Monday, July 10, 2006

Politics in the churches

I've had some discussions recently with my uncle who is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and involved in the Word Alone Network, a group which is working to counteract some of the current trends in the ELCA. In most (all?) Protestant churches there is usually some corporate statement of faith and a set of constitutional bylaws that govern internal church affairs. These statements come up for possible amendment at regular intervals, different in each church. The process is democratic whereby congregations elect representatives (usually a combination of lay and clergy) who go to the larger assembly to consider and to vote for changes that have been previously reviewed by church committees. Headlines are published to note remarkable changes from precedent. Great battles are waged either to defend tradtional orthodoxy or to lead progressive reform.

The problem is this: in Protestant churches there is no final authority to shut down further debate and amendment. Thus, corporate statements of faith produced by these processes are ALWAYS provisional. The only final authority is the Bible, and opinions of interpretation vary greatly, even within individual congregations. Furthermore, the corporate statements are rarely in my experience treated as catechetical. Noboby points to them to say, "See, this settles our dispute about this passage. The church has spoken." I would guess that few Methodists buy a newly revised Book of Discipline every four years for reference and study.

So the work of the church to teach "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 5) is now hampered by the politics of deciding what to teach. And the results are not even taken as authoritative. The losing side doesn't pack up and submit to the decision of the greater body, but rather begins campaigning for the next cycle.

Now don't get me wrong. I think it is a worthy task to contend for the truth. However, one can't help but be discouraged by the anti-climactic outcome. Even when you win you can't relax your guard and take the victory as a staging point for the next battle. All prior doctrinal rallying points are subject to question and revision. Isn't this the legacy of the Protestant Reformation where so many of the past decisions were overthrown?

An apt example is the Church of England's recent decision to move forward with plans to ordain women bishops. The CofE has allowed/supported the ordination of women priests since 1992, and other churches in the Anglican Communion earlier than that. But even though the decision of the CofE and the Archbishop of Canterbury was to allow women priests, there is much debate still going on and provisions have been made for those churches/provinces who reject women in the priesthood as unbiblical and invalid.

To complicate matters, the Anglican tradition values its ability to accomodate a wide variety of views under the umbrella of its worldwide Communion. The Rochester Report (2004) laid out in detail the arguments and challenges to proceeding with the ordination of women bishops. Included is a discussion about the unresolved disputes surrounding women's ordination to the priesthood. The Church of England goes about making such changes by means of what it calls an "open process of reception" which is "a process of discernment by which the rightness or otherwise of a development is considered by the universal Church. Whereas previous uses of reception had described theway in which a development was received, the Anglican use described the process of discernment by which a development could be either accepted or rejected." (3.6.10) The church acknowledges that its position is merely the majority oppinion at the time and is subject to err. It has taken to trying out a "development" to see how it goes. Later, it may affirm or reject the earlier decision. Even worse, this process is itself being developed in the context of debating women's ordination and some Anglicans don't even accept the means by which the church is changing its doctrine (3.6.17).

The Report outlines this logical and problematic scenario:
7.2.14 If women cannot be priests then they cannot be bishops. Doubts about the orders of women priests would therefore necessarily lead to doubts about the orders of women bishops. This would in turn lead to doubts about the validity of the episcopal functions performed by women ministers, which would lead to doubts about the orders of any priests (even male priests) whom they ordained, which would eventually lead to questions about the validity of ministerial orders and sacramental assurance becoming endemic throughout the Church of England.
This is a very serious question! If the sacraments are not valid, then people who think they are adoring and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ are just bowing before bread and wine. Their sins aren't absolved in confession. Doubt arises as to the efficacy of the sacraments if nobody can say with certainty who is able to administer them validly.

Yet somehow, the church claims it could change its position in the future without affecting the validity of a woman priest's prior ordination!

3.6.25 However, it also needs to be noted that this does not mean that the orders of individual women priests currently ordained in the Church of England are open to question. As [Paul] Avis goes on to say: "It is not the ordinations (orders) of individual women clergy that is subject to the process of open reception. They are duly and canonically ordained and are on a par with their male counterparts."

3.6.26 It may sound paradoxical, if not contradictory, to say that the decision to ordain women priests is open to question, but the orders of those women who have been ordained are not. However, this apparent paradox is simply the result of the fact that the Church of England has to act on what it believes to be right at any given time, while at the same time remaining open to the possibility that its decision might in the end be judged unacceptable by the universal Church.
Now look folks: Does ordination confer upon a person the indellible mark of priesthood whereby he (she?) is given by God the authority to absolve sins and to transform bread into God or not? You can't say, "We think so now, but we may be wrong. If we're wrong now, then because we think we are right now your priesthood will be valid later even if we change our minds later because you were ordained now." That makes no sense, and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales takes them to task for it:

...there seems to us to be a tremendous and intolerable ecclesiological risk involved in taking such a step without an assurance that it is right and irreversible. If the decision to ordain women as priests, and later bishops, is ‘hypothetically reversible’, how can it be maintained that ‘this does not mean that the orders of individual women priests currently ordained in the Church of England are open to question’ (3.6.26). The position presented in 3.6.26 and 3.6.27 is untenable from a Roman Catholic perspective: it is not only paradoxical but contradictory. If the decision to ordain women priests remains open to question on theological and doctrinal grounds, then the same must be true of the orders of those women who have been ordained. How could women priests be held to hold valid orders if it were one day discerned that the original decision to ordain them was not consonant with the will of God as expressed in Scripture and tradition? If the Church of England retains such a position, Roman Catholics are inevitably left asking serous questions about the nature of ordained ministry in the Church of England, and the notion of ‘valid orders’ being employed in the Report.
In essence, "If this makes sense to you in the CofE, then you mean something different by orders and ordination and priesthood than we Roman Catholics do, and we're now further from full communion than before."

I pray and hope for a turn around, but because the process is so convoluted many people must have a change of heart over the next number of years to change course. But we always remember, with God all things are possible.

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