Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Rationale for Staying in the Episcopal Church

I have written here a brief response to those who question my decision to stay in the Episcopal Church.  I know that this is a controversial topic and that many will disagree with the conclusions that I make here.  The important thing to remember is that this is not a debate about the validity of each others' ministers so that I am not saying that any of the other Anglican bodies are not churches.  I have many friends in ACNA, AMiA, REC, etc. and I do not doubt for a moment their piety or ministry.  This is a personal belief that I have come to but that could change.

In my mind, the issue needs to be addressed from a few different angles to properly understand the reasons for staying in the Church.  First, we must define what "the Church" is in Anglican ecclesiology, according to the formularies and Scripture.  Second, we must consider our Lord's exhortation to unity.  Thirdly, we must consider the nature of heresy and what the Christian's response to it should be.  And lastly, we must consider whether or not heresy is a justification for schism.

What is the Church?

The first question that must be answered is "What is the Church?"  I look to the formularies and to Scripture to answer this question.  Article 19 defines the church as the, "congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same."  The Articles do not address the question of episcopacy, which I will not either, although acknowledging the long tradition of associating a valid historic succession to the validity of the Church is nothing new in Anglicanism.  Ironically, the Article was written during a time of schism and was written to provide a counter-ecclesiology than that of the Roman church in order to justify the Reformation.  The ecclesiology here presented seems simple but as Gerald Bray points out it is more complex t han meets the eye.

The word "faithful" is one of those complexities.  Bray notes that the word means "orthodox" not dedicated.  Obviously, there has never been a pure church and Cranmer would have noted that when he penned this statement as the Church of England then was full of people who disliked his doctrines and wanted (and eventually did for a time) rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.

The second part of the Article defines the marks of the Church which are the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.  Both of these marks has a presupposition though.  First, in order to preach the Gospel, the minister has to know what it is and he must also preach the right Gospel, unlike our Presiding Bishop.  The second issue is that the Sacraments must be "duly ministered," i.e. by the proper authority.  This means that the person administering the Sacraments must have the authority to do so by the Church, ie. must be ordained.  Which leads us to the key element here presented by the Article, that is the visibility of the Church.  The Article is not concerned with the "invisible church" or the Church as it is seen by God but by the visible Church on the earth.

The issue of unity

This leads to the next point, which is the consideration of the unity of the visible Church here in earth.  Obviously, throughout its 2,000 year existence, the Church has not done a good job of maintaining the unity desired by our Lord.  We could look to any period of the Church and see splits and schisms, starting near the beginning with the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches.  The infamous split in 1054 between East and West as well as the Protestant Reformation mark the larger and more noticeable splits in Church history, however, there are thousands of lesser schisms which have occurred.  One can think of the "Old Believer" movement in the Russian Orthodox Church, the SSPX in the context of Rome, or the Continuing Churches in our own Anglican context, who have chosen to break away from the main body of the Church and have faded into a shadow in the history of the Church.

The unity of the people of God is reiterated throughout Scripture, even in the Old Testament, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Ps. 133:1).  It is, of course, a chief concern for Jesus as he expressed in his High Priestly prayer, "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:21-22).  Disunity was apparently a major problem in the Church in Corinth, for Paul exhorts the Corinthian Church to unity many times throughout his epistles to that body.  "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10), "For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" (1 Cor. 3:3), "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it" (11:18).  Paul notes that, "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" (14:33).  The urgency in unity is seen throughout the New Testament.  "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Rom. 16:17), and this beautiful passage from Ephesians, "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (4:1-6).

For me, seeing such an appeal for unity in the Scriptures leads me to believe that we should not consider division lightly in today's Church.  However, as this is not a simple issue, we must move on to the next consideration which is what to do about heresy, especially when it invades the Church.

The issue of heresy

Heresy is not a light thing and the Scriptures speak plainly of the dangers of false teaching.  Consider the following passages.  "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.  And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.  And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not" (2 Peter 2:1-3), consider how Paul considers heresy and schism as equally bad sins as well, "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).  We are told to beware false teachers, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves" (Matt. 7:15), "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision" (Phil. 3:2), "Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness" (2 Peter 3:17).  Heretics have condemned themselves by their own false teaching, "A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself" (Titus 3:10-11).  We are to avoid heretics as well, "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed" (2 John 1:10).

Based on these portions of Sacred Scripture, we know that we are to avoid heresy and not to receive those who are heretics.  The question inevitably arises as to how the faithful in the Episcopal Church can stay when so many of her bishops and priests and laity teach and believe things that are contrary to Scripture.  This leads to the final consideration, does heresy justify schism?

Does heresy justify schism?

The big question here is does heresy justify schism?  I would say, No.  But this is not a simple question so it cannot be answered simply.

First, the Episcopal Church is still a valid Church and her ministers are valid ministers (without entering into the women's ordination debate).  Her teaching is contained in the Book of Common Prayer, which teaches the catholic faith as contained in Scripture and tradition and as explained in the Formularies, although the present addition is flawed in several important aspects, it still contains this teaching.  The Articles of Religion are included in the Book, although in a less than desirable place, they still hold authority in the Church.  The Sacraments are administered within the pattern of the historic episcopate and ministers are ordained accordingly (again without considering the ordination of women and how that affects this).  Also, the Articles of Religion teach that the worthiness of a minister does not affect the validity of a sacrament, i.e., that Donatism is wrong:

"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."

Secondly, the Church has never been pure, in the sense that there have always been false teachers among her clergy.  One can look in the Scriptures and see Paul's comments in Galatians to the Judaizers, an early heresy.  Or to the early Church's struggle with all forms of Gnosticism and Christological heresies.  In the Middle Ages we see Catharism and other dualistic heresies.  During the Reformation we saw the heresies of Anabaptism and millennarianism.  In the 1700 and 1800's we saw the Enlightenment and rationalism.  In the 20th we have seen liberalism, modernism, and the "inclusive gospel" which plagues the Church today.  This is nothing new in the life of the Church.

Let us consider this famous passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew,

"Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.  But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.  So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn." (13:24-30).

Like the field, the Church has within her wheat and tares, those who believe and follow the Gospel and those who, for whatever reason, do not believe the Gospel but are yet members of the Church externally.  The problem is when these people enter into the leadership of the Church and begin to teach the people.  They cannot be trusted to preach the Gospel for they do not believe it.  In my opinion, it is the duty of faithful Christians to combat these heresies at the national and local level and not to leave.  At this point in the Church's life, leaving the Church only diminishes the orthodox voice and allows the progressive gospel to further advance in the ranks of the clergy.  What the Episcopal Church needs is a group of orthodox and faithful Christians dedicated to not leaving but rather to preaching the Gospel, teaching the Bible, and defending the faith "once delivered to the saints."  If that were to happen, the orthodox in the Church might have a flying chance of reviving and renewing the Church.

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