Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rescuing the faith once delivered to all the saints

NOTE: This was written by the Rev. Bruce Coggin, a friend of mine, for a presentation at my parish. I think it is briliant.

When the leadership team bent on “realigning” the Diocese of Fort Worth reiterates its goals, one usually hears the hope that if only the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention would leave them alone, they could . . . Well, let them say it for themselves.

Becoming a member Diocese of the Province of the Southern Cone would allow the Diocese of Fort Worth the opportunity and freedom to continue to practice the “Faith once delivered to all the saints” without being constantly distracted by the controversies and divisions caused by innovations hostile to traditional Christian norms.
Jan 9, 2008, letter from Bishop and Standing Committee
diocesan website

That formula—the faith once delivered to all the saints—reappears frequently in their communications, written and oral, as the summation of all they hope for, the engine behind their drive to abandon the Episcopal Church for some other ecclesial structure where they can do what they say they can no longer do as Episcopalians. Those of us who are happy to be and remain Episcopalians might be forgiven for wondering what they’re talking about—though such an admission would draw hoots of derision from the realigners: “Of course, you don’t know what that is!” But as is often the case with such stock phrases, the meaning is neither simple nor very like what its users intend.

Laying aside the rhetorical Molotov cocktails—controversies, divisions, hostile innovations—in the letter quoted above, the statement posits a historical phenomenon—a finite and identifiable configuration of Christian faith and practice—something solid, definable, and presumably superior to other options. Does such a thing in fact exist? Has it ever?

The source of the phrase is Jude 1:3. The KJV reads, “Ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.” The NEB offers, “Join the struggle in defence of the faith, the faith which God entrusted to his people once and for all.” Notice the expansion of the translation in the NEB: once becomes once and for all. The Greek word is eph’apax -- which means not some time ago but rather once only. The same word is used to describe Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross. It has happened, won’t happen again, doesn’t need to. That word might be construed to mean that nothing whatever can be added—or subtracted—from the faith delivered, but since not even the handful of Christians alive when Jude wrote agreed on what that faith was, that reading seems doubtful. Jude’s epistle is an ad hominem attack on some people historians and theologians later labeled docetists whom some considered troublemakers. The Johannine letters also deal with that dispute. To the docetists the idea that the god of all power, might, majesty, and honor could really fit himself into human flesh was both incomprehensible and repellent. They said God only seemed to take human flesh—and thus their name, from the Greek dokein —to seem human but really was not. The response in Jude and elsewhere seeks to affirm Jesus’ real humanity and historic solidity: one of us and like us. Beyond false belief, Jude also accuses the docetists of licentiousness and immorality, says they respect neither the past nor authority, they don’t understand the whole subject, and they cause divisions. The tendency to expand disagreement in belief to include broader arenas of offense is not new. In any case, the faith in that dispute—whether Jesus was real or not—is not what the realigners mean, though they might well include docetism among happy Episcopalians’ manifold faults.

But the faith and the church of Jude’s time were still far from gelled and hardly included a thorough articulation of what the realigners say they hanker for. So if the “faith” Jude’s phrase mentions is not what the realigners mean, then what do they mean? They seem to posit a conjunto of Christian belief and practice that is complete, succinct, unchallenged and unchallengable, unchanging, superior: true faith. Let alone the fact that many other quite un-Anglican bodies claim to own and practice the true faith (claims most often met with a mixture of derision and resentment), one doubts such a thing has ever existed—except in the judgment of those who claim to own and practice it. In the United States alone, thousands upon thousands of brands of Christianity flourish side by side, their number increasing daily. The senior brands go back to the Reformation, but Reformation protestants shared no such agreement. Before the Reformation, Rome and Orthodoxy split the horse blanket in the twelfth century, ostensibly over the filoque but just as much over power and control. The last time anything like a one-page-memo version of Christianity that suited just about everybody existed was the Nicaea/Chalcedon era, 350 years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The formulation of faith and practice those councils produced we now call classical catholic Christianity
From our historical viewpoint, we might find it exhilarating to presume a great consensual triumph when the the session which produced universal agreement ended. But wise scholars caution those who speak of “the clear and undisputed meaning of the Constitution” that to understand the Constitution, we must read the minutes of the convention which show that the final document is the bare minimum expression of the very few things the founders could agree on. Too bad we don’t have minutes from the fourth century, but other documents reveal violent disagreement—including murder—right up to and beyond the moment the final gavel fell. The formula “believed by all people in all places at all times” is wishful thinking.

That form of Christianity, however, is probably pretty close to what the realigners mean. It’s not insignificant that the Vatican has in these last days found it necessary to urge feuding Anglicans to make up our minds if we are sixteenth or first century Christians. Rome spots a birdnest on the ground, of course, and first century is a bit over the top, but fourth century? That’s the first time the church got it together—under more or less genial pressure from the empire to shape up, line up, and shut up—so an examination of the run-up to the formulation of classical catholic Christianity should help us understand what our diocesan leaders mean.

First and foremost, let’s not forget that a good many alternatives flanked the Nicene formulae, because up to then, nobody had said This is the truth, and there is no other—well, not effectively anyway. Recall that upon Jesus’ ascension, the apostles did not run out and buy KJV Bibles and copies of the 1928 Prayer Book. Recall what they had to work with: no written records, no clearly defined set of ideas, the memories of many people of the plethora of acts and sayings attributed to Jesus (many later repudiated), the individual experiences of everyone who knew Him, and the conviction that He was alive after the crucifixion and promised to gather His own into the heavenly mansions. All that is highly subjective, highly individual, and often extraordinarily hard to formulate and communicate to others. But they knew they should and set out to try.

Our knowledge of that earliest period—the half century after the crucifixion—is severely limited, though we glimpse that primitive Jerusalem Christianity throughout the New Testament, all of which was written down decades after most who actually saw Jesus had shuffled off the mortal coil.

For the sake of concision, here follows an abbreviated account of the principal types of pre-Nicene Christianity. There were dozens, but we will deal with only the most important variations we know about :

• Primitive Jerusalem Christianity: no records; fresh, mysterious, simple; its message, the kerygma—God has acted again in history, the final age has begun in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus; history will close upon his imminent return; visions, ecstasy; Jesus seen more as messiah than divine being; amorphous organization around the apostles.

• Primitive gentile Christianity: the concept of messiah means nothing; the gentile church had no eschatological background for Jesus; Jesus is son of God (raises questions about Jesus’ relation to God the Father); Jesus is Lord (therefore present now, not postponed to a second coming); Jesus the son of God came to earth, died, was resurrected and restored, is now Lord and present to his worshippers; rejection of Torah.

• Pauline Christianity: what we learn in Paul’s writings and those attributed to him; Paul knew primitive Jerusalem Christians but went to the gentiles; the gospel is universal; the gospel is about God’s grace (salvation granted to the unworthy); accepted messianic eschatology, the end coming soon—but not a paramount concern; rejected exclusivity for inclusivity; sin is real, the Mosaic law makes us aware of it, we invariably violate it, no human way out, leads to death; Christ supersedes the law, is condemned by the law but vindicated by God in the resurrection, power of sin broken; life in Christ produces what the law cannot but with few hard and fast ethical rules; love, not law: little interest in Jesus’ life, emphasis on him as Second Adam, something new, “in the form of God” became man and died, God raised him and made him Lord; justification, reconciliation, redemption, grace; church is those who wait for Jesus and live in Christ; initiation in baptism, sustenance in the eucharist.

• Johannine Christianity: what we learn from his gospel and letters; Jesus’ life secondary to his relation to the Father and the divine nature of Christ; truth about God exists independently of history, so Jesus is more revealer of God than actor in history; introduces Greek concept of logos, that which makes God’s being intelligible to humanity; the preexistent divine logos is incarnated in Jesus, and both are now present in history (via the Holy Spirit, the paraclete) and eternity; history is a medium of revelation; judgment is now; life in Christ resembles Paul’s but more mystical, sacramental understanding (Cana/water/wine; Nicodemus/born again; feeding/bread of life); all guaranteed by the paraclete, “only spirit gives life, flesh is no avail”; skirts gnosticism (see below) but seeks to communicate Jesus’ significance to the wider Greek culture.

• Jewish Christianity: various records; outgrowth of primitive form, led by James and successors (Jesus’ family), hounded in and out of Jerusalem, none there by A.D.135; a continuation of Judaism, Jesus is messiah in succession to the prophets, not divine, not virgin born, will be Messiah/Son of Man at return; rejected temple ritual but retained much of Torah and OT; an ethnic religion; they loathed Paul.

• Gnostic Christianity: gnosticism antedates Christianity, has roots all over the place and a vast literature; gnosis = special knowledge, the peephole in the curtain between us and Ultimate Reality, revealed through cult initiation; proceeds from a kind of free-floating, non-specific sense of unhappiness with life as it is; strongly anti-Semitic; apocalyptic; emphasized dualism, the struggle between good and evil, creation mostly evil; posits a vast structure of spiritual beings connecting God to us; body and soul are prisons for spirit; deliverance through a divine messenger; Jesus is docetic, an envelope for pure spirit; rejects the world, embraces asceticism; short on concrete terms, relies heavily on myths; the world is not redeemed but rather escaped; tremendously appealing in its humanity, it garnered many adherents.

Except for purely Jewish Christianity, all the above varieties and more were up and running concurrently—and adherents of all called themselves Christians—about the time the woman who became St. Helena went to Palestine and brought back what she promised were relics of the cross Jesus died on. Her son Constantine was running the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Raised a pagan, he converted famously to Christianity and was busy raising it to the status of state religion. But which kind? He gave the various church parties an ultimatum: clean up your act and give me a church that knows what it believes, an instrument of unity and centralization instead of the morass of claim and counter-claim and diversity and uncertainty I see now. So the church did what it always does: it held conventions—or councils or synods as they called them—meetings where people met and argued and voted.

Constantine forced an issue that had troubled the church for a long time, namely that Jesus had not returned to gather in the faithful, and that meant Christians had either to abandon that part of their faith or expand their understanding of Jesus’ gospel to encompass the possibility of a long and undefined future. The first choice was not a choice, so the church had to think: if the Second Coming, the parousia, is delayed or not what we think it is, then how are we to live in history? The councils Constantine set in motion undertook that monumental task. Working with the scriptures—some of which did not get into the Bible, by the way—and the work of people like Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and the other Church Fathers, they started knocking the edges off loose definitions. They excluded the gnostics as too gauzy, the Jews as too picayune and tied to the past. The purely secular need to achieve a degree of unity sufficient to guarantee the church’s survival drove them: there were plenty of applicants for the job Constantine had in mind for the Christians. And it paid off. The Nicene/Chalcedonian formula presented a Christianity erected on four bases: the creeds, the sacraments, the apostolic succession, and the scriptures, all defined by those councils—for the moment.

And a splendid formulation it was and is, still accepted by the majority of Christians today, though by no means all. At least part of its long success is due to the way it excludes and assimilates, rejects the outworn or the bizarre and accepts much that was then new and risky, closes the door on small certainties and opens it to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Classic catholic Christianity

• accepts Judaism’s insistence on the importance of history but rejects its obsession with ethnic identity;
• accepts the gnostic yearning for salvation but rejects its grotesque mythical claptrap;
• accepts the eschatological hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God but rejects historical eschatology, a cataclysmic close of history at a predetermined moment;
• accepts ethical freedom in the context of Pauline love but rejects the demands of the Torah and other hyper-detailed moral codes;
• accepts John’s Christology and sacramentalism, the belief that God’s incarnation in Jesus expands in history, and rejects the docetist view that history doesn’t really count.

The formula has worked well because it preserves what is essential, lays aside what is not, and remains open to the possibility of adjustment to accommodate undeniable historical circumstance—and to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Constantine’s insistence got good results. Earliest Christianity had no unified body of ideas that distinguished between Christians and non-Christians, true and ersatz Christians. It clearly was a religion subject to change and could respond to the challenges of changing times, diverse thought, and cultural differences. Some of that scope was lost when classical catholic Christianity emerged, but there was and is nevertheless unity in the questions addressed: what is the relation between God and man? and who is Jesus? The Nicene formula is the product of people being forced to answer those inexpressibly complicated questions in fairly short order. It has worked because it lets the church look both backward and forward, because it cherishes and lives in tradition but is quite ready to make far-reaching adjustments if circumstances dictate. It is first and last the product of consensus, of people struggling among themselves and praying for the Spirit’s guidance to come to an arrangement where Christians find room to exercise their faith, with or without much dogmatic sophistication, and let others exercise theirs. There’s no denying that some of the councillors, like Athanasius, thought it was altogether too expansive; his creed damns lots of people. For most, however, the formula was just broad enough to include them. The Arian majority gave lots of ground to the conservatives, and both sides won.

Our diocesan leadership’s resistance to many things going on today in the Episcopal Church is not only their indisputable right, it’s entirely traditional: Christians have from the very beginning had to figure things out for themselves. Jesus left us only the most basic—though entirely sufficient—tools to work with: His love, the Holy Spirit, a mystical sacramental bond with him in baptism and the eucharist. All the rest we have to piece together as experience and circumstance teach us, and we have never all sung in unison. Never. Our leaders in Fort Worth err in supposing and saying we ever did, and their nostalgic formula is as illusory now as it was when Jude used it. And thank God for that! Is revelation closed? Is the church finished? Are all the answers in? The notion of a neatly defined, readily available packaged and bottled Christianity, one size fits all, is foreign to this history. That doesn’t mean we can play fast and loose with our religion, and thank God for the conservatives in the Episcopal Church who ask enthusiasts hard questions and avoid doing anything rashly. It does mean we dare not—cannot, indeed—preclude the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church to deepen our understanding of God and of Jesus and our own place and work in the spread of the Kingdom on earth. The faith of God in Christ has been given to the saints, is being given to the saints today, will be vouchsafed to future saints until that Kingdom comes.
Our job is not to protect it; God requires no protection. Our job is to be open to it, to do our best to understand it, and to work with those who are with us—and those who are against us—and trust God to take care of the tares among the wheat.

Friday, June 06, 2008

I'm an Orthodox Episcopalian

I am a completely orthodox Episcopalian, even in the Diocese of Fort Worth.

I know this because I was told so by a letter sent out from a newly-formed group here which has named itself Remain Faithful.

In their letter, they announce:
"We are a group of orthodox Episcopalians who believe the Bible to be the revealed Word of God which contains all things necessary for salvation as well as wisdom for Godly living.

"Orthodox Episcopalians believe:

*Holy Scripture is the revealed word of God
*Jesus Christ died on the cross and was resurrected offering eternal salvation to all humanity
*Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior
*We believe in the Holy Trinity
*We believe in the Holy Spirit as a sanctifier and transformer
*We believe in the covenantal nature of the Holy Eucharist
*We believe in the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds
*We believe we come to the Father through the Son
There you have it.

See, I believe every one of those things, with one addition -- I believe we come to the Father through the Son AND the Holy Spirit.

I don't believe that addition is enough to rule me out of the Orthodox camp.

I'll bet that there are many Episcopalians who read this blog who will be glad to discover how Orthodox they are.

I think we can all feel pretty secure in our orthodoxy because Remain Faithful's board is made up of some of the most powerful lay leaders in our diocese. They have been consistently elected as General Convention deputies, diocesan convention delegates, as members of the Standing Committee, Executive Committee, etc. etc. -- something that would NOT have happened here had there been the slightest doubt of their orthodoxy.

I do confess that that history leaves me more than a little puzzled why they felt the need to form this group.

For most of the life of this diocese, these are the lay people who have "owned" the microphones in this diocese. They have had unfettered access to every possible podium, publication, medium by which to communicate their point of view. If they haven't made their case to the people of this diocese by now, forming this group won't make much of a difference.

But hey! The more the merrier. Maybe this means that at last we might have a meaningful discussion of the issues here -- a discussion that includes all points of view. After all, what could be more orthodox for Anglicans?

I wish Remain Faithful all the best. I will keep them in my prayers, as I do all my brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope they are praying for me.

Here's the full text of the letter:
Dear Friends in Christ,
As some of you know, there is a new organization that has formed that is called "Remain Faithful". We are a group of orthodox Episcopalians who believe the Bible to be the revealed Word of God which contains all things necessary for salvation as well as wisdom for Godly living.

We are comprised of and led by lay Episcopalians. We are committed to speak the truth in love, communicating clearly the position of faithful orthodox Episcopalians upholding the authority of Holy Scripture. We stand firm with the vast majority in the worldwide Anglican Communion in our commitment to serve our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to support orthodox Christian ideals and beliefs, and to spread the Good News of Jesus' gift of salvation to all.

I would encourage each of you to visit our web page by clicking on the following link, , and consider joining with us. There is a place at the top of the Home Page which says "Join Us" and if you click on that button, you can sign up and help us as we begin this mission to stay within the teachings of Holy Scripture.

What we, as Orthodox Episcopalians and the Broader Anglican Communion believe:

Holy Scripture- God’s word- is His revelation to humanity which records the story of faith- the unfolding of salvation history. It also outlines God’s vision of and standards of holy living, discipleship, ministry, morality, marriage, and family life.

Orthodox Episcopalians believe:

*Holy Scripture is the revealed word of God
*Jesus Christ died on the cross and was resurrected offering eternal salvation to all humanity
*Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior
*We believe in the Holy Trinity
*We believe in the Holy Spirit as a sanctifier and transformer
*We believe in the covenantal nature of the Holy Eucharist
*We believe in the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds
*We believe we come to the Father through the Son

Some very good news ... we already have at least one representative from 25 different Parishes in the Diocese at this time. This is wonderful start for a week and a half into this since our initial press release. Please make it your responsibility for getting the word out to people and get them to actually join on the web site.

To date, the average member has been an Episcopalian (or Anglican for those outside U.S.) for over 38 years- so we are closing in on almost 9000 years of membership in our Communion at this time!

Some other notables- we have just over 240 members at this time – 160 from Diocese of Fort Worth at this moment (that have actually joined on the website). In addition to members from the Diocese of Fort Worth who have joined, we have members from: Diocese of Quincy, San Joaquin, Central Florida, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Minnesota, Maryland, Colorado, Missouri, Washington, Michigan, Western Louisiana, Los Angeles, Louisiana, Northwestern Pennsylvania, Eastern North Carolina, Alabama, Connecticut, Dallas, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts, Holy Cross- South Carolina, Rio Grande, Fond du Lac Wisconsin as well as members from South Africa, Uganda, Argentina, Scotland, England, Kenya and Ireland!

I would ask you to please take this into prayerful consideration, take a moment and join us on the site if you have not, and encourage your spouses and families to join with us. There is strength in numbers and we need to demonstrate once and for all that most of the laity believe in these basic truths. It only takes a couple of minutes to join with us. Please also share this email with other of your fellow concerned Episcopalians.

We will be having a major event in July, so be sure and check the web page for further information.

In His service,
Pat Salazar

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Keeping Gene Safe

This is from the blog of my friend, Elizabeth Kaeton:

As many of you are painfully aware, the Rt. Rev’d Gene Robinson, duly elected and consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire, has not been invited to attend Lambeth Conference, the once a decade gathering of Bishops and Primates around the Anglican Communion which has, for over thirty years, pledged to be part of a ‘Listening Process’ of the stories of LGBT people.

Never mind. Bishop Gene will be there anyway.The Incarnation has always been something of a scandal. For some, the Incarnation is a threat that must be silenced or destroyed.

Bishop Gene and his beloved Mark have received constant death threats. When Bishop Gene was in England just a few weeks ago, Mark received two death threats on the answering machine of their home – they were "angry and credible" and a serious concern since that number has been carefully guarded.

It goes without saying that Bishop Gene will need greater security and protection while at Lambeth. That actual expense will come to over 70,000 American dollars. Thank God, quite a bit of it has already been raised, but there is a wee bit of a gap - about 20 thousand American dollars worth.

That's where you come in. I am counting on the readers of this Blog to be generous again. You were wonderful in responding with the Christmas Appeal for the kiddo’s in the City of God with over $10,000 in contributions. I’m hoping you will be just as generous with this Christmas in July Appeal.

Please make out your check to The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, marked “Bishop Gene” and mail it to:

Christmas in July
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928

It will go into a special bank account and be mailed to Bishop Gene’s discretionary fund on July 7th.

Bishop Gene will be at Lambeth. Jesus said to love those who hate us.

Let’s keep Bishop Gene safe while he’s there. Jesus said we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

It's all about the Incarnation - the embodiment of love in a culture of hate and violence - and being present, anyway.

I am counting on the readers of this blog to be generous as well.
Please contribute.