Saturday, August 26, 2000

A Serious Challenge

A Serious Challenge

A Brief Response to Ephraim Radner's "Open Letter to the Conservative Clergy of the Diocese of Colorado"

By Stephen F. Noll

AS I am about to depart the Episcopal Church to serve in a new jurisdiction (Uganda), I take a final moment to address the crisis in the Church where I was baptized and have served as priest for almost thirty years. In recent years I have written several times on the subject of Anglican ecclesial identity (see especially my book The Handwriting on the Wall (Latimer, 1998) and my essay "Broken Communion"). Recently, I responded to a radical critic of my views of authority by Prof. Joseph Monti of St. Luke's Theological Seminary in Sewanee (see "Marriage: Whence Comes It, From Heaven or from the Church?"). The present occasion allows me a chance to respond briefly to a colleague who shares my fundamental convictions but whose view of the Church is distinctly at odds with my own.

I have come to know and appreciate Dr. Ephraim Radner through our common involvement in the society called Scholarly Engagement in Anglican Doctrine (SEAD). I have read and attempted to understand his erudite and challenging book, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Eerdmans, 1998). His recent "Open Letter to the Conservative Clergy of the Diocese of Colorado" is an application of the view articulated in this book.

In the middle section of his Letter, Radner lays out his typology for understanding the Churches of the West today. It is important to understand his paradigm in order to see why he counsels conservatives to stay put, no matter what. Radner understands the Western church since the Reformation (and indeed the whole Christian church since the East-West Schism) as a type of Israel in exile. The rending of the visible Church, he believes, was a historic act of disobedience incurring God's judgment and the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit (in some sense) from the Church. He goes so far as to interpret the secular history of the West as an outworking of this judgment.

Because the entire Church stands under judgment, Radner holds, the search for a pure Church or a true Church is futile and a refusal to accept God's will. Like Jeremiah, Radner counsels: "Build houses and settle down. . . . Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jeremiah 29:5,7). In his view, God has sent a pox on all the houses of Christendom, and only radical repentance and a sovereign renewal of divine grace will change that fact.

This is bracing stuff. Radner has attempted an entire Christian and biblical theology of history with the Church at the center (cf. Ephesians 1:18-23). I do think there is a good deal of truth to his typology of exile, especially when applied regionally. For instance, one could argue that the key to the spiritual and moral decline of the United States and Europe in the 20th century was the defection of the mainline Churches from their historic identity and mission.

Nevertheless, Radner's view remains a hypothesis. Personally, I think Oliver O'Donovan, in The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge, 1996), offers a more convincing theological interpretation of Western history as an ongoing free choice between the Gospel and the spirit of apostasy. Some secular regimes and their religious prophets have worshiped at the altar of the beast, but there is a corresponding counter-movement of worldwide evangelization today. Communist China affords a striking instance of a regime that suppressed the Christian Churches only to have them spring up independently in great numbers.

Aside from his overarching thesis, there is nevertheless much to be commended in Radner's letter, such as his enumeration of the benefits of patient witness. No doubt his critique of sloppy Evangelical ecclesiology is merited (although sometimes I wonder if every high-churchman considers low-church views to be sloppy). However, at the end of the day, I find myself unconvinced at the way he goes about his argument. Let me mention a few pertinent items.

The first issue is: "What is the Church"? Radner's emphasis on the visible Church (cf. Article XIX) seems unduly static. Nowhere does Radner claim that the Episcopal Church is the true Church in some special sense, but only that it is "this actual church," part of the one broken body of Western Christianity we find ourselves in. And it is in this actual church, and only this one, he implies, that we must remain. He refers several times to the "church where God has placed us." How far would he carry this notion that we are fixed in one place? Would he oppose the admission of any clergy or laity moving from other denominations into the Episcopal Church, telling them they must stay in their actual churches? Would he advise his children never to attend non-Episcopal churches (what about Lutheran churches?) where they live, no matter how horrible the local Episcopal congregation might be? And what would his counsel be to Reformed Anglicans, continuing Anglicans, and to the conservatives in Colorado the day after they leave? Should they take a vow to stay in their actual churches?

Secondly, he does not answer the question: "Is there ever a point at which a church ceases to be a church?" What would this point be? I have proposed applying the "Baal test" to this situation. What if the General Convention voted to substitute "Baal" for "God" throughout the Prayer Book. (We are not far from this when we pointedly refuse to name God as Father.) Suppose at the climax of the liturgy, the text was revised in a Spongian direction to say "Christ has not died, Christ has not risen, Christ will not come again." Surely there have been heretical bodies and cults throughout Christian history, from the Gnostics to the Mormons, for which Radner's vow of staying in would not be godly advice. Why is it not possible that the Episcopal Church would become one of these, and how would we know it?

Because of his overarching view of the brokenness of the Churches, Radner appears to proclaim a pox on all houses and in so doing refuses to differentiate among them. Thus, he argues that the diocese of Colorado is a mixed bag but even if it were absolutely heretical, one should remain in it. My own view, which I believe is consistent with Reformation and Anglican ecclesiology, is to say that persistent and formal denial and violation of essential truths of the faith constitute grounds for an individual or congregation to leave a denomination, paying the canonical and legal consequences if necessary.

There is a legitimate question of when such an official denial of the rule of truth occurs. For instance, is Resolution D039 normative, or is it confused and unauthoritative? (See my analysis of D039, "The Official Position of the Episcopal Church on Sex Outside Marriage".) Would development of same-sex rites in the Book of Occasional Services constitute such a breach, or only their incorporation in the Prayer Book? These are all legitimate questions, but they imply that there is a point where the line is crossed. Radner seems to say that no such line exists.

Thirdly, this refusal to set any outer limits makes Radner's position incoherent at points. For instance, he wants conservatives to vow to stay and submit to the Church's order, but he also says: "No one can 'force' me, as a priest, to perform any rite, preach any sermon, or pray any liturgy that contradicts the Gospel." I simply do not understand this. If he has vowed to submit to the "doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church," how can he refuse to use a heretical liturgy or perform a heretical rite without violating his vow? Radner's view pushes him (ironically, I think) to a kind of individualism or congregationalism where a parishioner or pastor must guard his soul or his flock regardless of what is going on in the wider denomination.

I suppose what he is proposing is a version of the statement I have heard to the effect that "I will not leave the Episcopal Church, they'll have to throw me out." There is a lot to be said for this approach. Bishops Spong and Righter took a calculated risk of being defrocked when they ordained homosexuals ten years ago; and Bishops Ackerman, Scofield, and Iker run that risk today if they refuse to bend to the revised Canon III.8.1. The reductio ad absurdum of this argument, however, is this: you cannot fulfill your vow to stay in the Church if you have been kicked out. And that is exactly what we see is happening on the issue of women's ordination. I do hope that some of the most visible leaders will make their witness by submitting to canoncial trial, but the fact remains, if they are removed from office, the communion of the Church will be broken.

Finally, let me mention the spiritual challenge from Radner and to Radner. He is certainly correct in challenging conservatives to ask whether their readiness to leave is a form of modern American and evangelical self-indulgence and fissiporousness, and at heart a refusal to acceptance our Lord's cross of suffering. This is an important spiritual challenge, and no one should blithely spurn his mother church. However, I think Radner himself fails to take up the burden of responsibility of "discerning spirits" and hearing "what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

In a rather telling comment, he says:

The fact is that every clergyperson and member of this diocese is my brother and sister in Christ. Along with their manifold virtues and gifts which I admire, are also various commitments I must reject. And in the days to come, as in the past, I shall surely 'oppose them to their face' from time to time, as Paul did Peter (cf. Galatians 2:11).

I would challenge Dr. Radner to find equivalent "even-handed" statements about false teachers in Jesus' teaching or in the Apostolic writings. For instance, Jesus did not say to the Pharisees: "Brother Israelites! I admire your many noble works of piety, but I cannot go along with you on certain matters." Jude, the Lord's brother, refers to his opponents as "ungodly persons" "blemishes on your love feasts," "waterless clouds," "boasters and flatterers." My point is simply this: the early church seems to have made a strong distinction between the weakness of lost and straying sheep, who deserve compassion and patience, and false teachers, who are not to be tolerated.

There is, to be sure, a difference between false teachers and momentarily misguided leaders, but even erring saints were received back only after they had repented. For instance, Paul discerned that Peter was a true believer who had been pressured into an inconsistent policy by Judaizers. He corrected Peter and Peter accepted correction. He never offered this kind of reconciliation to the Judaizing teachers because he discerned they were spiritual offspring of Hagar (Galatians 4:30). Suppose the Judaizers had gained the upper hand at the Jerusalem Council and had forbidden Paul to preach to the Gentiles? Would he have submitted to highest order of the church and waited patiently for them to change their minds? I think his answer would be: me genoito ("God forbid!").

Not only individual Christian leaders but entire movements are charged with discerning the Spirit's will for the Church. Radner mentions the strategy of medieval Franciscans, 18th-century Evangelicals, and 19th-century Tractarians in reforming their particular tradition from within. But they operated on the assumption that the substance of the faith was still present in their Church's formularies and structures, and they called the Church back to its truest self. Clearly these groups had their limits: the Evangelicals had no notion of working within Catholicism, and when Newman concluded that the Church of England was not truly catholic, he felt compelled to leave. This is the big change I see among conservatives in the last thirty years. They have been willing to make their witness within the Episcopal Church, knowing it had its Pikes and Spongs but believing that the "true" Episcopal Church could be called back. Many today have concluded that we are at different providential moment in history.

Discerning the Spirit has a missional dimension as well. Yes, some Evangelicals stayed in the Church of England and helped with its renewal. Others, however, like the Methodists, left it precisely because it stood in the way of the mission of the Gospel. Is it no likely that if the Methodists had waited for episcopal approval, the United States might have become a nominal Christian nation like those in Europe, rather than the most actively Christian nation in the West. For all the dangers of sectarianism, there is an amazing vitality in the "loose" ecclesial structures of worldwide evangelical pentecostalism. Radner sees this phenomenon as a sign of the absence of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me the fruit of this movement shows it to be blessed by the presence of the Spirit. Radner's paradigm of Exile, it seems to me, founders on the positive evidence of the Spirit's work in our day.

I am not making recommendations to the conservative clergy of Colorado. They and other Episcopalians face very difficult and painful decisions for themselves and their congregations. I appreciate Ephraim Radner's serious challenge to conservatives to think through their understanding of the Church and to beware of easy roads out of the forest. (I would hope that Radner would acknowledge that whatever road conservatives take will involve suffering and that some moderates will find his counsel a convenient excuse to enjoy the status quo in a wealthy denomination.) Most significantly, I hope he will clarify his position further in response to this brief parting review.

A POSTSCRIPT: On Dr. Radner's 1997 Moratorium Proposal

Shortly after Ephraim Radner's letter to the Colorado clergy was published, it was posted on the website of Dr. Louie Crew (at Dr. Crew commented:

I read all twelve printed pages aloud. I wish I could write as well as he writes. Even more, I hope that I can be as faithful in my commitments to stay in this church as Dr. Radner bids his conservative colleagues to be. This is a deeply spiritual and theological appeal. I too am persuaded that this cup is ours to drink, not to dismiss idly. I too am persuaded that we all need each other badly. To remain in this sacred bond of fellowship in good faith means that I must be open to the possibility of change as Dr. Radner so cogently demonstrates that all must be.

Far be it from me to interfere in any dialogue between Drs Crew and Radner. However, I would wish to point out that Ephraim Radner did indicate just prior to the 1997 General Convention the political implications of his views. This came in the form of a proposed resolution appealing for a twenty-year "Moratorium" on gay ordinations and same-sex blessings (see Here it is:

Proposed Resolution
1. Current resolutions of General Convention forbidding the ordination of noncelibate gays and upholding the normativity for sexual relations within marriage will be maintained without new resolutions or legislation aimed at their revision or abrogation. This will be understood to be the official and public teaching of the Episcopal Church on the subject.

2. This moratorium will extend to revision or expansion of official liturgical forms that would contradict the above resolutions.

3. Bishops will abide by these resolutions so as to avoid public scandal.

4. The exercise of episcopal or priestly conscience counter to these resolutions, but in a way that does not cause public scandal, will not be subject to public censure within the church.

5. Public scandal on the part of bishops counter to the resolutions will be met with prompt episcopal censure but without disciplinary measures.

6. Public scandal counter to the resolution on the part of priests will be met with the discretionary discipline of the local diocesan bishop.

7. This moratorium will be understood to be in effect for a "Sabbath of conventions," for seven triennia, which is roughly the period of leadership of most of the current House of Bishops.

The moratorium proposal went nowhere politically in 1997. Three years later, has anything changed? One might see Bishop Griswold's appeal for "Jubilee" as a lite version of this appeal, but the passage of Resolution D039 seems to have constituted a repudiation of such a jubilee (again, see my "Official Position of the Episcopal Church on Sex Outside Marriage"). After this year's General Convention, are conservatives willing to live with a "don't ask, don't tell" policy while the Church seeks to discern whether or not the Spirit is leading us into some new truth? My guess is that many conservatives, along with Ephraim Radner, would be open to such a proposal. But surely any proposal that rolled back the open ordination of homosexuals and same-sex blessings would be unacceptable to those on left. It would be interesting to hear whether Ephraim Radner (and Louie Crew) would want to revive the stillborn Moratorium proposal of 1997.

This essay was written in what has been an ongoing dialogue among orthodox Anglicans in North America as to how to respond to the radical deviations of the Episcopal Church.

Copyright 2000 Stephen F. Noll.

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