BLESSING WHAT GOD IS HAVING US WITNESS

The other big news to come out of Episcopal-world / South Carolina-edition this week is that the Rt. Rev’d Charles vonRosenberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in SC (that is, those who’ve remained faithful to The Episcopal Church), “on July 8 granted permission for priests to bless the committed relationships of same-sex couples in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” according to an Episcopal News Service (ENS) report. “In authorizing the use of [The Episcopal Church’s 2012 authorized liturgy,] ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,’ vonRosenberg gave permission for priests to respond pastorally to couples who are in committed relationships, including those who have been married in states where same-sex marriage is allowed.”

CHARLES vonROSENBERG Bishop Provisional of South Carolina

This is big news, indeed. It represents not only a wider movement toward greater inclusivity but also, and chiefly, a process which has been grounded in substantial theological reflection over many, many years.  And that long and significant process has everything to do with the Holy Spirit’s apparent progress. As ENS reports, “Since [2012], more than 60 of the 110 dioceses of The Episcopal Church have allowed some form of liturgy for blessings of same-sex relationships. Regionally, 15 out of the 20 dioceses of Province IV – an area covering nine southeastern states – now permit the blessings. In the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, Bishop Andrew Waldo announced May 8 that he would permit the blessings.”

Then again, life-long covenants and the theology of human relationships is much more clearly a gospel issue than, say, property disputes – that being the other matter going on currently in South Carolina.

Some responded to my previous post about that other matter in SC – in which I called out the knee-jerk reaction of the anti-liberal conservatives as well as, in turn, the foolhardy anti-conservative liberalism – saying that, in doing so, I was choosing sides against justice. Sadly, they only prove my point that theological liberalism – which has been a genuinely orthodox Christian movement, yet hardly practiced in our church, or any church, today – is profaned nowadays, made into little more than an issue-determined litmus test for membership. That’s just sad.

But this isn’t that. This is a story worth telling.

That the majority of Episcopal dioceses have already approved this rite for blessing same-sex relationships, including most of the dioceses in the American southeast, and that ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant’ is meeting with such support is truly good news. On one level, it says that we are better able to move forward toward justice and inclusivity when we deal with more straightforwardly theological matters (not property, that is, even though the latter’s part of our mission, too). Accordingly, there will be deep conversation and prayer at 2015’s General Convention when the issue of marriage, itself, comes up, but let no one say this is the first time they’re hearing about it, nor let anyone say that the church hasn’t done sufficient and prolonged theological work around it.

I am reminded, on yet another level, that a huge part of the way the Holy Spirit’s helping usher forth this wider move toward justice is by bringing up such a topic not as an issue but an invitation, not as a political litmus test but, rather, a bright and open space in which we, God’s people, may ask how and in what ways God is blessing the lives of all God’s people: straight and gay couples alike; those who desire to have children, say, and those who wish to have no children, all the same.

Here’s a case in point:

I’m preparing to celebrate a wedding this weekend, and have been working with this couple for a long time. They are a wonderful couple. They know who they are and they know who God is calling them to become through their marriage. Specifically this weekend, they also know why and for what greater purpose they’re gathering friends and family. Like every other couple whose marriage I’ve celebrated, they live together; in fact, they have for 14 years! Like every other couple I’ve worked with (since 2013), when it came time to start planning the wedding liturgy, I showed them ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.’ And like every other couple since, they, too, adore and resonate with this newer language. They happen to be a man and a woman.  But this new liturgy, yes, for blessing same-sex relationships, is just as relevant to opposite-sex couples who are preparing to pray themselves into a life-long covenant as it for same-sex partners.

The language is more justice oriented, echoing profound themes of partnership and covenant. Compare the opening words of ‘The Witnessing & Blessing’ (scroll down to page 5), with those of the marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer .

See it? “A relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love,” instead of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” Or: “Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his life for the sake of the world,” strikes a different tone than “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Here, now, there is language of mutuality, partnership, balance, equal support, and, of course, love. Meanwhile, we’re still talking about a life-long, monogamous commitment.

I want to scream whenever I hear someone say “gay unions ruin the institution of marriage,” for, in fact, what I’m finding is precisely the opposite. I’m finding that, finally, all God’s people now have adequate language, fresh language to name eternal, holy truths.  We’re in a unique and rich moment as a church today. In the wake of a prolonged theological and prayerful conversation about human relationships and sexuality, following decades of discerning whether and how we are called to experience God in this work and these commitments, we are now able to utter new words which are truly new life for all couples — whether young or old, gay or straight, even those who are single and discerning or graying near the ears and married for 50+ years.

As we pray in that wonderful collect, “In the Morning” (BCP p.461), we have been given “the Spirit of Jesus” and, as such, our “words [are made] more than words.”  They are being made into new life.

PRAYING SOUTH CAROLINA

This morning in St. George, South Carolina, a very unfortunate trial begins, pitting the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina against The Episcopal Church (calling themselves in this case The Episcopal Church in South Carolina).  Those who’ve been even mildly following this tale will recall that in November 2012 a majority of the parishes of South Carolina, under the leadership of their bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Mark Lawrence, voted to leave The Episcopal Church.  Under the oversight of judge Diane Goodstein, the trial to determine, pretty much, who is the rightful overseer of The Episcopal Church in the Palmetto State is slated to last through next Friday, July 18.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today.  Peace?  Justice?  I suppose praying, as Jesus taught us, for “thy will” is a pretty good start. 

As it is, the whole affair seems unfortunate.  There is, on the one side of this fight, that egoistic vitriol and vaulted self-righteousness of those who cannot abide in participatory, representative movements of the Body of Christ; the very definition of what it means — or at least what it has meant since the 18th century — to be a practicing Anglican in this country.  And, on the other side, just think of all those (probably) millions of dollars being spent by The Episcopal Church on drawn-out legal affairs.  We should also admit that there has been such an emerging liberal orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church — the fundamental basis of which should shock no one — but which, unfortunately, nowadays, seems more aligned with secular progressive politics and less with sustainable, theological diversity in the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today. 

In the meantime, then, while we’re being honest and holding at bay the agendas of both sides, don’t quote to me Paul’s injunction against taking a fellow Christian to court (1 Corinthians 6).  Neither, for that matter, do I want to hear how this process clearly goes against Jesus’ conflict resolution plan, as given in Matthew 18 (vv.15-20).  Jesus and Paul are right.  We are wrong.  Yet while those injunctions in the New Testament are clearly the stated goal of those who practice life in the kingdom of heaven — and for a while at least Jesus’ followers were more akin to bringing the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth — we, the followers’ followers, have created an institution of this world with power and prestige and, yes, property.  That’s why it’s in the secular courts; that’s why a secular judge is dealing with this matter, starting today, in St. George, South Carolina.  If you want to cast stones, throw them both ways.

Instead, though, I’d suggest prayer.  But it really is hard to know what to pray today.

MARK LAWRENCE Bishop of South Carolina

I’ll suggest, for starters, that Bishop Lawrence, himself, should re-learn how to compose a Collect.  Writing a Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina yesterday, July 7, Lawrence offered “a prayer crafted earlier by the Very Rev. John Barr, soon to be retired rector of Holy Comforter, Sumter, which I have slightly adapted for this present trial:

Gracious and Sovereign Lord, we pray that your will be done during July 7—18th. May we want what you desire. Guide and be mightily present with Alan Runyan and the other attorneys who represent us and with those who testify on our behalf. May the courtroom be filled with the pleasant aroma of Christ, and at the end of the day, protect this diocese and its parishes that we might bring the redemptive power of the biblical gospel to the South Carolina Low Country, the Pee Dee and beyond. Let not our fear of outcomes tarnish our joy or deter us from the mission you have given us. Enable us to bless and not to curse those on the other side of this conflict. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in the power of the Holy Spirit make us victorious over-comers wherever this road leads us. For we ask all in the name above all names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

It starts well: praying for “your will,” and that we may “want what you desire.”  That the courtroom be filled with the “pleasant aroma of Christ” is a nice touch, although I don’t know what that would smell like, but then to pray that God “protect this diocese and its parishes,” those parties who, apparently, are preaching the “biblical gospel” is a bit heavy-handed.  That presumes your opponents really are something stinky!  I also have no problem with praying for your attorneys, but I’d also suggest that you may then want to pray for the attorneys who represent the other opinion.  “Enable us to bless and not to curse” is also a nice offering but, as you’ve stated, it’s for those “on the other side” and it’s hard to balance fighting language and peacefulness in the same line in the same prayer.

The gift of the Anglican tradition is that we’ve learned and, with the exception of Bishop Lawrence’s prayer, above, taught others how to write prayers that do not serve as a political rallying cries, issuing forth their own heavy-handed agendas.  Rather, we’ve developed the patient craft of praying Collects that enable God’s people to say, time and again, “thy will be done.”  This principle goes both ways: resisting those who are conservative just as much as those who preach liberal messages.  This principle is not only important but holy and good.  This principle which creates, in effect, a church constituted solely as a praying body, gathered under one Lord, Jesus Christ, is perhaps the only thing that will, in the end, save North American Anglicanism — positioning our Christian movement to be represented as the one, trustworthy place in our communities that’s authentically working on building true diversity and real community, grounded not in our moment but for eternity.

I’d say the Collect from last Sunday (Proper 9) is the perfect one to pray:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BY SCHISMS RENT ASUNDER AND HERESIES DISTRESSED

Perhaps it’s an issue between South Carolinians – a vocal progressive minority in the Episcopal diocese and their theologically conservative bishop and, let’s be honest, most likely the bulk of that diocese.  In October 2012, after the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence (SC) had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry.  Immediately, the South Carolina Standing Committee announced that that action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”  On Nov. 15, the Presiding Bishop offered a pastoral letter to the faithful in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church, a letter which affirmed our much-treasured Anglican comprehensiveness and offered a compelling vision of the contested core at the center of our lively tradition.  That being said, the Bishop of Springfield is also correct to assert that Jefferts Shori offered a fairly one-note legalistic document when a message of nuance and grace and love was best intended. And on Nov. 17, the majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina voted to affirm the actions of their bishop and diocesan leadership and disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.

BISHOP MARK LAWRENCE
of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The issue, as I’m sure it’ll be reported, is going to be about yet another fight between a liberal Episcopal Church and conservative Diocese of South Carolina, or between a left-leaning bunch in the diocese and their right-wing bishop, or between those who uphold biblical faith and others who are theological revisionists.  Yet not one of those interpretations would really get to the core of the issue.

This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church — and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.

This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter.  In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church.  The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.'”  In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”

From the Greek, schisma, meaning to tear, shism is an intentional separation from the body.  The New Testament records the apparent tendency of some believers to focus on particular theological sticking-points and isolate those issues as the issue — in turn, establishing that those who disagree with them are the false believers.  That’s why there’s no biblical distinction between schism and heresy.  The Greek verb ‘aireomai (from ‘airesis, heresy) means to choose or to prefer, a tendency in theology, according to Karl Rahner, of taking “a truth out of the organic whole which is the faith and, because [one] looks at it in isolation, [one] misunderstands it.”  There is no right theology without right relationship or, in hip seminary-speak, no such thing as orthodoxy without orthopraxis.  That so-called ‘false brethren’ were separating themselves from the body and setting up churches and interpretations of their own in early Christianity seemed an established fact (Acts 20:30, Col. 2:18), and Jesus himself predicted that that would happen (Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:39).  Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament literature is concerned with community formation and ensuring that churches stay together, no matter what, and only when significant brokeness is at hand and the offender is unrepentant shall the bonds of fidelity be severed.  This is a constant theme in the letters of Paul, whose own ministry was constantly undermined by those who came in after he left and un-did what he worked so hard to build, and the Gospel of Matthew, in particular; see Matthew’s entire 18th chapter about community norms and, with specific reference to a process by which offenders should be heard and tried, Mt. 18:15-20.

Outside of the New Testament, the technical term, schism, first emerges in Irenaeus’ c.180 CE polemic, Adversus Haereses, written against the popular gnostic heresy.  “Schism” shows up in book IV, chapter 33.7, and yet that entire chapter is a case-in-point of this larger issue — namely, that relationship with the whole body, no matter whether you may disagree about particular points of interpretation, is an essential ingredient to right belief.  Needing a better editor, the chapter is entitled: “Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both testaments, and diligently reads the scriptures in company with the presbyters of the church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament.”  Section 7 continues: “[The true spiritual disciple] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, — men who prate of preace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.  For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.”

Although some will argue, today, that schism and heresy are two quite different things — heresy having to do with issues of doctrine and schism having to do with relationships — that distinction is nowhere found in early Christian literature.  Further, I’m not certain how that distinction can be maintained with theological integrity, even today.  In the modern era, we’ve seen the Roman Church try to do so with a certain, um, clunky-ness.  The Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offered a well-intentioned olive branch to the Eastern churches and Anglican Communion, trying to straddle a fine line between welcoming them, even accepting them, but not accepting that they are fully members: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”  In this painstaking attempt to distinguish between heresy and schism, I have to say I’m even more confused about my standing in their eyes: I suppose I’m one of their brothers, though an imperfect one.  (Once, I flippantly said to a member of the Roman church, “I guess to you all we’re a bunch of heretics,” to which he replied: “No, you’re just schismatics.”  Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse and neither ‘welcome’ is better.)

The irony in this, for some, is that I, an Episcopal priest and, therefore, schismatic, am writing about the sin of schism.  But my own faith journey led me to accept my Protestant heritage and yet seek Communion in apostolic, catholic Christianity.  For me, it was the Episcopal Church which helped me find a voice and a home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  It could’ve been the Roman Church, I suppose, but in the course of my desire to connect my life to an apostolic, catholic body the real issue I confronted was what issues I wanted to struggle with over the course of my life and ministry.  As a Roman Catholic, I suppose, I would struggle with issues of theological exclusion and doctrinal uniformity.  As an Episcopalian, I would struggle with conflicts caused by being too inclusive and, sometimes, doctrinal sloppy-ness.

It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church.  Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.”  All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self.  Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.