By Leander Harding

Just before Holy Week we found out that our retired eighth bishop of Albany, Daniel Herzog, was resigning his orders in the Episcopal Church and transferring to the Anglican Church in North America. During Holy Week we found out that the recently retired ninth bishop of Albany, William Love, was also resigning his orders in the Episcopal Church and transferring to the ACNA. Just after Easter we have learned that our beloved Sisters of Saint Mary, Eastern Province, have also decamped for the ACNA. We have lost a handful of other clergy and a couple of congregations so far. There will likely be more to leave, but I can say that having lived through the separation of both the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Diocese of South Carolina there was an energy for separation in those cases that I do not find in the Diocese of Albany.

Mostly the diocese is made up of small struggling churches in towns whose glory days were nearly a century ago. The controversies of the church fly above the nitty gritty of parish life in these demographically declining communities where the challenges are the pastoral care of aging flocks and the care of beautiful but aging buildings. These congregations are often criticized for having an “edifice complex.” This is the current term of abuse for Christian brothers and sisters who have borne the brunt of the battle in the heat of the day and been faithful stewards of village churches where generations have met God in the words of the Scripture and the sacraments of Christ. Most of the people care more about their brothers and sisters with whom they have shared decades of Christian life and more about their ancestral places of worship than they do about bishops, conventions, and resolutions.

I can only speak for myself, but my sense is that those who are leaving are not leaving because of a single issue but because they have become convinced that the Episcopal Church no longer has as its organizing center Jesus Christ as he is encountered in the Scriptures. The oft repeated phrase, “There is more that unites us than divides us,” rings hollow to them. I confess that often it rings hollow to me as well. One of the penalties of polarization is that you begin to base your judgment of those on the other side on speculation and not familiarity as increasingly birds of angry feather flock together.

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Here are some moments that have caused me to grieve over the church I still love and which I have served for forty years. When Gene Robinson was elected a bishop and the controversy over same-sex blessing began to roil the church, the diocesan bishop came to make his annual visitation in the historic parish where I was rector. I was well known as theologically conservative but not a fan of separation. The bishop asked me for advice, and I advised him to spend the next year touring the diocese inviting the help of other clergy and lay teachers to share with him teaching and preaching on the catholic creeds. The more traditional minded clergy and people needed reassurance that the disagreement was a disagreement within the household of faith and not the opening proposal for a new religion. The suggestion was greeted with stunned silence. I never heard any more about it.

Readers of The Living Church will remember the “Teaching Jesus” initiative that was the result of an exchange of letters between me and the editors. It came to nothing, and the written responses from across the aisle were in my view disappointing. The answer appeared to be that we cannot in good conscience focus just on Jesus; other issues must be brought in; interfaith sensitivities, sensitivities about sexual and racial identities must be acknowledged. Well and good, but can we not focus on Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen from the dead, present in the Spirit and coming again, just for a moment, just for a season until we recover our solidarity in Christ on the level ground at the foot of the cross? Having renewed our solidarity in Christ we might be able to face disputes as fellow sinners redeemed by the blood of the savior. The answer appears to be no.

Mere Christianity, to use C. S. Lewis’s phrase, does not appear to be enough. I say appear to be. I do not know for sure, but nothing I hear or read reassures me, and the official agenda of the church seems to me to routinely mistake things temporal for things eternal, more like a political action plan than an eternal gospel.

What would help in this moment would be to hear from unexpected corners a robust confession of Jesus Christ as the only begotten one who by the Holy Spirit brings the Father to us and by the Holy Spirit brings us to the Father in and through his own body the Church, so that in him, the one and only mediator, we find our unity with God and with each other. What would help right now is to hear that Jesus Christ is enough in and of himself. The center of the church is not a mean between any two theological positions. The center of the church is Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. I strain to hear a clear, simple word about him. Perhaps I am hard of hearing. Of your charity would you speak up?

The Roman Catholic theologian Robert Imbelli has spoken of the decapitated body of Christ. If we cannot somehow together find him who is our head, I do not see how it will be possible to keep the body together. This is I think as true for a congregation as it is for a diocese or a denomination. I see nothing more worth doing in the present moment than to say a simple and clear word about Him who is our life and our hope.

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany

About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.

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C R SEITZ

“…they have become convinced that the Episcopal Church no longer has as its organizing center Jesus Christ as he is encountered in the Scriptures.” Given that this is so and in the light of your concern that He be the focus above all else, were they/are they taking the right step? It was a bit unclear. Easter blessings.

Leander Harding

Perhaps it is unclear to me.

C R SEITZ

Thanks. I wondered if I missed the drift of your comments. Neither SC nor Pittsburgh had a Bishop who stayed in TEC and was tried and found guilty and told that the Disciplinary Panel’s view of GC resolutions had to be adhered to. For me at least, that makes a comparison difficult. We are now further down the road of a new polity being bolted down in TEC. So this isn’t about toleration or a (hard) decision to leave. It is about a genuinely new TEC re: BCP, GC, the status of resolutions, the office of Bishop, and diocesan canons.… Read more »

Leander S. Harding

I’m not writing to propose any kind of ecclesiastical solution. I don’t think one is humanly possible. I write this as a kind of prayer. I do think it is possible to discern an authentic word about Jesus from an inauthentic word. The criteria is instrumentalism.
Is Christ being talked about as is the end in himself or as an instrument for some other end. An awful lot of the talk which purports to be simply about Jesus is pretty clearly instrumentalism.

C R SEITZ

Leander, I am very confident that progressives would hear your account of Jesus as instrumentalist. That is the problem. Michael Curry believes with all his heart the Jesus movement is an accurate reading of the NT. He has on occasion even contrasted that with the Jesus of Paul’s testimony. So it is a kind of ‘red-letter Jesus’ movement Jesus, the Jesus of inclusive love. A man whose death on a cross showed how love is attacked by non-love. I am not singling him out so much as pointing out how difficult it is to use Jesus as a criterion when… Read more »

Leander S. Harding

Again I am not looking for a theological philosopher’s stone. I have written elsewhere about why dialogue is so difficult. https://leanderharding.com/?s=Why+is+Dialog+So+Difficult. I do think very insistent questions about two nature Christology and objective atonement are at least a rattling of the ideological cage and maybe revealing to some who are lulled by the Christological language without Christological content. But certainly it is possible to have eyes and not see and to have ears and not hear. I also think very explicit questions about the reality of Original Sin are in order. I am reading right now the preface of Hooker’s… Read more »

C R SEITZ

“…cannot be heard by those who believe that there really is no tradition…”. Correct. Even the term ‘tradition’ has no genuine content. Congar once said tradition is effectively what scripture has delivered in the mind of the church. Every noun in that sentence has no plain meaning in our present age in the West. I think that is especially true of the word ‘church’ in NA.

We are witnessing a sea change in TEC. Loose-leaf binder consumerist religion.

“Loose-leaf binder consumerist religion” Thanks for coining a classic phrase!

Mother Miriam, CSM

Thank you for a charitable, yet insight-filled, analysis of the brokenness of the church. Our prayer remains that we all may be one.

Leander S. Harding

Amen

C R SEITZ

“The center of the church is Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. I strain to hear a clear, simple word about him. Perhaps I am hard of hearing. Of your charity would you speak up?” I think part of the problem is the idea that “one can speak a simple word about Jesus” without actually clarifying the corporate conception of the Church as his Body, at the same time. Trying to separate these in the name of charitable co-existence; or speaking of the one as a priority over the other, is why there unresolved is division. The PB enthusiastically… Read more »

Paul Zahl

Leander Harding is a wonderful, Godly man.
I have complete confidence in anything he says, including his questions.

Leander S. Harding

wonderful to hear from Paul. I am still very grateful to you for giving me the chance to teach at Trinity which was such an immense privilege. Drop me a line at revdrlsh@gmail.com and let hear a little about your current adventure.

Ethan Magness

I was in Pittsburgh during the opening days of the Great Struggle. In fact, our church-plant was named an official parish of the Diocese of Pittsburgh at the Convention that decided toward Realignment. There were spit-fire attacks that came from the mouths of many stayers and the leavers, and the psycho-drama of that era was intertwined with many other issues (both professional and personal) that had little to do with the ding-an-sich. Lots of love for the Label, and the Memories, and ‘conservatism’ (whatever that is) and ‘liberalism’ (whatever that is), and not a little bit of Denominational Stockholm Syndrome.… Read more »

Mary Barrett

I will remember the parishioners of the Albany Diocese in my prayers. Gob bless all of you who work at staying grounded in Christ. There are no perfect human answers, there never has been.

Daniel Muth

God bless you, Leander. I remember the Diocese of Albany fondly from my years at RPI in the early 80’s as I was privileged to be friends with +Wilbur Hogg of blessed memory. I will keep you and the diocese in prayer. I still have friends up your way. Alas, after many years of struggle following the failure of TEC’s leadership, I am done. I will be received into an Anglican Province parish this Sunday. While I can pray the actual words of the ’79 BCP with a clear conscience, I can no longer do so as an Episcopalian for… Read more »

C R SEITZ

One of the problems, as you well know, is based upon the (good) fact that the BCP was a kind of bulwark (in TEC; the CofE has another set of challenges of its own). People could fudge on the authority of scripture, or thin it out in ways unrecognizable. But the BCP was there and Episcopalians could intone lex credendi, lex orandi. These new developments see that idea imploding. Rubrics at odds with new additions/changes. Ancillary books and rites whose status is ever changing and diverse in application across the range of dioceses. Feints and trick plays and holding patterns… Read more »

Leander S. Harding

I appreciate Voegelin’s analysis that the present cultural moment is fundamentally gnostic as is all of modernity and that we are experiencing is modernity without restraint and that it is inherently totalitarian. There may be places in churches where for the moment one can find a de jure refuge but I’m not sure there is any place where there is a secure de facto refuge.

C R SEITZ

I think there are a lot of ecclesial realities which understand the challenge and are facing it. Chemin Neuf, monastic communities, the OCA, certain Catholic parishes in the USA and in Europe, American Pentacostal communities, the LCMS, and the list goes on. TEC would not even think of this as an issue. The challenge is being sure culture is being accommodated. Gnostics? They have been given a bad rap. They were the ultimate seekers of true identity deep within.

Daniel Muth

Whatever may be the case for those ensconced in Rome or Constantinople, this seems certainly true of those of us in Canterbury. The TEC leadership’s ad hoc approach to the BCP seems of a piece with their treatment of the Gospel more generally. Something else is considered ultimately true and thus the Church and her gifts must be made to conform. We can all recognize and appreciate these people’s good intentions – as well as those intentions’ immateriality. The reply of conscience will demand different things of different people and for some, de jure refuge will be found in TEC.… Read more »

C R SEITZ

Not to belabor it, but I for one am not looking for ‘refuge’ — de jure or de facto. It seems to me at issue is discernment about the character of Christ’s Body and how one may best serve and be faithful. TEC’s fate is its own doing. I wouldn’t think of the main issue as personal leaving, but of recognizing something as having left. Then, as you say, the hard matter of conscience comes into play. Will any of the handful of ‘Communion’ bishops be replaced by men or women with the conviction of +Love and others? I believe… Read more »

Fr Thomas Reeves

Well said.