Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bishop Lawrence: "No Hasty Departure"

Bishop Lawrence addressed the clergy of South Carolina today. Here's part of his opening comments:

...While I have no immediate solution to the challenges we face—it is certainly neither a hasty departure nor a paralyzed passivity I counsel. Either of these I believe, regardless of what godly wisdom they may be for others, would be for us a false peace and a “fatal security” which in time (and brief at that) would only betray us. Others in their given circumstances must do what they believe God has called them to do...
Later on, he makes this comment:

...I believe we have a unique role to play within the Anglican Communion. If at present we play that role by being in but not of the mainstream of TEC is it any less important?
It appears Bishop Lawrence's counsel is to remain in TEC.

Most of the rest of his statement I find rather troubling. It causes me to wonder if the Bishop has ever sat down and had a real conversation with a progressive Christian. He lays out a number of accusations that are simply quite bizarre. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I want to assume that he has been misinformed, and is not intentionally bearing false witness against his brothers and sisters in Christ.

To offer just a few examples, he spends quite a bit of time on this thing he calls "The False Gospel of Indiscriminate Inclusivity." False Gospel? You mean the Gospel of John 3:16? The Gospel that clearly states that WHOSOEVER believes will be saved? God's grace is indeed indiscriminate. All are offered the gift of grace. None are excluded from that invitation.

One might assume that the Bishop's point is more about the transformation that occurs once a person accepts the free and radically inclusive gift of God's grace. Specifically, I would imagine that the Bishop has accepted as fact that all progressive Christians are light on sin and the need for repentance. That is simply not true. The shift in the way we acknowledge the gifts of women and GLBTs in the Church does not signal that we have suddenly embraced an "anything goes" approach to sin and repentance. In fact, upon considering the history of the abuse of those two groups by the Church, we are calling the Church to repent of the sins of misogyny and bigotry. If anything, we have expanded our awareness of sin in our own lives, and in this world.

The Bishop then provides a list of what he considers current "false teachings" in TEC. The first one he lists is "The Trinity." I was rather startled by that. I don't think I've ever met an Episcopalian that was not a Trinitarian. Upon further reading, it appears the Bishop's primary example for this accusation is the tendency in some places, and in some trial liturgies, to not refer to "three Persons in one Nature" as  "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." On that basis, he claims that in the name of inclusion (and radical feminism) TEC has abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity. I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like a bit of a stretch.

The next "false teaching" is "The Uniqueness of Christ." As you can imagine, he focuses in on our Presiding Bishop's controversial statements on this matter, and leaps from there to "the pervasiveness of this inclusive Gospel." As you probably know, the relevant biblical passage for this issue is John 14:6..."No one comes to the Father except through me." Apparently, the Bishop believes that gaining access to God through Jesus Christ involves reciting some formula (perhaps the Jesus prayer?) in which the use of only certain words, leading to particular concepts, can assure one of salvation. Never mind if the person is not accustomed to Western thought, or suffers from some disability that does not allow such intellectual constructs to be understood. This narrow focus on formularies of words as the only way to move "through" Christ is made even more clear by the Bishop's fixation on the use of the term "Lord" at the end of this accusation.

God's ways are not our ways. I don't think it serves us well to assume that we can place limits on the how God moves in the lives of others.  We limited beings are not the ones to define the means by which we can enter into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Due to our own flawed nature, most likely we'll get it wrong.

The next example of "false teaching" is "Scriptural Authority." The Bishop makes this statement: "Too often supposed conundrums or difficulties are brought up, seemingly in order to detract from traditional understandings..." Or, perhaps because some of us are honestly struggling with the text? Or would the Bishop prefer that we just ignore the obvious difficulties? Then the Bishops offers this: "Ridiculous arguments such as shellfish and mixed fabrics are dragged out (long reconciled by the Fathers of the Church, as well as the Anglican Reformers) in order to confuse the ill-taught or the untutored in theology." It's all a plot, you see.

I guess we should just shut up about those texts in which we find that it is lawful to kill your disobedient child, or stories about God sending bears to maul the children. These are not "ridiculous arguments." To remain silent about them is to deny the fact that there are parts of the bible that are quite ugly. Our challenge is to not ignore those ugly bits, but to wrestle with them; to honestly attempt to grapple with what those stories reveal about those who told them, about what they reveal of their relationship with God, and to then reflect on how such unpleasant passages inform us about our own relationship with God. Hiding the conundrums because they are difficult is simply another form of denial. So, who is it that is denying the authority of scripture?

The next "false teaching" is "Baptismal Theology detached from Biblical and Catholic doctrine." The bishop challenges the statement "all the sacraments for all the baptized." It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Bishop considers TEC to have an "inadequate baptismal theology." One must assume that in the case of GLBT Christians, he feels they have not repented and died to sin. The evidence for such an offensive assumption is not provided. He then states, "Since when has baptism been the ticket to ordination in the Church?" Not a ticket, but, according to our tradition, certainly a prerequisite. The only way we can continue to exclude people from the sacrament of Holy Orders based on their sexual orientation is to quit baptizing them. That's the point.

Next false teaching is "Human Sexuality." From the Bishop: " has been a clever device of some in recent years to refer to the varied approach to marriage in the different epochs of biblical history, often done in ways that are intended to bring more confusion rather than clarity..." Is the Bishop denying that there are numerous models of "marriage" in the scriptures? Is the Bishop denying that what we now consider to be "marriage" is a rather recent innovation?

The way in which two people are united in a long-term monogamous relationship rooted in love, a love that is the closest expression most of us will ever experience of divine love, has continued to evolve. In these times of increasing divorces and damaged families, it would seem to me that the Church should be about the business of encouraging more committed relationships, not banning them because of personal biases backed by the questionable interpretation of five bible verses.

The final "false teaching" is "Constitution & Canons—Common Life." The Bishop seems to be making the argument that C056 broke our own Constitution and Canons. The Bishop may want to give that resolution another read. It calls for a "generous pastoral response" and a gathering of resources. If and when we authorize "gay marriage," the relevant canons will have to be addressed, of course. The earliest that will happen will be in 2012.

There's much in this address that will probably be cause for most extreme conservatives, and probably a few conservatives, to stand up and cheer. I found it to be a rather offensive remix of an extreme position in a debate that has now been going on for much too long.

But, as I said in the beginning, it appears Bishop Lawrence is in TEC (although not "of" TEC) for the long haul. That is indeed good news.


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