Ecclesiology as Social Ethics: Introduction

Ecclesiology as Social Ethics: Introduction

by Craig Uffman

co-published with Covenant

Photo of Craig Uffman

As a native of Louisiana, I am constantly reminded of the stories my grandmother used to tell of Louisiana’s most famous governor, Huey Long. Huey combined a common-sense backwoods charm with the ferocity of a pit bull. He rose to power by tapping into the deep frustrations of honest farmers desperate for someone to champion their hopes for liberation from the elitist powers who controlled the Louisiana economy. Huey was a master rhetorician who one challenged at great risk. He had a standard approach when faced with questions he’d rather not answer. He’d re-direct attention away from the substance of the challenge and then re-state selected portions of the challenger’s story in such a way that the non-alert auditor was led to believe the challenger had endorsed things he never actually endorsed. He counted on the fact that most would not notice his rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and many of those who did would wink at it, for, in their misery, the important thing was that, in Huey, at least they had a champion. Having deftly hoisted that canard, he’d slowly build to a crescendo at which point, with great rhetorical flourish, he’d pummel it to death, smile at his vanquished challenger, and then descend the podium to receive the fist-pumping salutes due a conquering hero.

I was reminded of Huey’s technique as I digested the responses of federal Calvinists with TEC response to Models of Communion: Performing Our Anglican Identity and as I have encountered similar arguments made by Teachers orchestrating the GAFCON movement. Rather than engaging the substance of arguments opposing this movement towards schism, these leaders hoist the same old canard they repeatedly pummel to death in response to the concerns articulated by Communion-minded scholars, clergy, and laity: 'They ask us to surrender to heretics.'

The question these Teachers would rather not answer is how they can justify, on the basis of Scripture and our received tradition, their advocacy of a break from Canterbury and a fracture of our global Communion. In response to challenges, they challenge their fellow evangelicals to show that what he judges to be heresy and apostasy on the part of some in TEC does not require the fracture of the global Communion they advocate. Those who actually read Models of Communion: Performing Our Anglican Identity know that I used the analogy of the slave Frederick Douglass in examining the Teachers’ views. Douglass’ superior moral location is easy to see. Yet, in seeking his freedom from slavery, Douglass tragically repeated the violence of his oppressors. My claim is that the Teachers’ proposed path to freedom will tragically lead well-meaning conservatives in the Communion to do the same. My challenge is not and has never been to the Teachers’ call for discipline, but to the path of global schism they now affirm.

In this series, I deliver on my promise to read Scripture alongside fellow disciples as we seek to discern God’s will together. In Models of Communion: Performing Our Anglican Identity , I said that this practice of discipleship is one of the important ways we perform our Anglican identity and I want to model what I preach. So in this series I offer my own exegesis (and invite that of others) of the principle passages that inform our understanding of what I have called the tension between our duties of table fellowship and Eucharistic discipline, including the principle one upon which the Teachers rely in making their call for 'biblical separation'. In addition, I hope to explore in this series how our received tradition as Anglicans informs our understanding of this same subject. Finally, I explain in clear language why I believe the particular solution some have proposed is schismatic, why I suggest that represents a serious threat to our Christian identity, and, finally, point to the form a non-schismatic path would seem to have.

One of the goals of Models of Communion: Performing Our Anglican Identity was to show that differences between Communion-minded persons and these Teachers are not merely differences in tactics or levels of tolerance of persecution or heresy (as some suggest), but are deeply theological and indeed rooted in our different readings of the Bible. So, although we both confess Scripture as the two-testament witness to the Word that is Lord of our life together, we disagree fundamentally on what that Word is and what its implications are for us in terms of how we are to maintain the unity of the Body. I have suggested that those differences in biblical interpretation lead us to different responses in our current crisis. I am thankful that Dr. Stephen Noll heard this claim in my essay and amplified it for us all to consider. My hopes in offering my own exegetical presentation alongside the Teachers’ are, first, that some will be persuaded that the concerns of their fellow evangelicals are valid, and second, that those who remain un-persuaded will at minimum begin to trust that the opposition of Communion-minded persons to global schism may in fact be deeply rooted in a reading of Scripture, even if it is a reading different from their own. I say this with the obvious qualification that what I offer is solely my own reading of Scripture, and I do not suggest that the exegesis I offer is the consensus of Communion Conservatives. To be clear, this is my own work, based on what I have learned from my many mentors in Christ.

But first two points of clarification. My central claim is that a militant politics of 'liberation from Canterbury and TEC' ensnares us in behaviors that contradict our identity in Christ and therefore lead us astray. Some may think that by this I oppose those who leave TEC. That is absolutely not my focus. Decisions by individuals about where or how they will pursue discipleship are not the focus of this series; rather, the concerns I raise have to do with those who claim a biblical warrant to re-structure the Church through schism. My challenge is to those who teach that Anglicanism is now faced with a choice between heresy and schism, implying that one can become a schismatic without becoming a heretic. My opposition is focused squarely on the suggestion that we may solve our crisis faithfully by dividing the church along global lines and by abandoning Canterbury as our focus of unity.

The second clarification is a plea that we retire permanently that old canard. The reality is that there is great misery and deep anxiety among conservatives in North America for good reason. As Ephraim Radner recently wrote, 'If the Church “expresses” something at present, it is primarily sin and rebellion.' I am deeply aware that it is offensive to those suffering because of our particular form of rebellion when they hear what sounds like a plea to passively accept the consequences of our sin in the grand quest for unity. They want relief from the brokenness of their local church and diocese now! They know instinctively that such sin must be resisted. As Ched Meyers notes, 'We may rightly be suspicious of theologies of reconciliation that promote Christian unity at the price of political silence.' Contrary to the repeated refrain that 'They want us to surrender to heretics', I am aware of no Communion-minded person who advocates political silence. Communion-minded persons like myself advocate nothing less than a rigorous discipline in our current crisis – within the bounds of what faith and our Anglican forms of governance allow. Repeatedly, we have insisted that the church’s mechanisms for the discipline of heresy and notorious sin be followed. Let me point especially to the work of the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI), whose work in this regard has been tireless. I encourage skeptics to check the facts. In 2004, the ACI published its own recommendations for the handling of our current crisis in a book called Communion and Discipline. You may download a PDF version of that book here at no cost. Read it! You will find there an excellent explanation of how the church has historically wrestled with similar crises, what options are in fact available to our leadership, and what specific proposals for discipline the ACI made in 2004. The ACI has maintained a consistent stance on this in the ensuing years, always calling the church to wrestle with the reality of our own sin and rebellion against God by maintaining prudential church order.

These two clarifications introduce the two themes that will arise repeatedly in this series. The first is that the description of the choice before as a choice between heresy and schism is a false choice that leads us astray. The second is the theme that has animated so much of the efforts of Communion - minded scholars, clergy, and laity to keep us rigorously theological in responding to our current crisis: the theme that discipline – rightful resistance to false teachings within the church – must be through our Instruments of Unity if we are to make the claim that we ourselves are acting faithfully.

With these themes in mind, I turn to our task of reading Scripture together. As I present my own exegetical account to be read by the community of faith alongside the Teachers’, I believe it will become evident that there is strong Scriptural support for my emphasis on these themes.

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