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A Conversation with Bishop Allison on the Church - by Dr. Ephraim Radner

A Conversation with Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison on the Church

By Dr. Ephraim Radner

Bishop FitzSimons Allison has done me the honor and blessing of
addressing serious questions to me about the church’s history and
calling. It is an honor, because his own witness to the Christian faith
and on behalf of our church’s faithfulness is one of such substance and
informed care that any public disagreement on his part with me
represents the offer to become a part of a conversation colored by
evangelical integrity. It is a blessing, because the character of
clarity his own questions to me advance and the grace with which they
are raised can only elevate the quality of my reply and, I would guess,
of the thinking of those listening in.

Bishop Allison was responding, in part, to a lecture I gave several
weeks ago at an Anglican Communion Institute conference in Charleston.
In general it seems that Bp. Allison is concerned that I am promoting a
kind of weak resistance to heresy in our church, because I have called
such resistance to be accountable to strict standards of humility,
order, and – as far as possible! – unity. This has led him to label my
position “pacifistic” in a negative sense, because it is fraught with a
lack of realism and perhaps even of sturdiness. (As with pacifists, he
seems glad I am alive and kicking, but equally grateful that I have not
been cloned!) There are times, the Bishop insists, when faithful
“disobedience” and “separation” are called for in defense of the Gospel
– the times of the Reformation, for instance, of the English Civil War,
and even today within the Episcopal Church and other parts of the
Anglican Communion. If the proponents of truthful Christian teaching
were to follow, or to have followed in the past, my lead (or at least my
argument), Bp. Allison suggests, the Church and the world would be a far
less happy and Christianity truthful place – mired in political
absolutism and ecclesial sin – and we would have little hope of
maintaining the Gospel’s faithful preaching within Anglicanism today.

On one level, it is hard for me to refute this argument: after all, what
“might” have been the case (say, if the Reformation or the Civil War in
England had happened differently if at all) and what “will” be the case
(that is, what Anglicanism will become if we do this or that), are both
unknowns in an almost complete sense. I can only respond on the basis of
both my reading of the Gospel itself in the divine Scriptures, and on an
analysis of the present as it has been birthed from the past. On both
counts, I must state as strongly as possible my disagreement with Bishop
Allison’ basic objection, that is, that humility, order, and the
presumption of unity are and have been subversive of the honest defense
of the faith against heresy. Indeed, I can think of no other basis for
the Gospel’s effective preaching than humility, order, and the
presumption and pursuit of unity as they form the vessel of the truth’s
enunciation. So it does appear that we see things very differently!

And the difference touches upon realities that impinge immediately upon
our common and individual life with God: how we are to witness to the
Gospel entrusted to us; where and how and with whom we are to resist
contradictions to that Gospel, made even in the midst of our ecclesial
family and by our highest leaders; how congregations and their members
(the wise and foolish, the great and the small) are to be cared for and
led; how clergy are to keep their vows made before God and man; what
mission we are to pursue and how offer Good News in Christ within the
context of publicly compromised church structures; how maintain our hope
and the godly docility of our souls when mired in endless controversy.
The stakes are awfully high for us all.

There is no secret that groups with which we are engaged in these
matters – like the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI) or the Anglican
Communion Dioceses and Parishes with which I am associated, and the
Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) which Bishop Allison helped found (as
he did ACI’s original work!) -- have given different answers to these
questions, sometimes in ways that were critical of each other (certainly
I have been critical of the AMiA, for instance). In this case, the
critique offered by Bishop Allison of my own practical outlook in the
midst of the present crisis represents an opportunity to bring clarity
to each of our respective sets of responses, in a way that takes
seriously the challenges with which we are faced.

I will reply to the bishop in three stages (and all very incompletely).
First, and within the context of the lecture to which he refers, I will
try to reiterate the notion of “ad hoc resistance”, and its appropriate
limits. Second, and more generally, I will outline my sense of what is
meant by being “a church under God’s judgment”, including the example of
Cromwell Bishop Allison raises for our edification. Finally, I want to
return briefly to the practical realities of our calling in the present.

Varieties of resistance and their limits

So let me first address the actual matter of the lecture to which Bishop
Allison refers. It seems, in reading his otherwise generous summary,
that I either did not make my points clear enough, or that he has
perhaps missed some of them along the way. In any case, I must emphasize
that the purpose of my extended example of the experience of the
“refractory” Catholic church during the time of the French Revolution
was certainly not to argue that our calling as Christians in the face of
heresy and persecution for the truth’s sake is to submit to uselessness.
Rather, the purpose of my outline, within the context of the more
scriptural aspects of the lecture, was to emphasize how we are called in
such circumstances to submit to God’s ordering of effect (and
effectiveness), by maintaining the integrity of our witness through a
variety of ad hoc embodiments that we understand and accept to be
limited by our own responsibilities for the church’s low estate.

Indeed, the character of divine judgment (as many see it) constituted by
the whole-scale assault upon the Christian truth represented by
Revolutionary policies and practices at that time made any notion of a
well-organized strategy of resistance, focused upon a specific practical
outcome of victory for the forces of orthodoxy, impossible and probably
stubborn (and there were some such strategies held by émigré groups in
England and elsewhere). There were, of course, many heroically faithful
Christians who resisted the Revolution’s anti-Christian assaults. But
they were and had been part of a church which for a long time had so
opposed God’s will through its hypocrisies and oppressions and even
outright denials of the Gospel, that the Revolution’s eventual attempt
to destroy her, driven at the beginning by many justified concerns,
necessarily spilt blood upon the hands even of her lately-come defenders
as they rose up to resist. (The analogy with the present state of the
Episcopal Church and of Western Christianity is one I drew directly.)

I listed a number of these ad hoc forms of resistance, from open
rebellion against the government (e.g. in the Vendée and elsewhere) to
hiding, from flight and exile to clandestine preaching and
pamphleteering, from silent martyrdom to vociferous denunciation. To the
degree that none of these actions took upon itself the mantle of divine
destiny, and to the degree that their outcomes – in every case minimal
in effect as it turned out – were pursued and received with a kind of
limited demand, they were, in a religious sense, practicable options,
faithfully chosen according to the needs and capacities of the fractured
and disorganized forces of orthodoxy that were available.

One of these options certainly included agitation, and clearly involved
an array of “disobediences”. Bishop Allison does indeed misunderstand me
if he thinks I believe that “disobedience” is somehow without compelling
purpose in times like these. Moving from the example of the Revolution,
let me turn to another, embodied in an organization with which he is
personally involved, the AMiA: their own practices of leaving churches,
of setting up sometimes competing missions, of overstepping accepted
episcopal and jurisdictional boundaries within and outside the U.S., of
moving forward without carefully calibrated consents – all of these
actions have a certain plausibility as forms of resistance in a kind of
Saul Alinksy-esque way: subverting expectations, unsettling normal means
of doing business, bringing to the surface hypocrisies and incongruities
within the church’s political structures, kindling public awareness and
focusing it upon matters of import, and so on. Épater la bourgeoisie,
when in fact the bourgeois power of the church in ECUSA is destroying
its evangelical trust. It is both plausible, and to some extent it has
“worked”, by marshalling lay energies, gaining publicity, exposing the
duplicities of Presiding Bishops and the rest. Although I am not sure
this would be the AMiA’s self-characterization.

But having used this example, I want to be clear at the same time that
none of this, nor any other ad hoc practice of resistance in such times,
can represent a divine “strategy”. Indeed, once one assumes such divine
purpose and imprimatur to these personally chosen acts, they themselves
become tools of destruction. They do so because, if the church is in
fact being judged by God, once one tries to escape such judgment
personally – by fortifying a particular tactic as a kind of “ark”
against the flood – one moves from resisting evil to resisting the
divine judgment against human pride itself, in the midst of which
judgment one ought to be content, in a sense, to abide.

As a secular philosophy of political change, I do not believe that
“civil disobedience” represents a particularly helpful tool for the
analysis of Christian vocation. Indeed, because its purpose is
explicitly to achieve certain results of political reorganization, ones
that (from a Christian perspective ) cannot by definition be possessed
by human means within the context of a divine ordering of events (such
as God’s judgment), such a philosophy is ripe for misuse and frequently
feeds into, however unintentionally, the bottomless well of human
self-assertion. But as a simple form of Christian testimony, that has no
ulterior motive other than to speak clearly in the face of what is evil
or wrong, “disobedience” for the sake of conscience is not only
acceptable, it is often a grace. Nonetheless, I would insist that we
must take deliberate action in order to remain free from the deforming
power of ulterior motives in such disobedience. And a crucial part of
such action must be our submission to disobedience’s effects within the
ordering the church in which one lives and witnesses, that is, within
the ordering of the structures and events that have called forth such
disobedience in the first place and whose judgment one is both embodying
and receiving. Christian disobedience should not entail our own
extrication from the structures against which we are protesting – unless
we assume that we ourselves have no dirty hands, something divine
judgment does not permit. I have, in the past, for instance, encouraged
those – including bishops -- wishing to disobey diocesan boundaries for
the sake of faithful preaching and pastoral care, to do so beneath the
weight of current canon law, and to accept the consequences as they are
so ordered within the life of the church against and within which one is
witnessing. I continue to feel that this is the appropriate way to
disobey, one that takes the order bequeathed as a gift that properly
goads even in our necessary kicking. “Conscientious objection” has a
cost to be openly and explicitly borne.

It is true that the “straight-ahead” theology and practice I advocated
in my lecture, with the example of Paul in the Pastoral Epistles as a
key and using the historical examples I did, is indeed willing to be
“defeated”, as Christian disobedience must be willing. But that is
hardly “defeatist” let alone the “acquiescence” Bishop Allison seems to
hear in my remarks, and I am mystified that he should attribute such an
attitude to me, of all people. If defeated, then only in the process of
resisting in word and in deed, and in many and various ways. And if
defeated, never silenced. And again, if defeated, only in terms of some
organized strategy for prevailing whose shape simply could never in any
case be upheld in human terms, given that the events in which we are
engaged are driven both by human sin and divine response. God’s victory
is always assured, a conviction that is only a platitude for those whose
fear of losing leads them into the closet (a place designed for prayer,
rather than refuge).

Within this context – one of a church under judgment – I am not sure
where the concern with “pacifism” comes from. I know that our own
secular age is deeply suspicious of “passivity”, and all my talk of
“humiliation” and “submission” and “acceptance” grates with a culture
that cannot stomach the attitudes enjoined in, say 1 Peter or Ephesians
5. Still, these are words that have their root within the soil of
Scripture, whose fertility is nourished by the blood of our Lord. His
figure, towering over the landscape of the Church, ours included, is not
one that is easily subsumed into the categories of either pacifism or of
armed resistance, as well we know(e.g. Matt. 10:34 and 26:52). And if
not, we need to be challenged by something other – deeper, more complex
in its spiritual gifts -- than these two contrasting modes of political

An ecclesiology of divine judgment

Of course, much depends in my lecture on the rather simple question of
whether God is in fact judging the church of which we are a part, and on
what is constituted, humanly speaking, by the reality of such a
judgment. This brings me to my second point. The case of Cromwell, which
Bishop Allison raises as an alternative to my own example of the French
Revolution, is instructive in this regard. The issue here – as with the
broader one he touches upon when he worries about my dismissal of the
Reformation – is not whether Cranmer or Cromwell “should” have done what
they did. They did. The Reformation, as well as Cromwell and the English
Revolution of the mid-17th –century, are facts of our life, and part of
the patrimony we have received. They constitute my “family history” as
much as others’, and I have no desire to disassociate myself from them.
Further, the Reformation and the Civil War are parts of a large web of
moral and religious responsibility, a web that ensnares the Roman
Catholic Church and the Anglicanism of which I am an heir. In light of
this web of responsibility, the issue is not my likes or dislikes about
historical realities, but what we can learn from them, divinely and
practically. With the Reformation and with Cromwell, then, what are we
to apprehend?

My consistent argument over these past years has been that we discern
the divine reality of these events – and others like them today such as
we are now going through – through the lens of the Scriptural figures
that embody them from within God’s historical grammar: that is, from
Israel herself. And sinful, rebellious, and finally “divided” Israel
opens up to us, in a real way, the secret purposes of God at work in the
world, in this particular context of apostasy and response. What we see
in the figure of these purposes, I would argue, is the process of divine
judgment by which the sinfulness of Israel is compounded by a cascading
blindness and stubbornness, and by which responsibility is shared across
leaders and peoples, prophets, priests, and kings, who are all given
over to a process of truth-denying and truth-speaking the persuasiveness
of which is intrinsically compromised. And to what end does this history
unfold? For the refashioning of a people’s heart and thereby of their
ears; and through their refashioning, for a rediscovery of the oneness
that reconciliation, given as a gift by God, entails.

The Old Testament lectionary reading of this past Sunday (Epiphany 3),
from Nehemiah 8, represents the end point of this figural revelation
that is given “for us” today (1 Cor. 10:11): after 500 years of division
and demise, Israel learns as a people to confess and repent, and in
this, to be reconciled to God as a single people and witness. It is that
simple. And this confession and repentance gathers up a scattered heart,
the heart of people and leaders together, into a spirit of humbled
recommitment that provides the frame by which the Law is read anew to
Israel by Ezra. Their sorrow, their remorse, their sense of
responsibility acknowledged and accepted and uttered – it leads the
people to tears, but also it opens the people’s ear to the Law itself,
and allows for its reception finally with a joy not previously known for
half a millennium.

The reality of this work of God in judging Israel – and the Church! –
does not preclude, over 500 years, prophecy; it does not preclude
righteous castigation; it does not preclude the imposition of
discipline; it does not preclude rebuke; it does not preclude at times
the testimony of resistance to powers – all things Bishop Allison
mistakenly seems to think I have ruled out from the start. But because
God’s judgment – and all our actions within it -- aims most especially
at repentance of heart by a people (that must, perforce, include
myself), it cannot seek some new division any more than it can seek a
novel escape; and within division, however it may have come (for it will
come, though woe to the one by whom it comes), it finds its rest only in
the search for a conversion of the self to a truth we know ourselves, on
some level, still to be blinded towards. Whatever the ad hoc varieties
of resisting strategies we adopt, we know that in God’s judgment we
must, in a real way, “die”, die to our “old nature” and our “old man”,
that we may, buried with Him, become made new in Christ Jesus.

Does all this somehow smell too much of “death” and the “masochistic”
love of death? Or might it not be the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15), a
“sweet smelling sacrifice” of self-giving (Eph. 5:2)?

Thus, the example of Cromwell that Bishop Allison raises is a
provocative one, given the Protector’s anti-Anglicanism. Still, I accept
in part the point being made: the benefits to our political life that
arose from the events surrounding the 17th-century Commonwealth are
enormous, and they pass indirectly to the blessings of the American
Constitution. But so too was the retrieval of the Law by the exiled
Israelites a blessing. For God’s judgment is merciful, always and in
every way. (So too with Cranmer and the Reformation, something I am
grateful to acknowledge: I am blessed by the rod of His chastisement
even here, one that has bloomed with all the blossoms Bishop Allison
enumerates!) But it was judgment, nonetheless, that Cromwell’s armies
enacted – and it is not clear that God’s providential judgments are to
be the models for our Christian callings, however flowered they may
appear from a distance! God forbid! In any case, it was a judgment made,
so it appears in retrospect, on Anglican and Non-conformist religion
together. And this last point needs emphasis.

We are in the realm of disputed historical criticism, I grant, but I
would venture to say that the experience of Civil War – including its
prelude and denouement, whose responsibilities are well-distributed – so
tainted the reputation of religious commitment in England that it marked
the evisceration of Protestantism’s vitality in Britain until the
present (with some obvious and time-limited exceptions). We are all
Cromwell’s children today; but our elder sibling in this genealogy from
the Commonwealth is less the courageous Christian confessor in the face
of religious tyranny, than it is Adam Smith, both commercially and
theologically, a fact that explains the long process of defanging
Christian belief that has now embraced America with such vigor. A
religiously vapid society, deliberately domesticated through a plethora
of sapped sects (something Smith envisioned with thanksgiving) is a
safer place to live when in the shadow of religious fanatics – Anglican
and Non-Conformist together! This is the gift of the 17th-century we
also labor to enjoy. (Michael Winship’s 1996 Seers of God provides a
fascinating account of how Restoration religion in England – reacting to
the Civil War and Commonwealth – worked to de-divinize a world proven
violent and dangerous because of religion, and how English
co-religionists shared this secularizing reaction with American

Some practical considerations

Perhaps all of this is too historically abstruse and theologically
abstract. Both Bishop Allison and I – and many others, as he knows – are
engaged in practical responses to our church’s disarray and failures.
This is the basis on which he criticizes my lecture: my admonitions are
impractical because they somehow forego praxis for the sake of vague
theological reasons. But I want to stress that it is just because we
lack a sufficiently vital theological framework – such as an
ecclesiology of divine judgment! – that our practical efforts will
themselves become instruments of further judgment. Our souls are at
stake in the way that we decide how to act in the face of, in this case,
ECUSA’s rampant apostasy. Chuck Murphy, in a published interview with
David Virtue, accused me of somehow advocating and pursuing a “tactic
without a theology”. I would place that charge back in his lap. For this
is precisely what I am afraid we will all end up doing, if the theology
we adopt as the template for our practical discernment does not begin
fundamentally with a Scriptural framework that can unveil the postures
of our own demanded ecclesial penitence: all of our tactics, whether
agitation or quiescence, disobedience or conformity, will become the
idols of a magnified hubris if we refuse to hold ourselves accountable,
through all the various orders and structures in which we live and
against which we must now protest actively, to the humbling hand of God
aimed even at ourselves. Do we not already see an expansion of human
pride taking place among us? And if we do not, many outside the church
most certainly do.

In any case, I do not believe that the activism implied by humility,
order, and the presumption of unity denies the truth of God in Christ
Jesus, or of the Scriptures of Christ, or of the Church of Christ, now
lying in a state of ruin. It calls for repentance, surely, but also
truth-speaking. It calls for subjection to the power of the world, even
while contending with their pretense. It calls finally, for the seeking
of a unitive way of making decisions – what has been called
“conciliarity” as far as possible given the broken and divided character
of the Christian Church – which in Anglicanism thrusts us over into the
realms of Lambeth, Primates, and other instruments of unity that have
stood as a constraint upon and now a positive alternative to the
autonomous character deeply rooted within rebellious Christianity in
every age. This conciliar seeking is a way of living in hope; it is
strong in faith, and supple in charity. Finally, the kind of activism I
would encourage is grounded in what some have called an attitude of
“exposure”: risking disdain, misunderstanding, punishment, and apparent
defeat, not out of cowardice surely, nor out of some misplaced idealism,
but because “he has left us an example” (1 Peter 2:21), by which we too
might learn to “trust in him who judges justly” (v.23).

Groups like the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI), which I am grateful
to represent, have tried (with whatever imperfect results) to hold
together some of these callings: we are trying to be held accountable
for our own failures; we are working for the international discipline of
wayward leaders in ECUSA and the internal reordering of pastoral care
and oversight where needed; we are steadfastly seeking a conciliar means
of discerning and implementing these actions; we are trying to act
transparently and without erecting structures of self-protection within
the orders of our various churches around the world. People like Prof.
Christopher Seitz, Dean Philip Turner, and Kendall Harmon have indeed
been models of this vocation, if burdened at times by my own and others’
missteps. There is no grand ecclesiology behind this, according to which
the sheep and the goats can be separated easily in fact, even though
sheepliness and goatishness are realities that haunt and inform our
self-awareness, as they must for all of us. I am grateful the Bishop
Allison recognizes some of this; but I regret that he does not share in
our sense of the calling’s inescapable joy.

For in the end, there is something perverse in labeling as “masochistic”
the desire to seek after a resistance that is humble, ordered, and
presumptive of unity (to whatever extent and with whatever
shortcomings). We are not jumping off cliffs or burning down our homes
like the Dukhobors; we are not wallowing in the filth of our opponents’
corruptions and scraping our scabs. (My own personal models are,
pragmatically, Edmund Burke and theologically, Antoine Arnauld, neither
of whom took things lying down, even if the latter ended his days in
exile.) We are protesting, pastoring, engaging, organizing, pleading,
rebuking and being rebuked, encouraging and becoming at times
discouraged ourselves, wrestling and writing, praying and discerning,
worshiping and crying out. There is no extraordinary virtue in this, nor
perhaps any vast horizon drawn upon which to rebuild the church. But we
do act in a way that is willing, in this small compass, to claim the
promise of our hopes’ redemption. Our God reigns! Yea, from a Cross, and
even with the pledge of a resurrection to be shared with us “as we
become like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).

Let me close with an observation. There has been some concern expressed
that conservatives are wearying themselves with internal arguments among
themselves, thereby both squandering the force of their own witness and
sullying their reputation in a time of crisis. There is some basis for
this concern, and for reasons connected to matters I have spoken of
above. But there is another, more positive side to this reality as well:
in our discussions and even mutual criticisms, we are at least trying to
hold ourselves accountable to one another, to think through and be
corrected, to be challenged and theologically expanded. Would that the
revisionist leaders of our tottering church could be immersed in the
same bracing call to responsible thought and its often unsettling
context of conversation! I am indeed grateful that Bishop Allison can
help keep me honest, hard though the task is for each of us.


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