6/10/2009

Heresy and Authority: On the Viability of the Anglican Option

I have watched for the past 10 years as the Anglican middle way, which I have come to love so much, has been turning into the broad way. Times of heresy are not new to the church - she has denied Christ's full deity and tried to sell the forgiveness of sins - but I am hard pressed to think of a time when the departure from Orthodoxy has been so total as it is today in the Episcopal Church. It is no longer surprising when they deny the uniqueness of Christ, approve every sort of immoral behavior, profane Christ's body by offering it to Hindus, or elect a Buddhist bishop. I call myself Anglican because I am ashamed to admit I attend an Episcopal church. I can't overstate the burden of oppression that weighs on my soul. I live on a tiny island of orthodoxy, in the midst of this abyss of heresy, called Blessed Sacrament. What are we to do?

My model for responding to heresy has always been the early church's reaction to the Arian heresy which nearly engulfed her. The few orthodox bishops who remained appointed several "replacement" bishops in Arian dioceses, so that there were in some places 2 people claiming to be the rightful Christian bishop. I infer from this that one can forfeit his spiritual authority by embracing heresy. A diocese with an Arian bishop is a diocese without a bishop.

The closest thing to this "dueling bishops" model that is available to us is the newly-formed Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), a confederation of conservative breakaway groups, a potential and hopeful 39th province, a way to be Anglican in the United States (and Canada) under bishops who confess the faith of the apostles. I see ACNA as a way for orthodox bishops to stand in the vacancies left by the apostacy of the Episcopal Church (TEC), rather than as a formally different church. I also expect the distinction between TEC and ACNA to be temporary. TEC is shrinking rapidly, as the liberal, Christless Christianity it has embraced is demonstrating itself to be unsustainable. When you jetison the gospel, you don't leave any compelling reason to want to be a Christian. I think my children will live to see this reunification.

But how do I, as a member of Blessed Sacrament, align myself with ACNA? It seems to me that by far the best course would be for the entire parish to leave TEC and join ACNA. But that is not going to happen. There are many in my parish who feel strongly about staying. The church belongs to God, after all, not General Convention. And they aren't about to let heretics kick them out of their church.

I've already explained how I don't see ACNA alignment as a fundamentally different church, but the fact remains that there are irreconcilable differences in the parish on this point. This forces a critical question for me: is full ACNA membership important enough to warrant leaving Blessed Sacrament? On the one hand, I desperately want to be part of an ACNA parish in repudiation of my bishop's authority. Some people who I respect are leaving for this reason. On the other hand I deeply want to stay. I courted here, I was married here, I've had 3 children here. The community is orthodox and nurturing, and I can't think of a better environment in which to raise a family. There is hardly any hope of making an unbiased decision.

I have decided, though, that whatever I do I cannot give up attendance at Blessed Sacrament[1]. It seems to me that there are two conflicting goods before me: being a part of an orthodox, nurturing community, and completely removing myself from the authority of a heretical bishop. It is not clear to me that I can't do the second without doing the first, or that the good of joining an ACNA parish justifies breaking fellowship with an orthodox body of believers who agree with me on most doctrinal matters except the proper response to systemic heresy in the church - which, as theological differences go, is fairly minor. I'm just not sure that the best way to decisively stand againts TEC heresy involves leaving an orthodox parish. If it sounds like I'm trying to have two contrary goods at the same time, it's because I'm Anglican. We've been doing it for 500 years.

There's another reason I can't leave Blessed Sacrament. One of the things I've picked up from Anglicanism (and the Rule of St. Benedict) is the importance of obedience to authority in church life. When I call my priest Father, it implies a certain spiritual authority over me and over the life of our parish. He has been very supportive of those of us who feel we need to re-align, but has also been constant in not supporting any courses of action that would split the parish. I am not convinced that removing myself from his authority for the sake of removing myself from my bishop's authority is productive or (for me) allowable. The question here is not "is this the best course?", but "is this course so wrong that I must reject my priest's leadership on the matter?" For me, it is not.

Having said that, it is obviously very important for me to be removed from the authority of TEC to the degree possible. What might that look like for those of us interested in the "Anglican Option", as we're calling it, who want to align with ACNA but can't leave Blessed Sacrament? This is still being worked out, but here are some of my thoughts:

1) Blessed Sacrament is already doing this to some extent. 3 of the priests who regularly help with the service are under ACNA bishops. It would be nice for one of them to co-consecrate the elements as often as is practical.
2) It's important for me to have an ACNA priest associated with our enclave. He could be from Blessed Sacrament or a local ACNA parish, and hopefully would provide a regular (bi-weekly?) evening mass - possibly piggybacking on an existing service.
3) It is also important to financially support both ACNA and Blessed Sacrament. That could mean the Blessed Sacrament vestry allocating a piece of the budget to regularly support them (which I would prefer), or perhaps the enclave could work something out internally.
4) This one is admittedly a little vapid. For years I've wanted to take down the "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" sign outside the church. That won't be happening, but I wonder if we couldn't put up an "ACNA welcomes you, too" sign next to it.

I know there are some people for whom these or similar steps are insufficient. I hope we can work together so that the ACNA parish they land at is the same on the enclave associates itself with, so that we can maintain contact and establish a certain amount of fluidity between it and Blessed Sacrament.



[1] Thanks to Tim Motte for helping me think through some of these issues.

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