Ruth Gledhill has interviewed Bishop Tom Wright. Read it HERE. No question about it, it exposes many things, some of them regrettable. The Daily Episcopalian has just posted a commentary HERE. Other bloggers are out there as well doing good work. The Daily Episcopalian is tracking them.
Bishop Wright opines about many things, mostly related to the upcoming meeting in Dar Es Salaam (Feb 14-19). Among the more provocative and tasty things he says are the following (followed by my own comments.)
"There are many in America who are trying to have their cake and eat it, who are doing the schismatic thing and then accusing those who object of being schismatic."
Well, that’s clear. Bishop Wright believes that the polity of the Episcopal Church makes possible schismatic action and the bishops and deputies at General Convention were schismatic. But of course this schismatic “thing” is as viewed from the outside. Viewed from within the Episcopal Church (which name by the way, might have been more useful than “many in America.”) the actions of General Convention were in order and the actions of those who walked out of the House of Bishops meeting and out of the House of Deputies were schismatic, or at least breaking the bonds, etc.
"Almost everybody involved with this question recognises that there is no way forward from here without pain. It is painful for everybody. There are not going to be winners and losers. There are going to be losers catergory one, two, three, four and five."
This is true enough. But universal pain is not particularly a useful category. The issue is not pain but justice and justification. Some of us believe justice requires affirmation of the value of committed relationships between persons of the same sex and justification by faith alone, and others that justice does not require such affirmation and justification is by faith, but shown in specific behaviors. Or if that doesn’t do it, perhaps it is useful to point out to the Bishop that the pain of those who are consigned to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is greater by far than the pain of those who do the consigning. If we make it impossible for persons who are gay or lesbian to stay in the church we who remain will certainly suffer their loss, but (assuming it was a worthwhile thing to belong to the Church) they will surely suffer the greater pain. This pain business is a non-starter.
"If the Anglican Communion, and particularly the American church and others like it, can be renewed according to the pattern of the Windsor Report, which is of course according to the pattern of Scripture, then those who are looking to foreign jurisdictions will find a way to come back into the fold. Then there would be a sigh of relief all round. In American there are dozens of breakaway bits and pieces, it is confusing and very messy. It is very American. But it is very unhelpful to the cause of the Church and the Gospel.”
Bishop Wright seems to think the Windsor Report “pattern” is “of course according to the pattern of Scripture.” What is he thinking? On the one hand the renewal the bishop seems to be wanting is for the Episcopal Church to change back, to close the door that has been opened just a crack, and for those who are looking for alternative primatial oversight (foreign jurisdictions) to feel things are now pure enough at home. What in the world does he think this has to do with the “pattern of Scripture?” For that matter, what in the world does he mean by “the pattern of Scripture?” Perhaps he is referring to the pattern of settling differences found in the New Testament. The Anglican Communion is a late practitioner of the fine arts of settling differences, but one can observe that in nearly 2000 years of trying neither is the rest of the severely splintered world of Christian believers. Irreconcilable differences are not new, they are not American. It isn’t “very American.” It is very human.
"At Dromantine the Primates said they wanted Ecusa to answer some questions. Ecusa did what they did last summer, which was not to answer the questions. They gave half an answer to two of them, and no answer at all to the third, which was about authorising blessings. Bishop Jefferts Schori herself authorised same-sex blessings in her former diocese in 2003, so she is one of the bishops who did what Lambeth specifically asked not to be done. Whenever she has been asked to comment on that, she says she stands where she always did. That is a real problem. That is the real issue. The fact that she is a woman is not the point."
But not inviting her was not an option. She has to be there, to explain the actions of General Convention, as requested by the Primates at Dromantine. "The Primates next week are receiving a report on what Ecusa did at General Convention. That has to be discussed. That is why Rowan Williams has invited two bishops to represent the solid, Windsor-rooted centre of the American Church. We are not talking here about dissident conservatives. These are people who are not dissidents."
Well, Ruth had to insert a line of her own in this section, but one can suppose it is for flow and that Bishop Wright said more or less the same. “She has to be there, to explain the actions of General Convention.” No, good Bishop, she has to be there because she is the Primate of the Episcopal Church, duly elected, sworn and seated.
Not to invite her would have been an error in polity so contrary to what little sense of polity exists among the Provinces that, having passed judgment from a Star Chamber, all other Provinces might well realize just how monarchical the “focus of unity” can be. And on the matter of the invited bishops: there are three of them – Duncan, MacPherson, and Epting. The Moderator for sure dissents from the actions of the General Convention and does so loudly enough to constitute being a dissident. Bishop MacPherson seems to think Windsor is the way forward, but the Episcopal Church is the context for his ministry. Bishop Epting seems to be for the actions of General Convention and aligned with the majority of bishops, etc. But he may be the best at dealing with what is at stake here – the ecumenical future of Anglican churches. He of course is not mentioned at all.
“My sense is that there are a lot of people in America, ordinary folk in the churches who have not really caught up with what is going on. Part of the difficulty is that there is a myth about in some circles that historic Anglicanism has no particular doctrine and is just a matter of worshipping together and believing what you like. If you go back to the 16th and 17th centuries (you) will find them arguing in great detail over the Articles of Religion which became the Thirty-Nine Articles. They were hugely important. The idea of doctrinal indifferentism is a very recent idea which has sprung up in some parts of America."
This is all together sloppy and unwarranted. I have no idea if “ordinary folk in the churches” have not been really caught up with what is going on. But it would appear that the Bishop believes that Episcopalians suffer from a lack of theological education to the point of not knowing that there is any doctrinal basis for being a Christian of the Episcopalian sort.
Hokum! I would suggest that Episcopalians are as hungry as, say Church of England “ordinary folk” to understand just what it is we mean when we say the Nicene Creed, just who Jesus Christ is, etc. And, I would hazard a guess that the Baptismal Covenant has made a whole generation of Episcopalians more aware of the faith implications of Baptism than would otherwise have been the case. Worshiping together and believing go hand in hand. How dare he suggest that “ordinary folk” in this church “believe what (they) like.”
And then he jabs with the right hook of absolutely clear anti-American snobbery. The Bishop says, “The idea of doctrinal indifferentism is a very recent idea which has sprung up in some parts of America.” Great sentence! I only hope Ruth Gledhill got it down right!
Let’s work backward on this: Starting from the end of the sentence, the Bishop seems to think that the problem is regional “some parts of America” may refer only to life in these United States, or it may be North America in general. If the first, what does he have in mind? Does he want to paint the Episcopal Church map with red and blue states, with the blue being those poor parts that are caught up in “doctrinal indifferentism?” Well, let’s let this one pass by. It is after all a mere slip.
This doctrinal indifferentism is a “recent idea which has sprung up.” Well, Stephen Neill in Anglicanism (fourth edition), asks,
“what are the acceptable limits of variation in doctrine?...Willingness for a certain amount of what appears to be error to continue exist in the church is not necessarily a sign of indifference to truth; it may arise rather from an awareness that underneath the appearance of error what is really a new discovery of truth may be concealed, that truth shines by its own light, that in the history of the church innumerable aberrations have proved unable to maintain themselves, and that far more harm is done to the life of the Church by the appearance of persecution and the making of martyrs than by enduring for a time in the confidence that orthodoxy and heresy will in course of time sort themselves out and that in the end truth will prevail.”
Perhaps the seeming indifference is indicative (at least in its better moments) of living with, but not by, the supposed truth of doctrine. The reason for this quote from Stephen Neill is only to address the “recent idea which has sprung up.” It’s not so recent, and it doesn’t just spring up like some late starting weed that can be cut down, or some upstart clown who can be punched out by a solid whack to the side of the head.
But then we get to the phrase itself “doctrinal indifferentism.” Ruth Ghilhill did us the service of giving a hyperlink reference to a paper discussing the notion of “doctrinal indifferentism.” You can read it HERE. The article is titled, “Christianity, Liberalism and the New Evangelicalism, and is by Carl Trueman. It is a thick read, but here is the core. It concerns in turn the writings of J Gresham Machen, who wrote Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. I am going to give a rather long quote from that essay because it will be important to the point I want to make at the close of this commentary on Bishop Wrights’ remarks.
Trueman writes as follows,
“The lessons from Machen’s discussion of the importance of doctrine for the contemporary evangelical situation are quite clear: doctrinal indifferentism -- that attitude which regards the individual’s or church’s experience of Christ as essentially separable from, more important than, or even opposed to, a clear understanding of his person and work -- is a sure sign both of an incipient theological liberalism and something which has little or nothing to do with the tradition of historic, orthodox Christianity.
We must not allow the rhetoric and language of personal relationships to be used as a means of downplaying the crucial importance of clear, orthdox doctrine. If we are to have a personal relationship with anyone, then that relationship depends upon a sure knowledge of who that other person is and what they are like. My personal relationship with my wife is not essentially separable from, more important than, or even opposed to my knowledge of who she is, what she says, and what she does; and the same applies to my relationship with Christ. When we keep in mind that doctrine is part and parcel of our personal knowledge of who Christ is, the danger involved in downplaying doctrine becomes crystal clear.
Now, there are no doubt few if any here today who would be willing to stand up and declare themselves to be indifferent to doctrine; but the danger on this point is often more subtle, and perhaps even unconscious, than a straightforward and explicit commitment to the kind of liberalism which Machen is criticising. My own belief is that when we reflect at any length upon our church life, it often becomes clear that we are not as far from this attitude as we might like to think. To demonstrate this, I wish to make two important points.
My first point is that the role that personal testimonies play in much of church life can serve to sideline doctrinal imperatives. At the end of the day, the gospel in the New Testament is identified with the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and its doctrinal significance. It is, as Machen would say, not an ethical demand but an announcement; a message of good news built upon particular historical happenings. Therefore, the gospel is not the transformation of an individual life; it is not the rescuing of someone from some evil addiction; and it is not the turning of a sinner from the path of destruction to the path of life.
All of these things can flow from the gospel; but the gospel itself is the announcement of what God achieved in Jesus Christ. Thus, while personal testimonies may have their place in church life, they should never be allowed to eclipse the preaching of the gospel which is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. If they are allowed to do so, then that is indicative of a church for whom the experiences of individual Christians has become more important than the doctrinal truths which in reality underpin and shape those experiences. When this happens, make no mistake -- it does not matter how conservative the church claims to be, how sound its paper orthodoxy is, the difference between the theological approach of that church and that of classic liberalism is one of degree, not of kind.
My second point is that the collapse in denominational identity, or, in the case of much British evangelicalism, the complete lack of any denominational identity whatsoever, often speaks volumes about doctrinal indifferentism. Now, I am aware of the arguments that stress the lack of denominations in the New Testament and that point to the deep and mystical unity which all believers enjoy in Christ which transcends denominations. I do not deny the truth of either of these points. What I would like to suggest, however, is that much of the interdenominational and parachurch activity which goes on within evangelical circles today is not simply or perhaps even primarily a response to these two issues but is rather a function of a rising doctrinal indifferentism.
Truemans’ article cuts both ways: it is highly critical of liberal mainline Christianity; it is equally critical of evangelical activities as well. You can't tell that from Bishop Wright's remarks. But why then would Bishop Wright take this particular stance, that, “The idea of doctrinal indifferentism is a very recent idea which has sprung up in some parts of America”? It is not a very recent idea, it has not sprung up in American, much less in some parts of America. Why?
Bishop Wright is quoted again and again about “Americans,” a name he uses much more often than “Episcopal Church” or one of its variations. When he is punching, his bag is Americans, not Episcopalians. It is “lots of people in America,” or “some parts of America,” or “the American Church,” or the untidiness of splintering is “very American.” He is swinging at the American ‘ness’ of the Episcopal Church. So the punching bag is the America “thing.” This will play well to those who for other, and perhaps good, reasons have some dislike for the United States of America and say, our imperialist motives in the world. So America is the word, not Episcopalians.
When he makes it a liberal thing as well (doctrinal indifferentism) or a regional thing (pitting true Christians against the liberal north and wacko west) he is punching again – this time at those he knows are roundly despised by conservatives at home and abroad.
Bishop Wright is a bishop and a scholar, and I am not. But this time he did himself no service, he did the church no service, and he got at least one of the “ordinary folk in the Church” pretty riled up. This time he has, with a little help from a friend, dumped the whole load on the Episcopal Church. Bishop you have to watch out for ordinary folk: one day they will not be seem so very ordinary, for they never were.