September 15, 2003

The Two Churches

If you're just here for the book reviews and the cute kid stories, feel free to skip this.

Some little while ago, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met and confirmed a gay man, Gene Robinson, as Bishop; the Convention also determined that it should be up to individual bishops to allow or forbid the blessing of same-sex unions within their dioceses. These decisions were in all the newspapers, and have been widely commented on in the blogosphere.

What's largely been lost in most of the commentary I've read is how deeply split the Episcopal Church is on this issue--and how little, at base, the division has to do with sexual morality. Instead, it's the result of a disagreement about the basic meaning of the Christian faith. It is not an exaggeration to say that for many years now the Episcopal Church has in fact been two churches: one preaching the Gospel of Repentance, and one preaching the Gospel of Inclusion.

Katherine Kersten, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said this about General Convention:

Speakers who urged approval of homosexual unions did not use the vocabulary or categories of thought of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. Instead, they appeared to embrace a new gospel, heavily influenced by America's secular, therapeutic culture. This gospel has two watchwords: inclusion and affirmation. Its message? Jesus came to make us feel good about ourselves.

While I doubt the speakers in question would agree with quite that formulation of their views, Kersten is more-or-less correct. She goes on,

Adherents of the gospel of inclusion offered arguments like this: "The church should bless same-sex partnerships so everyone feels included." "People will want to join this church if they see others being welcomed." "God is love. He doesn't care about the gender of the people we love."

This week's events in Minneapolis suggest that, in 2003, the three historic bulwarks of Episcopal Church doctrine--Scripture, tradition and reason--are crumbling in the face of the gospel of inclusion and affirmation.

To be sure, the new gospel's disciples do not generally jettison Scripture outright. Instead, they radically reinterpret it, using techniques imported from America's postmodern universities. Walter Brueggemann, a theologian quoted in a pro-same-sex-union Episcopal publication, put it like this: Scripture is "the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory." Approached this way, inconvenient passages can be dismissed as inconsistent with "Jesus' self-giving love."

Tradition fares no better at the hands of the gospel of inclusion. The Episcopal Church has always regarded marriage as the sacrament that sanctifies the "one flesh" union of man and woman. But the new gospel expands the notion of sacrament to include anything that "mediates" the grace or blessing of God and causes us to give thanks. As a result, the Rev. Gene Robinson can describe his relationship with his male partner as sacramental, because "in his unfailing and unquestioning love of me, I experience just a little bit of the kind of never-ending, never-failing love that God has for me."

In short, the Gospel of Inclusion says that God accepts us where ever and whoever we are, and loves us as we are, and that because he loves us we are OK as we are. The Gospel of Inclusion thus has little use for forgiveness of sins--achieving personal wholeness, instead, is the key. As Kersten points out, though, this view requires explaining away inconvenient Biblical passages. Now, the Good Lord knows there are many inconvenient Biblical passages I'd just as soon ignore--and that's generally a danger signal that I'd better pay close attention to them instead.

The Gospel of Repentance is the traditional view of Christianity. It says that yes, indeed, God loves us where ever and whoever we are, and that he calls each of us into a close relationship with Him. But He does not call us to remain as we are--He calls us to repent of everything in us that is incompatible with Heaven and to be transformed by His love.

The Gospel of Inclusion says that we are Holy because God loves us; the Gospel of Repentance says that because God loves us, He will endeavour to make us Holy. The central fact of Christianity, Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, is the prime act by which God so endeavours to make us Holy; thanks to Christ's sacrifice, we can be forgiven of our sins. But the Gospel of Inclusion, which says that we are Holy as we are, has little use for the crucifixion:

The gospel of inclusion has little place for repentance or transformation. Thus, it has little place for the central feature of Christianity: Christ's Cross, which brings redemption through suffering. This new gospel may be appealing, for it permits its adherents to "divinize" their own, largely secular agenda. But in a Christian church, it cannot easily coexist with the Gospel of Christ.

And, in fact, it does not. And this is why many conservative Episcopalians are so distressed and dismayed by the General Convention's recent actions: they are yet another sign that the Gospel of Christ is being jettisoned in favor of the Gospel of Inclusion. The Gospel that has the power to transform is being abandoned in favor of the Gospel that says, "There, there." I believe that the followers of the Gospel of Inclusion are genuinely motivated by a desire to share Christ's love with all people--but thanks to their theology, the people who come to the Episcopal Church thanks to their inclusiveness are being sold a sham--a "faith" that affirms them in their broken-ness and tells them that they are, thereby, whole, rather than a faith that can bring them to true wholeness. In the end, the inclusivists are short-changing the very people they hope to help.

Please note: during this essay I've said nothing one way or the other about homosexuality--following C.S. Lewis, I find it unwise to shoot my mouth off over temptations to which I'm not personally subject. More to the point, I'm not claiming that gays are any more broken than the population as a whole, nor that homosexuality is the chief sign of broken-ness in a gay person's life. In my experience, there's plenty of sin to go around and although Lust gets all the press the other six Deadly Sins--Pride, Envy, Sloth, and the rest--are generally more serious problems for most people.

So it's not the moral question that gets me riled; it's the attempt to make the teachings of Christianity conform to the spirit of the age, and the consequent rejection of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

So why do I bring this up? As I say, many conservative Episcopalians are distressed by these recent events, and are wondering what they should do. Some have proclaimed that the Episcopal Church is dead. Many--whole parishes, in some cases--are seriously planning to leave the Episcopal Church altogether. I think there's another way--but that's another post.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 15, 2003 09:26 PM

Charles said:

I feel that the church has taken the true love of God and veiled it behind "religious" doctrines of men that glorifies and justifies hate and exclusion of people in our society that God loves unconditionally. I value and hold in high regard the work that Jesus did on the cross for my sin and the sins of the world. Jesus is the Saviour of the WORLD (1 Tim. 4:10). All mankind is equally loved and embraced by God. All mankind has fallen short of God's law but Jesus paid the price for the sins of humanity. At that moment in time All humanity was saved. Traditional religion teaches that man have to "work" for salvation (confess,repent,, pray hard enough, etc) and then God saves you. I argue so that according to this view the sacrifical death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was incomplete unless we "flesh/blood" complete it. God has accepted, saved and clensed me before the foundations of the earth and He loves me as a Christian gay man. This Gospel does not exclude people.God loves black, white, old ,young, gay,straight etc.