"Doctrinal Indifferentism": Bishop Tom goes for the full body blow, and misses.

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.


  1. +Tom Wright comes off in this article as a miffed bishop who has gone off on a rant because the members of The Episcopal Church’s 2006 General Convention didn’t comply with his council. How unfortunate for him. Perhaps Bishop Wright might want to return to debating w/ Marcus Borg. Bishop Wright might also pay attention to such persons as ++ Robin Eames. The Primate of All Ireland has suggested on more than one occasion that the primates' time with one another in Dar es Salaam would be better spent discerning the means by which Anglicans can remain in communion with one another rather than continuing to seek repentance from heathen Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans.

    It is clear to me that Bishop Wright lacks the humility and wisdom it takes to be a bishop. I hope and pray that the Bishop of Durham might spend some time contemplating the pole within his own eye while tending to his diocesan matters. He might also take some time during Lent to work upon the virtues of collegiality and humility.

  2. I've read the article and several commentaries on it from around the blogosphere. The main reaction I have is disgust -- disgust with such an august scholar dabbling in things of which he seems to have little or no understanding. Granted, he may have ilstened too much to the conservatives babbling in his ear, but perhaps he is just too much in love with the words and work he put into the Windsor Report to let go of even a syllable of it. Unfortunately, the syllables he ignores are those which talk about boundary-jumping. But adherence to those don't fit his agenda.

    I wish his books weren't on so many schools' adjunct reading lists. I wonder if he realizes how many royalties for his numerous books come from members of TEC? I wish too that he would keep his prejudices to himself and concentrate on his diocese.

    I wonder--- is he already doing a little back-room campaigning for a preferential episocopal job once his "friend" retires or leaves office?


  3. The Windsor recommendations were never realistic. And now, because we would not simply comply with unrealistic expectations, we are to blame. Perhaps nothing can hold the communion together. If the bonds of affection can't, why should we believe a covenant can? In the end, we did what we had to do. We could "do no other." Perhaps others in the communion are doing what they have to do now, or so it seems to them. That's sad, but so be it. We'd do it all over again, even knowing what we know now. We were warned, even threatened. We did it anyway. And no sound theological reason was given why we shouldn't proceed. Not ever.

  4. Mark,

    Thank you for shining a great deal of clarity into a most unbecoming diatribe.

    It's hard to resist the temptation, but I must admit for the first time in my life, some distant blood that fought in the Revolutionary War got riled up. And I'm half English! Wright's unapologetic anti-American language (not in some small way due to Gledhill's filter)is that caustic, the admittedly arrogant foreign policy of our government notwithstanding.

    I hope he has the opportunity (or the generosity) to explain his position more clearly and coherently, and perhaps afford the opportunity for some of our "doctrinally indifferent" bishops to respond.

  5. It isn't easy to understand what Wright is up to here without thinking through his target audience and what he wants that audience to do.

    The audience is a small set, mostly composed of ++Rowan.

    Likely one of the staff at Lambeth (whom we heard so much about last week) figured out that Rowan is afraid that he will lose a large section of the CofE to the American and Canadian churches. Perhaps more than a third of the CofE. Thus someone had a word with +Wright. Seeing a need to confront +Rowan's fear, he called up Ruth Gledhill (well known for her dislike and antipathy to the American church) for this interview. Hence the stuff about the Americans, etc. He is playing up to a lot of stale English stereotypes of Americans here. And the purpose of it is so the staff (left over from Carey) can show Rowan this interview before he leaves.

    Rowan is then counseled by Carey's left-over minions that it is ok to not try and stop the GS primates and the agenda they are cooking up in their pre-meeting in Kenya. No one in England in their right mind would follow the Americans out the door, they will be able to say, so don't waste energy fighting the traditionalists.

    Might just work. Good activism on Wright's part, shaping the target audience's expectation of possible outcomes.

    I could be off on how I am reading this "text" but go back and reread it and see what you think that Wright and Gledhill would like Rowan to read into and out of this story. And think about it from a sociological point of view and from what we've learned recently about the advisors that ++Rowan is listening to.

    If I am right, expect a lot more of this sort of English anti-Americanism, half snobism and half based in stupid cliches about Americans from 1970s and 80s British sitcoms. When you see more of this sort of "those strange Americans" know that their fear of losing much of the CofE to America and Canada is real and they are trying to prevent that.

  6. as for the biblical model of settling such differences, may i recommend acts 11? my commentary found at Reloquus at http://reloquus.blogspot.com/2006/06/acts-111.html

  7. A few years ago when Tom Wright spoke at my church he praised The Episcopal Church for its efforts at educating parishioners and compared that to the almost complete lack of adult education opportunities offered in the C of E. Now he is coming off as describing us as a bunch of rubes.

    When Tom Wright "coincidentally" released comments on the Windsor Report around our GC 2006 he explained that the release was due to the vast amount of time it takes for him to write and not intended to influence GC. Yet an interview in the English press from a year earlier had him bragging about how easy it was for him to write vast amounts of material in a short period of time.

    Tom Wright seems to be inappropriately inserting himself time and time again. I think we need to keep track of the inconsistencies of his "explanations" and start holding him accountable.

    That might be an effective way of exposing him for what he is... a power-hungry trouble maker.

  8. It's sad that a wonderful Bishop like Tom Wright, who is regarded as one of the finest scholars in New Testament studies, and a godly man expresses his opinion, and then is attacked because people don't like what he says. It just proves him point that some what to have their cake and eat it. Just because others, or even the majority disagree with him does not make him wrong (and I agree, may not make him right either). But his position and status deserves more than as one comment here has said, "he lacks the humility and wisdom it takes to be a bishop." That is a sad indication of a lack of thinking from jim strader. Regardless of how strongly one might react to what he says - take it away and think on it as it comes not from a raging conservative, but from a man whose writing and ministry has shown balance, love and compassion.

    Andy John

  9. Poor Rowan -- once you give in to bullies...

    Well, I can imagine the possibility that 2/3 of the primates would vote TEC out of the ACC, but that the ABC would invite the TEC bishops to Lambeth (like the Swedes & Old Catholics -- i.e., not part of the WWAC but "in communion with" the C of E) -- but I can't think how the finances would work -- well over half the funding for the WWAC comes from TEC.

  10. The schismatic thing is always viewed from the outside, Rev. Harris. By TEC's actions, it has broken from the teaching and wishes of the Communion of which it is part (as well as - literally - 98% of the rest of Catholic Christianity). I'm quite sure the Donatists were also internally quite well ordered, but they, and ECUSA, are the schismatics. There is no getting around that, save for reversing course - something ECUSA has indicated it would rather destroy itself than do.

  11. There's something about the whole question of timing which strikes me as a little 'off' here. I've half a mind that it's wee Ruthie who's confected this story from bits and pieces of an earlier interview and who, on her own initiative or at the prompting of others (and a couple of suspects come to mind), has lobbed this into the court a week before the meeting.

  12. Tom, Tom, why do you persecute me. It is so hard for you to kick against the goad.

  13. Yes, I sensed my Revolutionary War ancestors stirring in their graves, too. But of course there are many others in the CofE who would (will and have) write substantially different things. Still, the longer this goes on and the louder the screeching becomes, I can't help but wonder if this is God's way of moving the grouchy old men uncomfortable with women, homosexuals and anyone else unlike them off into a corner so that His (or Her, if you like) church can get on with business.

  14. As an English priest, I would like to express my embarrassment and shame at the anti-American rhetoric deployed by the Bishop of Durham in his pre-emptive strike.

    This aside, the issue of doctrinal indifferentism seems key here. Wright misses the points that (a) those involved in supporting Gene Robinson's consecration and the affirmation of LGBT people are most certainly not indifferent to truth, ottherwise they would not have taken the steps they did that have exposed them to such abuse (b) the ability to raise radical questions is at the heart of the risk of creation - it is something the Father wills in making us at all (c) the breaking open of communities closed by strictures of purity is a response to the revelation of God in Christ.

    On all fronts, I would claim that truth, doctrine and tradition are best served by inclusivity, understood as subversive, radical hospitality. Perhaps the Bishop of Durham should ask how an English church which colluded with imperialism has itself needed to hear the voices that have challenged racism and slavery, patriarchy and persecution of dissenters. Isn't this also part of the tradition through which we have received the truth?

  15. We begin to see that underneath all of that supposed "objectivity" is quite a lot that looks less than reasonable and even schismatic in his own right, given every chance he gets he lobs a bomb at the eleventh hour to stop the conversation even as he demands submission to the Law of Windsor.

  16. What an utterly bizarre post this is. Of course any accusation of schism will be from the "outside," insofar as the split is from the vast majority of the Anglican Communion. Only the most obsessively self-regarding could possibly expect ++Wright to see it from the TEC frame of reference and thus conclude that "they were all out of step but" TEC.

    The objections to ++Wright invoking "doctrinal indifferentism" is simiarly mind-boggling. While it is entirely correct that there will always be a band within which lies uncertainty regarding Scripture and doctrine, that is a challenge to us to attain accuracy, not license for us to do as we wish. We may disagree on whether the brown, furry dot in our binoculars is a ground hog, a gopher or a beaver but that does not mean it is therefore a giraffe.

    And please, ++Wright isn't tweaking the nose of all Americans, just those that think the rest of the Communion ought to stop being such racist, homophobic bigots and sign on to the latest stylish, Scripture-resistant innovations du jour cranked out by TEC. It's clear that TEC has gone far too far with this latest outrage and may well find itself very soon on the outside looking in.

  17. I am growing older and will be before the Lord soon enough. I have table fellowship and truly love my gay brothers and sisters and yet assist them in their discomfort and confusion over their plight, most of which can be defined by some form of abuse or abandonment. I have yet to encounter such a person who believes that their lifestyle is godly or is pleasing to the Lord. They are however delighted at their inclusion into our church with dignity and respect as they receive council and love and enter into worship of the Lord of their life who has called to them also. When they stumble and fall, as all of us do, we are there to pray and forgive and pray and forgive. None have asked for favor, for a platform or for recognition to be leaders in light of the struggle they are in. We have also seen many miracles of transformation out of the love and grace given freely. There is more to the story and that "more" is the truth of God's creation and his design for male plus female. Idolatry is an American platform of rights and the results here are as they have been throughout history, destruction and misery. God’s ways are simply right and good. We do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, we continue to bath the baby and many of them are transformed in the process and those who are not are still loved, blessed and cared for..I do think that’s what Jesus is still doing.

    David Halseth Oregon


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.