Sunday, August 16, 2009

What can we change in the church?

As the South Carolina oak seeks to weather the storm of discontent in TEC (including discontented South Carolingian Episcopalians who think the Diocese should up and leave for ACNA, and discontented Episcopalian observers who think Bishop Mark Lawrence is stretching the point of his professed loyalty to the captain and crew of the good ship SS TEC), a question worth pondering for a moment or two is this: what can we change in the church?

If the church is, in fact, one, apostolic, catholic, and holy church, then, as a matter of simple logic, changes in the life of the church, beyond style and touching on substance, must raise the question whether the result is 'the church' or some other entity. In the second and third centuries, for instance, changes to the gospel via gnostic teaching led to movements which, by one means or another, became another thing. In our lifetime we are recognizing that changing the gospel in the direction, say, of 'prosperity teaching' or of extreme liberalism, leads to a thing which bears little resemblance to 'the church'. Prosperity teaching transforms the church into a self-help movement, extreme liberalism empties many churches to the point where buildings are put up for sale. They look like a church, but their business on Sunday mornings is coffee and brunch.

Of course, prior to the point where the church becomes something else there is plenty of room for conflict: "If you teach this theology then the church will become something else"; "No it won't"; "Yes it will"; etc! This, I think, is the situation in broad terms in which Anglicanism in North America (but not only there) finds itself in. The Diocese of South Carolina, via Bishop Mark Lawrence, is challenging TEC: will you be a genuine expression of the one, holy, apostlic, catholic church if you continue along the path you are choosing of tampering with the faith once contended for, the tradition faithfully handed on from one generation to the next? Obviously the immediate answer to this question by many in TEC is going to be 'Yes, we will remain the church'. But is that answer correct?

On the face of it, especially in the light of social change in liberal Western democracies, it appears straightforward to alter the doctrine of marriage to incorporate same-sex relationships, and, making the point that the question of doctrinal change in the church is not about a single issue, to change eucharistic doctrine so that baptism into Christ is no longer a requirement to share in Christ's meal may appear a simple calculation between concepts of feeding, inclusion, and welcome. What if things are not so straightforward? What, for example, if untethering the doctrines of marriage and eucharist from their apostolic and catholic moorings lifts the anchor holding the whole church onto its foundations in Scripture and tradition?

Incidentally, when these questions are raised as questions of doctrine in the context of being 'one, holy, apostolic, catholic' church, we are alerted to a fallacy in the sociological argument that since the church once endorsed slavery then changed it's mind, ergo it can do the same re homosexuality. There never was an apostolic and catholic 'doctrine of slavery' which the church changed in the 19th century!

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