Short-circuiting discernment

In First Things, Jordan Hylden takes a despairing tone towards the Episcopal Church, saying essentially, “Oh, if only conservative Anglicans could see that Episcopalians are not completely disregarding the Bible in their flight into apostasy!”

If conservative Anglicans are ever to come to a détente with liberals over the issue of homosexuality—perhaps not to agree with them, but at least to come to terms with them—it would have to involve understanding that revisionists on this issue have genuinely grappled with the authoritative text of Holy Scripture. Their persistent concern is that liberals do not do this, but rather regard Scripture as outdated and no longer authoritative for Christian faith and life in the modern world.

This is faux-pious sanctimony. Episcopalians have been doing precisely what Hylden calls for for the last decade—and it has been comprehensively denigrated and dismissed by people who disagree with the conclusions Episcopalians have come to.

At the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in 2005, the Episcopal Church was invited to make a presentation about its approach to Scripture and, specifically, how Episcopalians reconciled Scripture with the ordination of an openly gay man as bishop. That presentation was lengthy, detailed, nuanced, and showed a “genuine grappling” with “the authoritative text of Holy Scripture.” It appears no one was listening.

Hylden cites the Bible in the Life of the Church project, a similarly lengthy and nuanced effort to explore how the Bible is read across the Communion. When its report was issued at the 2012 ACC meeting, many breakaway Anglicans immediately dismissed it because it appeared to permit conclusions to be drawn that they would not like.

(Hylden also bemoans the fact that South Carolina Episcopalians who left the church were not invited to the General Convention. This ignores the fact that the diocese was part of the church at the time—and most representatives walked out of Convention early.)

I think Hylden and I would agree that the key to Christian living is a community gathered around the authoritative text of Scripture to discern where God is calling them. That is what I find in the Episcopal Church, though I have my own frustrations from time to time about parts that Episcopalians tend to over- and under-emphasize. And I particularly welcome the part in Hylden’s piece when he seems to suggest that faithful Christians can disagree about a particular issue—say, homosexuality—but still recognize each other as members of the same body of Christ.

But my real frustration is when this process of communal discernment is short-circuited by the implicit requirement that the discernment produce certain outcomes. That seems to defeat the purpose of discernment. When various people can’t get that guarantee, they tend to abandon the process and start going on about how Episcopalians have abandoned Scripture—when precisely the opposite is true.

“The authority of God’s word written over all contexts”?

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my travels a year ago to visit with Anglicans in Nigeria. Readers of this blog might remember I encountered a curious practice. At major church events, there was the practice of “appreciation”: members of the congregation stood up, donated money to the church, and said exactly how much they were giving. (You can read my description of that event here.)

As I witnessed this, I thought about Jesus’ instruction on giving in the Sermon on the Mount:  “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4, NRSV) I mentioned this verse to several people I encountered at this service. They readily admitted the practice did not conform to the teaching but shrugged and said, “It’s our culture.”

We can debate the merits of public giving in another post. For the record, in a culture that has a huge problem with corruption, I’m open to the idea that disregarding Christ’s teaching on this count might be a reasonable accommodation to make to Nigerian culture.

I just wish Nigerian church leaders would cut the rest of us some slack. The Nigerian and Kenyan delegates to the recently-concluded Anglican Consultative Council meeting in New Zealand have released a reflection document titled “What really happened in Auckland NZ at ACC-15.” I think there are some important points in here but I was disappointed to see the strong emphasis on the apparent un-Biblicism of many Anglicans. To wit:

While there were many reports and resolutions at ACC-15, we wish to highlight our concerns over the report and the resolution on “The Bible in the Life of the Church” project…. However, we are seriously concerned that the context in which people interpret the Bible is considered as important as what the Bible actually says.

The Bible stands over context, not the context over the Bible. God’s Word changes us—we do not change God’s Word….

We call upon all Anglicans to pray that our beloved Communion will stand firm in honouring the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ as the Son Of God, and the authority of God’s Word written over all contexts, and in every matter of faith and practice.

I have no doubt of the sincerity behind this statement and the strong belief in the supremacy of the Bible. I just think that a more productive place from which to begin conversations about the life of the Bible in the Anglican Communion is to acknowledge that all of us—whatever our cultural background or context—fall short in allowing ourselves to be transformed by the revelation of Jesus Christ as entrusted to us in the Bible. Surely from that point of common ground, we can begin to make progress in our inter-Anglican conversations?