By John B. Chilton
The second use of this catechism is to provide a brief summary of the Church’s teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book.
-Book of Common Prayer, page 845
The Episcopal Church today is racked by divisions over sexual morality and the true interpretation of the Scriptures. Anyone who follows the news could not be blamed for concluding we are more about internal power and politics than outward mission and ministry. The Episcopal Church welcomes you, but who would want to visit?
And yet should an inquiring stranger drop in for a visit and pick up a Prayer Book they may stumble on the place to begin to appreciate us, our catechism. It is a remarkably clear-eyed and cogent outline of our faith, and sustains my trust that, with God’s help, Episcopalians are capable of discovering and teaching truth.
What does the catechism have to do with homosexuality or interpretation of scripture? Bluntly, what does it say about sin? It is not by chance that the catechism opens with the topic of our human nature:
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
Q. Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
A. From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.
Q. Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
A. Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.
We are endowed with freedom of choice; our actions cannot be excused as being predetermined by our nurture or nature. The question is what choices are wrong and separate us from God.
Several pages on, we arrive at the first explicit mention of sin:
Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.
Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
Q. What is sin?
A. Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.
Being human we like to see rules and regulations listed – the more easily to find the loopholes, beat the system, and yet come out righteous. In the gospels the Pharisees serve as foils for Jesus. The Pharisees seek to catch him out on technicalities in the law. He responds with the offer of a relationship with God. We are offered not the security of a checklist of dos and don’ts to get right with God, but the challenge to believe, to stake our life, on a relationship with God.
Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.
Q. What did the Messiah promise in the New Covenant?
A. Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give life in all its fullness.
Q. What response did Christ require?
A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments.
Q. What are the commandments taught by Christ?
A. Christ taught us the Summary of the Law and gave us the New Commandment.
Q. What is the Summary of the Law?
A. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Q. What is the New Commandment?
A. The New Commandment is that we love one another as Christ loved us.
Regarding scripture the catechism says in part:
Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
Q. How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?
A. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
Indeed. God does not stop speaking to the Church through scripture. The only question is, are we listening, and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seeking true interpretation of the Scriptures.
In a recent interview, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori expressed the belief that it is our vocation “to keep questions of human sexuality in conversation, and before not just the rest of our own church, but the rest of the world.” Can it be that in God’s grace we are ready to come to a new teaching on homosexuality? To be unafraid to entertain doubts about existing doctrine? To ask the question, is there anything about homosexuality that is per se a misuse of freedom and a wrong choice? To ask the question, are our beliefs about homosexuality driven by unfounded fears, and a failure to live in love and charity with our neighbors?
To inquiring strangers and cradle Episcopalians, I ask you not to concentrate on my words, but to go and savor the inspired words of the Episcopal Catechism. The full text is available at a pew near you. See also the online sources of the Book of Common Prayer provided here.
Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) specializing in applied game theory. He keeps the blog New Virginia Church Man.