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A way forward together (1): Christ-centered comprehension

Editors note: this is the first post in a three-part series. Part 2 is “Ecclesiology.” Part 3 is “Prayer book.” 

By Jordan Hylden and Keith Voets

We write as priests of the Episcopal Church, which through its 78th General Convention has now institutionalized doctrinal disagreement on the nature of Christian marriage. We find ourselves on opposite sides of this painful division. We are near the beginning of our careers in ministry, and it is possible that decades from now we will still disagree, perhaps arguing in some retirement home for curmudgeonly priests. And yet we hope to continue serving together in this church until that day, and hand on to those who will come after us a church that embodies genuinely Christ-centered comprehension.

That there will be such a church in 30 or 40 years is no foregone conclusion. The Episcopal Church continues to lose members at an alarming rate. Tens of thousands of conservative Episcopalians have left, but they are not the only ones. Moreover, some members of our church, like George Clifford at Episcopal Café, have argued that bishops in the conservative minority should not be permitted to prevent same-sex marriages in their dioceses. Given such pressures, is there a case for maintaining a “mixed economy” in our church on this serious issue?

At least three questions bear on this issue. First, what does a genuinely Christ-centered, comprehensive church look like? How to avoid shuffling off into a confused muddle, sacrificing truth for unity?

Second, what ecclesiology does this imply? What role do bishops play in our polity, those who stand in the apostolic succession and are charged with guarding the faith and unity of the whole Church Catholic?

Third, what does this imply for the Book of Common Prayer? For we are a church that relies upon the dictum lex orandi, lex credendi like few others. If we cannot pray in common about Holy Matrimony, can we continue as a church bound by common prayer?

We shall address these three questions in successive posts for the next three days.

Christ-centered comprehension

The bishop-elect of Dallas, George Sumner, observes that comprehensiveness, while often a point of pride for Anglicans, is in fact a difficult achievement, not to be taken for granted (“After Comprehensiveness,” Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2004). He writes:

We see that Episcopalians are fighting over same-sex relationships, and we assume that Anglicanism is comprehensive, and so we ask, what is the intellectual superstructure that allows us now to remain comprehensive? This is surely a mistake; we assume what needs to be shown. Comprehensiveness assumes that common and more central doctrines form a framework, an encompassing context into which lesser disagreements may be placed and so relativized. Such larger, often tacit, agreements keep a tradition in contention from descending into sheer incoherence. Anglicanism shows comprehensiveness when it achieves these goals of showing the more basic agreement, and so of putting disputes in context. Only pride would assume that such success is the essential quality of our tradition.

If what we mean by comprehension is some kind of embrace of a “larger truth” on this issue, Sumner writes, that is the kind of muddled nonsense we must avoid.

Even for Anglicans up is not down, and black is not white; we too should make our yes a yes. We are not exempt from the law of noncontradiction. Either same-sex relationships are a blessing from God, or they are contrary to God’s will. While our tradition may prove comprehensive in many respects, if there is such a disagreement we cannot be comprehensive with respect to it. To deny this is to make of comprehensiveness a kind of transitional object by which we lull ourselves to sleep.

Sumner draws upon the influential argument of Bishop Stephen Sykes from The Integrity of Anglicanism. Sykes sharply criticized a self-congratulatory “comprehensive” Anglicanism that excused itself from the need to think clearly about doctrinal consistency. Such an Anglicanism took comfort that Anglicans are united by taking “very seriously” the “faith expressed in the creeds,” which would include Maurice Wiles and John Shelby Spong right alongside C. FitzSimons Allison and N.T. Wright. Sykes reminded the church that

The Book of Common Prayer makes all kinds of claims, in the ordinal about Scripture, in its creeds about essentials, in the marriage rite about sexual union, in the catechism, and so forth. These may be expounded, and should in turn be criticized and debated …. In contrast to a facile appeal to comprehensiveness, Anglicans must pursue doctrinal consistency and cogency, and must not exempt themselves from this pursuit.

Comprehension cannot mean “different strokes for different folks.” Comprehension is not comprehension but muddle if it has no center.

All of this might seem to tell against the pursuit of a comprehensive Episcopal Church with respect to marriage. It is important to say clearly that we do not think such division is desirable. For one of us, maintaining the traditional position is a matter of obedience to our Lord’s teaching on the covenant of marriage:

But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female.” “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” … Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Mark 10:6-9).

For the other, this change in canon law and liturgy is a natural progression in the Church’s ever-evolving doctrine of marriage: a recognition that same-sex relationships witness to the same love and fidelity that Christ has for his Church.

We are aware that disagreement will not disappear anytime soon from our church and many others, perhaps until some great movement of the Spirit and some vast shift in our socio-cultural landscape. Until that time, Sumner and Sykes point us toward a comprehensive church that finds its center in our “more basic agreement”: common worship of our one Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit, into whose body we are baptized and whose risen life we share in one bread, one cup, by grace.

So too, they point us toward a church in which the authoritative canon of Holy Scripture is “read, marked, and inwardly digested” by all in the light of the Christ-centered faith of the creeds taught by the apostles and those consecrated as their successors. Then, and only then, may new light be shed on our divisions by a common Scripture-shaped imagination and a common life of bearing each other’s burdens, serving the poor, and seeking the lost. There may exist within such a church a great degree of “impaired” and “wounded” unity, mandating the long and hard work of reunion. If “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” then all those “who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him” are joined together in one body, wounded and bloodied as it may be (1 Cor. 12:3; BCP, p. 332).

It may be many years before we become a church that is able to speak with one voice on Christian marriage. And yet at the same time we recognize the true Christ in one another and a common determination to follow our Lord where he calls. And so we understand that we are required to act with the patience, charity, teachable humility, and zeal for truth and justice that will be sorely needed as we wait upon God’s providential judgment and leading over time.

St. Paul told the Corinthians: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Cor. 11:19). But division is not God’s ultimate will for the Church; for Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13), whatever wounds he has borne and bears. Lord willing, as we fix our eyes on him and continue in our daily and yearly appointed rounds of prayer, Scripture, worship, and burden-bearing service in love, we will come to know and be converted to the Truth. A church of genuinely Christ-centered comprehension is not one that lacks zeal for the truth, but rather is one that bears witness to the truth patiently, humbly, and charitably over time, and trusts in God’s providence to judge lovingly the Church that belongs in the end not to us but to our Lord.

The Rev’d Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke Divinity School, and an instructor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. His other posts for Covenant may be found here.

The Rev. Keith Voets currently serves as Associate Rector at the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington, NY.  He is a 2012 graduate of The General Theological Seminary and an active member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He blogs at The Means of Grace.

The featured image is “A Clear Path” (2008) by Michael Loke. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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