginning to end) and knowledge of spiritual reality is changed. If people don't understand that, then I honestly question how close they may be to Christ at a personal level. If you are truly seeking to understand who God is and your place in the spiritual world, you wouldn't be willing to sacrifice with a leap from Protestant beliefs back to Roman Catholic beliefs for the sake of being guaranteed heterosexual and male priests. Giving up a Protestant world view for a Roman Catholic one is completely missing the underlying points and purpose that Christ has set for us. The difference between the two churches is their statements of how to be eternally saved and know God. To me, that's not negotiable; being "one holy and catholic apostolic church" (from the Nicene Creed) does not extend the meaning of a unified body of believers to the wafting flow of fundamental theology with the Roman Catholic Church. This is a theology issue.

As far as I can tell at this point, the national Episcopal Church is seeing Saturday's meeting either as a bunch of whiny people who don't like the rules trying to look tough or as a complete non-issue that's not worth consideration. But I, for one, am proud of Bishop Lawrence and the leaders in the diocese for recognizing that these are issues of theology and leading us in standing up for Christ and His kingdom. Though they don't have everything right (we are all human), they're willing to look and dig and strive to truly see what Christ wants for and from His church and they're willing to acknowledge and address the impacts that our humanity is having on the Church. In the book of John, Christ said, "20Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also." The Bishop and our leaders have heard these words and are not afraid; they know it won't be easy. But when you choose to follow Christ, it's necessary to make a stand wherever it's needed in His name.


Tim October 26, 2009 at 4:17 PM  

Hi Jess,

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. You express the core problem with real clarity, and I can't agree with you more. The struggle going on within the E-church is about the authority of Scripture. You are exactly right for pointing out that the desire to be welcoming to all within the culture lies behind the conflict.

I read an interesting book review today by sociologists who did a three-year in-depth study of a mainline seminary and an evangelical seminary. They found many things, including that both had a philosophy which was in various ways impressed strongly upon the seminarians, and became deeply ingrained in them. The message at the evangelical seminary was that the Scriptures are authoritative. The mainline seminary didn't talk much about that, instead emphasizing the tremendous importance of inclusivity.

If inclusivity is central to the gospel of the mainline, the current conflict is a natural result.

John Hupp October 28, 2009 at 9:00 PM  


The question of allowing non-celibate homosexuals to become priests is not "all about theology." Your logic rests on implying that everyone agrees homosexuality is sinful even though everyone is at present still arguing about it. If we assume it's sinful, then "overlooking" it for the sake of inclusivity is a theological problem. However, no one is "overlooking" it. Contention still exists as to whether or not homosexuality is immoral; homosexuality is therefore an ethical issue. Saying, "This is a theology issue" ad nauseum insults the intentions of liberals in the church.

The scriptures are a collection of set texts (though slight variations exist), composed of specific Greek and Hebrew words and sentences. The scriptural text does not address homosexuality, per se. The most literal reference is an Old Testament prohibition on "a man laying with another man..." in the context of ritual purity. In the New Testament a Greek portmanteau―"man-bed"―is listed as a sin. The interpretation of this neologism is contentious, but most scholars believe it refers to male prostitution or, perhaps, pederasty.

Most "theological" opposition to homosexuality derives from tertiary interpretation of the scripture. This is not a problem for the Catholic Church, as Magisterium is given equal priority to scripture. However, in a Protestant setting, where lay-people are given direct access to the scripture, such an appeal to "traditional interpretation" is counter to theology.

When I say "tertiary interpretation" I am referring to interpolation―drawing conclusions based on overall meaning―rather than the interpretation inherent in the close reading of an individual word or sentence. "Reading" in this manner is inherently informed by the reader's context and past experience, and such an interpretation is an external imposition on the text―that is, the mutually agreed-upon set of Hebrew and Greek words, sentences, paragraphs and documents―and cannot rightly be considered inherent to the text itself.

If you believe tertiary interpretations―much less the translation currently in vogue―should be church doctrine, then perhaps you ought to be Roman Catholic after all.

John Hupp October 28, 2009 at 9:00 PM  

This leads me to my next criticism: your dismissal of the Catholic preoccupation with tangible actions over feelings. Sacraments are equally a part of Anglican doctrine as they are Catholic; we just have fewer of them (though we differ on Transubstantiation). Baptism and communion have real, spiritual significance; they are not simply "symbols". If you believe that the only purpose of ritual is its symbolism and its indirect influence on personal sentiment, then you are at odds with Anglican doctrine. Treating baptism and communion as dispensable symbols is radically Evangelical theology.

To elaborate somewhat on the purpose of sacraments as opposed to sentiments only... in the Catholic church, it used to be conventional to slap initiates after Confirmation. The reason for this was to get rid of the "glow" resulting from the ritual. What's important is the contract or transaction, not the feeling you get from it. You could compare this to buying a house: the "glow" you get from closing is secondary to the actual contract transferring the title when it comes to the reality of moving in.

More broadly, the Anglican Church cannot without qualification be described as "Protestant." The Church of England's independence from the Roman Catholic Church was largely political in nature. As the church evolved independently, it acquired certain elements of Protestant theology while retaining other aspects of Catholic theology.

What bothers me most about radical Evangelicalism is its tendency towards hypocritical assertions of being "Bible-based" in explicit contrast to Catholic "tradition." Yes, some churches―the Quakers, for one―may dispense with Magisterium, instead giving the responsibility for interpretation to the individual, but most "Bible churches" do not. Exclusive reliance on a text, in and of itself, may be risky because a written document is "dead" in contrast to the "living theology" of Magisterium and tradition. For the purpose of this argument, I do not give preference to either position; instead my critique is on Evangelicals' disingenuous insistence on exclusive scriptural authority. Exclusive scriptural authority is quite simply not the reality of most churches, as there will always be pastors and other qualified authority figures responsible for interpreting scripture for the laity.

That said, there are ethical arguments for and against the morality of homosexuality. It's important to appreciate that these issues do not exist independently from the standards of morality expected of heterosexual people; the argument that homosexual sex is immoral because it is extramarital sex is simplistic and facetious if it employs circular logic with regard to same-sex marriage. Morality relating to homosexual issues―necessarily a tertiary interpretation―must represent a coherent, holistic approach, rather than appealing to arbitrary premises such as authority, common sense, or other issues intentionally excluded from the scope of the argument for the sake of simplicity.

The "theology" rhetorical construct with regard to homosexuality is at best polite circumlocution. Homosexuality is not an issue of scriptural sufficiency, nor is it inherently an issue of theology. If you understand and acknowledge the premises and context for your belief that homosexuality is immoral, I can respectfully disagree. However, if you refer to a non-existent primary textual imperative or disingenuously appeal to Magisterium, then it is impossible for me to take your position seriously.

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Life is about changes; transitions from one place to another, from one purpose to another, from one being to another. They say that the person you are today is a completely different person from who you were ten years ago and who you'll be ten years from now. So far, at the age of 33, I've had four major transitions in my life which redefined who I am. Two years into the results of the most recent transition I am again - still - exploring how God is shaping me. Over the next few months I hope to review my past and set goals for the future, and embrace the next adventure of rediscovering me.

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