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WHO OWNS WHAT?

No, I’m not going to blog about who owns church property. It is known that I’ve opposed  TEC going to secular courts to enforce its own discipline. It is clear that Scripture deplores such action. It seems clear to me that to do so in the United States breaches the separation of church and state. In a sense it also weakens our own authority to keep order in our own household. Inevitably it leaves a legacy of ill feeling which will remain a smoldering reality and impede any future attempts to normalize relationships between Anglicans in America and it’s a shocking misuse of money contributed to dioceses and the national body by our parishes and missions, a majority of which struggle to survive let alone engage in mission and outreach. Our property disputes sully our reputation in the eyes and ears of unchurched and non-churched people.

 

What is on my mind today is another matter altogether. Who owns Word and Sacraments?  Anglicans recognize that Word and Sacraments, core doctrine and sacramental life belong to the whole Church. They are not owned by bits and pieces of the Church, “particular” churches and denominations. The Scriptures, essential doctrines enumerated in the Creeds, the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons and the sacraments exist as marks and evidences of the whole Church, the Church God called to himself and established by the Spirit in Christ.

 

It has often been remarked that Anglicanism has no doctrine of its own. We look to no particular human agent as a creator or founder of a theology or system. We honor many men and women whose insights have enriched the Church in history. Special honor has always been granted among us to the Fathers, the theologians of the undivided Church while we recognized that their “theology” was not a single-minded “take” on Christian faith, but reflects their historical context and the issues in play during their lifetimes, but whose thoughts continue to enlighten contemporary Christianity. Yet we always test their insights at the bar of Scripture and in the light of Tradition, the mind of the Church Universal in time, space and place. Valuing an Ignatius, an Origen, an Augustine, an Anselm, a Luther or a Calvin or even a Hooker, doesn’t make us their slavish disciples: we are mere Christians.

 

This understanding reminds us that in our particular moment in history we are no more children of a particular trend in modern theology and its commentators than we are of those who have gone before. This realization bids us distrust what I call “denominationalism”, the odd idea that the company we keep in families and groupings of Christian churches involves our subscription to a religious form of tribalism, one which has emerged as the tragic fragmentation of Christianity evolved and continues to evolve or indeed devolves. Being an Anglican or an Episcopalian isn’t a subscription to a discreet brand of Christianity, but rather a reflection of where we belong in family terms. We may and indeed should value the ambience and furniture of our part of the Christian whole, but these things must be tested and apprehended as gifts which reflect that which is given, the property of all Christians.

 

I value, for instance, the first sections of the Anglican Covenant. These sections enumerate the common faith Anglicans cherish as offerings to the whole Church, and not as evidences of our own exceptionalism or unique nature. We hold these truths as articulations of the revealed Faith given to God to his Church, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, the Bride and Body of Christ. They proclaim to all people our fidelity to that Church and our faithfulness to the mission of the whole Church until Jesus comes again.

 

I have never attended a baptism during which a child or adult is made an Episcopalian. I have never attended an ordination which made the ordinand an Anglican or Episcopalian bishop, priest or deacon. I have never read marked and inwardly digested an Anglican Scripture, or recited an Episcopalian Creed, or celebrated an Episcopalian Eucharist. Never.

 

Now this principle involves a certain trust. I must assume and trust that all these gifts to the whole Church are faithfully administered within the fragment of the One Church in which I have been called to serve. Were I to lose that assumption and trust two problems would arise. How would I resolve my doubts? How would I then proceed?  Implicit in being a catholic, a member of God’s Church Universal is the understanding that my private doubts are not issues I may resolve on my own terms. I must seek counsel and advice from other Christians and be guided by the counsel of my contemporaries and by the voices of the whole Church in what we call history or better, The Tradition. No action, even that of an individual Christian comes without consequences. Leaving one’s parish, or even ones “church” has consequences and the worst of those consequences is the rending of the Body. What matters is not my offense at the actions of other Christians, or of a particular church meeting, synod or convention, but what is taught and practiced in worship and doctrine, or one should say the doctrine reflected in that liturgy and worship.

 

At many moments in church history parts of the Church, sometimes large parts of the Church have tolerated and permitted teachings and practices at odds with that which the Church believes and should practice. As individuals we all from time to time live and express things which are not Christian or orthodox. So it is with the companies of Christians who share that which God has given to his Church. Yes in such times our duty is to be faithful to the “faith once delivered to the saints”. But every time we contribute to fragmentation, whether as particular parts of the Church or as individuals we ourselves deny the Church’s essential marks as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

 

Living into this realization is an antidote to regionalism, sectarianism, particularism or denominationalism. It spurs us to pray for and seek unity and concord. It spurs us to greater visible unity among ourselves as Anglicans worldwide, it tempers our stressing our individualism as parts of “national churches” and makes us yearn to be one with our brothers and sisters across the globe. Further it drives us to seek the maximum measure of cooperation with Christians in other bodies.

 

Above all it prevents our apprehending for our own part of the Universal Church, the title of “church”, at least as something particular or peculiar, something  with the ability and right to do its own thing and go its own way. Yes we belong to “the Church”. Yes our own “brand’ possesses that which the Church is, but not as our property or declaration of independence but as a shared inheritance as members of the Church throughout time and space.

 

One hundred years ago there was hope that what we call the ecumenical movement would teach us all these truths and spur us under God to repent of our “unhappy divisions”. But nationalism, ecclesiastical nationalism has thwarted that movement and dimmed its vision. The “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” is no longer observed significantly among us and even our own “Communion”, a word as strong as and synonymous with “Church” has experienced division and even schism. If we are to be faithful to our particular Anglican and Episcopal charism or grace, we must discover once again our mission to “speak peace to those who are far off and those who are near” , in short practice being the Church. God helps us.

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