Sunday, June 1, 1997

Dethroning Scripture, Canonizing the Righter Verdict

Dethroning Scripture, Canonizing the Righter Verdict

"GOD IS in the details," we say — especially when dealing with lawyers. The proposed changes in Episcopal canon law, while they may not capture the limelight of the 1997 General Convention, may have a long-term impact on the direction of our Church. These changes threaten to dethrone the Word of God as the prime authority for the Church's official doctrine.

Resolution A014 ("Blue Book," page 19) seeks to add a definition of "doctrine" to canon IV.15, which reads: The Doctrine of this Church shall be found in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Sacraments, Pastoral Offices, and Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer, and is in all cases to be supported by Holy Scripture."

What's wrong with this, one may innocently ask? Plenty — but we need to think carefully to see why. The Anglican Church has always affirmed the "primacy" of Holy Scripture in formulating its doctrine. This principle is expressed in Article XX "Of the Authority of the Church": "it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another" (BCP, page 871). Even the Creeds and the Prayer Book are authoritative only insofar as "they may be proved by certain warrants of Holy Scripture" (see Article VIII, and Preface to the BCP, page 8).

In the ordination oath, a priest first confesses the Bible to be the Word of God and then pledges to conform to the Church's doctrine, discipline, and worship (BCP, page 526). Hence Scripture stands over, not under other doctrinal and liturgical expressions. So when a priest or bishop is charged with "holding or teaching . . . any doctrine contrary to that held by this Church" (canon IV.1.2), the authority of Scripture must be the final court of appeal.

This understanding of authority was the hinge on which last year's trial of Bishop Walter Righter turned. Bishop Righter's accusers charged that he had violated the plain teaching of Scripture by ordaining a practicing homosexual. The Court, in its verdict, claimed that bishops are only accountable to uphold a "Core Doctrine" which is "supported" by Scripture.

The Righter decision was, we are convinced, mistaken. The proposed addition to Canon IV.15 will compound the error by ensconcing the Righter precedent in canon law. And thus it will further undermine the authority of Scripture in the Church.

To "support" one's position in today's Episcopal Church is not the same as to "prove" it from the clear teaching of the Bible. In 1979, the House of Bishops affirmed that "it is clear from Scripture (emphasis mine) that the sexual union of man and woman is God's will and that this finds holy expression within the covenant of marriage. Therefore this Church confines its nuptial blessing to the union of male and female…".

Scripture has not changed since 1979, but in late 1996 Bishop Douglas Theuner of New Hampshire announced that he has approved, and even officiated at, same-sex "union" services. Bishop Theuner "supports" his position by the vaguest reference to the Good News that priests may "pronounce God's blessing wherever appropriate." Who decides what is appropriate? You guessed it: Bishop Theuner, freed from the trammels of explicit biblical moral standards.

In the Righter case, Episcopal bishops made sure that no colleague, no matter how wild his or her teachings and actions, will ever be convicted by a Church court. Now, by redefining the sources of doctrine and by requiring explicit disassociation from an unbiblical teaching (note the proposed revision of canon IV.3.21 ["Blue Book" page 31]), they will make it impossible for someone like Bishops Righter or Theuner even to be charged. More ominously, they may be setting a definition of doctrine into canon law that will make it impossible for orthodox bishops to discipline unorthodox priests under their jurisdiction.

Worldwide, Anglicans are distressed by this doctrinal drift. Three months ago, 80 delegates from Third World churches issued a statement expressing their commitment to biblical authority in matters of sexuality and denouncing the abdication of that authority in our Church. They said:

"5. The whole body of Scripture bears witness to God's will regarding human sexuality which is to be expressed only within the lifelong union of a man and a woman in (holy) matrimony…" and

"9. We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions, calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable to us."

Can Resolution A014 be revised to satisfy our concern? Perhaps, if it reads: "The Doctrine of the Church shall be found in, or clearly derived from, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and particularly as this biblical teaching is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer." (N.B., we include the whole Prayer Book with the Catechism and Historical Documents.)

The breakdown of authority in our Church cannot be resolved through canon revision. Only by reviving biblical doctrine in the classic tradition can we find true relief, or perhaps learning humbly from our partners in the Anglican Communion. Canonical changes may undermine such a revival or ecumenical sharing. We therefore urge defeat of any canon changes that place canon law over the authority of Scripture.

I wrote this just before the 1997 General Convention. It appeared as the first editorial of Encompass (June 1997), the newsletter of the American Anglican Council. Used with permission.

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