Early Promise

A RICH MAN on his death bed hoped that he could take it with him and called his doctor, banker, and priest. He gave each an envelope containing $1 million and asked them to put the envelope in his pocket before the casket was closed. All three did so, and after the casket had been put into the ground, went to lunch.

After a few drinks the doctor confessed that he had taken half of the money and bought a home on the lake. The banker confessed that he’d taken half and invested it. The priest smiled and said that he had put all the money in his checking account. As the doctor and banker gasped his raised his hand and said, “Wait. I didn’t cheat him. I gave him my personal check for the entire amount.”

Fuzziness and compromise

This story was told by Fr Chuck Murphy at the First Promise movement’s Lay Leaders’ conference, to illustrate the “fuzziness, compromise, and broken promises,” not to mention rationalization, among the clergy that had caused the Episcopal Church’s Gadarene rush from orthodoxy. The conference, held in Houston, Texas, in late March, attracted almost 600 people, 500 or more of them laymen. (I described the group’s founding in my October 1997 letter.)

First Promise is a new movement of mostly Evangelical clergy, who stress that their first ordination vow is to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them,” and that this now requires some opposition to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church as it has lately revised them. (Excepting, that is, the ordination of women.)

Many if not most of its members had hitherto tended to ignore problems in the wider Church in favour of their local ministries and indeed to patronize those concerned with “issues.” Most of them still have nothing to gain from their involvement, and their joining a “divisive” and “extreme” movement takes some courage — many are the sort of men who become bishops, if they avoid offending anyone. The group is growing rapidly and almost 200 priests have now joined, representing over 60,000 active Episcopalians, which, if a recent story in the Wall Street Journal is correct, is about one in twelve.

Among the day’s speakers was George Gallup, Jr. The Gallup Poll has found that Americans are as religious now as they were fifty years ago, but that alarming numbers even of the mainstream religious believe in reincarnation, channelling, etc. They are startlingly ignorant of the facts of their faith: over half of regular church-goers do not know why Jesus died on the Cross and most could not name the four gospels. American religion, he said, is “religion a la carte,” and Americans want “to be aided but not necessarily influenced by religious institutions.” His analysis of the Episcopal Church showed it to be typical American religion but worse.

Two recently retired bishops were surprisingly, and to me gratifyingly, pessimistic. The first noted that we have a “de facto local option” on ordaining and marrying homosexual people, which practices were “rampant through out the Church.” While hoping for a strong protest from the African and Asian bishops at Lambeth, he expected that the bishops there would approve a “dialogue” on sexuality that would leave the Americans free to do what they wanted, and that the next General Convention, to be held two summers from now, will approve the development of rites to bless homosexual relationships.

The second bishop said that the problem began in the seminaries, with one exception (mine), in that students were taught to deal with Scripture “as a pathologist working on a corpse.” He predicted that acceptance of homosexuality would soon be made mandatory, as has acceptance of the ordination of women. He saw a number of recent events, not least the election of Frank Griswold as presiding bishop, as decisive steps away from Christian orthodoxy and so it is, he concluded, past time to “fish or cut bait.”

Perhaps the most encouraging talk was given by the rector of the host parish, Fr Larry Hall, who is one of those for whom involvement is a real sacrifice. I was, unfortunately, caught at the door without my notebook and cannot quote him exactly, but he began by saying that though he supported his bishop, his bishop and the others in this province of the Episcopal Church (perhaps the most conservative) preferred maintaining unity with the liberal bishops at the cost of the truth of the Gospel. He traced the devastating pastoral effects of this comfortable alliance with heresy and declared that “An orthodox parish cannot be in fellowship with a revisionist parish.”

A problem of ends

In his talk the first retired bishop argued against the approval of homosexual behaviour by appealing to “the standard that was assumed in the early Church.” He also declared his deep support for the ordination of women.

I hate to bring this up, but at the very beginning of the day Fr Murphy had said that it was time “to put the skunk on the table and tell people that we know where the stink is coming from.” Women’s ordination is, for the conservative resistance, the skunk hiding under the table, whose presence almost everyone recognizes but won’t be so bad mannered as to talk about. Even the ESA’s president did not mention the issue in his talk, which left one wondering quite what the purpose of the ESA is.

This division over women’s ordination means, I think, that the movement as a whole cannot be clear about its goal or ideal or end, because to find an ideal they will have to articulate their first principles, at which point they will find that they do not share quite the same first principles. The conservative ships may all be firing upon the liberal pirates — and bravo, fire away — but they have all plotted slightly different courses which will take them, over the course of the journey, to different ports.

An encouraging day

But that said, the day was an encouraging one. (Even on the matter of ordaining women, several of the group’s leaders are either strengthening their quiet opposition or coming to oppose it.) The First Promise people see that Truth matters more than institutional unity, and that holding to the truth must mean public division with those who reject it, for the sake of ministering to human souls. If they are not all where I would like them to be, many are not where they were, and none are where their bishops would like them to be.

David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where he edits their magazine Mission & Ministry (www.episcopalian.org/tesm/missmini). He is editing a book of essays titled The Pilgrims’ Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, including essays by Harry Blamires, Kallistos Ware, and Sheridan Gilley, which will be published by Eerdmans this summer.