Monday, May 22, 2006

Can A Phoenix Fly?

One of the things that has been said to me repeatedly by liberal/progressive/revisionist (or whatever you want to call them) friends during the last three years is, "Why can't you get over what has happened?" My responses have varied, sometimes angry, sometimes self-pitying, but essentially to do with the fact that it is hard for truth and error to live in union with one another. By the standards of the breadth of universal Christianity throughout the ages (throwing in the values of Islam and Judaism also) the actions of the Episcopal Church in 2003 led down the dangerous path of error.

I have spent much of these years grieving what is as well as what might have been. One doesn't get over such pain in the twinkling of an eye, but as I have hinted before, we cannot spend the rest of our lives being mad at what happened. A former colleague of my wife's had maintained his resentment against the university for several decades, in the process turning himself into one of the grumpiest old men I have ever come across.

I recognize that tendency to grumpiness within myself and must fight it for it is neither helpful, nor constructive. I cannot spent the rest of my life mourning the folly of the Episcopal Church, as Queen Victoria spent the residue of her long life dressed in black and wishing her "dear Bertie" would come back from the dead. The Episcopal Church that once was died in August 2003, the mortal wounds being inflicted by its own governing body. Soon that body will meet again, and I doubt whether it is capable of being loyally Anglican despite the desperate desire of tens of thousands of faithful Episcopalians -- perhaps an overriding majority.

Just the thought of another General Convention after the last one stretches my grumpiness quota, and to misquote Scripture I find myself wondering, "Can anything good come out of General Convention?" But whatever misguided ecclesiastical power players come up with, we must get on with the business of being the church, that gloriously beautiful Bride of Christ. We have turned it into Cinderella with amnesia.

This is something to which I have been giving considerable thought over the last months, and which I intend to be talking about at a gathering I will be participating in later in the summer. During the next few weeks my first faultering attempts to get my thoughts into some kind of order will find their way to this forum. I will not so much be being prescriptive as attempting theologically and strategically to look for ways beyond the chaos that General Convention 2003 thrust us into -- despite the endless warnings that they received.

What I am presenting is meant to stimulate creative discussion. Faithful North American Anglicans have gone off in a variety of different directions during the last few years, and while certain courses of action have been misguided, I am trying to start where we are now rather than where we wish we were. I am hoping that we can do something in this discussion that will help us recover from the wounds that have been incurred.

There are many on all sides of this equation who want nothing better their old denomination back. What has to be said from the outset is that whatever our yearnings and desires, we cannot put the clock back and so have no option but to move forward playing the hand that has been dealt and is now on the table.

As soon as one says something like this ECUSA loyalists (especially on the left) turn on you and say that all you want to leave the Episcopal Church and do the dirty on it. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, what the left does not seem wiling to realize is that by forcing their agenda upon the church in August 2003 they themselves cut off the legs from under the Episcopal Church as we had all known it. They changed the agenda themselves, and in so doing opened the door for a discussion and decisions that were far more far reaching than they ever imagined possible. Actions have consequences, something postmodern people do not seem to realize.

August 2003 was the tipping point of something that had been happening for a long time. While the presenting issue was to do with sexuality and was focused on one particular individual who probably ought not to have been elected bishop, August 2003 was more like a swollen gland in a child's neck, which points to a much greater malaise in the whole body. As the left pursued their agenda of what they believed to be human and civil rights, they were (perhaps unwittingly) raising huge theological, ecclesiological, missiological, anthropological, spiritual, institutional, political, and cultural questions.

Pandora's box was opened and what flew out was a lot more than I believe they bargained for. However, as the old Greek myth goes, when the lid was finally forced back on Pandora's box all that was left inside was hope. It is that hope which I now find myself clinging to and am toying with. By bringing these cards into play the left have actually given us an opportunity to remake North American Anglicanism for mission in a post-Christendom and post-denominational world, we fail to pick up the challenge at our own peril. I have no idea where that might lead, but I suspect that God has something significant in store for us if we are but prepared to follow the pillar of fire through this dark wilderness night.

One of the delights of my recent trip to England was a private lunch with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. I came away from sharing sandwiches and juice with him in his study so thankful that God had put such a sensitive and thoughtful man at the helm of the Communion at this particular moment in history. What struck me particularly was the pain he feels over the divisions in the Communion as a result of North American actions, and his determination to do all that he can to try to keep this rich fellowship of believers together.

His commitment has had me pondering for the last couple of weeks the close relationship that there has always been between unity and mission, and trying to work out what on earth that means in our present circumstances. During the last several years we who claim biblical faithfulness and orthodoxy have often responded from the less settled parts of our gut rather than with the heart and the regenerate mind. We have a huge amount of work before us, and doing it wisely and well precludes sticking out our tongues and saying dreadful things about those who disagree with us, however tempted we feel to do so. We are being tested just as much as those who stand to the left of us, God forbid that we be found wanting.

So, to my subject line question, "Can a phoenix fly?" I don't know the answer. I don't even know whether there is a phoenix left in the ashes, or what that phoenix might look like, all I know is that God is calling us to something different that builds on the foundations of the past, not sweeping them away -- whether we are still part of ECUSA or not.

My old friend and mentor, Alec Motyer, writes in his commentary on Exodus that, God "wants us to live in the courts of earth according to the rules of the courts of heaven... (therefore) we are called... to ransack Scripture to discover the distinctive features of a godly lifestyle and to follow through with a discipline of obedience to the word of God. This is what the Lord sought in his redeemed at Sinai, and it is still the calling of the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16)" (J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus. InterVarsity Press, 2005, pages 244-245). This is the challenge


Alan said...

As a cradle Episcopalian of 57 years, I have not quite given up on the Phoenix being able to fly. However, I find a far more positive sign in the number of splinter Anglican groups who are, with the condition of the ECUSA in front of them, finding that there is far more which they have in common than in difference. While there will be no doubt some rough spots in the relationship, they may grow to be powerful allies of traditional Episcopalians, even if not a refuge.

Anonymous said...

The real question is whether the archbishop is capable of leading or even of making a decision where the Church should be going. As England has already committed the idiocy of women's ordination to the diaconate and priesthood and now wants to destroy the last shred of Anglican Orders having validity in the future by making women bishops, one wonders if he even has any idea what Anglicanism was supposed to be.

I think the Episcopal Church, as it is, is dead and beyond resusitation. It and its fairie queenes are best kicked into the gutter and left to rot. Then those of us who find there is no other possible faith for ourselves but classical prayer book Anglicanism can get on with finding the new springs which will baptise our longing for the jesus and the faith of all the Bible.