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Why Stay in The Episcopal Church

By Leander Harding

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.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Newbigin’s model is of course attractive to anglicans because it makes room for a use of the term ‘catholic’ not directly related to the Roman Catholic Church (there are, in addition, pentacostal Roman Catholics and evangelical Roman Catholics). One wonders as Anglicanism splinters as a global and local reality, indeed insisting on its local and national identity above all, it is really able to claim it is a catholic church in the sense traditionally claimed. That things are broken is not hard to see, nor the charge to stay and do what one can. But this also makes Newbigin’s congenial frame of reference dated or proven not durable on the ground.

    • A map and a compass is still a handy thing. Having historical continuity but grave question about right doctrine is not only an Anglican problem. You can bet your Pachamama on it.

      • I get it that at Lambeth 1 there was good reason to believe Anglicanism had a form of catholicism to rival and even replace the RCC. The Christian Century and the Sunday School movement coming out of the University of Chicago believed in a day when the world would be united as a Christian body and indeed would burst the earthly bonds of denominationalism. The RCC was an Italian or Irish immigrant church and it would simply die out on the soil of NA. Did not happen. What did happen is that anglicanism redefined catholicism to mean something like local non-evangelical church with vestments and creeds. That is now dying a slow death. It is against this backdrop that Newbigin seems out of touch in the way he framed matters. His compass developed massive electrical interference and it ceased to function.

        • I don’t think he particularly the North American situation in view at all. The whole thing is more of an inventory of paradigms also Avery Dulles

          • Good. But it changes nothing about the capacity to use the word ‘catholic’ as if it floats above the concrete Catholic Church as a reality on the ground. Especially after Vatican II and especially in the light of realities in anglican ‘communion’ churches globally.

          • We are talking at Cross purposes. I make no claims for the catholicity of TEC. Traditionally Anglo-Catholics have made such appeal. TEC has some claim to historical continuity. A pure claim I don’t think even Rome can assert. The East has a better claim but fragile in other ways. Confessionalism and Pentecostalism fall to the ground in their own way and all these assurances fall to the ground together in their contentment with schism and lethargy with regard to the prayer of the Son for Unity in and through him.

            I didn’t understand your question about doctrinal error. I meant that the spiritual disease of contemporary Atlantic Christianity is naivety about human wickedness and a merely this wordly hope often politicized with just a nod to judgment and death. This seems to me to be found among and across otherwise divided churches.

          • My point is simply one can say ‘I am an evangelical’ or ‘I am a pentecostal.’ Can one say ‘I am a Catholic’ and have people think that means someone not Roman Catholic? No.

            You said doctrinal error was not the possession of Anglicans alone and then said original sin was being rejected for those claiming what you call ‘historical continuity.’ That seems to be your rubric for the Catholic Church.

            I have said nothing about ‘historical continuity’ though I understand it to be an anglican claim, now very difficult to justify. Monarch as head of an established Church whose ABC is primus for global anglicanism and warrant for historical continuity? This has thinned out to disappearance.

            Catholicism isn’t mere historical continuity in any event.

          • We seem to be flying about 50,000 feet above the faithful in TEC pews. There is first our pastoral responsibility. Funerals, weddings, outreach programs, the dying, children enrolled in Sunday schools, historic connection and real sacrifices to a given parish, these realities also argue for clergy staying put and doing their duty. The faithful are largely unmoved by our quibbles. Perhaps rightly so. Greater minds than mine are speaking above in the comments. I just hope the faithful souls in our pews join this discussion.

          • The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a better direct resource for “original sin.” I found this essay a bit individualistic.

  2. Grateful, as always, for any reference to Lesslie Newbigin as Leander knows from our many years in discussion of him, et.al. And Leander already knows, as it happens that I’ve reached a different conclusion, yet based on similar reasoning.

    Discovering that TEC has no “language” for this, my certificate of dissolution simply indicates that “for reasons not affecting moral character”, I have resigned holy orders as this church understands them with respect to obedience to episcopal authority. I have not renounced my ordination vows, per se. As such, I can seek (though at this time I’m not inclined) licensure in another judicatory. In short, I am (after the order of Melchizedek) a priest forever, but no longer in TEC. In my more evangelical sensibility, I add that my priesthood is given through baptism and as such continue in the priesthood of all believers!

    This distinction, I’m informed, may need to be given more credence as other clergy discover, as I have, that “holy orders” and “being a company man” in TEC are now, for all intents and purposes, synonymous. I didn’t subscribe to that, de jure, but over 44 years of ordained life have discovered that in the culture of identity politics, it’s true, de facto. I have no plans to be “a company man” in another institutional context, and so, for now am very content, having “resigned my commission” after over four decades of service to Christ’s people under TEC auspices.

    My apologia extends to the fact that as an ecumenical Christian, I cannot be faithful to an institution that defies even the most fragile hold on ecumenicity represented by the Anglican Communion.

    TEC has now renamed and rebranded itself twice in my ordained life. It is poised (and posturing) as an “international” church, without benefit of accountability to any body larger than itself. This is the ultimate result of schism, upon schism; albeit autocephalous churches posturing as “The ___ Church.”

    I expect to remain an Anglican Christian of evangelical catholic persuasion experiencing the urgency of “ut Unum sint” in these remaining years of my life. I’m going to continue working toward visible unity among Christians and reconciliation among the Abrahamic faiths, eschewing syncretism in both contexts. I’m a disciple of Jesus, who prayed that we all be One, free of maintaining institutional fabric, though that may be the call of some.

    For now, as NT Wright recently said, “Let’s make Agape great again!”

  3. Everything Harding writes is wonderful and right on, until the penultimate paragraph (which is rather a non sequitur after the first paragraphs in which he underlines his Christian orthodoxy).  Now he give an excuse that does not connect at all with me in this situation.   If there were no other orthodox church options (if TEC was the only church), I might think differently.

    “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.”  

    This paragraph does not move me … except to disappointment. TEC is not just broken, it is apostate.   Big difference.    Harding totally ignores what the Apostle Paul wrote (as in pronouncing anathema for preaching another gospel, as in coming out from among them and not participating in their sin and heresies).   It is perfectly valid for orthodox leaders in TEC to convince their clergy and congregations to leave with him, to flee the sin of this pansexual death-dealing sect.   As I say, other options to serve the Lord in broken but essentially faithful churches exist. 

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