The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 1


I have a problem. Not a drinking problem, believe it or not. No, I have this dumb tendency to get embroiled in pointless, repetitive debates in comboxes all around the internet. It’s a real problem, because, whereas I’m pretty good at drinking carelessly (in theChestertonian sense), I have a hard time letting these internet arguments go. I stay up late thinking about them, I work on them when I should be writing, I walk around distracted at home. And whereas I’m proud of the work I do on this blog, these combox debates accomplish nothing.

Like I said, it’s a problem.

My most recent internet fight happened at Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble, where she posted some praise for the “Third Way” video that has been going around the web. Which was fine. But I started reading the comments (Oh! Temptation!) and was doing okay until someone used that dumb New York Times story to suggest that “half of all gays have open marriages.” I jumped in, in all my “Something is Wrong on the Internet!” glory, telling myself I’d just address that limited topic. Miller, who is a friend of friends, and with whom I’ve tangled in the past, responded:

As for Frank… he is a Christian who does not believe the Christian teaching on sexual sin. It’s a head-scratcher to me. Why bother being a Christian if the one thing Jesus died to save us from is sort of… cool now? If the moral law can be jettisoned after two millennia in favor of the spirit of the age (led by secular sentiment, not any religious orthodoxy of any kind), then what is the point?

Oh boy.

I was off, and soon we were debating “the chute where waste (death) is expelled from the body” (her words, obvs), and the history of usury, and I was being called (by one of her commenters) a modern-day Pilate.

The last comment finally got me to put down the bottle and step away from the bar. Well, that, and a growing weariness with seeing my church, the Episcopal Church, disparaged. Longtime readers (Ha! Like I have those!) know that I love the Episcopal Church, and anyone who deals much with the Catholic Right knows that my church often gets cast in their writings as an arch-villain in their war on modernity.

So I want to offer here a humble defense of one aspect of our practice that was criticized over there. It’s kind of weird for me to do that, since I’m not really big into apologetics. I think you defend your faith best by living it. What’s more, I know for a fact that I’m not the guy to do this job.  Walker Percy called himself a bad Catholic. Pshaw. That’s easy. It’s really hard to be a bad Episcopalian, but damn if I haven’t figured out how to do it.

Nonetheless, people asked, so here goes: a defense of the sufficiency of the Creeds as statements of the faith, written by a bad Episcopalian at a time near the end of the world.

Of course, I welcome correction from better Episcopalians. Or anyone else.

Some quick background: the Episcopal Church says that it’s a creedal rather than a doctrinal or confessional church. That is, we say that our understanding of the faith is contained in the two ancient creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and we leave it at that. In contrast, most other Christian denominations have more complicated statements of faith, like the Catholic Church’s Catechism, which elaborate on and explain the doctrine outlined in those Creeds. In practice, that means that we don’t impose a given interpretation on the words of the Creeds.

Miller charged that, without these explanations, the Episcopal Church is built on shifting sands, and that all of its doctrines are “up for grabs.” Her argument is based in large part on testimony from her friend Kim Manning, a former Episcopalian who left the church for Catholicism when she became horrified by what she saw as its relativism and emphasis on subjectivity. Manning writes:

It was explained to me, by the dean of an Episcopal seminary, that the Episcopal Church is not a “confessional” church in which one is required to concur with any particular interpretation of doctrine. An Episcopalian, he said, cannot ignore the articles of faith (found in the Book of Common Prayer) or the creeds, but at the same time he need only profess them with regard to how he personally interprets them. Shocked, I remember clarifying, “Do you mean that one man in the pews can profess belief in a literal resurrection, and the man next to him can profess a metaphorical resurrection, and they’re both right in the eyes of the Episcopal Church?” The answer was a definite “Yes.” I was told numerous times that Episcopalians believe that “everyone is right, both Protestants and Catholics.” But I had already learned that it is only in the world of subjective truth that two opposing doctrines can both be right. Subjectivism is simply antithetical to the objective Truth of Christ.

I answered:

If a man is willing to stand up next to me in good faith and say the words of the Creed, and presumably die for them, then I’m happy to share communion with that man. I’m not going to quiz him on what those words mean inside his head.

That’s how much we value the Creeds. We think they’re sufficient as statements of the faith. They don’t need 1000 pages of explication, which in turn could be misinterpreted, and so require 1000 more pages of explication, which also could be misinterpreted, and so on and so on…

It’s bare-bones, but that’s its beauty. The words are enough.

Which was interpreted as an embrace of anything-goes—even though throughout the thread I said the words of the Creeds are truth and that Jesus (who is The Word, logos) is Truth.

As I respond, let’s keep two things in mind: First, I said I’m proud to share communion with anyone willing to recite the Creeds in good faith. That last part is essential—it doesn’t mean a person who says the Creeds with his fingers crossed, who practices mental reservation to avoid facing their full truth. (Although, frankly, I’d be happy to share communion with that person, too. I’ll explain in part 2.)

Second, I think Manning misrepresents the Episcopal approach. As I understand it, the Episcopal Church wouldn’t tell someone who thinks the resurrection is literal and someone who thinks it’s metaphorical that they’re both right. The Church would be silent on the question. That’s a HUGE distinction, because what Manning’s suggesting really would be a denial of absolute truth. Instead, the Church says that the words of the Creeds are true. Period. It just doesn’t say how they’re true.

[Note: When I say the Church would be silent, I mean officially. Individual pastors can and do argue for a given interpretation.]

The Catholic Church does this, too. For example, it calls original sin an “essential truth” but allows that it’s a mystery how original sin was transmitted from Adam to all of us (CCC 404). Traditionally, it was understood as a literal biological inheritance—that is, Adam, as mankind’s common ancestor, passed it on to his descendants. And the Catechism still refers to Adam and Eve as “our first parents.” The problem is that the belief that we all descended biologically from one couple, known as monogenesis, is really hard to square with the modern understanding of evolution.

How does the Church answer this? It doesn’t. It grants its members liberty in understanding the mechanics of original sin—as long as they assent to the teaching. It tells them what to believe, but not how. So Sunday at Mass, in any given pew, you might find someone who rejects evolution, someone who embraces it, someone who works hard to find a way to reconcile monogenesis and evolution, or someone who rejects monogenesis outright. Or someone who hasn’t given the question much thought. The Catholic Church says all of that is okay. Not, again, that all of those positions are correct.

This is just one example among many of where the Catholic Church is silent on the “how” of its doctrine, and it’s a big one. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ,263 knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ. (CCC 389)

So we’re not dealing with some minor quibble here.

The point I’m making is not that the Catholic Church is relativist, too. The point is that the Catholic Church recognizes what the Episcopal Church does: when your faith is communicated by words, at some point those words have to stand on their own. You can’t explain everything. In fact, the most important points of the Christian faith are precisely the ones that can’t be explained.

So this isn’t really an argument about “teaching the fulness of the truth,” as Miller framed it. It’s an argument about where to draw the line, when to stop explaining, and which words are sufficient. Nor is this about putting the individual over the words of the Creed—it’s the opposite. It’s saying that the words matter more than our individual interpretations. And this doesn’t mean the words are empty of meaning; instead it’s an understanding that none of us has (individually) the full meaning of the words.

Next: So far I’ve objected to what I think are mischaracterizations of the Episcopal approach to interpretation. In Part 2, I’ll make a positive case for that approach by answering two questions Miller posed: 1) “[W]ho would die in defense of a ‘metaphorical’ resurrection?” and 2) “Better yet, who would kill Christians for believing in a ‘metaphorical’ risen Christ?” I’ll also look at a forgotten element of this debate, which is the Episcopal Church’s emphasis on practice, best understood through our view of the Book of Common Prayer.


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