By Nicholas Knisely
I’ve been a parish priest long enough that I’ve been through five General Conventions. I learned pretty early on to dread them. Not so much because I had anything to do with them, or frankly in the beginning even paid attention to them. I feared them because of what my parishioners reactions were going to be to actions that General Convention had taken, and with which they disagreed.
When I first started out in the priesthood the concerns were often about nuclear disarmament. General Convention would pass a resolution expressing the concerns of the Episcopal Church, and I would have a parishioner come into my office generally arguing that the Church was incompetent to be making such statements. Then it because gun control. Then it became the Episcopal Church’s stance on the government of Nicaragua. Lately it’s been the issue of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians. What I noticed over the years, that no matter what the issue, the person’s concern almost always ended at “The Church has taken a position that I disagree with and think is dead wrong. What do I do now? Do I find another denomination?”
My standard response was to remind my congregant that this church had a different understanding of dissent than other churches might have if you dissented from their version of Convention. When Convention takes a stance on a controversial secular or political issue, though that stance would be used to inform the workings of church structures, there was no expectation that individual Episcopalians would have to agree or even that they should agree with said positions. My standard quip to the parishioner was now that they were upset over something that Convention had done, they should rejoice that they had thus gained their full member in the Episcopal Church. (And then I would share my own lists of things I disagreed with. Like the move to the Revised Common Lectionary and …)
But none of that meant that we stopped being fully a part of the Church. The Episcopal Church really only expects that people will agree (ultimately) on the words used in our authorized liturgies, based as they are on Holy Scripture, the Traditions of the Church and our best use of human reason. We understand that people may need to dissent from even these on occasions, but the expectation is that the community as a whole holds to these as core vehicles that carry us to a full and healthy faith in Jesus and as such members of the community should be diligent in working out their doubts and concerns with them. (Yet another reason we call it the Book of Common Prayer.)
I was reminded of this common experience the other day when I read an increasingly common meme on some of the Anglican blogs that the Episcopal Church is no longer recognizably Christian. The argument most typically states that since the Presiding Bishop has made a statement that the hearer disagrees with or that doesn’t demonstrate a suitable doctrinal basis of the Christian faith, the Presiding Bishop is accused and summarily judged to be a “heretic” or more commonly a person who has repudiated Jesus and thus an apostate. I’m not willing to agree to any of the characterizations by the way, but I skip over their refutation because it’s the next step in the argument that I find most troubling. That step is to claim that since the Presiding Bishop has made a statement that the writer objects to, the millions of people who belong to the Episcopal Church are also therefore heretics and/or apostates who have materially repudiated Jesus.
It’s the argument that “as goes the Presiding Bishop, so goes the Episcopal Church” with which I find fault. The Presiding Bishop is not a form of a Pope who is recognized to speak authoritatively or infallibly for the Episcopal Church. She or he is simply the bishop who is elected by the other bishops to chair the meetings of the House of Bishops, and in recent times to oversee the administrative functioning of the Episcopal Church. So an argument that claims that any views of the Presiding Bishop are necessarily normative for the other bishops much less the whole of the Episcopal Church is just wrong. It’s the equivalent to saying that because the President of the United States makes a claim, all Americans now believe what he has said.
The real office of Primate in the Episcopal Church while titularly belonging to the Presiding Bishop, is actually carefully apportioned to the whole Church in the General Convention. But, now speaking as a parish priest, we’ve long recognized that General Convention often does not take its responsibility in the primatial role seriously. There have been many resolutions and canons passed by General Convention that simply represent the scoring of a political victory by one group or another within the denomination. Some of them are obviously political and some are more obscurely so. However, General Convention most clearly does express its primatial office when it authorizes liturgies for regular use and/or issues a new Book of Common Prayer.
Now, should the primatial authority of the Episcopal Church authorize a new Prayer Book that clearly and intentionally repudiates the sovereignty of Jesus, or denies the Doctrine of the Trinity or rejects the Creeds and other historic formulations of the universal Church, then I would agree that the Episcopal Church is no longer a church and that it has come time to leave for a place that is authentically Christian. But I do not see that such a thing has happened. At most you can argue that Episcopal Church has been overly tolerant of local option and/or questionable teaching by its members, but it has never authoritatively denied Christ.
I have had the real honor of working in ecumenical circles and in formal discussions with other denominations. When talking to denominations outside the Anglican Communion we assume that what they teach and believe is what is found in their authoritative documents and normative practices. Perhaps its time to ask that the Churches within the Anglican Communion with whom we are in Communion and the bishops of the Episcopal Church who are now claiming the Episcopal Church is non-Christian, should show the same courtesy to us?
The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.