Feel-good church displaces faith
Thursday, February 22, 2007
As a "conservative" Episcopalian, I have a real problem with the church that may be difficult for others to understand. For those on the outside, the Episcopal Church's problems may seem like a mishmash of issues that society largely has moved beyond. From within, however, there is something more important going on.
Contrary to what the more liberal elements of the church's leadership (and unfortunately much of the media coverage) would have you believe, what is happening within the Episcopal Church has nothing to do with sexual preference, same-sex marriage, female clerics or a host of other accusations hurled at us for disagreeing with the church leadership. These are symptoms. Much as an elevated temperature may point to a deadly infection, the disease itself is worse. The Episcopal Church is suffering from an acute case of fear.
The more liberal among us fear irrelevancy. The process of de-coupling the Episcopal Church from historic Anglicanism coincides pretty closely with the revolutionary attitudes of the 1960s, when our benign trust in leadership was shattered by governments that did a lot of bad things behind our backs. The next generation didn't want the same old church as their parents. Church enrollment dropped; fear took root that the institution would decline and perhaps disappear.
In the 1970s, church leadership believed social justice could trump fear. It began to "fix" the church by discarding the beloved 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The 1979 version, with its watered-down requirements and weak translations of Scripture, was designed to be easy to read. Out went Shakespeare, in came Mr. Rogers. The revisionists celebrated, but church attendance did not improve. Fear grew.
That fueled demand for female clerics. In the 1980s, female priests appeared, followed closely by bishops. Enrollment declined further; fear increased.
This brings us to the latest innovation to stop the decline, "the full inclusion of baptized Christians in the full life of the Church." That's code for "we need homosexual priests and bishops, same-sex blessings and marriages." Today, enrollment is still slipping.
Make no mistake; the battle within the U.S. Episcopal Church is not about intolerance, gender or sexual preference. It is about fear leading to theological amnesia. And fear has driven out the purpose of the church. Loosening the rules to attract more congregants instead has driven more away. Making it easier to be a member is not what works to retain the faithful. It's all about how you cast your theology in your life -- is your faith your anchor or just something that makes you feel good?
I place a very high value on caring for the sick and feeding the hungry. Christian churches do this. But is that their raison d'etre? Absolutely not.
The Christian church was founded in the first century to lead people into faith in Jesus Christ. The means they chose to do this was to illuminate who Christ was to help the faithful understand what He wants of us. With that faith, Christians still believe we can develop a relationship with Him.
Historically, this illumination was gained through reading the Bible. The Bible offers four different accounts (the Gospels) that agree on these points: Jesus was both man and God. He rose from the dead. He had expectations of us that clearly included not embracing sin.
These accounts show that his definitions of sin were in sync with Jewish law of the time. He even said He wouldn't change one thing in that law. To be a Christian is to accept that, if Jesus said it, we are subservient to it. That's been mainline Christian theology for almost 2,000 years.
So now I find myself, as one who tries to embrace the law as Jesus explained it, forced to break it in order to remain an Episcopalian. I am forced to support and encourage others to sin. Jesus said that helping someone else to sin was worse than committing the sin yourself.
Now you understand my fear. If I stay in the Episcopal Church, I have to embrace and support behavior clearly identified by Jesus as sinful. If I leave the church, I am "intolerant," "homophobic" or just plain "mean-spirited."
I am simply trying to do what Jesus told me to do. He said, "Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. And love your neighbor as yourself."
If I know someone I love is going to endanger their soul by doing the wrong thing, is it an act of love to embrace the wrong action? Jesus clearly loved sinners, but despised their sin.
The other side fears irrelevancy, I fear Hell. Come to think of it, maybe we're both afraid of the same thing ...
Michael Bertaut is treasurer of Christ Church Episcopal in Gonzales, La.
This article appeared on page B - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle