I was encouraged and edified by the recent post of Fr. Victor Austin on staying in a declining mainline denomination. I am inspired to add my own reflections on this painful topic.
It is important to acknowledge the real discouragement that comes to members of the Episcopal Church that care about faithfulness to Scripture and apostolic teaching. I can remember when I was first ordained in rural northern Maine, 39 years ago, how proud I was to be a priest in the Episcopal Church. Now I am more often embarrassed by the antics of prominent clergy and the oracular pronouncements of the General Convention: clown masses at Trinity Wall Street, an Easter message by a presiding bishop in which the production of methane by cows figures prominently, endless earnest resolutions about the cause du jour, and an unwillingness to assert even the most basic of Christian truths by the House of Bishops.
Who can forget the unwillingness of the House of Bishops to discipline Bishop John Shelby Spong for denying in print meticulously and repeatedly each and every doctrine of the catholic creeds? All this is accompanied by the crudest sort of power politics with very little and very weak theological justification for major innovations and departures from ecumenical faith. And then there is the cynical use of the courts to deprive the faithful of their ancestral places of worship.
Same-sex marriages have been conducted for years in dioceses contrary to the marriage canon and the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer because such action was seen as prophetic. But woe to any traditionalist who does not abide by every jot and tittle of the resolutions of the General Convention. Never mind what the prayer book still says. While the 1979 Book of Common Prayer remains intact our most fundamental formulary is recognizably Christian, but I may live to see even that slim reed broken.
So why stay? How can you call this badly compromised and deformed church a real church? The missionary theologian and bishop, Lesslie Newbigin helps me here. Newbigin’s little book on ecclesiology, The Household of God, is the most lucid, succinct, and compelling book on the topic that I know. Newbigin identifies three types of claims to be the church: the Catholic, the Evangelical, and the Pentecostal.
The Catholic says that you are the true church if you are part of the one body of Christ that is continuous in time. You must be part of the visible church and have the proper orders and sacraments.
The Evangelical emphasizes the role of faith. The true church is found where there is sincere faith in Jesus Christ the Lord and trust in his saving death and resurrection. The true church is found where the word of salvation is faithfully preached. It is not ministry and sacraments that make the church but right faith. Newbigin shocked his ecumenical audience in the middle of the 20th century by then taking up the cause of the Pentecostal.
According to Newbigin, the Pentecostal asks, with the whole New Testament on his side: you may have orders and sacraments and you may have faith and right doctrine but do you have the Holy Spirit? If you do not have the Holy Spirit, then you are not the true church. Newbigin affirms the claims of each of these perspectives. They all need to be present in a church that is aiming at conformity to the Scriptures and the teaching of the Apostles. Newbigin says that in addition to being catholic, evangelical, and pentecostal, the church must be oriented toward mission and to the eschatological fullness which will come when the Lord of the Church returns to perfect the church. We can only be the church by confessing our brokenness and division in light of the missionary calling and eschatological destination of the Church.
At this point we must say with the disciples, “Then Lord, who can be saved.” (Luke 18:26) The answer, according to Newbigin, is no one, except by the utter mercy of God. We are not the church because we have the right orders and sacraments, or absolutely correct doctrine, or even spiritual gifts. We could have all these things and be devoid of missionary commitment and be sunk in contentment with our sad divisions demonstrating that we do not believe the church is what the New Testament says it is, the one Body of Christ. We have no claim and no standing save upon the utter mercy of God. Newbigin faults the Reformers for not carrying the doctrine of justification by grace through faith all the way through into their ecclesiology. The Church, no less than the individual Christian, is simultaneously saint and sinner.
The rationale for leaving TEC cannot be that the church is broken. It is broken everywhere and there is no unbroken church to which to flee. The Episcopal Church may yet descend from the practice of using orthodox words to conceal heterodox meanings, and enter into more grossly explicit apostasy and idolatry. It may yet make the faithful preaching of the gospel and the administration of the gospel sacraments impossible. That has not happened yet. While it is yet possible to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments faithfully, I am not free to leave and give over my place as a shepherd to a wolf. I do not deny that, under God, others may have a different calling in these difficult times. Those with pastoral responsibilities should not, as Reepicheep the martial mouse of Narnia reminds us, please themselves as though they were private persons.
It is a severe mercy but a mercy nevertheless to be deprived of every assurance of being part of the true church save for my confidence in the utter mercy of God “who quickeneth the dead and calleth the things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany.