This article dates from 2006–KSH.
After 66 years of life, most of them seeking to follow Jesus Christ through my church, the Episcopal Church, I am now convinced that a majority of the leadership of my church has abandoned the apostolic teachings ”” particularly regarding biblical witness to Christian moral behavior ”” that Bishops are charged to protect and promulgate. It is Palm Sunday, 2006 and we are singing one of my favorite hymns today at worship.
“When I survey the wondrous cross, where the young Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. Forbid it Lord, that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ my God. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood” (The Hymnal 1982, Copyright The Church Pension Fund, 1985).
The words leaped off the page and forced some painful memories. The realization struck me that my life in ECUSA is chief among the vain things that charm me most and that I must be willing to sacrifice them to his blood if my Christian sensibilities are ever again to be in order. What is arguably my “richest gain” (after my wife, children and grandchild) I must be willing to count as loss. And, as a life-long Episcopalian, oh how proud I have been of my ecclesiastical heritage, a pride that in the shadow of the Cross is only vanity.
How did I get to this point?
I went back to some journal notes I kept for a time after my retirement as Bishop of Florida. The events and the pain I was experiencing stunned me. Articulate, competent, and compassionate parish priests of sizable congregations were leaving ECUSA for Orthodoxy, for Rome, and for others parts of the Anglican Communion (with or without my blessing). Despite what the books say about the Episcopate, much of my ministry was to oversee investigations into financial and sexual misconduct among clergy and laity of the diocese ”” leading to more interaction with lawyers, insurance companies, private investigators, and the Law than I ever dreamed possible. I spent inordinate time mediating clergy-parish conflicts, disputes that were due mostly to incompetence, or stupidity, or both ”” and all lacking the basic Christian virtue of forgiveness. Some individuals made serious financial attempts to manipulate my voice and my decisions ”” right out of a Hollywood script. Post-retirement, the silence of supposed colleagues and others I thought were friends was bizarre. Happily, I have now put those depressing moments behind me, vowing to reject that victim role so easy for sinners to embrace.
For 37 years, through five parish ministries, a brief service as a diocesan Canon for Ministry, and then ten years as diocesan bishop, I lived through all of the controversial issues affecting ECUSA since the 60s. Once a credible 1960’s liberal, I soured over the liberal twisting of the plain meaning of scripture, the emptiness of liberal solutions, and the hypocrisy of liberal power grabbing schemes in ECUSA. And, more importantly, I discovered a personal relationship with Christ Jesus I’d never had in seminary. As priest and bishop, I tired of constantly having to defend the apostolic faith ”” not to the world ”” but increasingly to those persons, lay and ordained, who were supposed to be fellow defenders on the journey. For years, I have trusted the plain meaning of the parable of the wheat and the weeds while proclaiming the gospel. The Church’s traditional interpretation is clear: Jesus instructs the servants not to pull up the weeds until the harvest lest they also, accidentally, pull up good grain. Let both grow together until then. “At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matt. 13:30). This makes great sense when the harvest is but one season away. In this world, the spiritual harvest has yet to come and the seasons cannot be counted. The Lord is “tarrying,” and from this laborer’s perspective, the weeds are out of control. Leave your garden totally in God’s hands and see what happens! Stewardship of what God has given us is an expectation, and it is so much more than money! We are stewards of the apostolic teaching, the fellowship of believers, the prayers, and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). Much is required of us who are so richly blessed.
In the fall of 2004, we left our Florida home by invitation to serve seven months assisting Bishop Stanton in Dallas. The diocese received and welcomed us so graciously that healing of the post-retirement pain could begin. A “recovering bishop” and his wife were suddenly released, free to recover, and we soaked up all the love that laity and clergy alike showered on us. I was preaching, teaching, confirming, and helping wherever the Bishop needed help ”” doing the things bishops are supposed to be doing without diversions for conflict resolution or discipline. With children nearby, and our first grandchild on the way and an invitation to return to Dallas for a nine-month stint on a regular basis, our return to Florida was not to take up residence once again, but to sell our newly built home and move to Texas. “We weren’t born here, but we got here as fast as we could,” as they say in Texas. The healing continues and rational perspectives are returning.
As my thoughts returned to the liturgy, we continued to sing, and all I could hear was a call, a singular and focused call to serve Christ, free of the bondages of the past.
“See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Again my mind began to wander.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” At my consecration, a friend gave to me a framed version of this verse (without attribution), and it slowly captured my attention and my heart as it hung at the entrance to my office over the years. I believe it captures what must be a classic metaphor for the Church, in safe harbor ”¦ that’s not what ships are for.
The good ship ECUSA has been at sea for some time now. It struck an iceberg 40 something years ago, and the bridge seems still in denial even as the ship continues to list to port. Some crew and passengers are starting to abandon ship, and some are still in the dining room listening to the grand orchestra and thinking they are safe. They are not. Their eternal lives are seriously at risk.
The arrogance and isolation of ECUSA leadership on the bridge has left them incapable of saving the ship.
Thomas C. Oden, Henry Anson Buttz professor of theology and ethics emeritus at Drew University and author of the important, new book, Turning around the Mainline, describes the leadership of American mainline churches, including ECUSA, this way:
“The mainline elite have become so fixated on friendly sentiment, hyper-toleration, and superficial unity that it has tended to brush under the rug all norms except egalitarian political correctness. Much liberal leadership has become so narrowly politicized, and so out of touch with the lay constituency, that the faithful no longer can take at face value any of the facile promises of the leadership. There is serious doubt as to whether that leadership knows how, even if it desired to do so” (p.71).
Paul’s words suddenly come to mind, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”
(Col. 2:8). And his closing words to Timothy, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and opposing ideas of what is falsly called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you” (I Tim. 6:20f).
In my experience, the believing laity of the Church are generally quite healthy. The leadership, however, needs a Physician. Oden believes that truth mandates a “confessing movement” among the mainline churches ”” confessing human sin and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. While many individual believers do this faithfully from their heart, their confession does not seem to find its way to an adequate expression in the “governing councils, or elite governing boards and politically oriented agencies to which lay believers commit funds and support.” Oden believes at a minimum it will take a “a new seriousness about the Bible as the norm of Christian doctrine ”¦ The theological method of orthodoxy is centered in Scripture, viewed in the light of classical Christian tradition, made plausible through rational argument and the experienced presence of God in our lives” (Ibid). These are the basics of seamanship. Interestingly, I understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury originally suggested, after the 2003 General Convention, that the Americans form a “confessing” network of dioceses and parishes, perhaps with the 1930’s German Church in mind. The Americans changed the adjective to “Anglican Communion” network to appeal to American Anglican sensibilities.
Seamanship (gospel living) requires that the Church navigate by the Great Commission of our Lord in
Matt. 28:16-19, which is a mandate to structure the institution after the expectations of the Owner. That’s what the ship is for! Form follows function in the Church as well as in architecture. The Body of Christ (parish, diocese, or triennial convention) must incarnate itself in a manner that makes the pursuit of the Great Commission a normal function of life, a “second-nature” reflexive response to the world for which He died and rose again ”” not simply a piecemeal part of the annual budget.
I hold no illusions. No ship is perfect. Some, like the Mercy Ships ministry, still know why they exist, where they are going, and how to get there. They know how to navigate. I believe the American Province of the Anglican Communion has an inoperative moral compass and, barring a miracle, is destined to float aimlessly into maritime oblivion. Our distress is not because of the issues around human sexuality, as emotional and important as these issues are. Our distress is the result of a departure from basic seamanship. The Owner loves every member of His crew and passengers. He will do all He can to save them. However, they must cooperate. The decades old failure of a captain and crew in ECUSA to embrace and act upon the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ and in the Word of God written ”” the reliable compass that the Owner has given us to navigate this world ”” does little to encourage would-be passengers.
We could envision replacing the ship’s crew with those whom the Owner has handpicked, but unless the ship is completely refitted for the Great Commission, as form follows function, nothing will change. For our own good, maritime law and free but costly grace requires that a ship be seaworthy. We know what to do. Will we do it? Unequivocal acceptance of the terms of the Windsor Report would be a sign of good faith to the Owner and to the rest of the fleet, but ”¦ refitting the ship will require much more. “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.” Yes. This is the true paradigm. Let’s start “sacrificing” with the ship. After a time for refit in dry dock, let’s set sail in a seaworthy ship with a trained captain and crew and paying passengers seeking their Way, all of whom desire to do true and godly service while at sea.
When captain, crew and passengers understand and practice gospel living on board a ship at sea, it is awesome to behold ”” a voyage worthy of the Owner. They honor the Owner who blesses them beyond belief. I want to be part of such a ship’s crew. I’m looking for a ship that still has a moral compass (I’d prefer a GPS). I’m looking for a captain and crew who know how to use a compass, with all its magnetic imperfections ”” who know how to navigate the world, from culture to culture, from nation to nation, and from heart to heart. The Owner has other ships in the Anglican fleet standing abeam our midship, and they are ready to provide assistance. They have sent instructions. The present bridge party seems blissfully to be ignoring their advice.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The liturgy is ending. Your Body and Blood now have nourished me for a few more days at sea. Today I believe I have entered Jerusalem with our Lord, perhaps for the first time in my life. I pray that I am prepared for what is to come.
Almighty God, we thank you for the acts of love by which you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. On this day, he entered the holy city Jerusalem in triumph, and those who spread their garments and branches of palm along his way proclaimed Him as King of kings. Empower us so that we, who hail Him as our King, may follow Him in the way that leads to eternal life. Amen.