Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Good and the Bad: Wonderful Imagery, Shades of Universalism

My wife Sharon and I attended the 10 AM service at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans this morning. It was in many ways a wonderful service; the stately worship of venerable hymns and a stunning jazz performance by Irvin Mayfield were inspiring. It was a blessing to sing the Nicene Creed, something that I'm not sure I've ever done before. The Anglo-Catholic elements of the service stirred my heart. (The absence of the prayer of confession, however, was troubling; it may have been removed to allow for the blessing and dedication of the Elysian Trumpet.)

But one element of the service, sadly, encapsulated the mixture of emotions that my wife and I have experienced the last couple of years as we've watched the Episcopal Church depart from biblical, Anglican, and Christian orthodoxy: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's sermon. There was much to commend in it; in some ways, it pointed to the very best elements of the Episcopal Church. But it also contained assertions that deeply disturbed us.

First, the good: The sermon contained much that demonstrated compassion for the least and the last among us -- and in this situation, for the people of New Orleans. Bishop Jefferts Schori may have used a somewhat strained comparison, taking Jesus' words to his disciples about his disciples traveling light on their missionary journey and comparing them with the exodus of New Orleans residents from the city due to Katrina. Nonetheless, her point that "those forced to travel or even start over can find ... grace" was a good word.

Furthermore, the presiding bishop is an articulate speaker, and she can compose wonderful phrases. "The God who gives us breath is going to sing the jazz of life in you once more," was deeply moving and even stunningly poetic. And given the blessing of the trumpet that occurred after the prayers of the people, Bishop Jefferts Schori's description of Christians as "trumpeters of good news" was a clever, and relevant, metaphor.

But there were also troubling aspects to the sermon. Early in the sermon, Bishop Jefferts Schori said that Jesus' words about "driving out demons" were "about removing the forces that divide." Later, she described Christians as "banishers of ... division."

If this is so, what are we to make of the Episcopal Church's actions? Its movements away from orthodox belief and practice, away from the larger Anglican Communion, and away from the body of Christ as a whole have caused almost nothing but division. Where have we seen unity result from the Episcopal Church's actions? What does it say when bishops who have served the denomination faithfully leave the church -- some for Rome, some for a home in the Anglican Communion outside of the Episcopal Church? What does it say when thousands of laypeople leave the church?

(There are also theological issues here for orthodox Anglicans, including taking the text at a metaphorical level to the exclusion of a literal level. But that's the subject for another post.)

But the most troubling assertion came at the end of the sermon: "None of us is going home until all of us have a place to lay our heads ... When the saints go marching in, it's going to be with every last one of us!"

My wife looked at me and asked, "Universalism?" I replied, "I'm afraid so." Because unless "us" simply referred to Christians assembled in the cathedral, or even the Episcopal Church as a whole, there's no other way to take it. Furthermore, the presiding bishop had inclusively spoken of people of New Orleans in general earlier in the sermon, and had broadened the picture to everyone in the world by the end of the sermon. (If the presiding bishop was not speaking of universalism, clarification to that effect would be greatly appreciated!)

I know it may be difficult for progressives to understand this, but universalism is something deeply troubling to orthodox Anglicans -- and not due to any "theology of scarcity" or somehow "less gracious" theology. Yes, we love John 3:16, and we believe it fervently. But we also find that we cannot dismiss or ignore Jesus' warnings concerning eternal separation from God -- concerning Hell. We believe that God has entrusted the Church with the Scriptures; the Church is not free to overlook any part of Scripture. And universal salvation at best appears to be just a faint hope in Scripture, as Roman Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus once said; many orthodox Christians do not hold to any possibility of it.

It's been said many times over that the issues creating our current unhappy state are deep ones far below the surface of our differences over sexuality. The sermon by Bishop Jefferts Schori demonstrates this. The issues that I've mentioned grieve me and my wife to the point that we are now essentially Episcopalians in exile attending a CANA church. There is so much promise for the Episcopal Church, but its drift away from orthodoxy, and its apparent insistence on putting its convictions before those of the worldwide body of Christ, are creating division, not unity.


Richard said...

The problem in the many churches is they simply are not believers in Jesus Christ. They do not believe in the God of Scripture. They believe in a made up god of their own liking. One that does not judge righteously according to His own holiness. One that does not do literal miracles or really touch the lives of mankind.

Thomas Wright said...

George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, said this in a recent interview regarding the whole Fr. Forrester of Michigan fiasco (emphasis mine):

"A wise person once said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. The facts of the Christian faith are that Jesus is God’s Son, born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died for our sins, rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is coming again. A Christian will agree with these facts. If a denomination or church is Christian, it will agree with these facts. If a so-called bishop does not agree with the central elements of the Christian faith, then he should not call himself a Christian, let alone a bishop – nor should a church ordain him. He is an apostate from the Faith; and a church that ordains such a one is also apostate. The Apostle Paul dealt with persons who turned to a 'different Gospel,' who 'perverted the Gospel.' He warned that even if he himself or 'an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned' (Galatians 1:6-8)."

I love what Anglicanism is about, but I also agree with Dr. Wood that the Episcopal Church is apostate. The church walks in condemnation. You should stay in that CANA church.