I sure hope that God will not judge me on my theology. My faith is strong. My belief system probably needs a little tinkering. But I’ll still sing what the church says.
The general article, however, repeats the same tired analysis of why TEC is in such bad shape. Admittedly, he’s amusing: “TEC – “Don’t believe in that crap? Neither do we” with KJS is in one photo. But it is finally unenlightening (although true).
Yes, your average Episcopal priest isn’t a great expert in theology. I wish more were familiar with the broad panentheism in the Orthodox tradition, and the deeper expressions of recent Catholic theology. I wish priests were better able at explaining the relevance of the living God known through the Trinity. When an Episcopal priest denies the atonement, discards the sacrificial language of the Eucharist, or explicitly avoids the readings of Revelation, I’m disturbed. But Perry misreads the past and seems oblivious to our current context. Bad theology didn’t simply drop into the Episcopal Church and cause it to go to hell.
Mr. Robinson is right about a lot of things: Yes, most Episcopalians are a lot like Unitarians. In fact, for the first 60 years of our country, the people who governed were either one or the other. We came from the same social class. At the first general convention, the creed was almost rendered optional during communion services. Robinson, perhaps unwittingly, rediscovered a part of our social DNA.
But even more so, your Average Episcopalian agrees with the Unitarians about all sorts of things. S/he probably thinks the following: the earth is round; that evolution is true; that the universe is billyons of years old – and that this sort of thinking is relatively recent. And it affects the content of Christian doctrine. Now this is, perhaps, a contestable statement, but Mr. Robinson has to confront it at some point.
Just as I expect Mr. Robinson questions my… true Christianity, from my perspective, Mr. Robinson believes the earth is flat; evolution is untrue; God did create the earth in 6 days. It is, after all, what the bible implies. As he indicates, If you don’t believe what the bible says, you’re not actually Christian. You’re interpreting scripture so it fits with what you want it to believe. Tu Quoque, my friend. No True Scotsman, and all.
Now I confess that I don’t actually believe that Mr. Robinson thinks these things. He’s got theology to maneuver his way around them. He’ll explain to me analogy, allegory, historic orthodoxy, and come up with inventive ways to – I hope – demonstrate that “divinely inspired” does not mean God sat down with a huge pen to write our sacred scripture.
But I suspect many smart, post-Christian people don’t think the church knows very much. Years ago, the church’s authority was assured. It was part of our cultural context to believe what the institutions around us said. Alas, these institutions became less credible and more self-interested. But the problem wasn’t just church leaders; congregants themselves were pushing the envelope. The problem remains: what kind of information are we handing down, and does it matter?
Like other conservative commentators, Robinson seems to assert that the decline of church is a consequence of poor theology. Really? It’s not bad music? Tepid leadership? Poor preaching? Mediocre priests? And yes, if the choice between supporting a decaying building and sending it to Haiti, one seems to be far more effective and appealing to your questioning Christian.
Robinson’s introductory story is most telling. “Tell me what it means,” he demands. The cool kids didn’t want to study the bible. They wanted pizza. Bible or pizza. He chose the bible. We Episcopalians, instead, chose pizza.
When it comes to pizza, Jesus was once called the big cheese and the one true olive.
He could at least have admitted it was a tough choice.
Like him, many Catholic scholars ask, how do we form thinking? Can the church can be trusted to shape those minds? Perhaps Anderson is right to ask, “what makes you a Christian?” I might take it further: why should people become Christians at all? Does Christianity matter to the world? Can it? Why?
Robinson seems to be arriving from a world where everybody around him is a Christian, and already understands what the true faith should mean. I do not live in that world. I’m honestly perplexed by what he may articulate as “True Christianity” because my initial suspicion is that he thinks that the Earth is flat and Jesus was a Jewish Clark Kent. I suggest there’s a lot in between, and we’ll probably get much of it wrong. But by God’s grace, it’s OK. I’m too dull to have my theology perfected before I get to the pearly gates, and fortunately, I’m unconvinced by his system of argument.
Further, I’m skeptical about his invention of the past. Did most Episcopalians really believe in the Nicene Creed twenty years ago? To what extent was their belief out of social obligation? A nod to one’s forebears? Did interpreting scripture metaphorically get invented by John Spong? Or did people compartmentalize, just as they do now? I have several “old timers” who say, “I just say the creed. I don’t think about it. It’s what I was taught.” It’s a delightful way of being faithful, perhaps. Robinson presumes that church goers had clear beliefs, or were even concerned about them. My own suspicion is a little less charitable: people who went to church, including the Episcopal Church, believed all sorts of things, but kept them private.
So we are in an age where people question the church; and these questions are public. It’s not an easy environment, and I suggest that Robinson’s sophisticated answers won’t do very well.
Robinson is right, though, the Episcopal church is parasitic. Yes: as long as there is a Roman Church or Fundamentalists, there will always be an Episcopal Church. We’re a church of refugees. But not from good theology, but perhaps from the sins of the Fathers; or from the aggressiveness of the reformers. But I suggest that Parasitism is probably a good part of Church history, especially when we talk about its relationship to the state. And for some, the church was a parasite upon the ignorance of the people rather than the benign agent of all that is True, Good and Beautiful.
Robinson also correctly notes that the Episcopal Church does not command commitment. Of course! It’s competing in a commercial society! Doctrines are bought or sold according to untility. Buddhist or Catholic? Whichever gives me the best high at the time!
If we want to change that, we’re probably going to have to change capitalism. And I’m not prepared to go there. He’s welcome to try.
But I am an Episcopalian because I believe that we embody Catholicism where the laity has a say. Theology is not the purview of professional Christians; the bible is not merely interpreted by the Magisterium. It is practical, open, and risky. The consequences aren’t neat or uniform. Those in the Orthodox and RC churches will surely reap their reward. Perhaps we will also. If we worship in a reasonable way (Rom 12:1-2), perhaps we can also trust that the Lord is merciful and slow to anger….(Ps 103:8). And that we Episcopalians will still know Him in the fullness of time (Matthew 19:26).