It's not about sex
January 25, 2013, 6:00 am •
By now you’ve heard that the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has left the national body called The Episcopal Church. And you may know that the national Episcopal Church is claiming all the property of all the churches in the Diocese of South Carolina, which has indeed left that national body. But you may not know why. The Episcopal Church wants you to believe that it’s all about sex - or, rather, that it’s all about the supposed closed-mindedness of traditional former Episcopalians here in South Carolina, which prevents us from understanding the needs of homosexual people. The truth is that this conflict has to do with two very different understandings about the Holy Bible. This difference in understanding leads us to two very different perceptions about human beings and the world in which we live.
We traditional, orthodox, “Bible-believing,” “conservative” Christians of the Anglican Communion have always believed that the Bible means what it says. The Bible is literal history, poetry, prophesy, song and revelation. God has put every word there for a reason. We must not add to it, and we must not take away from it. Often, upon the broad base of the literal meaning of the Holy Scriptures, God has also layered metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic meanings, as well. But here is the point: The Bible is the Word of God. It is true. And because God wants to communicate with us clearly and not confuse us, it is usually straightforward and plain in its meaning. Of course, there are parts that cause us to scratch our heads, but God gave us His Word to guide us and to illuminate our lives, and not to befuddle us. When God says something, He means it. His Word is truth. Therefore, for traditional Christians, the Bible directly influences our understandings of ourselves, our world and our world view. Some things are right, and some things are downright wrong.
For non-traditional, heterodox, post-modern, “liberal” Christians, the Bible is a book of inspirational stories and pretty poetry. Some of it is good, and some of it is not. One can pick and choose what one likes and discard the rest. Keep the stories about love, doing good things and being kind to others, and throw out the ones about doing battle with sin, being judged by God and the reality of hell. I’m OK, you’re OK. Everybody goes to heaven, no matter what they’ve done or what they believe. For post-modern “liberal” Christians, their “pick and choose” view of the Bible deeply influences their understanding of themselves, their world and their world view. The world and truth are relative things, depending on your point of view.
In this conflict, the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina subscribes to the first traditional understanding of the Bible, and The Episcopal Church believes the second post-modern “liberal” view of the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, it is not surprising that The Episcopal Church is moving closer to giving Holy Communion to unbaptized people, now has an official liturgy to bless same-sex unions (if the bishop says it’s OK), and now permits cross-dressing, transgendered and “questioning” individuals into the ordination process as future clergy of their church. How did they get to this point?
More than 100 years ago, the bishops of The Episcopal Church failed to discipline the leaders of their seminaries. Somewhere in the late 1800s, the deans of General Theological Seminary (in New York), Virginia Theological Seminary (in Northern Virginia) and the seminary at the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tenn.) began to hire liberal professors from Europe who did not believe in the literal truth of the Bible. These liberal professors saw the Holy Scriptures as merely metaphorical and allegorical stories that pointed toward a transcendent God whom they believed no one could truly know. They did not believe that Jesus Christ was really born of a virgin, or that He truly performed any physical miracles, or that He was truly and bodily raised from the dead. These liberal professors coined a new word for people who believed in these fundamentals of the Christian faith: “fundamentalists.” They meant it as a pejorative term for Christians who took any of the Bible literally. Of course, these “modern” professors did not trumpet their lack of belief, but, carefully and selectively, over the years, they began to teach this false brand of dish-water Christianity to future clergy, who would become future bishops.
This process of undermining the authority of the Bible took a long time to infiltrate the top leadership of The Episcopal Church, but it did. Bishops of The Episcopal Church, who believed in this “modern” view of Scripture, worked slowly and steadily to bring liberal seminary deans to most of their seminaries. These liberal deans then worked hard to hire more liberal professors. And these professors formed the minds and faith of Episcopal clergy. The bishops and the seminaries were, in the meantime, careful not to “let on” to the laity about the truth of what they really believed concerning the doctrines of our Christian faith. The lay people in the pews did not know that things were changing until “talk” began to surface in the mid-1960s about a need to change the prayer book. The great majority of lay people in The Episcopal Church did not think the 1928 Book of Common Prayer needed to be changed. It is a beautifully written prayer book, based on the King James version of the Bible, and more than 90 percent of the text is directly from the words of the Bible itself. But the bishops and the seminaries thought it essential that the old prayer book be changed. The church was “behind the times” and needed to catch up with the modern age so as to draw more people into The Episcopal Church. The church “needed change” they said, but they were careful not to be too clear about what that change entailed.
There was “trial use” of different possible liturgies, and the 1928 prayer book was taken out of the pews “for the time being” so that parishioners could experiment with the type of worship, which the church “really needed for the future.” Then, there was talk about ordaining women to the priesthood, and before anyone knew it, 1979 was here, and The Episcopal Church had a new prayer book and women priests were being ordained. Some long-time members of the church thought that something “fishy” was going on when the leaders of The Episcopal Church told their clergy and lay people that they could no longer use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer at all! They insisted that there could only be one prayer book, “for the sake of unity,” and that the 1928 BCP had to go. What were they afraid of? We now know. They could never have instituted all the changes into The Episcopal Church that they were even then envisioning with that troublesome old 1928 Prayer Book hanging around. We know the rest of the story.
Not only did The Episcopal Church have a new prayer book, but they threw out the old hymnal and got a new one. Then they began to ordain openly homosexual individuals as clergy. Then they ordained an openly homosexual priest, who was in a “partnered” relationship with another man, to the office of bishop. And now, since the year 2003, most of the bishops of The Episcopal Church feel comfortable saying things like, “The Church wrote the Bible, so the Church can change it!” and, “There is no absolute truth, but rather a multiplicity of truths - we all have our own truth ... ,” and, “ ... Oh, that’s just what Paul said (meaning, therefore we can discount it).” Have such beliefs, which led to such changes, helped to grow The Episcopal Church as originally promised?
In the late 1950s, The Episcopal Church proudly counted its numbers at around 4.6 million members. Today, after all of the above changes in practice and belief, most honest statisticians count their active membership at a little fewer than one million. It seems as though all of those changes didn’t work too well. And remember, the change in sexual morality, as demonstrated in such innovations as same-sex marriage, was only one of the many changes instituted by the liberal leaders of The Episcopal Church. You see, when the foundation of the inerrant truth of the Bible was knocked out from under The Episcopal Church, the whole edifice began to crumble. That is what happens when we turn away from the truth of God, as revealed to us in Holy Scripture. We can only hope and pray that perhaps one day, The Episcopal Church might consider returning to belief in the truth of the Bible.
Larisey is rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Orangeburg.
Not surprisingly to readers of this blog, there is a lot I could say about this piece. While I agree that a change in prayer books was a part of the demise of orthodox Christianity in the Episcopal Church, I would not have assigned it as large a role in that demise as this writer does. But then he is rector in a parish that still uses the 1928 BCP, so that change naturally plays a larger role in his estimation. For me, it is not about preserving the thees and thous of the 1928 BCP but preserving its underlying theology that is most important.
Fr. Larisey is right about the loss of confidence in the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible as the key factor in the Episcopal Church's decline. As a seminary educator for 30 years and dean and president of an Episcopal seminary for 10 of those years, I believe he is right about the pivotal role played by the seminaries.
Fr. Larisey ends his piece on a hopeful note, as writers often try to do: "We can only hope and pray that perhaps one day, The Episcopal Church might consider returning to belief in the truth of the Bible." But what would that look like in reality? Repentance? Revival? The Bible itself and the history of the Church show us the way. Such a return can indeed happen by God's grace and in the power of His Holy Spirit. I only wish I could be as hopeful as Fr. Larisey that it might. What are your thoughts?