August 22, 2007

Why Others Stand As Well

In an interview entitled, “Why We Stand,” published on the web site of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, former church history professor the Rev. Dr. Leslie Fairfield, describes his view of the present division in The Episcopal Church. In doing so, he presents a fair view of his own faith position, but paints a barely recognizable picture of those with whom he disagrees. As one of those, I would like to take this opportunity to offer an alternative portrayal.

Fairfield dates the origin of our present division into “opposing camps” to the early 19th century, and the introduction of biblical criticism — with its scholarly examination of Scripture, leading to conclusions that challenged ideas such as Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch, and developed theories about how the Gospels were composed. However, he might as easily have traced this stream of critical thinking back to the time of the Enlightenment, or even earlier to the Renaissance, when thinkers such as Erasmus began to grapple with the text of Scripture in critical and scholarly ways. Which is not to say that even earlier scholastics and theologians of the Patristic era did not also engage in a critical examination of the texts, using the reasonable tools at their disposal to harvest the benefit of close inspection. The church has been wrestling with Scriptures for as long as those texts have been in its keeping.

Fairfield, however, loses this long historical view of the church’s theological richness, and instead focuses on what he calls “Modernism.” Unfortunately, he then proceeds to attribute to this movement a whole range of opinions (as “logical conclusions”) that few, if any, of those who consider themselves progressive would think either logical or defensible.

Fairfield produces Bishop James Pike — last century’s favorite whipping boy — but fails to acknowledge the origins of Pike’s doubts in his own personal loss, and the extent to which Pike was seen as a peripheral and tragic figure, allowed to keep his seat in the House of Bishops more out of charity than conviction. Bishop Pike no more represented the mainstream of Episcopal thought then than Bishop Spong does now.

On the contrary — speaking for myself but knowing I represent a goodly number of those tagged “re-appraisers” — I can affirm each and every statement that Fairfield describes as “Classical Biblical and Anglican theology” and reject the doctrines he attributes to Modernism.

It is often said that you can only have a reasonable discussion with those with whom you disagree when you can state the opposite side’s case in language they recognize and affirm. Fairfield doesn’t really want to engage in dialogue, however. He already thinks he has the Truth sown up, and any who disagree with him are beyond the pale. He feels “there is no halfway point... between these two opposing religions” — and so has created not simply a straw man but a straw church to assail, rather than a reasonable articulation of the opposite side with which intelligent debate might be undertaken. This is tragic, in that it obscures the things about which we really do disagree — which have little or nothing to do with his caricature of Modernism, in which few progressive Episcopalians will recognize themselves portrayed.

Rather, we will stand upon Christ’s Gospel — which teaches us that we are to love God and our neighbor as ourselves; which means, in part, to give to every human being the respect and dignity worthy of one who bears the image of God; to take the Scriptures seriously and as authoritative indications of God’s will — but as inspired, not dictated, and requiring the employment of the wealth of rational and spiritual tools at our disposal in order to, as Richard Hooker said, “reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth.”

Here we stand — ready to worship the One God — in Trinity of Persons, Incarnate in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world — with any who will stand with us on the basis of this Faith.

Tobias Haller BSG

This essay appeared in somewhat different form at Lionel Deimel's website.


Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Tobias. This is a worthy response to Dr. Fairfield's portrayal of the Episcopal Church.

I agree that we can't begin to engage in genuine argument or dialogue until we characterize the other side's position in a way that they can say, "Yes, that's what I'm saying."

As an Anglican Centrist who sees truth (and error) on both the Left and the Right, and as a Creedal Christian who embraces the Nicene Creed as "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (BCP, p. 877), I think that one of the problems with some of the conservative portrayals of the Episcopal Church these days is that they paint with far too broad of a brush.

I note, for example, that Dr. Albert Mohler, the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has recently said (using the Episcopal Church as his primary example) that acceptance of heresy precedes acceptance of homosexuality. We should expect, therefore, that every gay Episcopalian and everyone who supports them is a devotee of Bishop Spong.

The trouble is that there are plenty of homosexual Episcopalians and their supporters who embrace the orthodoxy of the Church's historic Creeds.

Curiously, we hear very little about that from conservative critics of the Episcopal Church.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you that Rev. Fairfield paints with a broad brush and creates something of a straw man.

On the other hand, it’s clear to me from a lifetime in the Episcopal Church that there is a significant part of it that believes something approaching what Fairfield describes, if not confessionally, then functionally. In my opinion, that proportion has been increasing and exerts a significant influence on ECUSA’s leadership, and quite a bit more on General Convention.

Where I think Fairfield comes closest to the mark is in his description of the Episcopalian view of the Scriptures. What the “employment of the wealth of rational and spiritual tools at our disposal” frequently means in practice is using those tools to explain why the Gospel of John is nothing more than a curiosity, why the epistles are of second-class status, and why the words of Jesus are to be privileged above all else (turning the concept of “Apostolic” we claim to confess in the Creed on its head) – though only some of those words count, and we’ll use the same tools to tell you which ones. I’ve had this, or a version of it, said to me countless times in conversations with progressives since GC03, and I’m sure it didn’t appear out of thin air at the time.

If you want this type of caricature to disappear, then those of you that can affirm these statements need to start correcting those that can’t – or, at the least, making very clear they don’t represent the teaching of ECUSA – even if they are your allies in other socio-political pursuits.

John D Bassett said...

A well-written response, Tobias. I wish I could put in the hands of every member of a dissident parish or diocese. I also appreciate how calm and respectful you are. Though basically a liberal myself, I just cringe when I read some of the venomous posts on Thinking Anglicans. You model reason and respect. Thank you.

Bryan, having spend a lot of my youth in the biretta belt, I was always struck by how queer those archconservative Anglo-Catholics were! Based on my experience, the acceptance of homosexuality leads to the Reserved Sacrament and the Rosary. So maybe Dr Mohler should worry. If those Southern Baptists go gay, well the lace cottas and the thuribles may not be far behind.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Bryan, Phil, and John, for the comments.

I want to address Phil's comment on two levels in particular, though. Although there is certainly a Modernist stream in Episcopalianism, I think it is far from predominant. "Significant" it may be, but then again, it depends on what one means both by "modernism" and "significant."

I would say that the stream of Modernism portrayed by Fairfield is very narrow and shallow indeed, and of limited influence.

But I think it also important to point out that what Phil describes as the "Episcopalian view of the Scriptures" with a weighting to the Gospels over the Epistles, or a special status for John's Gospel (I'm not sure I'd say "curiosity," but certainly it's different!) is not a modernist invention, but has long been recognized within the broad stream of Christian thinking. I could point to the "red letter Baptists" for example, and that is not a novel phenomenon. Hooker, for example, goes to great pains to distinguish between different sections of the Bible and the various weight to be given to them in making decisions -- and he ridicules the Puritans for taking every word of Scripture as somehow "equal" when it is plain that many passages are of limited application in terms both of time and space; and even the early Fathers recognized that only an allegorical interpretation of certain passages made any sense to the heart of faith.

So it is true that this assertion (that some portions of Scripture are of eternal significance while some are no longer binding) does not appear out of thin air -- but the recognition of this reality, and the process of making the determination of which portions of Scripture remain eternally relevant and which are subject to being set aside as no longer relevant is not a novel invention of the last century, but goes back to the time of the Apostles themselves. Indeed, it is the idea that every word of Scripture is equally significant that is relatively "novel."

The process of "reappraising" Scripture began with the Apostles, following the example of Christ (who overturned the dietary laws, and revoked the divorce permission granted in the Law of Moses, and nuanced an understanding of the Sabbath regulation in the Decalogue). The Apostolic Council overturned the clear teaching of the Law concerning circumcision. The early church overturned the requirements of the Apostolic Council with reference to eating blood (even though this was not a dietary law under Judaism, but a serious offense established in the Creation accounts and held as highly significant by the prophets and the Apostles themselves) and the later church disregarded the explicit prohibitions on usury and any number of other regulations.

The Reformation established general guidelines concerning "matters of rites and ceremonies" as opposed to the "laws which are called moral." This distinction is unknown in the Torah itself, of course, though hints of a basis for this distinction begin to appear in the prophets. The issue, then, is to decide which laws belong in which category. I think it is quite possible to show that the few explicit statements in Scripture concerning same-sexuality fall not into the "moral" law but under the ritual or cultural understandings of the people of those times. If that is true, then this legal restriction can be set aside without damage to the central issues of the faith.

I have asked any number of conservatives to explain why this is a moral issue, and all of the arguments I have been offered to date take the form of begging the question ("the Bible says so" -- but as I've shown, we already disregard many of the laws in Scripture, and I'm not just talking about the dietary laws) or applying some form of "natural law" argument (itself unscriptural, and subject to cultural prejudices and false understandings of nature).

Where Fairfield's caricature rings false is in his accusation, which Bryan echoes in that Baptist's comment, that an acceptance of the possibility that same-sex relationships may be capable of the same moral status as mixed-sex relationships is somehow linked with heresy on the central matters of the Christian faith. That is not only false, but unhelpful. I am as happy as the next person to critique the half-baked notions of Bishop Spong. But few people I know take him seriously enough to warrant much effort in debunking him.

June Butler said...

Tobias, I have had similar conversations with conservatives as you, and they are fairly useless. To put it bluntly, I think it's mostly cultural, the "ick" factor in operation, for lack of a better term. I've pretty well given up initiating those conversations, but I'll have the discussion if another brings up the subject first.

What can be wrong with viewing the Gospel as the lens through which we read the rest of the Scriptures?

As to the heresy accusations, they are, as you say, nonsense.

I came to the Episcopal Church late in life, and I have not read either Pike or Spong, the names I hear mentioned so often, so their writings did not influence me.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

I think that Phil's point about some of the views espoused by some progressives is important and should be taken seriously - particularly when those views translate into practices that undermine the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

In the midst of the current Left vs. Right power struggle, I think that our Baptismal Covenant vows (and, for those among us who are ordained, our ordination vows) put us under an obligation to say "no" when that struggle takes us outside the boundaries of our Anglican heritage. And we have an obligation to reaffirm the norms that make our common life (and our common prayer) possible.

To me, that's part of what is entailed in the Baptismal Covenant vow to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship ..." (BCP, p. 305). And it's definitely part of what we clergy sign on to when we make and sign the "Oath of Conformity."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Grandmère, and Bryan.

I agree, Bryan, that when someone clearly steps outside the rules, by design or by accident, a warning call should go up. As a person under vows in community, as well as being bound by the Oath of Conformity and the Baptismal Covenant, I take rules seriously. This is why I have in the past critiqued inaccurate portrayals of the Philadelphia 11, and continue to speak against knowingly administering communion to the unbaptized. (I'm not against discussing the issue, but until the canons are changed people should not deliberately violate them. I understand there are pastoral realities to address, and think they should be addressed; the issue is very complicated, and perhaps I'll say more on this at another time.)

Where I disagree with Phil concerns the extent to which heretical (or erroneous) ideas have in fact been expressed. Personally, I have found more serious heresy expressed among the opponents of same-sex relationships than among the supporters -- and I mean really serious heresies that undercut the doctrine of the Incarnation -- and this from people who claim to be "orthodox." They may not realize they are doing this, but it is one of the reasons I find their arguments to be less than convincing.

The anecdotal evidence for heresy or error one hears about is really just that -- it gets press because of the tension of the times. Is there a degree of Modernism (in the strict sense) among Episcopalians? Yes, to a small degree. But I think you will find exactly the same kind of thinking among Roman Catholics, American Baptists, and Methodists; perhaps less among Antiochian Orthodox or Southern Baptists -- but they will have their own peculiar notions.

In short, I think we need to stick to the presenting issue and not wander off into broad-brush accusations of heresy such as Fairfield's or the recent screed from Akinola.

Anonymous said...

I am with Phil on this. I visited GTS when my spouse was planning to go to seminary. I met with the Dean who casually told me how much he liked the writing and teaching of Jack Spong. When the Dean of the "mother" seminary is a devotee of Spong, is it a stretch to say that Spong's theology occupies a prominent place in what "mainstream" Episcopalians teach and believe? I can recount experiences at GTS (condondation of bestiality - denial of the Resurrection) that leads me to the same conclusion as Dr. Fairfield has articulated. I do know gay priests whose theology is far more traditional than that of Jack Spong, but to suggest that he is not at all representative of a significant part of TEC's "progressive" wing is not consistent with my observations and experiences.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think the problem lies in the nature of anecdotal evidence. Such incidents you describe will "stick out" because they are noticeable. They will make a strong impression. But a careful study would show that these represent a small minority, not the main body. They represent individual opinions, not whole large bodies.

As to Jack Spong, while I disagree with much of what he says, it is important to note that there is also a good deal of rather old fashioned thinking in his work. It might have been helpful to know what the Dean thought was helpful in Spong's writing, and not to assume that it was only his errors that were being admired.

If you want to know where the Episcopal Church stands, you don't go to the statements of individuals, even important ones. In the same way, one doesn't look to the statements of individual Roman Catholics, unless they've received the approval of the higher authorities in the form of an imprimatur. (That the pope also makes mistakes, as I note in my next post, is significant.) IF you want to know what TEC teaches, you go to the official body of documents authorized for and by the whole church, not the theories of a few individuals.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Tobias but I think you have OD's on Kool Aid. I can't find one thing that I can say the TEC officially teaches. The BCP - well, it teaches that the unbaptized do not receive communion. That is ignored by more than a few "progressives." Marriage as the life-long union of one man and one woman? Nah! Honored almost as much in the breach as in the observance, both as to the life-long part as well as to the one man one woman part. Did Jesus rise on the third day? Well - maybe it was mass hysteria. Or maybe it was simply a way to tell a good story that would resonate with the listenters. We could go on and on. You folks practice a different religion than what was inherited from the reformers or from our catholic Fathers. I have given up on it. Won't go to ANY Episcopal church, even if it is "orthodox. Can't support RCRR, abortion, same sex marriage, anti-Israeli policies, etc. Jack Spong is only a minor symptom of the problem. The disease is far more wide-spread.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Your reaction is, I think, far more hysterical than my own. I hope you find a perfect church that meets your needs. But I think you will find that in every human society there are those who don't follow the rules. No human society if perfect, because it's made of imperfect humans, and churches make mistakes just like nations. That's an article of Anglican Doctrine you might not like to hear, but it is one that I think is manifestly demonstrable.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Anonymous wrote: "You folks practice a different religion than what was inherited from the reformers or from our catholic Fathers."

Actually, the practice of the faith as currently embodied in the liturgies of the BCP is quite orthodox and in continuity with the historic catholic Christian faith. The burden of proof for claiming otherwise falls on the critic. Show us some examples in the BCP's liturgies where we depart from or repudiate the faith of the Church.

BTW, it's not the BCP which teaches that the unbaptized are not to receive communion. That's in the canons (Canon I.17.7: "No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church."). Like the BCP, the canons also embody the norms of our doctrine and discipline.

The problem is when we Episcopalians arrogate to ourselves an authority we do not possess - such as changing the wording of the BCP, conducting liturgies that aren't authorized by General Convention, preaching sermons that repudiate the theology we then turn around and corporately affirm in the Eucharistic prayers, etc.

In making a blanket charge of apostasy, I think you're overstating the case. The orthodox norm is there in our liturgies and canons. The problem is when we choose not to abide by that norm.

Does violation of the norm happen? Yes. And it's probably always happened. And I quite agree that when it does happen, it's wrong. However, just because some violate the norms, that doesn't mean that EVERYONE in the Episcopal Church thinks this is a good idea.

So it won't do to paint with the broad brush that characterizes every single Episcopalian as though we've all been drinking Spong-Aid. Lacking overwhelming and irrefutable empirical evidence to the contrary, that's an instance of the fallacy of converse accident - which is the error of generalizing from atypical or exceptional instances.

Anonymous said...

Tobias - I'd like to be clear that I don't hold the view that "every word of Scripture is equally significant." At the same time, I disagree with you that the Church Catholic privileges the Gospels over the Epistles in such a way that we can pit one against the other. Although "The Gospels are the heart of all the Scriptures," (Roman catechism) Holy Scripture was viewed in the Apostolic age, and continues to be viewed in the Catholic Tradition, as a seamless whole. "All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ." (ibid.)

Again, though St John's Gospel was apparently created for the purpose of catechesis, and not as a historical document, that gives no warrant to assume it is unreliable as a source of Christ's teachings. It was included in the canon - as were the Epistles - because the early Church viewed it as of Apostolic origin, or, at the least, faithful to the Apostolic deposit.

Yes, it is a generalization - I accept it, you don't - but, what has repeatedly been put to me has been your argument (beyond it, to be fair) as a way to get rid of troublesome passages. We can put sexuality aside for purposes of this discussion; naturally, "No one comes to the Father except through me" is unpopular; and many manner of insults have been directed my way when I've pointed out that Jesus speaks at length about the risk of not entering the Kingdom - this "isn't consistent with the Jesus I know," the passages are glosses, etc.

I don't contend that progressives are wrong, just that they're only telling half the story. It's both/and, not either/or.

One more thing: your examples of "reappraising" Scripture fall short of applicability to ECUSA's case, as the "reappraising" was done either by Our Lord or the whole Church acting in council. I disagree that ECUSA, or even the Anglican Communion, has the authority to do the same, as it represents only a small fraction of the Church as a whole. Get Rome and the Orthodox to agree with you – heck, at least be neutral – and we'll talk.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Phil, we will have to disagree on a number of points.

As an Anglican, I do not trust notions such as "the whole church acting in Council" to be free of error. Each national or particular church must act as if it were the whole church. This is a very important point of Anglican Doctrine. It is offset by the humility that admits that the church errs from time to time. BTW, the decision to overturn the Apostolic Council's teaching on eating blood was not a decision of the undivided church. The Eastern Orthodox Canons still forbid the practice. Since Rome and the Orthodox don't agree on this, I see no reason to look to them for agreement on anything else. If something is true and right it is true and right no matter who agrees with it.

Although I can accept the notion put forth in the Catechism, it doesn't follow through in practice, and even the Roman Catholic Church does not really treat the Scripture as "a seamless whole" when it comes to the hard work of making decisions.

I think the idea of salvation solely through Christ can be made palatable to most people if it is put in the terms of Vatican II: Christ is the cosmic reality through whom people come to know God. (I'm not sure we actually disagree on this one!)

The RCC usually deals with troublesome passages by ignoring them. What happened to the rule that women should cover their heads in church? I take it the argument against Paul -- if one were to be made -- would be to recognize this as a local custom or bit of cultural baggage, even though Paul connects it with the theology of creation! Surely, you admit that there are culturally conditioned portions of the Scripture; as well as some difficult, if not contradictory, passages to be reconciled.

So this is where I find that I must stand. I grew up as a Roman Catholic, but I have since come to accept the Anglican Way as not only more intellectually persuasive, but is also closer to the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

Tobias, thanks for your reply. I'm kind of where Bryan+ is, so maybe you and I will have to agree to disagree - though I suspect we agree on a lot. Enjoy your weekend.