Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dishing up a dishonest dichotomy near Disneyland

The opening remarks by Episcopal Church leaders at the denomination's General Convention in Anaheim, CA, set up a false choice between Christ as one's personal Savior (bad, very bad) and The Church as an enlightened organization (glorious, very glorious).

Said the Presiding Bishop: "...the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus." (Yes, she just called most of the world's Christians "heretics" - and I can only guess at how she feels about the requirement for baptized Episcopalians to affirm this.)

Said a Lay leader: "We are only effective in responding to God’s call to the extent that we fully grasp the reality that we cannot do this ministry alone..." (Her language is more benign, but she's all about "our (denominational) story" and the collective as well. More on this below).

I'll state where TEC is going with this in practical terms and then get on to the theological critique.

1) Practically, the appeal to greater collectivism means: "Give more money to our organizational problems, and don't forget to leave us some stuff when you die."

TEC's own numbers, which are in the hands of every Convention deputy who cares to look, show members older than the national average, dying by thousands more per year than the number of members added, with only a handful of congregations engaged in seeking new members for the church. Nationwide, less than a million Episcopalians even attend church on Sunday. It is a denominational death spiral.

So it is in the interests of the existing pool of older clergy and bureaucrats to have a "one-generation" push to fund them through retirement. TEC's litigation spending, aimed at scarfing up empty buildings and other real estate to sell, is an obvious component of the plan. And to pull this off requires an appeal to "collective survival," tugging on the good intentions of people in the pews to hand over money for a church they hope will be there in the future, but won't.

2) Theologically, Jesus does not set the individual and the community of faith in opposition. One of the better expositions in the Bible is I Corinthians 12, where the church is described as a "body" with each "member" having a gift "for the common good." That being said, the lay leader's comment that "we can't do ministry alone" is fine as far as it goes, except that it doesn't go far enough.

That's because Jesus Christ is "the head of the body." The church is not just a human club trying to be efficient or effective. The Presiding Bishop's constant denigration of faith statements about Jesus is a gimmick to justify The Church as an organization over against the Biblical model of church as a gathering of people living new life in the living Christ.

This living Christ had no trouble telling us of God's love for both the church and the individual. The same Good Shepherd who spoke of "laying down his life for the flock" (John 10) also spoke of "leaving the 99 sheep in the fold to find the one that is lost" (Luke 15:3-7), and that all heaven throws a party over one person who repents of evil and turns to God.

A derivative, earthly benefit of Jesus' message is the Western notion of human rights. Even in what are now secular settings, the universal worth of the individual flowed into political thought by the proclamation of the New Testament and its message of each individual's value to God.

Ironically, the Church has been an enemy of that message in various times and places, and this is always an exaltation of the power and prestige of the clergy and entitled bureaucrats over the well being of the people. That's what's on display in Anaheim.

I continue to pray against my own cynicism, and hold out hope that some of TEC's leaders are sincere but misguided zealots who can be reached by Jesus Christ and turned into his witnesses - witnesses to his reality, to his message as revealed in the Bible, to his love for and power to save each individual, to his authority over the church, and to his coming creation of the new heavens and new earth.

1 comment:

Alice C. Linsley said...

You have a good heart, Father. I find it very difficult to hold back the cynicism.

TEC's leadership is spinning a tall tale, but only "the choir' is listening really. The downward spiral continues.

You speak of the new heaven and earth that we expect to see upon Christ's return. This must be disturbing to TEC leaders who, like little children, "want to do myself."