Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Do Episcopalians Believe? No... What Do They Really, Really, All of Them, Believe?

Our diocese has a "Task Force on Unity" whose work appears to be doomed due to the lack of agreement on just what is really, really, really commonly believed in the Episcopal Church in Upper South Carolina. For a picture of the degrees of disagreement on some of these beliefs, I refer back to the last survey (found here) done in our diocese prior to the election of Bishop Waldo. Since that time, it appears that the portrait of a conservative diocese has been relegated to the basement of the museum, and the art nouveau of the progressive church has been hung in its place. Former members of several of our parishes are saddened at the changes in the diocese (personal communications), and they are perplexed at how a once unified church has fallen apart.

One response I have heard from sources within our diocese is that without the assurance of a common belief, especially in regards to doctrine and theology, there can be no Unity. Other voices from outside the diocese echo this idea.

"We can no longer rely on the strength of our beliefs because no one is quite sure what it is we believe. We resort to coercion rather than persuasion to enforce our will on others. The Dennis Canon has become just another method to enforce compliance in a community that is marked by a predatory opportunism." Ladson F. Mills III

Reading the Rev'd Mills' words the other day led me to ponder, "If a hypothetical average Episcopalian pewsitter were to write out what the Episcopal church believes, what would it look like?"

Images of a blank page came to mind.

Then I began to seriously think about a few things most Christians would consider core beliefs, and if there were any things that all Episcopalians were really, really, really sure about and really, really, really believe. I concluded that the physical resurrection of Jesus is something that (considering the widespread acceptance of the writings of John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg) not all Episcopalians are really, really, really sure about. Likewise scratch the virgin birth off the list as well as the miraculous healings, walking on water, casting out of demons, Old Testament prophesies, Articles of Religion, etc.

So what are we left with? Here are a few that I came up with.

1. Crucifixion: We are quite sure that a man called Jesus was crucified.
2. Baptism: We are quite sure that we have been baptised because our mothers told us so.
    2a. We are quite sure that we don't need to be baptised again.
3. Omniscience: We are quite sure that our priest knows when we are in the hospital.
4. Reason: We are quite sure that we do not check our brains at the door of the church.
5. Priesthood: We are quite sure that we are entitled to at least a few moments of the rector's undivided personal attention each Sunday.
6. Confirmation: We are quite sure that a Bishop does the confirmations.
7. Blessings: We are quite sure that most things can be blessed if you desire them to be blessed.
8. Music: We are quite sure that the numbers on the Hymn board should match what the organist plays.
9. Coffee Hour: We are quite sure that this very, very important.
10. Daydreaming: We are quite sure that we will daydream during the sermon.
11. Pew Position: We are quite sure which pew we will sit in next Sunday.
12. Pentecost: We are quite sure that one really ought to wear red on Pentecost.
13. Justice: We are quite sure that our mission is justice (for a definition see the Revisionist Dictionary).

There is a longer list of things that most Episcopalians think they are sure about, and a more lengthy list of things that many Episcopalians think they believe (such as "The Episcopal church is relevant), and a endless list that some Episcopalians might believe, but that was not the point of this exercise. The point is something our bishop is after, and that is "Unity" which he implies is being together in relationship and "mission" in spite of our differences in doctrinal beliefs.

I am afraid that that as far as doctine goes, Ladson Mills in the above quotation nails it on the head when he writes, "no one is quite sure what it is we believe."

Hey, if it is unity we are after, then let's talk unity and stick with the following statement: 

"Think how He was manifested—God manifest in the flesh—to be a Surety for sinners. Made sin for us, although He knew no sin,—made a curse for us. Oh, if I could declare Him unto you, you might have fellowship with apostles, and with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things will we write unto you, that your joy may be full.

Other joys do not fill the heart. But to know the Lord Jesus as our Surety, satisfies the soul; it brings the soul unto rest under the eye of our pardoning God. I met the other day with a thought which has filled my heart often since. It is intended to explain that wonderful verse, John 14:18, 'I will not leave you orphans—I will come to you.'" Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Edinburgh; London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1894), 245-247.

h/t Tolle Lege


  1. Anonymous10:05 AM

    We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

    We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
    he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
    he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
    and was made man.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
    he suffered death and was buried.
    On the third day he rose again
    in accordance with the Scriptures;
    he ascended into heaven
    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
    and his kingdom will have no end.

    We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
    and the life of the world to come. Amen.

    1. Anon 10:05,

      Nice try but, as one of our previous rector's said when he posed this question to us, "Don't recite the creed. For the purpose of this exercise that is cheating, now tell me what you really really believe."

      I agree that an individual Episcopalian can really, really say "I believe..." in place of "We believe..." so bless you for that, but as long a Marcus Borg is a Canon Theologian and the P.B. can Episcobabble away the Resurrection, WE have a problem.

    2. Anonymous10:49 AM

      Episcobabble. That is awesome.

      And I do like the bit in your piece about pew position. I always get the same spot.

      Thanks for having the blog. I should probably get a name if I am going to continue to comment.

      BTW, I am a member of one of the churches in Ft Worth whose property is being considered in the Texas Supreme Court. I often think of 1 Corinthians 6 and what St Paul would have thought of our actions.

    3. Anonymous11:41 AM

      I hold the creeds as the core of my belief.... not just as an Episcopalian but as a Christian.

      I am able to read Borg without drinking his kool aide... just like I can read C.S. Lewis in the same open minded manner. I can read about Buda, Hinduism, Judaism, and even the tripe being served up in DSC without it changing what I believe in. I can love you and all of my fellow man... but no where in the Bible am I commanded to like everyone.

      May I suggest some time reflecting on the Lord's Prayer? You may be able to find peace in the words of the prayer that will allow you to co-exist with everyone who doesn't walk in lockstep with your way of thinking.

      ....Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.........

      Look unto your own soul and please try to stop dictating to mine!

      (not Anon 10:49)

    4. Anon 11:41,

      Man, am I glad I didn't say anything about the Filioque phrase...

  2. Anonymous 10:49,

    Prayers ascending for ya'll in F.W.

  3. UGP,
    I was on the TEC website recently (I forgot why) and found the "What We Believe" section. It seemed rather orthodox. It needs updating to conform to the current theology. It doesn't even have gender neutral language for the Trinity! It would be useful for the leadership to review it. (which reminds me of the song "The Way We Were". Blessings brother

  4. Dale,

    Yeah that section is soooo out of date that it is dangerous. Imagine that it still says,

    "Besides baptism and the Eucharist (Holy Communion), the church recognizes other spiritual markers in our journey of faith. These include:•Matrimony (Christian marriage), pp. 422-438, Book of Common Prayer"

    This published belief puts every single clergy person who espouses "marriage equality" in the cross hairs of a Title IV proceding.

  5. Your list is very funny, but I suspect that variations of it could have been written at any point in our history. Anglicanism has never been made up of solely "true believers," especially when it was socially beneficial to be a member of PECUSA or the CofE. It's not the unbelief that's new, I think, but the fact that so many people are eager to tell you the nutty stuff they really believe. In the past people probably wouldn't have been so forthright as to tell you that they don't assent to basic Christian doctrine. Part of the problem may be the failure of Christian education at all levels - there are lots of Episcopalians these days who probably do not know enough about basic Christian doctrine as to be able to hypocritically affirm it.

    I think this 'random' sample of TEC folks better typifies TEC than the core doctrine that is no longer needed. The core doctrine could all be put into the historical documents section of the next prayer book.
    One problem for TEC is that in an effort to be relevant in a contemporary society, it is chasing the social trends in an effort to embrace and include them and can't keep up. That is why the theology, while mushy is of necessity more malleable. TEC really does need new vision and mission statements. It could divest itself of the Anglican label with its attendant constraints and form its own world wide organization. It has already adopted the MDG of the United Nations. It thinks of itself as a global church but has forgotten that it has actually downsized. It used to be part of the cosmic church. I have no hard feeling toward TEC although we are under persecution from them. They have helped us to reassess our priorities. TEC does not need a task force on marriage as much as it needs a task force on organizational identity. If it does not do this it will not survive as an organization let alone a 'church'.

  7. UGP,
    After more thought on your thought provoking piece, I posted a more fleshed out version of my comments.

  8. Thanks Dale,

    If TEc would actually sit down and spell out 1.) Why are we here?
    2.) What do we believe?
    3.) What are we going to do about it?
    then that would be a good start. Next would be to have concrete theology behind to support answer.
    Since I don't think the answers will ever be agreed upon or clearly articulated, there really is no need for the "Finally write it down, post it on billboards, preach it from the pulpit and see what happens."