In a prior post, you offered assurances that staying in the Episcopal Church was right, even though there are some serious and disturbing decisions and trends in recent years. I can accept this (the Catholic church endured at least as severe a decline, centuries ago, over many serious issues, including sexuality and faulty teaching and practice) — but I still struggle with the reality of bishops being seated whose authority I would not accept (maybe you disagree, but I do not believe a practicing homosexual meets the biblical or traditional standard for church leadership, and I am glad so many bishops in the worldwide Communion are standing firm on this). How, then, in the midst of such strident disagreement and disharmony, can I and others remain Episocopalian? What of the breakaway U.S. group(s) (chiefly ACNA) that claim apostolic bonds to Anglican bishops but are not recognized by the Anglican Communion? And why shouldn’t they be so recognized? Would not the Windsor report also support such an alternative structure?
And James writes:
If TEC [The Episcopal Church] continues on present trajectories, when (if ever) does it cross a line where it becomes impossible for a catholic, orthodox Anglican to remain? At what point does catholic order and apostolic succession become meaningless because catholic teaching and belief has so eroded?
Thus far, I have been a “stayer” because of commitments to “catholicity” and I have sympathies that lie with ACI (Chris Seitz, Philip Turner, Ephraim Radner, Anthony Burton, etc.). But is there ever a point where staying becomes useless? It is becoming harder and harder for my family and I to remain Episcopalian, especially now that I have children and think of their spiritual health. What advice or thoughts do you have? I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve thought about this.
I think these two sets of questions can be summed up thus: At what point does the Church cease to be the Church? When we look at a church body, especially one that is going through some kind of turmoil, how can we be certain that it is a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that Our Lord established to be His Body and His Bride?
We are not treading over new territory here. Christians have been asking this question since almost the very beginning. Anglicans in particular have spent a good deal of time wrestling with this. The 39 Articles tell us that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (Article XIX). This definition is good so far as it goes, but also rather vague, as it leads to questions about how one knows if the “pure” Word of God is being preached and the Sacraments are being celebrated properly. Article XXIII indicates the necessity for the Church to have an authorized ministry that is dependent upon biblical and apostolic criteria and not simply the whims of individual would-be preachers or even would-be congregations, but it stops short of explicitly saying what that ministry looks like.
Criteria for Discerning the Church
An American Episcopal priest named William Reed Huntington (pictured above) wrote eloquently and persuasively about the topic of how we discern the Church in his 1870 book, The Church Idea. Huntington was writing at a time in which the global expansion of Anglicanism was just beginning to happen and the phrase “Anglican Communion” was just starting to be bandied about. Even as this expansion was taking place, the clarity of Anglicanism, which had long been eroding, was becoming further diminished by the codifying of different parties within the Anglican Churches, primarily Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Liberals. Living within this context, Huntington attacked what he described as “Romanism,” “Puritanism,” and “Liberalism,” not simply as they had come to express themselves within Anglicanism but as they existed as independent traditions with incompatible ecclesiologies. In Huntington’s view, Romanism added more to the idea of Church than what scripture lays out, Puritanism strips the Church down to nothing, and Liberalism distorts the Church by pulling out the doctrine at its heart and allowing only the form to remain. These traditions, according to Huntington, have left the Christian Church divided unnecessarily for far too long. He believed that the Church would only be unified if a church emerged as a “reconciliation church” to bring together the disparate pieces of Christendom into a body that resembled that which Christ had founded. And he believed the Episcopal Church was to be that church, at least in America, not because of anything special about the way Anglicans did things, but because Anglicanism offers the pure Gospel, without anything being added or taken away. In fact, Huntington goes out of his way to say that what America needs is not English Christianity, spires and surplices and choir boys and the like, but authentic Anglicanism:
The Anglican Principle and the Anglican System are two very different things. The writer does not favor attempting to foist the whole Anglican system upon America; while yet he believes that the Anglican principle is America’s best hope. (p. 156)
Huntington then proceeds to explain what he believes to be the basis of Anglican ecclesiology, a set of four things which every church body must have if it is to be recognizable as the Body and Bride of Christ. These four things would later be adopted by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention and then by the Lambeth Conference as the basis for any future union between the Anglican Communion and other bodies of Christians. They are called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral:
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself–Baptism and the Supper of the Lord–ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.
We can quibble a bit about the language, of course, as many have, but these things basically define Anglican ecclesiology, not just in the nineteenth century but in the centuries which preceded. Keep in mind, this is not a comprehensive list of the attributes of the Church. A church which has all of these things might still be missing some of the pieces that the Church needs to be her best and her fullest. But in terms of simply asking the question, is this particular body a church or something else, the Quadrilateral provides a pretty good checklist.
Is the Episcopal Church a Real Church?
As regular readers know, I try to avoid writing on this site about the ins and outs of ecclesiastical politics. I do this not because I think these things are unimportant, but because I believe that what will matter in the long run, after all the dust settles from our current controversies, is whether or not the Anglican faith is viable, whether or not it is truly the faith once delivered to the saints or just some strange historical anomaly. Since I firmly believe that Anglicanism is Gospel Christianity, I try to spend my time on seeing the long picture. Nevertheless, I am not immune to the realities of our era. As a traditional, orthodox Christian, I share many of the concerns that James, Cadog, and others have expressed about what is happening in the Episcopal Church today, not just in matters of morality but also in more basic matters of Christian doctrine.
That being said, when I take the Quadrilateral and go down the list, I happily discover that the Episcopal Church still holds all of the essentials that are needed to be the Church, even if she does not always make use of them. We still have bishops in apostolic succession, though their voice may be at times compromised. We still have the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, though there are those who blatantly ignore the rubrics of the prayer book and celebrate these sacraments in a less than salutary fashion. Perhaps more in line with the questions today, we still have the scriptures as the highest authority over us and the creeds as the bedrock of our faith. It is on these last two that many Christians would assert that the Episcopal Church has lost her way, and I would not deny that in many quarters she has. It is not difficult to find clergy, parishes, and sometimes even whole dioceses who deny basic tenets of scripture and redefine the creeds into utter meaninglessness. This is an incredibly distressing phenomenon, and I have no doubt that if it is allowed to continue unabated it will eventually spell doom for the Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, the official teaching of our church remains unchanged. The prayer book and the 39 Articles (which are still officially a part of our doctrine in TEC even though they are called an “historical document” in the 1979 BCP) have not been altered to do away with these things. Even on the much more sensitive matter of Christian marriage, both the canons and the BCP still clearly teach the norms of biblical marriage, despite any actions of General Convention to the contrary. TEC, for all her faults, is still the church that Huntington described her as being a century and a half ago.
Some people might respond that I am being naive, focusing my attention on what the Episcopal Church claims to be on paper while ignoring the actual facts on the ground. I can understand this feeling, and I am not unsympathetic to those who have felt that they had to leave the Episcopal Church as a matter of principle. As I have stipulated, the Episcopal Church today is rife with error at all levels, and in some instances orthodox Anglicans have been and are being harassed and attacked for their adherence to the faith. And yet, to surmise that the Episcopal Church is no longer a true church because she is filled with error is to miss the fact that all churches are filled with error on this side of the eschaton. The Church has always been filled with error, at all levels. The most orthodox seeming church will have its share of heretics. Sin lives deep within each of us, and we are quite naive indeed if we do not believe that this sin will infect the life of the Church. In fact, we should be grateful that the existence of error does not automatically unmake the Church, because if it did there would not be a single church body left standing. This is not to excuse the promulgation of error in the Church, but it is to acknowledge that God’s work can be done even in the midst of deep dysfunction. What has to matter in terms of the question before us is not the thought and practice of any individual member of the Church, be they pew sitter or primate, but what the Church officially teaches. So long as the Episcopal Church upholds the Quadrilateral, she is a true church, even if she is in need of great repentance.
Other Anglican Churches in America
So then, what about other Anglican bodies? Again, if we apply the Quadrilateral, it is hard to deny the presence of the Church in most of them. So long as they have a true ministry, true sacraments, and uphold the creedal faith that flows forth from the Holy Scriptures, we have no right to deny that they are church. But as I mentioned, there are some exceptions. The Reformed Episcopal Church, for instance, explicitly denies that episcopacy is necessary for the Church to be the Church and historically they have not ordained ministers from other non-episcopal traditions who seek to serve as presbyters in their church for this very reason. Likewise, their Book of Common Prayer is based not on the classical English BCP, nor even the early seventeenth century Scottish prayer book that is at the root of the American BCP, but the 1785 proposed American BCP which was never put into use because it lacked certain basic elements of Anglican theology, including clear affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Now, I believe that the REC does teach the Trinitarian faith, and it is true that they practice historic episcopacy for the most part, but the reality of these abnormalities in their official teaching does raise questions, the likes of which are compounded when we consider the Anglican Church in North America which considers the REC to be “a founding jurisdiction.” Similar sorts of questions might be raised in relation to TEC because of our agreement of full communion with the ELCA, although the matter is more acute in ACNA since the REC is actually a part of ACNA and not just a partner.
All of that said, I do not wish to be at odds with anyone who is attempting to share the Gospel. I have friends in ACNA and in other non-Communion Anglican bodies and I cherish their witness to the Anglican ethos and the true faith. People move from one body to another for a variety of reasons, and I have no reason to question anyone’s motives. But I intend to remain an Episcopalian, not because I am naive but because this is where God has called me to be, and so long as the Episcopal Church remains a true church I shall remain her loyal son. Perhaps the day will come when TEC revises the BCP to jettison the creeds and the scriptures. If that happens, there shall be nothing recognizable left of her, and I will be forced to move on. But until that happens, she is like a patient on life support, very badly damaged but still very much alive (and even capable of recovery, despite the odds). And in that respect, she is like all of us, dead in our sin and yet made alive by Christ Jesus who comes to us while we are yet sinners and gives His life for us.
Suffering for the Sake of the Church
A few years ago, the movie Closer came out, which explored the brutal reality of how people use each other in relationships and why people cheat. The characters in that film were constantly unhappy in their relationships because they were always looking for the next thing, the better thing, the person they could fall in love with and have things be perfect. The tagline for the film was, “If you believe in love at first sight, you’ll always be looking.” In a way, I think this is true in the Church as well. If you believe there is some perfect church out there where you’ll encounter no error and no strife, you’ll spend your whole life jumping from one to another. It’s an understandable temptation, but it is not what Our Lord calls us to do. It is not love. True love sacrifices.
I’ll let Flannery O’Connor have the last word: “I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable. The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”