"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Rejoinder on the Essential Catholicity of the Episcopal Church, and the Importance of Relationships

While searching, out of curiosity, for Episcopal Church parishes that have altars set against the east wall, I stumbled upon an Orthodox blog post regarding an event about which I previously wrote (here). The event served as an opportunity for that blogger to opine that "the Episcopal 'Church' is simply apostate," that ecumenical dialogue between Orthodox and Episcopalians should cease, and that Orthodox jurisdictions should no longer recognize Episcopal sacraments, including baptism. Further elaboration followed in the comments. Given that opening volley, and considering the premium that I place upon incarnate relationships (according to which, I often question the value of relatively impersonal conversations online), I'm not sure that I had any real cause to comment; for whatever reason, I felt compelled to do so.

My response became too extensive for a mere comment, so I have posted my thoughts here (with an invitation, of course, to the originator of the criticisms to read them and respond, if he is so inclined). I offer them without animosity as the reflections of one who desires greater understanding, charity, and unity among Christians of varying traditions.

The assertions with which I must contend, and my responses:

"The simple truth is we have no idea what is happening in (Episcopal) baptisms. We don't know what is being said, what is being intended, and so on. In theory they are bound by the Book of Common Prayer. In practice this is often not the case."
I should begin by saying that I view adherence to the BCP as of utmost importance, and while it's true that we have priests who don't do this as strictly as they should (and as they are bound by their ordination vows to do), it must be said that such aberrations are exceptions, despite the press they receive. I think this is even truer with regards to the baptismal rite; as a lifelong Episcopalian, I've witnessed a fair number of baptisms, and I've never seen (or heard of) one that would be considered invalid according to the doctrine and practice set forth in the BCP. At a minimum, the baptism must be "with water, 'In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (which are the essential parts of Baptism)" (1979 BCP, 313). Any baptism meeting this basic criteria is recognized as valid by the Episcopal Church as constituting "full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (BCP, 298). Accordingly, the Episcopal Church does not re-baptize, and firmly argues against a theological understanding of baptism which would necessitate such a practice.
     As for baptisms administered in the Episcopal Church, in addition to meeting the above essentials, they are normatively in accordance with the full baptismal rite contained in the Prayer Book. In that rite, the candidate renounces Satan, evil, and sin, and affirms Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and the one upon whom all hope is cast. The candidate proceeds, with the whole assembly, to affirm the faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed. After prayers, the candidate is baptized in the Triune Name, and anointed with Chrism ("you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever"). Then the newly baptized is charged by the whole assembled household of God to "Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood." (BCP, 301-308). One may dispute the finer points of the BCP rite itself, but I must contend that it is simply unjustified to state that "we have no idea what is happening" in Episcopal baptisms--what is happening, with near if not actual universality in such baptisms, is the rite as contained in the authorized liturgy of the Episcopal Church.

"There is no real article of faith to which one must subscribe to be (an Episcopalian)."
See above. To me, this criticism sounds like a stereotypical Roman Catholic (or generally Western) criticism of Eastern Orthodoxy: "How can anyone be sure what those Orthodox really believe? They have no Pope! They have no systematic catechism! They are so enamored of divine mystery! It's just too messy!" It can indeed be messy, but that by no means negates the deep substance to be found in a tradition. To be baptized or received into the Episcopal Church is to affirm the ancient Creeds, and to submit to be continually formed by the liturgy of the Church as authorized in the BCP, which is the clearest and most authoritative source of "the doctrine and discipline" of the Episcopal Church. If one has questions about the faith professed by the Episcopal Church, read the BCP. Again, one may quibble over various details, but I don't see how anyone could claim that the BCP as a whole is not a formulary that is elegantly and powerfully catholic and reformed, solidly orthodox, and unambiguously Trinitarian. (And it's so handy, too!)

"Are there Christians in TEC? Certainly. But the organization itself is not Christian . . ."
Again, see above. This reminds me of conversations in my younger days among evangelical Protestant friends:
"So, do you think it's possible for a Roman Catholic to be a Christian?"
"Well, I guess so, if they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. But I don't know why they would continue to stay in that pagan, idolatrous 'church.' They should find a real church that's Bible-based."
"So, do you know many Roman Catholics?"
"Well, not really. But I just read this book by a former Catholic who got saved, all about what Catholics really believe . . ."

"And of course the few who are as a matter of personal faith still Christian are in full communion with the likes of Jack Spong. You are who you are in communion with."
To begin with, I should say that I'm no fan of John S. Spong. I tend to be pretty generous, but having read some of his stuff, I honestly don't know how (or why) he maintains a Christian self-identity. I should also note that some of his ablest critics have been his fellow Anglicans, including the recent Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (he truly took him to task for his "12 Points"--look it up for a good read). There are still Episcopalians who seem interested in what he writes, but in my experience they are generally older and of decreasing number (i.e. Spong's heyday, to the extent that he had one, has come and gone). But more to the point, I would speak to the claim that "you are who you are in communion with." If that is how communion works (i.e. negatively, the "worst" of us infecting the "best" of us), then no doubt we are all, in every tradition, hopelessly lost. But there is a sense in which I agree--I believe that by God's grace in the sacraments (particularly Baptism and Eucharist), Christians are brought into union with one another in ways no less real for our inadequacy to describe the mystery. I would not say, though, that "I am who I am in communion with"; rather, I would assert that I am becoming, that I am being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, and into greater union with God and God's people.

To conclude, I would reiterate that I think relationships are key--if a Christian from a different tradition finds it inconceivable that an Episcopalian could be both sincere and well-grounded in his personal Christian faith and also convinced of the essential catholicity of the Episcopal Church, I would encourage such a one to seek to develop some relationships with some actual Episcopalians. I myself have been greatly blessed by my involvement in the Eighth Day Institute, a local ecumenical endeavor founded by a devout Orthodox layman and supported by the local Orthodox Cathedral of St. George (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America). It is a truly remarkable and wonderful source of Christian fellowship and education.

Ephesians 4:1-6
Pax Christi.


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