DOCTRINE OR DISCIPLINE?
It has been a fairly quiet month since I last wrote. The Diocese of Newark made its annual visit to the newspaper headlines by voting in favor of assisted suicide, that being the cutting edge issue of the moment about which brows can be furrowed and prophetic credentials flashed for the cameras.
The suffragan bishop of Washington forced her way into three parishes that do not recognize her ministry, with the bishop himself bullying the priest in one by threatening to defrock him if he failed to attend. He had no legal justification, but he does control the diocesan courts. The priest submitted, to the extent of actually being in the church during the service, but kept his back turned.
The Righter Trial
As I write, the judges in the trial of Bishop Walter Righter have still not ruled on whether the Episcopal Church has a doctrine on marriage, and have asked both sides to explain the difference between doctrine and discipline. Many now assume that the judges will try to rule that Bishop Righter violated the Church’s current discipline, which they understand as a temporary and changeable way of ordering our common life, but that it does not have a eternally binding doctrine on the subject.
This would have the effect, which the majority of the judges surely want, of reassuring the conservatives while leaving the moral innovators free to continue doing what they wish. English readers should not under-estimate the ability of Episcopalians to find good news in actions previous Christians would have thought intolerable.
Many observers expect the judges (who are all bishops, remember) to declare that the Church has no teaching on the subject. They might not, of course, but unless they get carried away by the chance to settle the question in favor of moral innovation, I expect them to try to uphold the law.
Our moral innovators are not antinomians, not any more, anyway. They do believe in law, because they are the law. They want at least to nod respectfully at the laws of the Church, because they do not want people rebelling against the laws that serve their interests, in particular the law that lets the diocese keep the property of any parish that leaves the Episcopal Church. I do not think they will be so foolish as to undermine their authority to do so.
Further, they do not like to be seen exercising power for their own ends, and seek the cover of law or ideology. The suffragan bishop of Washington tried to explain her act of aggression as an act of reconciliation and unity. The bishop told a reporter that she was being compassionate. That their words were preposterous does not mean that they were not also perfectly sincere.
By the way, in speaking of homosexuality, our liberals are still in their prophetic mode, which they use until they have won. When they have won but need to address the remaining moral traditionalists, I suspect they will begin defending Bishop Righter and his successors as merely helping the process of reception of homosexuality, by providing a way of testing the innovation in practice. Many conservatives have already accepted this approach to doctrine in the case of women’s ordination and will be unable to oppose it when it is applied to homosexuality.
I have noticed, from conversations and messages on the internet, that many people who had first supported the presenters are already tired of the exercise. It has gone on too long and seems likely to end in even more ambiguity about what the Episcopal Church teaches. The trial does not seem likely to deliver that clarifying yea or nay the presenters had hoped for.
As a result, many are wondering why we should bother with such things. Some ask this question as a prelude to leaving the Episcopal Church, but most I have heard ask it as a prelude to excusing their continuing as members in good standing and their refusal to address divisive issues.
The answer is simply that the moral teaching of the Episcopal Church will help or harm human souls, and not only in this country, where some people still obey Episcopal statements. In the Trinity Chapel last week, the Archbishop of Uganda, Livingstone Nkoyoyo, described the energetic work of Muslim evangelists in trying to convince Africans that Islam rather than Christianity is the truly African religion.
Referring to homosexuality, Archbishop Nkoyoyo said that in his country, we have no word for this thing. That men would have sex with each other is a thing the African mind cannot understand.
The Muslim evangelists who are very good at what they do point out to possible converts that the Western Churches accept, if not actually approve, homosexuality. The Koran, they continue, forbids it in the strongest words and thus Islam is a better religion for Africans than the decadent Christianity of the West. It is a very good argument.
David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal school for Ministry and the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America. His reflections on the future of the mainline Churches, Collapsing Churches: A Sociological Analysis, has been published in this country by Reform. His e-mail address is DPMills@aol.com.