The more determined men become to despise the teaching of Christ, the more zealous should godly ministers be to assert it and the more strenuous their efforts to preserve entire. And more than that, by their diligence to ward off Satan’s attack.
Looking back over my 12 years at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, it is the pastoral ministry at St. Mary’s that really filled my day. In 2001 St. Mary’s had just finished a disastrous decade of in-fighting that saw the membership plunge to barely a quarter of what it was in 1989. This devastating result was due to two rectors in succession being forced out as a result of a conflict between them and St. Mary’s lay leadership. The first conflict between the rector and leadership even descended into a bitter litigation in the secular courts.
What was most disturbing in my early years as Rector was how those same leaders accepted no real responsibility for what had happened, they demonized my predecessors instead. In my first meeting with clergy colleagues they jokingly remarked that they had considered a pool to predict how long I would last. I also discovered how no clergy in the diocese would even consider St. Mary’s for ministry. Now I understood why my simple investigation of the possibility of a return to the USA turned into an offer of St. Mary’s right on the spot.
I remember when I toured the building the day after that life-changing meeting. The building was solid, had a good location, and there was a newly renovated rectory next door. My heart sank as I thought, “Why would they offer this to me so quickly? Something must be seriously wrong here!” After I was briefed on the tragic 1990’s in the drive back to Trenton, the then pragmatic Canon to the Ordinary said, “Well Henry, if it goes wrong think of it like this: it gets you home. You’re established in the Episcopal system and free to search for a healthy parish.”
It took eight years to redirect slowly the church’s culture back to theologically orthodox Christianity, to proclaim the gospel, and to make disciples. All the while I was thinking that the leadership would make me suffer the same fate as my two predecessors. I saw instead the leadership leave St. Mary’s one by one as they walked away from the biblical gospel and from the expectations of a biblical discipleship. The what, why and how of that costly realignment back to biblical orthodoxy is an amazing story of God’s grace for another time.
When the Episcopal Church’s (TEC) 2012 General Convention approved liturgies for same-sex blessings, and our bishop told us that he would allow their use and wanted to know whom of the clergy would decline officiating, I knew that I could put it off no longer. I am a bit red-faced to admit that I had not really examined the biblical and theological implications of the entire same-sex attraction issue until September 2012. When I returned from England in 2001 same-sex attraction was not high on the agenda in the Church of England in which I was ordained and served for over a decade. It took about three years to find my feet again in the States and in the Episcopal Church, a province of the Anglican Communion I really didn’t know at all. Add the eight year challenge of St. Mary’s to the mix and there was no time left for much else.
I could see that what I was being told to do by those in authority in TEC was to make an equivocation of same-sex attraction with heterosexual attraction. I cannot underscore how significant such an equivocation is and to underscore repeatedly that any biblical and theological investigation concerning sexuality is not an abstract or theoretical one, but it is about real people facing real situations. It must be done soberly and carefully at every step of the way.
I could also see that among the many arguments advanced, the most significant for the long-term life of the Church is that Scripture must now be read differently. No Church can live in integrity if it proclaims loyalty to the Scripture, but then ignores Scripture when faced with new proposals for her life. Those who would argue for this change to equivocation know that they must convince the Church that Scripture as it has been read is mistaken.
As I jotted down some preliminary notes I wrote, “There are two competing hermeneutics at work here that are incompatible.” In other words, there were certain thought patterns and questions that kept emerging in the articles that I read in how the Scripture is interpreted that I soon realized it was necessary for me to trace the argument all the way through to the beginning of the narrative of Scripture and back again to the end.
Why did I need to follow the thread like this? Think of it like simple arithmetic: 2+2=4. Let me set it up for you using the order of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer in this formula:
Man’s Need + God’s Rescue = Our Response
If you change the value of one side of the equals sign, you change the values of the other side as well. When I am asked to equivocate same-sex attraction with heterosexual attraction, it is a conclusion. I am tampering not just with how we in the Christian life are restored in Jesus Christ (the ‘sum’ side of the equal sign), but also how we are rescued in Jesus Christ and what precisely was our original state and subsequent fallen condition that necessitated that rescue in the first place.
So that is where I began. I asked the question: “How does the Scripture describe our fallen condition?” By answering this question I would also answer what our condition was prior to the fall and that would at least give me a preliminary list of what is restored in Jesus Christ.
Next time we will look at our fallen condition.