This week, the Episcopal Church in the USA took another two steps towards breaking from the worldwide Anglican Communion. On consecutive days, they affirmed that “any ordained ministry” is open to lesbian and gay persons, and then provided a way for local bishops to bless the unions between gay couples. These actions blew up the tender truce that has been in place for the last couple of years and it will most likely hasten the schism between Episcopals and the rest of Anglicans, especially the more conservative dioceses in the US and in Africa.
Both stances were seen as inevitable and simply descriptive of the way things are in the Episcopal Church, sort of finally matching the realities on the ground. But this week is about much more than homosexuals in ministry or the so-called “gay marriage” issue. I think it’s important to notice how this fits in a larger panorama of response to the authority of Scripture.
The decisions came out of a long-running debate about the Bible’s teaching on the nature of sexuality and the expression of it. There were numerous attempts at changing language and challenges to policies that would result in the normalization of homosexuality in the church. About 4 years ago, the Episcopal Church chose to consecrate an openly gay man, Eugene Robinson (whose family lives in Lexington), as Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson was also in a long-term relationship, which he has since pursued into “marriage” recognized by the state.
Robinson’s consecration was no shot over the bow of normalizing homosexuality—it was a direct hit. As a result, numerous parishes have withdrawn from their diocese or have come under the authority of foreign bishops, usually from Africa. In a few instances, legal battles have ensued over the disposition of church property.
Now come this week’s decisions, which many observers expected. The tenuous walls between Biblical faithfulness and social / political /relational correctness fell. One conservative Episcopal said “”I am afraid we are becoming a church of a fundamentalist left” and another said, ““It’s a clean sweep for the liberal agenda in the Episcopal Church. The orthodox are finished.”
That last comment is the perfect reminder of what is really at stake here. The issue is Biblical fidelity. Is the Bible true or not? Is the Bible authoritative or not? Do the truths and principles of Scripture “stand forever” (Is.40:8) or is there a place for a progressive revelation whereby the call to holiness shifts with changing social practices and moral judgments?
And most importantly of all: if this part of Scripture can be set aside in favor of some new understanding of sexual ethics, why not other parts of Scripture? Is there anything else in the sights of religious progressives?
Turns out, it was the opening address of this General Convention that showed us how much further we could slide. Presiding Bishop the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori denounced what she called “the great Western heresy”. What is this heresy that Christians should avoid and fight? The doctrine “that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.” Now certainly, in the West we do tend towards a more individualistic expression of faith. Certainly, we can learn from our brothers and sisters in other cultures about the nature of biblical community and that our faith is best formed in relationships with others.
OK, but that is not at all what Jefferts Schori said. She said that it is a heresy that individuals alone can be in a right relationship with God. But what she calls heresy, orthodox Christians have for years simply called the gospel. It is the doctrine of justification. Individuals sin (Rom. 3:23), are individually liable (Rom. 6:23) and stand under the horrible wrath of just and holy God. (Eph. 2:1-3) Jesus died as a substitute (Is. 53:3-6), taking the death penalty for sinners in act of redeeming love (Rom. 5:6-8, Eph. 2:4-8) Those who trust Him “are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom.3:24-25)
This experience of grace does not happen in a group or by heritage or ritual, but as a person responds to the gracious, saving invitation of God in Christ. Those who experience His remarkable salvation are then placed into His family, the church, “for He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility….so you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens and members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:14,19)
That is part of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3). If you compromise the essence of the gospel, in what sense can you still be called Christian? I know that will sound judgmental to some ears, but the question must at least be raised, if for no other reason than the souls of people who listen in these churches may be at stake.
Let me also hasten to say that there are many genuine brothers and sisters in Christ in the Episcopal and Anglican Churches who are just as horrified by this as I am. They are to be commended for their courage and faithfulness to hold forth for the truth of the gospel in the face of such persistent opposition from their friends. We must “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” (Eph.6:18)
The moral issues of the day – such as homosexuality and gay marriage – cannot be compartmentalized from the larger matters of Christian faith and the broad teaching of Scripture. That’s not just for Episcopals, but for all Christians. Ultimately, all things find their meaning—positively or negatively—in relationship to the bloody gospel and unchanging reign of Jesus. Those truths are not now—and never will be—up for a vote.