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Why I Want to Stay

By Wesley Hill

“Why would you want to be in the Episcopal Church?” an Episcopal priest friend asked me, sincerely. He didn’t mean to be unkind. He simply knew my deep conviction that same-sex marriage is a departure from the teaching of Scripture and was genuinely trying to wrap his mind around why someone who holds that view so tenaciously would want to belong to a church whose trajectory is moving in the opposite direction.

As I write these words — from Austin, as it happens, where the 79th General Convention is well underway, and where I have just preached in an Episcopal parish — my church is debating how much leeway it will allow to so-called traditionalists on marriage, partly under resolution B012. The current uneasy truce, as is well known, permits same-sex marriage throughout the church except in those dioceses whose bishops decline to allow it. Smarter minds and godlier hearts than mine have been debating how to proceed from here, and I don’t want to wander into the canonical weeds at this point.

What I’d like to do instead, very briefly, is to try to answer my friend’s question. Why would someone like me want to stay? And why am I hoping my progressive fellow Episcopalians find a way to make it possible for me to stay in good conscience and, Lord willing, serve this church as a priest?

Two words: family and witness.

Bishop Daniel Martins has spoken of his “conversion to the church” after being raised as an evangelical, and my story is similar. I grew up loving Jesus. My earliest childhood memories involve drawing pictures of the Bible stories depicted in vast and glowing stained glass in my Southern Baptist church sanctuary. In high school, I told my dad I thought God was calling me to a Baptist preacher. But the I didn’t have much of a sense of the Church as a family. I thought of it more along the lines of a voluntary organization: One ought to go along on Sunday mornings (and Sunday nights, and Wednesday nights), but one needn’t do so. What mattered above all was one’s individual relationship with Jesus, and, like the repentant thief on the cross, one could easily be with Jesus in Paradise without baptism, without Communion, without Church.

Something shifted for me, though, when I learned how idiosyncratic such a view is in light of Scripture and the history of the Church. God, I came to understand, does not will to save us without each other. And it is God, not we, who chooses the others with whom we will be saved. Certainly God may act outside the visible boundaries of the Church, but does not normally do so. We are saved not as individuals but as “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). Salvation just is churchly: We are saved insofar as we are incorporated into Christ’s body, Christ’s family.

What that means, I’ve come to believe, is that I must rejoice in or else suffer through whatever fate befalls that family, whether in judgment or in mercy. No matter how wrong I think the decisions of the Episcopal Church may be, I ought not — I cannot, in fact — try to escape its passage through judgment and redemption by extricating myself and looking for a “better” family somewhere else. That’s not how Church works. I don’t get to choose my family members, and I don’t get to decide our fate.

The second reason is witness. If I were to leave the Episcopal Church because I disagree with the majority of my fellow Episcopalians about the moral (and indeed ontological) status of same-sex marriage, the implication would seem to be that I think my view is a kind of “private” conviction, and I simply need to find the best niche market for it, in light of its rejection in my church.

But that’s not the way I think about the traditional Christian view of marriage. It’s not a “private judgment,” applicable only to those already convinced of its truth. Rather, traditional marriage is a divine given, part of the fabric of creation and of the redeemed order in Christ. It shall not be revised but renewed in the kingdom of God — when the earthly parable or mystery yields to its heavenly consummation (Mark 10:1-12; Eph. 5:21-33; Rev. 19:9).

What this means is that while traditional marriage can be lamented, rejected, or rebelled against, it cannot be undone. And therefore, my calling in the Episcopal Church, as I understand it, is not to defend traditional marriage so much as it is to bear witness to it — to point to it, to remind my brothers and sisters of its givenness and permanency, to highlight its scriptural contours and its ultimate destiny (Matt. 22:30), to hold it in trust until its truth and beauty can be seen again for what it is.

 

(In a later post, I may explain more fully my thoughts about staying, especially given my journey to the Episcopal Church from the Southern Baptist Convention. Until then, consider my reflections here: “Canterbury Testimonies and the Scandal of Christian Disunity.”)

11 COMMENTS

  1. I was born and raised Mormon, but am now a confirmed Episcopalian. I grew up believing in a “one true Church.” And by that, I am not talking about the “invisible Church.” I grew up believing that Jesus had, literally, one denomination on this planet that was fully and completely His. And that was the Mormon Church. So I am very familiar and in tune with the subtle (and often not so subtle) dialogue that surrounds this idea of “one true Church.” And whether or not you know it, you are beginning to hit very close to that kind of talk in this essay, which I actually enjoyed reading.

    So, I have to ask…do you believe that the Episcopal Church is Jesus’ one true Church? You say that you can’t “look for a better family” somewhere else. Why not, if the Episcopal family is not the “one true Family?”

    Why not become Catholic? Heck…why not become Mormon? Why not find a family that actually claims to be the one true family?

    I ask because my background makes me very curious about these kinds of issues. Unless you’ve actually been in a self-proclaimed “one true Church,” I doubt your senses are so in tune with the ways in which language is used to support and fortify such a belief. Thanks.

  2. Mr. Hill: While I laud your decision to stay within the “family” of the Episcopal Church, I wonder whether there is still a “family” worth preserving. In families, from my own experience, there is love even in disagreement. Having been exiled from an Episcopal parish renowned for its pro-gay-agenda militancy for having dared to speak my conviction that “gay marriage” is counter to all three legs of Hooker’s stool, it cannot be said with any degree of accuracy that the Episcopal Church is a family. At best it is an institution which like the Nazi party, engages in “thought control.” And like the Nazis, its thousand-year reign will be very short-lived. The “witness” aspect of your decision, again laudable, will cause you nothing but pain, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer found out. Are you prepared for that fate? And will Eric Metaxas write your biography?

  3. Well said, indeed. There is no salvation outside of the Abrahamic, and thus, the New Covenant Community. We are not “brides”, but the “Bride of Christ” as the “one holy catholic and apostolic church”. This contrasts so many of our “Protestant” assumptions, where the Reformers unwittingly were not just reacting to the abuses of the Medieval Roman Church, but to some of the grounded theology of the Patristics (and, thus, the assumptions of those drafting and approving the Nicean Creed).

  4. Having been a member of both a Southern Baptist church and an Episcopal church, I must say that i got more of a sense and experience of family in the Southern Baptist church. And I always felt that the Southern Baptists were much more committed to the idea of church than the Episcopalians. The Baptists were in their church on Sunday night and Wednesday night and often more than that, and not just on Sunday morning.

  5. The Church “family” is catholic…that is universal. Therefore your first reason–of being committed to one denomination of the Church as “family”–is not applicable. Those of TEC who reject the essentials…are not a part of the church family…those of other denominations who accept the essentials and believe the holy scriptures ARE family–and closer to you than your apostate Episcopal co-denominationalists.

    As far as witness goes–the witness of 100,000+ LEAVING TEC in the last 20 years or so, is a lot more potent than those of you who’ve doubled-down (usually keeping your head down too….so the bishop won’t notice…) on staying. The whole ACNA movement has garnered world-wide attention. Had their leaders just hung around in TEC, their witness–like your’s would of been muted.

    As one ex-TEC pastor I know said, if separation is wrong now–it must of been wrong in the Reformation too….which makes TEC and Anglicanism as a whole, illegitimate.

    • There comes a time when one has to say enough is enough. I’m not fond of schism, but the direction that the Episcopal Church has taken, decidedly against the Scriptures but in consort with secularism, I think calls for walking away.

  6. This might be the most important essay Covenant has ever published. May all God’s people remain one church together. There have been enough schisms. It’s time to find ways to pursue God together. Thank you Wesley for your ministry.

  7. This might be the most important essay that Covenant has ever published. Thank you for your ministry Wesley. There has been enough schism. We need to find ways to be the church together, even with those we disagree with. Some are Ephesians 3 Christians; some are Ephesians 5. But we should all be Ephesians 4, one in spirit and in truth.

  8. The author can find better family and a more effective witness in an ACNA diocese. So there must be other reasons for staying which he is not revealing (and perhaps does not even recognize). By staying, he is (at least indirectly) supporting heresies.

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