Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Nicholas Knisely on authority in the Episcopal Church

My own priest, Nicholas Knisely, has a wonderful essay on authority within the Episcopal church in the Daily Episcopalian. Responding to the conservative meme that the Episcopal Church is not Christain bcause of a few comments made by some of its leaders, Father Knisely reminds us who can speak for the Church:

The argument most typically states that since the Presiding Bishop has made a statement that the hearer disagrees with or that doesn’t demonstrate a suitable doctrinal basis of the Christian faith, the Presiding Bishop is accused and summarily judged to be a “heretic” or more commonly a person who has repudiated Jesus and thus an apostate. I’m not willing to agree to any of the characterizations by the way, but I skip over their refutation because it’s the next step in the argument that I find most troubling. That step is to claim that since the Presiding Bishop has made a statement that the writer objects to, the millions of people who belong to the Episcopal Church are also therefore heretics and/or apostates who have materially repudiated Jesus.

It’s the argument that “as goes the Presiding Bishop, so goes the Episcopal Church” with which I find fault. The Presiding Bishop is not a form of a Pope who is recognized to speak authoritatively or infallibly for the Episcopal Church. She or he is simply the bishop who is elected by the other bishops to chair the meetings of the House of Bishops, and in recent times to oversee the administrative functioning of the Episcopal Church. So an argument that claims that any views of the Presiding Bishop are necessarily normative for the other bishops much less the whole of the Episcopal Church is just wrong. It’s the equivalent to saying that because the President of the United States makes a claim, all Americans now believe what he has said.

The real office of Primate in the Episcopal Church while titularly belonging to the Presiding Bishop, is actually carefully apportioned to the whole Church in the General Convention. But, now speaking as a parish priest, we’ve long recognized that General Convention often does not take its responsibility in the primatial role seriously. There have been many resolutions and canons passed by General Convention that simply represent the scoring of a political victory by one group or another within the denomination. Some of them are obviously political and some are more obscurely so. However, General Convention most clearly does express its primatial office when it authorizes liturgies for regular use and/or issues a new Book of Common Prayer.

Now, should the primatial authority of the Episcopal Church authorize a new Prayer Book that clearly and intentionally repudiates the sovereignty of Jesus, or denies the Doctrine of the Trinity or rejects the Creeds and other historic formulations of the universal Church, then I would agree that the Episcopal Church is no longer a church and that it has come time to leave for a place that is authentically Christian. But I do not see that such a thing has happened. At most you can argue that Episcopal Church has been overly tolerant of local option and/or questionable teaching by its members, but it has never authoritatively denied Christ.

I have had the real honor of working in ecumenical circles and in formal discussions with other denominations. When talking to denominations outside the Anglican Communion we assume that what they teach and believe is what is found in their authoritative documents and normative practices. Perhaps its time to ask that the Churches within the Anglican Communion with whom we are in Communion and the bishops of the Episcopal Church who are now claiming the Episcopal Church is non-Christian, should show the same courtesy to us?

Read it all here.

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