The Bishop’s Address at the Synod or Special Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina, October 24, 2009
“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Ps 11:3
I begin this morning’s address with this verse from the eleventh Psalm of the Psalter. The Hebrew Bible cites this as a Psalm of David. There is some discussion as to whether these are David’s words or the words of his advisors. Certainly what precedes this verse was spoken by the king’s counselors””for they suggest he “flee like a bird to the mountains.” Everything is lost. Seeking refuge is all there is left to do. But the psalmist has begun his prayer by declaring that the only refuge he is interested in is God; and God has not moved to the mountains. So the psalmist will stand tall and trust. Nevertheless, this verse from the psalm has haunted me for some time now. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
No one can fail to acknowledge that this Special Convention””this synodical gathering of the Diocese of South Carolina””is being carried out before watching eyes. The resolutions that are before us while seeming tepid to some, have to others the feel of haste, even imprudence. Whatever can be said in support or detraction, they have caught the attention of the secular and religious world around us. Even before we take up the work of this gathering it can hardly be suggested the rank and file members of the diocese have not been apprised that at least something of significance is going to take place today. This is not another ho hum ecclesiastical meeting. To that end, even those who would mount resistance have helped in getting the word out, even if fraught with fear and misinformation. I am thankful that along with the lay delegates and the clergy of the diocese we also have three bishops of the Church present; The Rt. Rev. C. Fitzsimmons Allison, 12th Bishop of South Carolina, The Rt. Rev. George Edward Haynesworth, retired Bishop of Nicaragua and retired assisting bishop of South Carolina, and The Rt. Reverend Alden M. Hathaway, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Their presence is important because the issues before us in final analysis are issues of faith and order, and historically these have been the concern of the episcopacy.
We owe it to ourselves and to those we represent as well as to the larger Church to take these matters seriously and, I might add, prayerfully. So let me return to the words of the psalmist””whether uttered by a hard pressed king or his advisors, these words come down to us through the centuries: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Surely most of you know that I believe the foundations of The Episcopal Church and this Anglican way of being a Christian are being bit by bit destroyed. This is hardly the time for me to state again the argument that I put before the Clergy of the Diocese in my address on August 13th. Whether I was sufficiently clear in my exposition of the problems, or whether my words were fully understood, I believe their main thrust through congregational forums, clericus and deanery meetings should at least by now be broadly understood. Put simply it is a false understanding of the Christian faith that has spread abroad in our Church; a wrong understanding founded upon human speculation rather than divine revelation. This false teaching, that I have called the Gospel of Indiscriminate Inclusivity, has challenged the doctrine of The Trinity, the Uniqueness and Universality of Christ, the Authority of Scripture, our understanding of Baptism, and now, that last refuge of order, our Constitution & Canons. Like an invasive vine, like kudzu in an old growth forest, it has decked The Episcopal Church with decorative destruction. It has invaded and now is systematically dismantling the fundamental teachings of our Church and our Christian heritage. This has happened through the concerted actions of a few and the passivity of a multitude of churchmen and women””bishops, priests and laypersons.
And I might say it has happened, ironically, because of the faithfulness of many to the tasks that were set before them and giving too little time to resist the maneuvers a foot in the Church. I count myself for many years among them. For most of my ministry I have been plowing the field before me. If I tell my own story here it is because I believe it is the story of many. I was always working to grow the congregations to which God had called me. I knew I did not like the direction the “national” church was headed. But I did not get overly involved in these problems. I did my work in the parish””whether I was a vicar or a rector. There was always more work to do than time in the day. Baptisms to prepare people for, confirmands to teach, marriages to perform, the faithful, and nominally churched members to bury, the unchurched and lost to win. There were Bible studies to teach, sermons to prepare, services to lead, visitations, pastoral counseling, Stewardship Committees, ECW retreats, etc”¦. I and those with whom I served were busy growing the Church. Then there were diocesan responsibilities””COM, BOEC to chair, Standing Committee, years as a rural dean. Community involvements””Salvation Army Board, Hospital Ethics committee, and other local needs begging for leadership. Certainly I dealt with the challenges of the culture and the larger Church whenever it was in my purview whether parish or diocesan responsibility. All the time, however, I knew that TEC was moving inexorably in what seemed an increasingly unbiblical direction. I knew there were those who were fighting the battle””Bishops like Bishop Allison, Bishop Salmon, and Bishop Hathaway””fighting the good fight. In those days those resisting the dismantling of the foundations were substantial but I fear not bold enough. When some were taking radical actions, disregarding the creeds and the canons, the defenders of orthodoxy were gentleman still fighting according to Marques of Queensbury rules. Those pushing the agenda were more like street-fighters.
Yet even after all the hemorrhaging of the Traditionalist, Catholic and Evangelical wings of The Episcopal Church in the last 30 to 40 years””there are many who still remain. Even today I know that across the country there are vicars and rectors and lay persons who love their church and do not like the direction successive General Conventions have taken us; who do not know what to do. They get up each day to the demands of their flock, the care of their families and jobs, and their parish congregations. They do not know what has happened to their church or how it is they could have so many leaders of TEC that do not represent their views. And now I, like my predecessors, have to find a way to fight the fight in this day when those who are with us in this Church and willing to take a stand, are so few.
I have sought not to make The Episcopal Church the problem. Rather, I have suggested it is the embrace of this false gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity which is the problem. You will have to judge whether I have been successful in this. But what has happened is that the agenda of this false gospel has taken deep roots within the Church. We may have gone past the point of saving, but I have not yet given up.
I’ve said all of this in order to answer three questions:
”¢ Why are we here today?
”¢ What are we to do?
”¢ What difference will it make?
Why Are We Here Today?
Or to ask the question differently, why have the Standing Committee and I called this Special Convention””this Diocesan Synod. Let me begin my answer with a story that Abraham Lincoln once told. When he was a circuit riding lawyer in frontier Illinois he stopped one hot day for a drink at a large farm house that was built under an enormous tree. He found the owner sitting under its shade. “Hank”, said Lincoln, noticing the troubled look on the farmer’s face, “What seems to be troubling you?” The farmer said, “Mr. Lincoln, do you see this here tree? It is the pride of the county. Look at the way those limbs stretch out over of my house like a canopy. About two months ago I came in from plowing the field to rest under the shade of this tree, when I looked up and saw a squirrel run into a hole in that branch. Well that caught my curiosity. So I shimmied up the tree and looked into that hole. It went the entire length of the branch. When I looked around, why there were holes in other branches too. And to my horror even the very trunk was hollowed out. Well, I figured I’d better fell the tree. But with all the contorted branches I couldn’t figure out a way to fell the tree and not bring down my house. So then I figured I’d just leave it up. But one night while I was in bed the wind began to howl and I thought ”˜What if one of those branches crashes down on my house and kills my family?’ I’ve been thinking about that now for two months” “Well,” asked Lincoln, “what did you decide?” “I decided I wish I’d never seen that darn squirrel!”
Well that’s why we’re here today. Your Bishop and Standing Committee have seen the squirrel. And in spite of the fact that at times we wish we hadn’t, we cannot deny it. In my Bishop’s Address to the Clergy, I not only described the challenges that are deconstructing our Episcopal heritage, I put forward what I believe ought to be four unswerving principles to guide us: The Lordship of Christ and the Sufficiency of Scripture; Godly Boundaries; Domestic Engagement for Missional Relationships; and, Emerging 21st Century Anglicanism. I believe we need to hold on to these guiding principles while remaining in a state of ready flexibility. The landscape around us in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is changing almost daily. This week alone has brought remarkable and gracious news from the Vatican but it will give us little relief but that of hope that one day all who hold the faith of the apostles shall be one. Meanwhile these four principles need to guide us; otherwise we will be tossed about by every windy gust of news or tidal wave crashing on the shore. I fear these principles have been lost in the discussion and debate over these resolutions. The guiding principles have produced the resolutions; the resolutions have not produced the principles. As a reminder, the principle is put succinctly at the top of each resolution. The resolutions have been drafted by members of the Standing Committee and some of the deans. Are they perfect? Of course not. There are places that I even would make changes. But I hope we will not get so bogged down in amendments that we fail to discuss or debate the substance.
Clearly the resolution that has caught the most attention has been Resolution #2. The controversy over this resolution is a good illustration of how the resolutions have been unhinged from the principles. Take the way resolution #2 has been portrayed””that we are leaving The Episcopal Church. That it gives the bishop and Standing Committee permission to leave the “national” church at will. It does nothing of the kind. Frankly bishops have been staying away from House of Bishops meetings for years without needing the permission of their diocesan conventions. This gives me no authority I do not already have. What it does is acknowledge we have entered a time when the need for more radically ways of speaking is painfully apparent. As for the suggestion this gives the Standing Committee and me the power to take the diocese out of TEC that is just not true. This argument ignores Article I of the Constitution of this Diocese which states that we “”¦accede to the Constitution & Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” The Episcopal Church didn’t put that statement in our Constitution & Canons; this diocese did. It was a sovereign act of this Diocese of South Carolina.
Then there is the question often posed to me””if your intention bishop is to more thoroughly engage the “national” church and the culture, how does withdrawing from certain bodies of the Church enable us to more fully engage? To that question I say three things””first, remember there are four principles, not just this one. Secondly, most of us at some point in our lives have found ourselves in a dysfunctional system or relationship. We eventually recognized the need for appropriate boundaries. It is the only way to remain engaged with the family or system that embodies the dysfunction. Thirdly, it is the very withdrawing that facilitates the engagement. Here I refer to the analogy Canon Kendall Harmon uses. Our purposed action is similar to a wife whose husband is having an affair and after frequent confrontations and conversations he continues in his adulterous behavior. Eventually, without ending the marriage or leaving their home, she says, “I’m moving my bedroom down the hall. I haven’t given up on this yet, but somehow I have to get your attention that this isn’t working for me!” To summarize or evaluate all that she is doing to bring health or wholeness to the relationship by this one action would be patently unfair and inaccurate. What needs to be recognized is that it is one action she is taking along with several others. And the action regarding the bedroom is because it is the marriage bed that is the place the covenant has been broken. She knows that this move may provoke his anger. The children may blame her for their discomfort. But she has not ceased to engage.
Then others will ask, “Will this mean we will not send deputies to General Convention? How can we effect change if we don’t go to General Convention?” While the first question will ultimately be a decision of the diocese, let me say one thing clearly about the second question. The General Convention is not the answer to the problems of The Episcopal Church. The General Convention has become the problem. It has replaced a balanced piety in this Church with the politics of one-dimensional activism. Every three years when the Episcopal Church train pulls into the station of General Convention more traditional, catholic and evangelical Episcopalians get off the train and do not return. Do you know that in 1968 this Church had 3, 600, 000 members. In 2008 we had just barely over 2,000,000. It is even less than that now. Think about it, in what the Bible refers to as one generation we have lost 1,600,000 members! That is a 44% decline in one generation. All this while the U.S. population has skyrocketed! If you as an Episcopalian entered a train in 1968 with ninety-nine people randomly chosen, the odds were you would encounter another Episcopalian. But if you enter a train today with a random sampling of ninety-nine others, there would not be another Episcopalian on board, and the odds are just barely over 50–50 that even you would be there. I do not cite this to beat up on our Church. I cite it to say, we cannot take another generation like this. Some would suggest this is the price of being prophetic; I fear it is the price of being increasingly irrelevant. We have little to offer the world that a segment of the culture is offering. It is a matter of institutional survival. This train is moving fast toward a station where many of us in this diocese will not go. We fear the track this train is on””this train ain’t bound for glory, this train. That’s why we’re here today; to try and wake up passengers, brakemen and engineers alike. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
What are we to do?
Frankly, I have been wondering how long the average Episcopalian will just sit there and let this train load of radical activism roll them along to a dead end station. It reminds me of an old story of a parish which had fallen into lethargy. The priest invited an elderly nun from a nearby convent to address the congregation one Sunday. She said to the congregation, “There is a folk legend where I come from that when a baby is born, an angel comes down from heaven and kisses it on one part of its body. If the angel kisses him on the hand, he becomes a handyman. If the angel kisses him on the mouth he becomes a great speaker. If he kisses him on the forehead, he becomes bright and clever. And I’ve been trying to figure out where the angel has kissed all of you so that you should sit there for so long and do nothing.” These four principles that I’ve put forth to guide this diocese set us on a course to further engage our culture and our Church. So likewise, these are not random resolutions. The Standing Committee put them forward in response to my address to the clergy. There’s a resolution for each principle: If one tries to understand them separately you may fail to see they are in response to a consistent strategy, a coherent game plan for engaging the challenges and opportunities before us.
Resolutions 4 seeks to engage the international challenges. I haven’t time to rehearse what I spoke of at our Diocesan Convention last March when I put forth the vision of “Making Biblical Anglicans for a Global Age.” But it is briefly summarized in the “whereas” sections of the resolution. As I’ve stated at the clericus and deanery meetings around the diocese, I believe what is at stake is not merely Anglicanism or Episcopalianism in North America; it is the Anglican Communion. That is the key and vital theatre of engagement. We dare not take ourselves and our difficulties so seriously that we do not see and labor for the bigger prize””the emerging Anglicanism of the 21st Century.
Resolution 3 casts an eye toward those of whom I referred in the beginning of my address. Who are day by day ministering in their parishes but feel paralyzed by the overwhelming magnitude of the problems in our Church. Who yearn for those who will partner with them for the gospel, for the growth of the Church. Where we can, we must encourage them. So also we will look to partner with U.S. dioceses for the common purpose of winning the lost to Christ and to find better ways to grow our parishes and plant new congregations. Our purpose is not merely to establish healthy boundaries as Resolution 2 addresses it is to foster healthy mission and ministry among Episcopalians in this country.
But, if we are to grow we have to continue to ordain clergy. And they need to know, and the congregations in which they are ordained need to know, what the vows they are making mean. That is the purpose of Resolution 1. Over half a century ago Archbishop William Temple put it well: “The Church needs to be very clear in its public pronouncements so it may be very pastoral in its application.” When addressing some of the great moral questions of our day we have been dreadfully muddled in our public pronouncements. The recent resolutions of General Convention ’09, in D025 and C056 regarding human sexuality offer the most recent case in point””the nuances of descriptive not descriptive just doesn’t fly. Is the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church what a news report says? What some presiding officer says? What the Executive Council says on any given day? Is it really so mercurial? It feels at times like were holding liquid mercury.
I realize for some these resolutions are too risky; or even unnecessary. For others it is too little, too late. But it is something; and it is more than we have done to date. The time is now more critical; the clock now ticks loud””all can hear who have not plugged their ears; and so I believe at the present moment, passing these resolutions is what we need to do. We have heard the porter call out the station of destination and there are far too many of us who cannot go there. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
Finally, What difference will it make?
To this question I can only answer, I do not know. But I can say if we do nothing it is clear where we will be three years from today after the next Triennial. To wait until GC2012 to see if this Church canonizes the moral equivalency of same-sex marriage with the Christian understanding of marriage and then mount some protest will be too late. I fear our leaders have succumbed to emotion not reason. I’ve heard clergy in this Church, after casting votes that would alter our Church’s teaching on human sexuality, say “I am humble enough to acknowledge I may be wrong.” Let’s not cloak such actions with the garment of humility. Such action may be misguided compassion, but it is hardly humble. If one recognizes one may be wrong, would not humility suggest that one give the balance of weight to the plain reading of Holy Scripture? To two thousand years of the Church’s reflection upon those Scriptures? To the expressed mind of the Anglican Communion””and to the four Instruments of Unity? To the counsel of Christians around the world””Roman Catholic, Orthodox and the vast majority of Protestants? To what even the Natural Order reveals? Would not humility suggest one should”¦well, why both to say it? This is not about, nor ever has been about, excluding some from the grace and forgiveness of God. It is about is what the Church has the authority to recognize as authentically Christian, and what is appropriate for ordained leadership.
Should this Diocese of South Carolina pass these resolutions I suppose some may accuse us of disloyalty to The Episcopal Church. They might even suggest that it is we who will be guilty of destroying the foundations. I would say to this, if we are disloyal, it is the disloyalty of those who have loved what we believed is our best heritage; the disloyalty of those who have sought to protect the true breadth of our tradition. Not those who in recklessness tore it down or with ill-advised innovation tried to destroy the foundations that were once laid in Jesus Christ.
”¢ Why are we here today? To face the problem before us, and The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.
”¢ What are we to do? Decide the level of our engagement.
”¢ What difference will it make? God alone knows””we shall trust it to Him. The psalmist began his prayer by declaring that the only refuge he is interested in is God; and God has not moved to the mountains. His holy address hasn’t changed. He’s still in charge”¦as always. (The Message)
So let us turn now to today’s business. Let us do so recognizing, as David did in Psalm 11, that God is sovereign; that “His eyes behold the inhabited world; his piercing eye weighs our worth.” May God bless each one of us as we seek Him in the things we do today.