Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Two Conservative Bishops

Stacey, a member of my former parish in Philadelphia, the Memorial Church of St. Luke, asked me to write about the church I'm attending now. While I'm still an Episcopalian, I've been going to Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Bloomington because I have to work Sunday mornings. Neither of the Episcopal churches in the Bloomington-Normal area have afternoon or evening services. And when I'm back home in Elkhart, I usually attend Mass at St. Vincent's Catholic church with my family. I've considered converting to Roman Catholicism--even attending RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) classes twice--but always dropping out. If I believed the Roman Catholic Church were what Father Richard McBrien says it is--a collegial church governed by a consensus of the bishops--I might have joined. But from my vantage point, it's still very much a monarchy headed by the Bishop of Rome. Also, I'm not keen on a church which insists on a male, celibate clergy. Thus while I rarely attend the Episcopal Church, I still consider myself an Episcopalian.

And I've tried to follow church news, which almost always concerns the consecration of gays and lesbians to the episcopate, the blessing of same-sex unions, and the imminent breakup of the Church.. The Episcopal Church holds a general convention every three years. In 2003 the convention upheld the consecration of Gene Robinson, a gay man in a committed relationship, to be Bishop of New Hampshire. Three years later the General Convention elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supported Robinson's consecration, to be Presiding Bishop. At present, my legal residence and home during during rest days and vacations is in the Diocese of Northern Indiana, while my workplace and workaday residence is in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.

The bishops of my two dioceses are both very conservative on this issue, but they couldn't be more different. The Right Reverend Peter Beckwith, Bishop of Springfield, seems extremely eager to break with the Episcopal Church. In a radio interview, he referred to then-Presiding Bishop-Elect Jefferts Schori as "gnostic" and "New Age." In a June 30, 2006 pastoral letter, he repeats the name-calling, though expanding it to the church as a whole:

...as a Church we have adopted a Gnostic theology and a New Age spirituality; and, since relativism is the order of the day, we are unable to assent to the Lordship of Jesus and the authoritative teaching of Holy Scripture.

The letter is followed by a resolution of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Springfield. It accuses Jefferts Schori, "by clear statements... to be outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and the clear parameters of the Christian faith, as understood from an Anglican perspective" and goes on to call for "our Bishop to intentionally and deliberately explore avenues for alternative primatial relationship, and, as appropriate, oversight, notwithstanding this Diocese's status as a constituent member of the Episcopal Church."

In so many words, Bishop Beckwith is calling for schism. He wishes an"alternative primatial relationship." In Anglican terms, that means he wishes to find a new primate, or leading bishop to serve under. (The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of All England, while the Presiding Bishop is the Primate of the American Episcopal Church.) Presumably this means Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who appears to be working to set up a conservative Anglican church in the Unites States outside the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Beckwith makes the unsupported accusation that the Episcopal Church has traded Christianity for "Gnostic theology and New Age spirituality." I'm not certain he has any idea what those terms mean. Gnosticism, condemned as heretical by the early Church Fathers, was not one single theology. We know more about Gnosticism since the1977 translation of the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, and the publication of The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels in 1979. Some of Gnosticism is compatible with orthodox Christianity, but Gnostics believed there was some secret knowledge necessary for salvation:

Jesus says: "The one who seeks should not cease seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be dismayed. And when he is dismayed, he will be astonished. And he will be king over the All."

-Gospel of Thomas, saying 2, tr. Stephen J. Patterson and James M. Robinson

One variation of Gnosticism involves an evil divine creator, or Demiurge, who is at war with the spiritual forces of Christ. Such Gnostics saw the Demiurge as representing the material world, and Christ, the spiritual.

Orthodox Christians have rejected both the need for secret knowledge and the characterization of the material world as evil. We believe the Creator is God, not the Demiurge. Bishop Jefferts Schori has no more embraced Gnosticism than has Bishop Beckwith.

The New Age label is essentially meaningless. Because New Age religion is eclectic, it embraces many different traditions, including some Christian ones. The fact is that one can find New Age in virtually every religious tradition, and vice versa. But just as with the Gnostic label, Bishop Beckwith provides no specific examples.

Bishop Beckwith's condemnation of the Episcopal Church, though , has more to do with sex than spirituality. In an address to the diocesan synod in October, 2005, he berates his fellow bishops for talking too much about helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina and too little about the Church of England's Windsor Report, which deals with the consecration of gays and lesbians to the episcopate and the blessing of same-sex unions:

Our presentation to the Anglican Consultative Council this last June was an embarrassment. Finally, with an opportunity to do something constructive, the House of Bishops met at the Ritz Carlton Resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico last month. All that was and continues to be needed is: 1) Recognize that the Windsor Report is the prescribed way forward if we are to remain a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion; and 2) Commit ourselves to adhering to and following its directives. But instead of doing that, most of the time and energy was given to discussing what our Church’s response should be to the hurricane devastation which occurred late this past summer. Certainly, that consideration is important and appropriate but not at the expense of dealing with what has been even more destructive to our Church, and that is the hurricane winds we created in the ’03 Minneapolis Convention.

Didn't Jesus say something about loving one's neighbor as oneself?

The Right Reverend Edward Stuart Little, Bishop of Northern Indiana, takes a different approach. (An aside, here: Edward Little became bishop at the same time the movie Stuart Little was released. It turns out that Little's father was a friend of E.B. White, and the book about the precocious mouse was named for him. He jokes that he's "the son of a mouse.")

Bishop Little, though he opposed the consecration of Bishop Robinson, is not threatening to break up the church. In a response to a Christianity Today article which appeared to favor schism, he wrote a reply, "Living With Tares." The title refers to the Parable of the Tares, (Matthew 13: 24-30). A farmer plants his field with wheat, but in the night, an enemy comes and sows weeds (tares) in the field. His servants offer to pull up the weeds, but the farmer says to let both grow, and at the harvest, the wheat will be gathered and the weeds burned. Bishop Little chooses to stay in the church with people he disagrees with, and let God sort it out in the end:

Yet I stay: not simply by default, or as a matter of blind institutional loyalty. I have decided to stay, and to throw my lot in with people with whom I am often in profound disagreement. The editorial dismisses John 17 as a basis for such a decision and says, in effect, that it does not pertain in our present situation. But Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper does not simply provide a rationale for unity: it also includes an implied warning. Jesus prays “that they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (v. 21). In other words, Jesus invites the world outside the Christian community to make a decision about him on the basis of our unity. The world is watching us, Jesus says. How we deal with one another in the midst of crisis has eternal implications – not simply for ourselves, but also for those who do not yet know him.

And he does not proudly say that his opponents are the tares:

Nor are our divisions as clear-cut as they may seem. It is not the case, in the Episcopal Church or in any other, that you’ve got believers on one side and heretics (or apostates) on the other. I know many in my church who love Jesus, confess him as Lord and Savior, believe the articles of the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and seek to follow Jesus in costly ways – and who, at the same time, affirm the decisions of the 2003 General Convention. As a matter of principle, when people claim to be disciples of Jesus, I will treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ, Bishop Gene Robinson among them. He is not only a colleague; I count him as friend and fellow pilgrim. I will commit myself to him, and to them, even when I am convinced that they are wrong. I will seek to manifest a godly forbearance, and ask that they do the same toward me.

Bishop Beckwith would do well to follow the lead of his colleague from Northern Indiana. And those of us who supported the consecration of Gene Robinson should also follow his lead, treating our opponents as brothers and sisters in Christ.


Peter said...

A fascinating post. I think highly of Bishop Little and the approach that he takes, given his views. He also speaks well. Not many people today, I don't think, have the heart and the head to speak like that.

SBC said...

An excellent commentary on the problems within the Diocese of Springfield. As the member of one of the twe Episcopalian parishes in Bloomington-Normal, I have been extremely frustrated by our Bishop's almost sole focus on matters sexual, and on his coldness towards those parishes who do not support his singlemindedness. I would suggest that, while you are in Illinois, you might check out the available weekday services. I'd be delighted to meet you.

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