Yours with every blessing,
This is the third and final commentary on the upcoming General Convention. Before I get to the hot-button issues, let me briefly summarize what I have said thus far.
In my first writing, I shared an analogy, saying that GC is, in some ways like Congress in Washington DC. We must have a Congress, but no one would say that Congress is
America, no more than GC is
the Episcopal Church. And, I would add, the Church of Christ does not consist of bishops, priests, bureaucracies, motions, votes, politicking or activists, but “is that congregation of faithful people, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance …” (Article XIX, BCP, p. 871). My experience of the Church on the ground—faithful people giving, praying, working for the extension of the Kingdom—is very far removed from the dealings of GC. I know your experience is the same.
In the next installment, I cautioned about the need to be discerning about press reports of the actions of GC. Religion reporters where they still exist, tend to write human interest stories about religious people adopting fashionable causes, and “bad” religious people who failed to adopt those causes. I will make sure that at the conclusion of GC, you have an accurate summary of what the Convention actually accomplished and what it means in practical terms—if anything.
Two hot-button topics will likely present themselves at GC. The first of these is revision of the Prayer Book. It has been 40 years since the Prayer Book was revised in 1979; the last revision of the BCP was 50 years before that, in 1928. There is agitation amongst the “liturgical experts” (though, I suspect, not the vast majority of people in the pews) that we should have another revision, and it is likely that the process will begin to do just that. However, revision of the BCP is just that, a process. And while there may be provision made for immediate tweaking (as was done with the Lectionary six years ago), any comprehensive revision of the BCP will take many years. There will be trial material produced, tested, studied and revised. Once new texts are finalized, authorization of a new Prayer Book takes two successive GCs. So, it is unlikely that we will see new BCPs in the pews before 2024 or more likely 2027. And the final outcome is by no means guaranteed—it may be derailed, failing at any stage in either the House of Bishops or the House of Deputies, referred for further study, or substantially amended. Regardless, our Bishop has assured us in his recent Pastoral Letter that in the Diocese of Dallas, parishes “will continue to have access to forms of the Book of Common Prayer in familiar language, rites, and theology.”
The second of the controversial issues to come before GC are matters of human sexuality. We should expect disproportionate coverage of GC in the secular press, although this concern is a very
small part of the GC’s business.
It goes without saying that issues of sexuality are the
defining issue of our time. If 1860-1960 (to use arbitrary and not entirely accurate dates) was the century of race, 1960 to 2060 will likely be the century of sex. The Church herself has not been immune from these trends in society. Every Christian Church or denomination is dealing with these questions: Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and yes, even Baptists. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, has had an all-too-public reckoning with sexuality in the past few decades. There is simply no place where one can avoid these issues.
Anglicanism has always been susceptible to the influences of society: a heady and combustible mix of religion, society and politics is part of our history. In past centuries this took the form of Erastianism, the belief that the Crown had supremacy over the Church in ecclesiastical matters. John Keble’s 1833 Assize Sermon with its rejection of the state laying its hands on the Church is seen as the precursor of the Anglo-catholic revival in Anglicanism.
In the Episcopal Church these days, we see a sort of Quasi-Erastianism where the society and societal trends dictate the course for the Church. Instead of speaking a word to
the culture, the GC has often parroted the views of
There has also been a confusion in recent years between moral theology and pastoral theology. To oversimplify, in classical moral theology, one begins with moral principles and then applies those principles to pastoral situations. In pastoral theology, one works up from “the case,” to general principles. Over the last 50 or so years the GC has been almost exclusively concerned with pastoral pronouncements that are not grounded in overarching moral principles, apart from those dictated by the zeitgeist
of society. This too is one of the reasons that in matters of sexuality, the GC seems unable to speak a contradictory word to
the culture, but simply affirms the mores and values of the surrounding culture. Once again, our duty as Christians should not be for conservative or liberal causes, traditional or progressive issues, but only for the Truth, and whether the decisions we take are reflective of the mind of Christ. I regret very much that GC seems unable to do this, but thinks almost exclusively in political categories.
Fortunately, as Anglicans, we do not believe in the infallibility of popes. Neither do we believe in the infallibility of General Conventions. Church councils “may err and sometimes have erred …” (Article XXI, BCP, p. 872). Moreover, as our Bishop has reminded us in his Pastoral Letter,
“the General Convention is not an ecumenical council of the worldwide Church, to say the least. It cannot by itself … up and change the teaching on what marriage has been across centuries and continents for the global Church. Nor as a branch of the Anglican Communion can we disregard the consensus view about the doctrine of marriage, as expressed by Resolution 1.10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998.”
Just as an aside, we should not forget that the Anglican Communion is comprised of almost 80 million Christians throughout the world. The Episcopal Church is only 2.3 million or so of that number.
In his Pastoral Letter, Bishop Sumner reminds us of promises he made when he was being considered for election as bishop in 2015: “we will continue to uphold the traditional teaching, we will deal with one another charitably, and we will not leave the Episcopal Church.”
“As your chief theologian and liturgist, I will continue to expound the received teaching [on sexuality], which is held by the Communion as a whole and the Church ecumenical, and exhort and instruct my clergy to do likewise. This will not change. (I will do so because it is still found in the Prayer Book, is still found in the canons of our Diocese, is the teaching of the Communion and the ecumenical consensus, and most importantly, is the teaching in Holy Scripture I am bound to uphold).”
As Rector of St James, I associate myself wholeheartedly with his remarks.
Regardless of the controversies of the day, St James’ is and will continue to be a house of prayer for all people. Everyone is welcome here because the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a rest home for saints. There are no outsiders here. In the words of the late Billy Graham, “Don’t go looking for the perfect church. The minute you join it, it will no longer be perfect.” All of us are in need of the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit. The reform of the Church begins with the reform of each soul. This has ever been so in the past, and will be so in our time. Faithful Christians make for a faithful parish. Faithful parishes make for a faithful diocese. Faithful dioceses make for a faithful Episcopal Church. Our prayer should be this: “Reform thy Church, O Lord, beginning with me.”
The primary mission of the Church is to worship God, grow in holiness, and bring others to know and serve Jesus as Lord. That is the “main thing.” Pray that we at St James’ may continue to make the “main thing” the main thing. I will not be distracted, and neither should you.