In my last Rector's Remarks
, I spoke about our need as Christians to analyze and respond to the social and political issues of our times out of faithfulness to Jesus' commands that we embody his values and extend his Kingdom of God in the world.
That means we critique social and political issues through our Episcopal understanding of the Gospel and actively engage those issues that attack, demote, or threaten the progress of Jesus' values and vision in the world.
It is thus incumbent on The Episcopal Church itself, especially through its bishops, parish clergy, and lay leaders, to help all understand what the Episcopal understanding of the Gospel is and to help parishioners understand what the pertinent social and political issues are that threaten the spread of the Gospel in the world.
When promoting its understanding of the Gospel and its application of the Gospel to social and political issues, however, The Episcopal Church -- as I mentioned in my last Rector's Remarks
email -- doesn't do a number of things: we don't demonize disagreement; we don't excommunicate; we don't promote individual political candidates or parties; etc. We should
talk politics in this parish, but we shouldn't
promote partisanship. That can be a fine line that requires skill and maturity. Agreed. But we can and will do hard things together -- because Jesus expects and commands it!
Please read my last Rector's Remarks
for highlights of what engaging social and political issues in the context of the Gospel means and should mean for every Episcopal church, including The Church of the Good Shepherd.
In this email, I will build off that last Rector's Remarks
, talking about how The Episcopal Church arrives at it's judgments about the Gospel and its consensus -- its sense of normativity -- about what is and is not "under the tent", and why.
Let's start by acknowledging one of the very unique characteristics and challenges of The Episcopal Church -- we affirm that there is always a plurality of views that are tolerable and embraceable regarding all aspects of our faith. There isn't one way to understand Christ, one way to celebrate the liturgy, one way to interpret the bible, one way to faithfully vote, one way to fulfill Christ's command to love God and neighbor, etc. There are lots of ways to do this faithfully and successfully.
Anglicanism has thus been likened to a "big tent" with lots of places to faithfully stand under the "big top" of the denomination. Some stand more left of center on some issues and are more liberal; others stand more right of center and are more conservative; others hug the center pole and are centrists. As long as one's views, whether left, right, or centrist, fall "under the tent" -- in other words, fall within the discerned, acceptable range of what is normative/allowable/acceptable within The Episcopal Church -- then one is in alignment with The Episcopal Church.
There are, however, "flaps on the ends of the tent". Even while affirming plurality, there are limits. "Anything doesn't go" in The Episcopal Church. One's views can fall "outside the tent". When one's views fall "outside the tent" -- i.e. when one holds views not normative/allowable/acceptable to The Episcopal Church -- then one is embracing beliefs and practices not promoted -- and usually actively dissuaded -- by The Episcopal Church.
A key question, then, is this: what's normative? What does The Episcopal Church consider to be acceptable ("under the tent") and unacceptable ("outside the tent") on various issues, and why?
Normativity starts with The Episcopal Church's understanding of the Gospel
In The Episcopal Church, the core teachings of Jesus are the normative foundation for our understanding of the Gospel. Thus the Bible -- including both the Hebrew scriptures (the "Old Testament") and the witness to the life and teachings of both Jesus and the early church (the "New Testament") -- is central.
The Bible, however, is not always easy to read and understand. Christian fundamentalists claim that it is, but a simple reading of the Bible discloses that this claim is false. Pick up a Bible and read it. See for yourself.
The Old Testament, for instance, features talking snakes, the creation of the cosmos in seven days, men (and the heroes are almost always men) living inside whale's bellies for days, and many self-contradictory statements and details in many of the stories themselves. The morality is also often regressive by modern standards.
How should one interpret, understand, and apply all this to our lives today?
Should we just accept the statements because "they are in the Bible"? Does taking the Bible seriously mean we have to take all its statements literally? Can we believe in science, for example, and still find meaning and value in biblical statements that contradict science? How? Why?
Should we automatically adopt all the moral views articulated in the Bible because "they are in the Bible" and the Bible is authoritative? How and why is the Bible authoritative? Are there limits to Biblical authority? What are they and why does The Episcopal Church believe they exist?
Should, for example, both the Old and New Testament's implicit and explicit condoning of slavery mean we should condone human slavery as well? (Note: Southern Episcopal churches during the American civil war thought so; Northern Episcopal churches disagreed, and they fought to the death over that disagreement). Do the contradictions among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John invalidate their historicity or the truthfulness of their message?
Here's one truth that is not "fake news" and is indeed unarguable: our denomination has always believed that great care, diligence, and study is required to understand and to not misunderstand God's Word. For us, human history reveals the disastrous consequences when we forsake that wisdom. That's why Bible study has always been a foundational feature of priestly formation and why Bible study has always been a core activity in Episcopal parish life.
The Bible is central, but it arises from a different time and culture than our own. An Episcopal reverence for the Bible demands diligence in its study, respect for its complexity, humility in its engagement, reasonableness in its interpretation, knowledge of the history of its interpretation (and of our Anglican theological tradition), and charity in its application to our contemporary lives. (Yet more reasons for the Anglican "big tent" approach to Christian spirituality!)
Introducing our Book of Common Prayer:
the Episcopal "Cliff Notes" to Christianity
Given both the importance and the complexity of the Bible, are there no "Cliff Notes" -- no summaries of the Bible and the Christian faith -- to help the faithful Episcopalian to live a successful Christian life?
Yes, there are!
Welcome to The Book of Common Prayer!
The Book of Common Prayer is many things -- an expression of our Episcopal faith, a guide to our liturgies and rituals, a repository of important past historical documents, a tool chest of practical tools for the daily deepening of our relationship with God, and more.
One crucial thing our Prayer Book does is to distill.
It distills the Bible. It distills the salvation history of the Old and New Testaments. It distills the teachings of Jesus to their essence. It distills our sacred theological tradition down to its clear, diamond core. And one place you'll find that distillation is in the Catechism -- "An Outline of the Faith" -- starting on page 845.
For example, on page 851 our Catechism teaches:
Q: What are the commandments taught by Christ?
A: Christ taught us the Summary of the Law and gave us the New Commandment.
Q: What is the Summary of the Law?
A: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Q: What is the New Commandment?
A: The New Commandment is that we love one another as Christ loved us.
The Prayer Book Catechism provides us with the core teaching of Jesus and the core understandings of The Episcopal Church. While these understandings are filled out by other theological resources in our tradition, a quick, authoritative "one stop shop" for authoritative Episcopal belief is our Book of Common Prayer. Read it, especially the Catechism, starting on page 845, to learn more about the core beliefs and priorities of our Episcopal Christian faith.
The Catechism helps us in many ways. The Prayer Book Catechism helps us, for example, analyze, interpret, and prioritize Biblical passages.
For instance, those Biblical passages that encourage us to "love one another as Christ has loved us" are more central and of higher priority than those that say something like this from the Old Testament: "If one's offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves or pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar." (Leviticus 1: 14-16). Or this from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament: "For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man." (1 Cor: 11:6-7). (Yes, there are even errors in the Bible, like this patriarchy, but that's a different subject for a future Rector's Remarks ...).
Besides helping us interpret and prioritize the Bible, The Prayer Book Catechism also helps us analyze and critique social and political issues so we can faithfully intervene in them to fulfill the command of Christ to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.
For example, The Episcopal Church teaches in the Catechism that the Christian "bottom line" is that we should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves as Jesus taught (and as we just heard in Sunday's reading from St. Matthew's Gospel!).
Anything -- any party, political leader, social movement, etc. -- that stands in opposition to this vision and these values stands "outside the big tent" of The Episcopal Church. There are lots of ways, however, that one can "love one's neighbor as oneself" -- thus we have the Anglican big tent approach to spirituality!
Sadly, when we dip into the Prayer Book, one thing we don't get is an approved list of what is "under the tent" and what lies "outside the tent". There are no discussions, for example, on racism, immigration policy, or the traits of demagogues in The Prayer Book. What the Prayer Book does give us, though, are the essential principles with which to engage any issue faithfully from the perspective of The Episcopal Church.
And make no mistake -- that's what The Episcopal Church expects us to do, because that's what Jesus commands us to do -- to apply the core principles of our faith to the issues in our lives in order to advance Jesus' Kingdom of God. Thus, we examine racism, immigration policy, and political leadership from the ESSENTIAL Christian teaching of "loving our neighbors as ourselves" and "to love one another as Christ loved us."
What's normative in The Episcopal Church are the principles,
the core teachings of Jesus, as encountered in the Bible and interpreted in our Book of Common Prayer.
What's contextual is how we choose to apply Jesus' core values and principles. The principles are eternal; our applications are always relative, changing with the changing circumstances, understandings, and needs of peoples and societies.
Our Applications of the Core Gospel Principles can and do change over time.
When you review a history of the Episcopal Church, you see how things that were once not considered normative as applications of the core teachings of Jesus changed and became normative in The Episcopal Church over time.
Women, for example, were forbidden from being ordained until the 1970s because of scripture passages by St. Paul and others in the Old and New Testaments. Now (thanks be to God!) women's ordination is normative in The Episcopal Church. The same normative development can be tracked with LGBTQIA+ issues (thanks be to God!). The same is true of Episcopal concern over environmental issues (thanks be to God!). To witness this for yourself, read this short Wikipedia article on the history of the Episcopal Church
or this book on The History of The Episcopal Church
. Women's ordination, global climate change, and LGBTQIA+ issues are just three examples of many in our denominational history of an evolving consensus, an evolving normativity, on large issues that affect many lives. I encourage you to read more to learn more about your own denomination, what is normative within it, and how that normativity changed and evolved through time.
A consensus on normativity takes time and discussion to emerge
Because The Episcopal Church is so encouraging and appreciative of the need for plurality to enhance inclusiveness and comprehensiveness in our understanding of and living into the Gospel, a consensus can take awhile to emerge. In fact, it usually does. This is especially true of new things.
The Episcopal Church, for instance, unlike some other Christian denominations, isn't quick to judge. We like to let a dynamic play out, to see how it behaves, so we can have more and better data to judge if/how the new phenomena promotes the values of Christ and/or if it does not.
Also, let's recognize that complex entities (like people and national political organizations) always do both simultaneously. That is to say, on some attitudes and behaviors we are "under the tent" and on others we are "outside the tent". That's normal and to be expected.
Hey! It's hard to live faithfully when we are part of an organization like The Episcopal Church that gives us the core principles and expects us to apply them for ourselves! It's hard to be a Protestant!
Yes, it is. Much is demanded of us, because Christ himself demands and commands it of his followers. To use a cooking metaphor, The Episcopal Church gives us the main ingredients and expects us to cook for ourselves. Along the way, though, it does give cooking tips, recipes, and examples of culinary excellence so we aren't making constant, burnt meals for ourselves and others.
Scale is also critical. On small issues, being outside the tent isn't such a big deal. Believe in purgatory, for instance, universal salvation, the primacy of the 1928 prayer book, and other theological minutiae if that's your thing in your Episcopal walk of faith; it affects others little. On larger issues -- that is, on issues that have enormous power to affect enormous numbers of human and other lives -- being under the tent is of critical importance -- at least as the Gospel is interpreted and promoted by The Episcopal Church.
While we always leave room for disagreement in The Episcopal Church, all views are not equal. Those "under the tent" are normative within the teachings, practice, and consensus of The Episcopal Church while those "outside the tent" are not. The Episcopal Church always asks Episcopalians to consider where they stand on all issues, not just political ones, and, when out of alignment with The Episcopal Church, to find out why and to consider changing how they think and act on those topics.
The Episcopal Church also expects that its clergy will be in alignment with the Gospel as understood and promoted by The Episcopal Church and that the clergy will promote it clearly, faithfully, and continuously for the benefit of all in their care -- both those in alignment with the Church as well as those not -- as the clergy professed in their ordination vows.
Did you know that after the bishop consecrates the new priest, the bishop gives the newly ordained a Bible, saying, "Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given to you to preach the Word of God and to administer his holy Sacraments. Do not forget the trust committed to you as a priest of the Church of God"? (BCP, p. 534).
All of us are called to follow the Gospel as professed by The Episcopal Church to the best of our ability. Like the great St. Martin Luther, after much discussion, prayer, and discernment, we must be able to say, "Here I stand; I can do no other."
Some of the key questions all of us as Episcopal Christians must wrestle with are:
- Where does the person/entity/issue in consideration stand overall in regard to the values and vision of Jesus and his Kingdom of freedom, compassion, and justice for all?
- Where does the person/entity/issue stand on a case by case, issue by issue basis?
- Does the phenomena under scrutiny care to be in alignment with the values, beliefs, and ethics of Jesus?
- Do they need to be Christians to be our allies? Is it good enough that they promote the same values, even though we may differ on their application in the culture?
- What do we do with entities that actively oppose Christian values? How should we best respond to them?
- In a worst case scenario, what do we do with those whom Jesus called "ravenous wolves" -- people and organizations that profess verbal allegiance to Jesus but whose whole external behavior actually undermines Christian values and the Gospel? How should we relate to them?
"Beware the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."
The Leadership of President Donald Trump: Does it stand inside or outside the Episcopal Tent?
Let's affirm what is normative in The Episcopal Church -- one can be a republican and stand under or outside the big tent of The Episcopal Church. One can also be a democrat and stand under or outside the big tent of The Episcopal Church. It all depends on where one stands on issues in relation to the Gospel of Jesus as understood and promoted by The Episcopal Church. "The Gospel of Jesus," as our presiding bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry, said in the video I shared in my last Rector's Remarks
, "is not up for sale to any partisan group." Amen!
Three years ago, I preached a sermon, which you can review below, wherein I asked the question, "Is President Trump an ally, obstacle, or even an enemy of Jesus Christ and the values he represents?" We have now four years of data -- speeches, rallies, policy decisions, appointments, etc. -- to make an informed judgment. That sermon raised a question. It's now time to answer it based upon four years of data and based on the Gospel as understood and promoted by The Episcopal Church.
Furthermore, I believe a normative consensus has emerged by the majority within The Episcopal Church nationally. That's impressionistic and admittedly harder to assess from New York, so let me speak more authoritatively as an Episcopal priest of the diocese of New York.
It is my judgement, as an Episcopal priest and rector in the diocese of New York, in constant contact with our fellow Episcopal clergy as dean of our clericus and in monthly contact with all the deans and bishops of our diocese, that a consensus, a clear, normative view on the Trump presidency, has emerged after four years among our three bishops, literally every priest I know in the diocese of New York, and over 95% of the deacons I know.
I will let those groups speak for themselves. I will share both my judgments about this alleged consensus of the clergy of the diocese of New York as well as my Christian conclusions as rector about the Trump presidency with you in my next Rector's Remarks, to be sent soon.
In the meantime, whether you are pro-Trump or anti-Trump, I ask that you re-read this and the last Rectors Remarks
so we are all familiar with the "ground rules" of how we discuss important social and political issues in The Episcopal Church.
We aren't going to avoid the #1 moral issue of our day in this unprecedented, historic moment. We are going to navigate it like we should as Episcopal Christians: together, prayerfully, in conversation (if people so choose to join in), according to the ground rules of our denomination, recognizing that we are all -- regardless of where we stand on the Trump presidency -- The Body of Christ:
"For as you were baptized into Christ and have put on Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:27-29).
Please sign up
to pray the daily novena prayers for our local, state, and national elections promoted by the national Episcopal Church. Pray that our commitment to Christ, The Episcopal Church, and one another as members at Good Shepherd in the Body of Christ will rise above the partisanship and divisiveness that is dividing the rest of the country and society.
Beloved, the commands of Jesus are clear:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
The Holy Spirit of Jesus is with us. May we struggle together in faithfulness to the Lord, in faithfulness to each other as the Body of Christ, and in faithfulness to the Good News of Jesus Christ as understood and promoted by The Episcopal Church.
Thanks be to God!
With love and prayers,
"Glory to God,
whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine:
Glory to him from generation to generation
in the church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.