By H. Boone Porter
During times of division in the church, partisans of both sides easily picture themselves as “Defenders of the Faith.” This is a difficult title to live up to, especially when it is self-bestowed on those who use it.
What is “the faith”? All of us have our favorite doctrines or practices, and all of us can argue that what we like is essential to the church, and precisely what our Lord also wants. I can well remember my devout and highly informed Roman Catholic grandmother telling me that the Mass had to be in Latin so that the words “this is my body” could be spoken exactly as our Lord had spoken them, and hence the bread could be changed into his body. Since the mass was at the center of her spiritual life, to have translated the Mass from Latin to any other language would have seemed to have been an attack on the faith.
Had she lived 1,900 years earlier, I am sure this intelligent and well-balanced woman could have accepted the information that our Lord did not speak Latin. Had she lived 40 years longer, she would no doubt [have] welcomed the discovery that the Eucharist could be validly and effectively consecrated with English or any other language. But she did not live in any period of history, except her own. She did her best in terms of her own day. Yet Latin or no Latin, this was not really a question of “the faith.” Whatever other people may mean by this phrase, we hope Christians mean only one thing by it: that faith in God through Christ which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit and which is the condition of our salvation. The faith is the Christian Faith, the saving faith. As St. Paul says
The word is night thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith which we preach: because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved (Rom. 10:8-9).
That is the faith. There are of course many other things Christians believe in, things true, holy, and important. There are many other elements in the Christian religion. There is much else involved in the Christian Church and the Christian life. These other things, however, do not constitute the faith, although they reflect it, embody it, and affirm it.
The greatest leaders of Christian history have been those who could differentiate successfully between the faith and all of those desirable and important elements which surround it and uphold it. We do not call people martyrs who died for these other elements. We do call people martyrs who died for the faith, even though their knowledge of Christianity was minimal.
Those who believe that it is integral to the faith that women must be ordained, and those who believe that it is integral to the faith that only men are to be ordained, are both treading on dangerous ground. This issue is important, but it is not the content of the faith. It is indisputable of course, that the great theologians of past ages have generally opposed the idea of ordaining women. This is not the same, however, as saying that the faith consists in opposition to such ordination. The good news of the gospel is not the prohibition of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Nor is it a call to women to such ordination.
To many Episcopalians such words of restraint are not a welcome message. It is indeed easier and simpler to accuse one’s opponents of betraying the faith. The trouble is that in making such accusations, one may oneself lose sight of what the faith is. Those of us who hold a biblically based catholic view, may find this distinction to be especially helpful. We thank God that these are responsible and thoughtful leaders, on both sides of this painful and important question, who have not lost sight of this distinction.
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This editorial was published in our February 19, 1978 issue.