Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Parting Ways

It is with sadness and great difficulty that we have reached the conclusion that we must separate ourselves from the Episcopal Church –USA (TEC), and therefore the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Marianna, FL.  We joined ourselves to the local parish several years ago and have enjoyed the fellowship there very much.  As a cradle Episcopalian, Chris found a comfortable church home, and as one who had chosen to “walk the Canterbury trail” and leave my Baptist roots behind in search of a more orthodox resting place, I found the Anglican tradition to be most suitable.  I was gladly confirmed into the church in the presence of the people of St. Luke’s.

The local parish does not exist in isolation, however, and recent events in the national church have created a situation which is problematic for us.  Specifically, the actions taken at the recent General Convention (GC) regarding same-gender “marriage” and the endorsement of them by the Bishop of our diocese constitute “a bridge too far” in the direction of heterodox theology.  I had serious conversations with both our former rector and the interim who served us afterwards about the topic of same-gender “marriage” and had made clear that it was a bridge I could not cross with TEC or with the congregation if it adopted such practices.  It was obvious to me that the momentum was clearly moving in the direction of acquiescing to the shifts in cultural mores, but as long as the subject was still open for discussion I felt able to remain a part of the community.  General Convention, however, has closed the period of discussion for all intents and purposes.  Barring the unlikely event that the next GC turns down the proposed changes to canon and liturgy, this appears to be a “done deal.”

We did not arrive at this point without advance warning, though.  As much as we loved our former rector, he was quite openly trying to move the congregation towards an acceptance of same-gender “marriage.”  I did what I could to rebut the material he was offering, but apparently I wasn’t able to change many minds.  In the last couple of months the vestry approved the use of what is called a “provisional rite for blessing a same-sex union” and our priest-in-charge performed a service for a gay couple who attend our church.  This set of actions came as a disappointing surprise to us, though alone they would not have caused us to terminate our membership in the parish.  Let me be very clear about this.  We have nothing against the two whose union was “blessed", and in fact we like them very much.  They are “nice people” as so many want to remind us.  Nor is our position one of judging or condemning them.  Judgement is, as I often remind myself and others, above my pay grade.  Ultimately what they do is between them and God.  When it comes to the actions of the church and its teachings, however, it is appropriate for us as individuals to judge whether or not those actions and teaching are in keeping with historical orthodoxy or represent the introduction of heterodoxy.  If the latter is in evidence, then decisions must be made.

While I was in college I had to write a book report for my Church History class.  I read and reported on a biography of Athanasius, one of the early Church Fathers.  Through that I was introduced to the Apostolic tradition and the roots of orthodoxy.  During my seminary years we were encouraged to look beyond the narrow history of Baptists to that of the greater Church, and in theology and especially Biblical Studies classes we discovered the scholarship of the early church.  The more one sees the depth and quality of that scholarship the more one grows to respect the roots and dependability of the orthodox faith.  As Athanasius wrote, “What the apostles received, they passed on without change, so that the doctrine of the mysteries (the sacraments) and Christ would remain correct” (Festal Letter 2.7, cited by Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity, p.320).  Looking back over the past 40+ years I can see that my path has been one in search of an ever deeper understanding of and commitment to classic orthodoxy.

Through the actions of the recent General Convention TEC has embarked on a path towards heterodoxy.  That they have left room for those who wish to remain committed to the traditional beliefs of the church is “gracious,” but the accompanying language seems to carry a strong hint of tolerating dissenting views primarily for the sake of financial interest.  It is as if the forces pushing for the changes are saying, “Well, you don’t have to actually do the things we say we believe in; you can opt out. Just come along and, oh, be sure to bring your money.”  On the other side of the aisle, there seems to be a number of bishops and other leaders who, though they disagree with the actions of GC, are more interested in reaffirming “unity” over “orthodoxy.”  To do so, unfortunately, is to elevate the concept of “unity” to the position of an idol, and remaining in association with heterodoxy for the sake of a superficial unity is therefore a form of idolatry.  Do we worship the Triune God revealed in the Scripture, or do we worship the illusion of unity and the corporate structure of the Episcopal Church?

This brings me to the crux of the issue, then.  What is orthodoxy, or orthodox faith and theology, and what is the orthodox position on same-gender relationships?  According to Thomas Oden in his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, orthodoxy is the “integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual classic period.  More simply (it is) ancient consensual scriptural teaching (p. 29).”  He expands on the word “consensual,” explaining that it means “the teaching that has been duly confirmed by a process of general consent of the faithful over two millennia.”  I take this to mean that unless one can find support for a position within that historical tradition, one must tread very lightly when suggesting new interpretations, especially when those interpretations run counter to the understanding of the catholic church over the centuries.  Certainly the revisionist interpretive methodologies (hermeneutics) which lead scholars to overlook or reject the considered consensus of the church over two millennia must be regarded with a great deal of skepticism.  Yet, this is exactly where the Episcopal Church stands today.  Despite the concerns of the Archbishop of Canterbury and bishops of the greater Anglican Communion, the leadership of TEC has set itself against the orthodox tradition, choosing instead to draw its core theological guidance not from the received scriptures or the teachings of the early church fathers, but rather from the ever-shifting and rootless mores of a culture cut adrift by the lingering effects of modernism and post-modern relativism.  It has yielded to the demands for accommodation coming not just from those outside the orthodox tradition but outside the church and the very faith itself.  Through the actions of the General Convention, TEC has embraced a radically new method of scriptural interpretation and consequently a new theology and liturgical practice of dubious heritage.  

The orthodox position has, for centuries, been that the texts recognized as canonical (Scripture) are inspired and authoritative traditions regarding the interaction between the Creator and the created, especially in regard to the calling out of a special people and through that people to offer God’s grace and salvation to the peoples of the world.  Those texts are the touchstone against which the Christian understanding about God must be measured.  The great ecumenical councils of the early centuries established creeds summarizing the core elements of the Christian faith in order to ensure that the people could know and trust that the faith which was communicated to them was the authentic Apostolic faith.  Beginning with Paul and continuing through the early fathers and the councils, there have been efforts to define and protect that faith, including dire warnings about the possibility of error creeping into the church. Consider Paul’s warning to the Galatians: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be anathema! As we had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be anathema!”  Note that the Greek word for “other than” is heteran, from which we derive the word “heterodoxy.”  As I read this, I find Paul saying that anyone who teaches heterodoxy is to be rejected at least, cursed and cast out at most.  Orthodoxy, then, can be viewed as the tradition of right or faithful remembrance and understanding of Scripture.

What, then, does the received Scripture say about same-gender relationships?  I find three or four really significant texts.  Beginning with the Genesis account of creation we are faced with the concept of complementary genders.  Male and Female are not just necessary for biological reproduction, a not insignificant consideration, but also to adequately express in human form the essential qualities of God, the imago dei.  “Let us create man in our own image, in our likeness…so God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen 1:26-27, NIV).”  Without the complementary genders, mankind is incomplete as a reflection of God.  The early fathers and the orthodox tradition flowing from them also maintain that both genders are necessary to the understanding of the incarnation.  As Augustine commented, “The Lord Jesus Christ, having come to liberate human beings, including both men and women destined for salvation, was not ashamed of the male nature, for He took it upon Himself; or of the female, for He was born of a woman.”  Gregory of Nyssa was even more explicit.  Those who criticize the concept of the physical incarnation of God through the physical birth of Jesus do not recognize that this is the proper and only valid means for God’s visitation.   “They fail to realize the whole anatomy of the body is uniformly to be valued…the generative organs have the future in view, and it is by them that the succession of the race is maintained.” In other words, without the presence of those physical differences which distinguish between male and female, the incarnation as is traditionally understood (and affirmed in the classic creeds which we recite regularly) could not have taken place.  Jesus Himself put His affirmation on the understanding of male and female, husband and wife, complete with the reproductive capacity as central to the purpose of created mankind when He spoke of marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.  Note that it is one thing to denigrate the statements of Paul on same-gender relationships as being culturally bound, and yet another thing entirely to make the received and accepted words (red-letter text) of Jesus to be solely dependent on the culture of His historical time.

Paul includes same-gender sexual relations in his listings of sinful behaviors found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.  In both passages he uses a Greek word (transliterated arsenokoitees) which is variously translated as sodomites, effeminate, or “abusers of themselves with men.”  It literally means “man-bedders” in the same sense that one takes a woman to bed for sexual purposes, that is taking men to bed to have sexual relations with them.  There can be no mistaking the meaning and usage of this term, and all attempts to cover it over by referring to ritual or temple prostitution or pederasty are meaningless in the face of the clear and literal meaning of the word.  So Paul clearly intends to say that homosexual activities fall in the category of “sinful” or “unrighteous” behavior.  It is important to note that Paul is not singling homosexual activity out as a special form of sin but is including it in lists of examples of unrighteous behavior.  It is a false hermeneutic (method of Biblical interpretation) which would allow one item in a list of examples of sin to be lifted out and reinterpreted so as to make it somehow “not sin.” Yet this is exactly what the proponents of approving same-gender “marriage” are advocating.  Are we to expect soon to see arguments that God has made murderers, liars, thieves, drunkards, gluttons and gossips “as they are” and that it is therefore a good thing?  For this, in essence, is the logical conclusion of any interpretation of these two passages which excuses homosexual activities as being the result of the birth nature of those who so behave.

Finally, Paul addresses the causation of homosexuality.  In the extended passage of Romans 1:18-32 he makes it clear that as the members of mankind move away from recognizing and acknowledging God their proclivity for sin increased.  Since our sexual nature is a fundamental part of the imago dei in which all are created, it is only natural that sexuality is one of the first areas in which the distortion of our relationship with the Creator is manifested.  Paul is very specific in describing the activities which result from unrestrained sin, and though homosexual activity is not the only thing he lists and describes, it is clearly a primary example of it.  It is also important to note that in the final verse of the passage, v 32, he writes that even though they know that people who do the things he has mentioned, including the homosexual behavior, deserve God’s punishment, the reprobate not only continue to do those things but also “approve of those who practice them.”  This verse alone should have caused those present at the recent General Convention to take pause and reconsider.

It is important to observe that in all three passages Paul moves beyond condemnation of those who act in the ways he has listed and proclaims the redemptive power of God’s grace and mercy through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As classic writers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine observed, God’s forgiveness of our sins involves and requires His taking our sins upon Himself, bearing them on the cross.  Through His action we are redeemed and transformed. Having described the manifestations of Sin in the life of mankind, the outcome of the Fall of Man and Creation, Paul speaks to his hearers to remind them that they, and he himself, were all in need of and recipients of that grace.  This continues to be the case today, of course, and all of us, including me, stand in constant need of a repentant heart and the graceful mercy of God.  Understanding this it becomes clear that we are called to be compassionate to the other sinners around us as we seek to call them to that repentance that precedes salvation.  This is a far cry from blessing the very actions which reflect the inner brokenness of the people.

The orthodox tradition is very clear on this matter.  There has been an essential harmony of understanding regarding the status of homosexual behavior as one of the many ways in which the Fall has affected all of us.  It is, like so many other things, something to be repented of, not celebrated.  It requires absolution, not affirmation.  To move in the direction, then, of incorporating into the very meaning of the sacrament of marriage an approval of that behavior is to move in a new and different direction from that of the Apostolic Tradition.  It is to embrace heterodoxy.

This we cannot do.

I do not know if we can find another worshipping community nearby where we can continue to follow the orthodox tradition, but we will be looking.  We may occasionally attend St. Luke’s for worship and to see those with whom we have developed a friendship over the years, but we will do so as visitors, not members.  Taking this action grieves us greatly, but we cannot walk a different path diverging from the ancient and narrow way.  In our ongoing prayers we will continue to lift up the Episcopal Church, our diocese, and the leadership of the local parish, hoping that they will repent of the recent decisions and return to the orthodox teachings of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

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