The essay below originally appeared on the Web site of the Rev. Mark Lawrence’s parish at http://www.stpaulsbakersfield.org/word/rector/2006/07/remaining_anglican_in_defense.html. As of October 6, 2011, it is no longer on the Web. The text below was extracted from a copy of the original page that can be found at the Internet Archive.
Remaining Anglican: In Defense of Dissociation
Posted July 23rd, 2006 by Fr. Mark
Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through. . . . (BCP, p. 230)
This collect, most likely composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, is rooted in the teaching of the New Testament, particularly Ephesians 2:20-22 and 4:3-4. It is also rooted in one of the essential teachings of the Anglican Reformation—that no human assembly or institution may claim to be the church of God unless it is founded on the teaching of the apostles. The apostolic church is founded not on institutional or sacramental continuity alone. What is often referred to as “Apostolic Succession” is more than merely the laying on of hands from bishop to bishop in a sacramental chain back to the apostles. Equally essential for the church is the teaching of the apostles and prophets succeeding from one generation to another. This is stated clearly in Articles XIX, and XX in the Articles of Religion, (see BCP, page 871).
What is being asserted in these two articles is the priority of Holy Scripture over the authority of the Church. The church, as St. Paul taught in his Letter to the Ephesians and as the above collect ascribes, is built upon the teaching of the apostles as found in Holy Scripture; and it is called to live under and in obedience to the Word of God. The uniqueness of the Anglican and Episcopalian understanding of the Church is that it has held both of these understandings toward the nature of the Church at the same time. It has held the catholic argument that institutional continuity is essential for the identity of the Church. This continuity is sacramentally and visibly expressed in the office of the bishop, the episcopacy. It has also believed in the need to conform to the teaching of the apostles, grounding our belief and practice in the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Consequently we have been eager to seek unity—striving to maintain the visible unity of the Church, reaching out to Roman Catholics in one direction, and towards our Protestant brothers and sisters in the other, but not seeking this unity at the expense of either of these two truths of the Church. Holding institutional continuity and the need to be under the ever correcting and reforming authority of the Bible. If the question should be raised, as it often is, as to whom interprets Holy Scripture when different factions or parties in the church disagree, the answer has traditionally been—the consensus of the faithful. Interpretation of debated texts of scripture is not up to one individual priest or bishop, one local congregation, or even a provincial or national church. We need in such cases to seek the consensus of the faithful throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion, and even to give appropriate regard to how the historic church has understood such disputes, as well as what the various branches of Christendom teach on the matter. The unity of the Church needs this considered reflection.
Even more essential to our unity with one another is the source of all unity in the Church. As John Stott has observed, “Christian unity arises from our honoring one Father, one Savior, and one indwelling Spirit.” Fundamental to our unity with one another in the church is our unity with the Holy Trinity. It is this unity which raises for me a series of elementary questions. How can we foster a unity pleasing to God if we deny the very revelation God has given us about himself or the Christian life? How can we be eager for unity with one another if we deny the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ? How can we say the Holy Spirit is leading the Church through the parliamentary procedures of General Convention if the results of such deny the very truth the Spirit of God has revealed through the teachings of the apostles and prophets? Is it not upon this very teaching that the Church is founded? Of course. It is upon the doctrine of the apostles that the church is built and only upon their doctrine that we can maintain our unity.
I need to say it clearly, I am eager for such unity. A unity drawn not along narrow lines of biblical interpretation, but from an inclusive and comprehensive use of the Bible. I am most eager to remain a Christian in the Anglican tradition. This is a tradition, which as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has recently stated, has maintained “the absolute priority of the Bible, a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility.” Unfortunately The Episcopal Church (TEC) in recent years has frayed this rope woven of three strands in a misguided passion to be culturally sensitive and intellectually flexible. In its need to be perceived as relevant to one segment of our culture, it has lost its commitment to the Gospel—which is the only hope we have to offer this segment or any other for that matter. In its desire to be more relevant than thou, TEC has cast aside scriptural faithfulness, particularly the broad and demonstrable teachings of the New Testament that would convict our lifestyle of sin, and call into question our overly permissive approach to morality. Even more disturbing is our grave disregard of fundamental Christian doctrines such as the nature of God, the uniqueness of Christ, the integrity and unity of the Spirit’s work, and the need of humankind for the redemptive work of the cross—for instance, assuming our sexual proclivities, given by nurture or nature, are, by that fact, necessarily God-given.
I am personally saddened for those gay and lesbian Christians within the church that so much of the debate has focused upon homosexual behavior and relationships. It has too often given way to bigotry or to an easy self-righteousness among heterosexuals. Nevertheless, it is for now the place where the battle lines have been drawn. Regardless of how I wish it had been elsewhere, it is where the larger issues are being debated, leading to a crisis in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The unity of 80 million Christians is at stake. As Archbishop Williams has recently stated, “. . .what most Anglicans worldwide have said is that it doesn’t help to behave as if the matter had been resolved when in fact it hasn’t. . . .The decision of the Episcopal Church to elect a practising gay man as a bishop was taken without even the American church itself. . .having formally decided as a local Church what it thinks about blessing same-sex partnerships.”
So when the Standing Committee of our diocese and our Bishop ask for alternative primatial oversight it is because all due parliamentary procedure to convince The Episcopal Church that it has erred has proved fruitless. Like an addictive or dysfunctional family, this exclusive pursuit of “cultural sensitivity” has led to destructive behavior. Perhaps our Standing Committee’s action of dissociation, along with eight other dioceses at present, will demonstrate the seriousness of TEC’s dysfunction. I love this Church enough to practice what those in the counseling professions call tough-love. Underneath all the discussions of human sexuality, our message is this, The Episcopal Church, in its obsession to be what it has termed inclusive, has excluded the absolute priority of Holy Scripture and the historic continuity of the catholic faith. Of course, I would not want to make a similar error in either my passion for Holy Scripture or towards a catholic loyalty to the sacraments. If I wanted only a biblical Christianity I could join an evangelical or fundamentalist Church. If it were only the sacramental-institutional continuity I desired, then why not go to Rome or Orthodoxy? If it were only cultural sensitivity or intellectual flexibility that I was seeking, then there are many liberal Protestant Churches I could join. My problem is that I’m an Anglican. I want all three to characterize my Christian thought and life. I believe, as the wise man, Koheleth, once put, “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecc 4:12). So in conclusion, if I may paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan,
In spite of all temptations To belong to denominations I remain an Anglican… I remain an Anglican!