Sunday, August 13, 2006
To the Editor:
I write in response to Pastor Les Kleffman’s piece in the August 11, 2006 edition of the Warren News (“Faith Forum: Is Church Still Christian?”) wherein he seeks to make the point that only churches “that tend to be traditional in moral values” are viable, and forwards a view that historic Christian Churches have “always held the Bible to be the inerrant, authoritative Word of God” by misrepresenting, if not outright slandering, the Episcopal Church.
As the Rector of a parish whose members reside in both Warren and Northampton Counties, and as one who actually attended the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church as a clerical deputy from the Diocese of Bethlehem, I feel compelled to clarify some of the errors, exaggerations and outright spin in his column.
First, there is no single, world-wide “Anglican Church.” The 38 churches of the Anglican Communion are all independent national churches, all with their own constitutions and polities. These churches do all share a three-fold ordained ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon; the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer both locally adapted to their situation and they all share a common bond with the See of Canterbury. But these churches are all independent.
So Kleffman’s first assertion that the Episcopal Church was “directed” to “repent” of Bishop Robinson’s consecration is in error because there is no single Anglican polity, and because we understand ourselves to be in communion with one another, no Church in the Anglican Communion can tell any other what to do.
Pastor Kleffman’s second error followed right on the first. It is true that election and consecration in 2003 of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire was controversial because he is an openly gay man in a life-long committed relationship; but nowhere—repeat nowhere-- in the Report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion (aka The Windsor Report) was the Episcopal Church called upon to repent of ordaining Bishop Robinson or of anything else.
We were called upon to express regret for the difficulty this has caused other Anglican churches in the Communion, and to seek to find the highest level of Communion possible given our differences. And this we did. But we are not done; the process is still ongoing and dialogue continues. It’s just that some are more impatient than others, which does make life interesting.
He claims that we would not vote on the divinity of Christ. He’s right. Neither the divinity of Christ nor the role of Scripture should be put up for a vote to score political points. Jesus is not a political football.
When a person is baptized in the Episcopal Church, he or she is asked “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?” We state the Lordship of Christ and his place as the head of the church in our worship, creeds and catechism which are all found in the Book of Common Prayer. At our ordinations, clergy must state that they do believe the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God and contains all things necessary for salvation.” The Book of Common Prayer is, in our polity, a constitutional document equal to or surpassing importance of our canons.
To state again in the form of a resolution what is already stated clearly and repeatedly in the Book of Common Prayer, our creeds and, for clergy, our ordination vows is both redundant and insulting. Besides, had we passed these redundant resolutions, folks like Pastor Kleffman would be castigating us for being hypocrites instead of slandering us as apostates. (Read more...)
I was there when Bishop Katherine Schori preached her first sermon after she was elected 26th Presiding Bishop, wherein she repeated a prayer written by a Christian mystic of the Middle Ages that likens God, and Jesus, to a nurturing mother. This was not a reinvention of the Trinity or the person of Jesus as Mr. Kleffman asserts, but rather Bishop Schori was making a point about the encompassing love of God.
To be sure, Schori is clear about her belief that the Gospel calls us to reach out and welcome all people; and that includes the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons into our common life. (See link.) Clearly, Pastor Kleffman disagrees with this; but this does not prove that our Church has either dispensed with Scripture or denied the divinity of Christ. It does prove that our understanding of the implications of the Gospel are different.
If the Pastor wants to disagree with me or with the teachings of the Episcopal Church for theological reasons, that’s fine. Then let him state his case and listen to mine, and let’s hash it out. I promise not to slander your tradition as a substitute for theological discourse.
Personally, I’d like to start the discussion with his blanket assertion that the Church has always held to an inerrant view of Scripture. Inerrancy is a rather late invention of a small segment of Protestantism that not even all Evangelicals can agree on. In my view, the doctrine of inerrancy errs because it turns the Bible into a kind of fourth person of the Trinity, and thus confuses the written words of Scripture with the person of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the eternal Logos (Word) and perfect expression of God, and it is to him that the Bible points.
Or we can debate about whether it is the job of the Church to reinforce conventional cultural values in any given era or to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on the culture. We have been down the road before: in our country, both slave-holders and abolitionists quoted scripture; as did loyalists and revolutionaries before them.
In the current debate about homosexuality, many Christians focus on Romans chapter 1; while other Christians, like me, focus on the lessons the early church particularly in the book of Acts. We see there God calling the Church to reach out to people previously marked as unclean. Then there is the example and action of Jesus himself and how he dealt with sinners, both Jew and Gentile, outside of the religious conventions of the day and how he touched and healed people, changing lives along the way.
But nothing I say will probably change Pastor Kleffman’s mind, which is not really my goal anyway. It is my intent to correct for your readers some of the lies and misinformation that he repeated in his column as fact. He not only misrepresented the part of the Body of Christ to which I belong, but the pastor also does violence to the cause of Christ through a reckless and insensitive characterization of the state of the souls of his sisters and brothers in Christ.
It is wrong when Pastor Kleffman characterizes us as people who believe in nothing. If anything, I have found that we are people who fit Tony Compolo’s description of “red letter Christians.” I agree with Jimmy Carter, a Baptist, who teaches that the entire Bible is to be understood through the words, actions and teachings of Jesus Christ himself.
I also agree with Billy Graham, who, as described in the profile printed in last week’s Newsweek, stated that Christians of good conscious can disagree about their interpretation of scripture. Graham also stated his reticence about determining in advance who is saved and who is not.
I know that both Graham and Carter would disagree with me about some of the implications I draw out of the Bible; but they at least have the grace in their writings and work not to mischaracterize other traditions and in the practice of their ministries have gone out of their way to work with Christians of every stripe because there is much more upon which we can agree.
In some ways, the Episcopal Church asks for the misunderstandings that columns like this portray. We ask for it because we are not a cookie-cutter denomination that requires everyone to believe alike and act alike to get into a pre-fabricated heaven. We are not unanimous, and we do our theological work out in the open for all to see. We are catholic and we are evangelical. There are liberals in our tradition, and there are conservatives who border on the fundamentalist. And there are lots and lots of others in between and we are all Christian and we are all Episcopalian. We believe that Jesus meets us and starts with us where we are now in our lives and not where we, or others, think we ought to be. We are a lot of things that are hard to pin down, but even in tense, tough times, we love God, we follow Jesus and we listen to the Holy Spirit as faithfully as we can. It’s messy and wonderful all at the same time.
All I can say to Pastor Kleffman and to people like him who seek to judge first and ask questions later is this: Disagree with us, debate us, even pray for us faithful, struggling, growing Christians in the Episcopal Church if you want. (I hope you do!) But please, Pastor, be careful whom you consign to hell or admit to heaven. I suspect that when we meet Jesus face to face we will all be surprised and humbled to find who is standing there with us.