A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Roger Ard
Rector of St. Peter's in Rome, Georgia
© 2006 by Roger H. Ard
Today’s readings entice me to contemplate God:
God so grand and so beyond our knowing
that the metaphorical hem of his garment
fills up entirely the very holiest place we can know.
Yet this God has in some way come among us, walks with us,
and having created this world, loves this world so much
that God keeps on saving it.
Creator God, lofty, high, beyond us.
Yet close to us in spirit.
God has adopted us as God’s own –
not slaves to be lorded over
but children to share the inheritance.
I experience God joyfully in the Episcopal Church, USA.
Despite our many bureaucratic follies and our unique pretensions,
my life is being enriched and my soul is being fed
by life in this Episcopal Church.
Today deputies, bishops, volunteers, observers –
and some fierce opponents –
will be leaving their homes and parishes and diocese,
heading to Columbus, Ohio for General Convention.
This Church that enriches my life and feeds my soul
is under full attack
from the small minority religious right within the church,
the organized and well funded religious right
in American political life,
and the religious right embodied in the
fundamentalist leaning churches
among the Anglican Communion –
some of whose leaders are easily co-opted and used
by religiously fundamentalist,
politically reactionary Americans
with access to lots of political action money.
In Nigeria it is newly a crime,
punishable by five years in prison,
even to say supportive words
about gay and lesbian people.
Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola strongly supported this
and helped it to become the law of his land.
There are rumors that he actually helped to write it.
This is the very man
hailed by the reactionary wing of the Episcopal Church
as the savior of Anglicanism.
This is the man the Archbishop of Canterbury
seems reluctant to displease.
This is the man who, in Time magazine,
Baptist megachurch pastor Rick Warren,
himself no friend at all of progressive Christianity,
hails as the example for all the Christian world.
In the Episcopal Church it has been very difficult
to critique the theological assertions of African church leaders
without being labeled racist or colonialist.
We progressive Christians are sometimes paralyzed
by our own good manners.
The fact is that many leaders of the African churches
are not very broadly nor very deeply educated,
often trained in seminary schools that are more like Bible Colleges
than like graduate level theology schools in America or Europe.
Rarely are they exposed to historical/critical studies
of the writing and editing of scriptural texts;
to the theory of evolution
to the ethical dilemmas of
stem cell research and genetic studies –
in short, they are fervent in the certainties they claim
for their own literal readings of scripture
but are scarcely conversant
with science or philosophy since the Enlightenment.
Some do not think that such education is important,
being symptomatic of what they see
as the corruption of Western culture –
merely an artifact of human reason
which they say must be subjected
to the teachings of the Bible
as they read the Bible.
These are generally contemptuous of Western thought and culture
and contemptuous of American life in particular.
These people and their U.S. allies
must not be allowed to assume power over the rest of us.
Their movement is hellfire fundamentalism
dressed in costly vestments.
I hope General Convention will have the courage and the vision
to be the GC of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams,
like George Carey, the Archbishop before him,
appears more interested in evangelicals and fundamentalists
than in progressive Christians.
Many of the bishops and bureaucrats of our Episcopal Church
seem more concerned about the feelings of Africa and Canterbury
than they are about the integrity and identify
of the Episcopal Church which, though small,
is a beacon in this country
of thinking Christianity.
I deplore the fearfulness I sense in some of our leaders
as much as I deplore the theology
of those who would take us back
to the pre-Enlightenment days
of confessions of faith and tribunals for heresy.
For St. Paul has written,
… you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
I hope the General Convention
will clearly reveal us as children of the loving God
and not slaves to some foreign or home grown
not slaves to some foreign or home grown
The God portrayed in today’s scripture readings
is the God I have known through this Church.
I believe the Episcopal Church is a gift of God to many of us,
and that we scarcely have begun to tap
the richness of what we can offer others
who are weighed down by repressive religion.
I grew up among people who said God loves the world.
In fact, they hated many of the details of their life in the world
and they really believed that God hates the world, too.
I read the same words and I hear the same voices
in the publications of the American Anglican Council
and in the bitter tirades of some of the Primates.
In my early childhood, in our evangelical church,
I learned much about Jesus and about God‘s love.
But it was an evangelical church I grew up in
and it believed everyone, sometime late in childhood,
becomes responsible for sin at an age of accountability,
falls in danger of hell, and must be saved through submission.
I would wonder:
Where went the loving God they first introduced me to?
Did God abandon us in the vague years of middle childhood?
Why did the angry God who first loved us,
rain such wrath on adolescents at adulthood’s brink?
My loving childhood experience of God in church
was eclipsed by more revealing condemning tirades against sinners.
I heard fierce revival sermons
so evocative of hellfire and so filled with God’s harsh demands
that either the God they described
or the devil they described
could keep me fearfully awake all night long.
As an undergraduate at Presbyterian College
I was first exposed to the writings of William James.
He was one of the founders of a modern psychology
and his distinction between
once-born Christians and twice-born Christians
was an illumination for me.
I had long since been manipulated into an emotional experience
of what people said was salvation and second birth –
and frankly, the experience meant something to me,
and it still does –
but I recognized, as I read William James,
that actually I had been a Christian since I was born –
always loved by God, always God’s child.
That same year
there was a big evangelistic crusade.
Clergy in the town were invited to a preparatory meeting.
I was not there – I was not clergy –
but I heard about the Episcopal priest.
He stood up angrily in the evangelical meeting
at the point the leader invited people to stand up
when he named the day of the week
when God saved them.
Alan said, Good Friday and stalked out of the meeting in disgust.
No original insight in what he said,
but it was the first time in my life I had heard it, and I felt its truth:
here was a church for once-born Christians,
where no child would languish
outside the God‘s loving embrace –
all growing in knowledge of God’s love and grace,
always children of God.
Responding to that love with service and devotion.
Not living in fear, not defined by fear.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
I did not become an Episcopalian just yet.
By then I had awakened to the cry for justice
in the Civil Rights movement.
By then I had awakened to see the tissue of deception
that underlay the tragedy of the Vietnam War.
I was becoming a Christian social activist.
I found attractive the social creed of the United Methodist Church
and the charisma of the local Methodist Clergy.
I joined the Methodist Church and in time,
I went to seminary.
But love for liturgy
and the consistently broad-minded theological questioning
I saw among the Episcopalians
made me want to be one.
I love the liturgy still - but I could live without its pleasures if I had to.
I gradually have discovered spiritual energies
in solitary prayer and contemplative rhythms.
But what I cannot live without in my spiritual life
is intellectual freedom,
and a zeal for theological questioning.
I do not want any part of a church that scares children
that teaches children to hate other religions
that teaches children that God loves Christians
but condemns all others to a fiery hell.
All this leads to this invitation:
Please investigate and think for yourselves.
Read carefully and fully
the documents of the American Anglican Council.
You will find that sexuality has been used as a front,
as an intentionally divisive wedge issue.
You will find statements
against open communion;
you will find statements friendly to theologies
that reject the ordination of women;
you will find anti-feminism;
you will find statements against
every aspect of progressive Christianity,
that emerged from the nineteenth century onwards.
You will find instructions and tactics
for how to aggravate the professional life
of a progressive rector.
You will find statements that claim the American Prayerbook of 1979
revises the faith and twists it into a form
repugnant to those who hold the true faith.
You will find Christians
who desire a theological litmus test
for priests and bishops to serve
and who want the laity to conform
to a narrow theological perspective.
You will find these things called orthodoxy
and you will read about a necessary embracing of
the literal truth of the Bible
including a literal Adam and Eve and inherited sin,
you will be told there is one faith once delivered to the apostles
absolute in its truth and unchanging forever.
You will be told that to reject or to question their principles
is to fall outside the realm of grace.
The editors of Anglicans Online note that
After the Council of Trent (which ended in 1563),
called by Rome to respond to Luther’s Reformation,
the church where the council met was inscribed with the words:
The Episcopal Church is under full attack by people
who think just like that.
They will take us back to 325 and beyond if they can.
They would saddle us with a mini-Pope
out of Canterbury or out of Africa.
The one in Canterbury and the one in Nigeria
both seem willing to serve such a role.
Already Nigeria speaks of the hope of a new primacy
headquartered in or around Alexandria, Egypt.
The American Anglican Council
and their associated organizations, dioceses, and parishes,
speak of their reactionary Christianity,
their evangelical, fundamentalist, theologically regressive Christianity,
as renewal of the Church.
It is no such thing.
The Episcopal Church is living its renewal every day.
We are not English.
We are not African.
We are not evangelical
in the contemporary American political sense.
We are not fundamentalist in any sense.
We do have room, if they wish,
for individuals who are any or all of these things.
But I pray we continue faithfully as a progressive Church
I pray we reject any and all voices that claim to define life’s vitalities
in the name of an authoritarian God
and an authoritarian and absolutist Church.
I pray we continue to respect and to embrace the insights
of research and human intellect,
unthreatened by science
unbowed by intimidation,
undaunted by history,
unafraid of the future.
I we pray we continue our church life
with no pope, no curia, no magisterium –
under whatever new name,
pretending to be Anglican,
while destroying the Enlightened spirit of Episcopalianism.
I pray we continue
in the conviction
that each person, in the light of reason,
with the guidance of the Spirit of God,
in the love of Christ Jesus,
may live one’s faith alongside others
in a fellowship that brooks no authority
beyond the spirit of God,
the sincere seeker,
and a salvation history witnessed in scripture
but not confined to scripture.
The reactionaries detest people like me as revisionists.
I embrace and claim the label as proudly as my own name.
They call themselves reasserters.
as they like to call themselves,
have won some battles
and no doubt they will win some more battles –
there are psychological types of human beings
that want to be ruled,
want to surrender thought, will, choice
in hopes that such surrender will bring certainty, utopia, heaven.
But never will they triumph finally.
There always will be some among us
who never once
will kiss the ring of the Inquisitor.
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