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KISSING JUDASES: How the Episcopal leaders have betrayed their own faith

KISSING JUDASES: How the Episcopal leaders have betrayed their own faith and why it matters to all of us

(Special to VirtueOnline)

By Os Guinness

“What I think,” said a Scottish wag, “is what the Lord would think if he knew the facts of the matter.” Clearly it is no new thing to think that we know better than God. But a novel feature of the modern world is the rash of religious leaders attempting to “correct” or “improve on” God, to show where God has “changed his mind and now agrees with them,” or at least to make clear where they think he ought to if he were as up to date as they are.

In some circles the trend has achieved Alice in Wonderland levels of surrealism. What would we think of a nation that installed a pothead as its drug czar? Or an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter that appointed an unreformed boozer to lead its meetings? Or an army that was led by a convinced pacifist as its general? Yet a routine spectacle of our age is the agile contortions of religious leaders openly denying what their faiths once believed, celebrating what their faiths once castigated, and advancing views once closer to their foes than their founders—and still staying on as leaders of those faiths, as if it were all in a day’s work.

This theme of correcting, improving, updating, reinterpreting, reinventing, and streamlining ideas about God emerged as a powerful and deliberate movement in the Christian church in the eighteenth century, in response to Enlightenment attacks on faith and Enlightenment views of progress. Faith, it was said, had to be made more rational, more modern, and above all “more relevant.” By the nineteenth century, the trend in some circles had gone so far that a reaction was heard—voices crying out that the pursuit had gone to absurd lengths, and the result was a self- defeating, a sell-out of faith that was spiritually and culturally suicidal.

For when the leaders of a faith deny the heart of the faith and advocate positions long considered antithetical to its views, and still remain its leaders, what does it say of the fidelity of the leaders and the integrity and authority of the faith? Some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century, from across the Western world, were among the voices warning of the church’s stupidity in trying to improve on God’s ways, or of the insanity of trendy clerics fatuously sawing off the branch of faith on which they were sitting.

From Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” is the best known example of the former. At its heart is the Inquisitor’s brazen claim to the returning Jesus that the Church knew better than its founder, “We have corrected Your work . . . Why have You come now to hinder us?” From Denmark, Søren Kierkegaard’s blistering attacks on “established Christendom” are a powerful example of the second. For instance, his satire “Fishers of man” mercilessly skewered the church’s attempts to get beyond the simple-mindedness of Jesus and his provincial followers to develop a corporation-sized “man-fishery” big enough to compete in the age of industry and mass production.

Yet another example, less well known and this time from America, is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Rail-road.” Taking off from John Bunyan’s celebrated seventeenth-century classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Hawthorne recounts a dream in which he retraces Pilgrim’s original journey to the Celestial City two centuries later on. Instead of the loneliness of Bunyan’s ragged pilgrim on his dangerous journey with the burden on his back, he finds “parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood, setting forth toward the Celestial City as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour.”

And instead of loyal companions such as Faithful, he travels with Mr. Smooth-it-away, as suave a variety of reinvented churchmanship as anyone could find this side of an open fraud. So Hawthorne parodies the much-heralded improvements to faith made by the comfortably modern worthies of the Victorian church, and opens our eyes to its significance.

Controversial but crucial

Why on earth do these old stories matter now? And why do they matter for people who don’t take faith seriously at the heart of their lives? The year 2003 has witnessed an event in the Episcopal Church in the United States that brought all these issues to life in a way that is vital, not just for Episcopalians or even for Christians, but for all the citizens of the United States and the West at large. That sounds an absurd claim, but let me explore it further.

In November 2003, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America consecrated as bishop an avowed homosexual who had divorced his wife, left his family, and was living openly with his homosexual lover. The basic facts of the story are plain: First, the decision was a radical new departure in the Christian church—at the stroke of a vote, what for 2,000 years had been viewed as “sin” was transformed into something claimed to be “sacramental.”

Second, the decision parted company with the clear positions of the other great Abrahamic religions (Orthodox Judaism and Islam).

Third, the American Episcopal leaders made their decision in open disregard for the majority in their own worldwide Anglican communion, the vast majority of whom disagreed radically, and some of whom faced immediate persecution because of it (American Episcopalians are 3 percent of the approximately 75 million of Anglicans around the world).

Fourth, the decision defied the clear opposition of other historic Christian traditions, with some of whom there had been decades of talk of shared communion (such as Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Southern Baptists). Fifth, it repudiated the almost unanimous voice of Christian teaching and tradition throughout history. Sixth, and most importantly, it flouted the authority and the plain sense of the teaching of the Scriptures.

In sum, in the name of progress the leaders of the American Episcopal Church disregarded all the authorities of their own communion, Anglicanism, with as blatant a disregard as they could possible have done. If these basic facts are clear, the basic responses to the decision are also beyond dispute, for like all strong controversies, the decision provoked sharply different responses, both among Christians around the world and the wider watching public.

For liberals and revisionist believers on one side, the consecration was a small step forward for Bishop Gene Robinson and a giant step forward for enlightened progress in sexual freedom in the Christian church at large. For traditional and orthodox believers on the other side, who look to the Bible and the Reformation for their standards, the confirmation of the homosexual bishop was the beginning of the end of the American Episcopal Church, and a disaster of historic proportions. The Episcopal leaders deliberately broke the bonds of their own communion and took themselves outside. One person’s celebration was therefore another person’s sorrow.

Reinterpreting the faith, the liberals said, was appropriate, essential and entirely positive. The rest of the church would eventually see the light and catch up with the new advance. Why on earth is this controversy significant, whether for Christians of other traditions, believers of other faiths, and above all why is it significant for the wider group of citizens who make no profession of faith?

What is wrong with reinterpreting a faith for every new generation and situation? No faith, no freedom. Let me be absolutely plain. The core issue is not the national standing of the American Episcopal Church; though it stands historically as a bridge between the other Protestant churches and the Church of Rome, and despite its small numbers it has a disproportionate influence in the American elites and has included many American presidents among its adherents.

Nor is the core issue homosexuality, though the confirmation was openly touted as a key milestone on the gay activists’ long march through the institutions toward the goal of complete legitimacy in America. The confirmation of a homosexual bishop was only the catalyst, not the cause, of the crisis. Nor is the issue the treatment of the press, though as so often the tone deafness of many reporters toward matters of faith has once again been embarrassingly plain.

The core issue of the Episcopal controversy is the authority of faith in the modern world—let faith be faith. And surprisingly this issue carries immense significance not only for Christians but for people of all faiths and for all Western citizens to day. There are two major questions behind the controversy, one setting the issue in the context of the wider Western culture, and the other setting the issue in the context of the integrity and independence of the Christian faith.

First, why does faith of any kind matter to wider Western society today? Surely the day of faith is long over. Surely the election of bishops, whether gay or straight, is a private matter for Christians and no concern to people of other faiths or people with no faith at all. Can’t we just leave things to the A.C.L.U. and its secular-puritan allies to clear away all remaining traces of religion in public life?

It may sound odd in a secular age, and it will certainly be uncomfortable for those aware of the evils and excesses of religion in the past, but the point must not be ducked: There is an essential link between faith and freedom. Eminent historians of civilization, such as Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson, the former agnostic and the latter Roman Catholic, agree on one thing.

There has never yet been a great civilization that was not inspired by the vision and values that were the product of the faith at its core, and when this faith, and vision and values, declined, so also did the civilization. As Churchill said, “It is bad for a nation when it is without faith.” President Eisenhower agreed, “Freedom itself means nothing, unless there is faith.”

In the case of Western civilization, there is no question that the leading sources of distinctive Western ideas and institutions are the Jewish and Christian faiths—or as Nietzsche called the Christian faith, “Judaism for the multitudes.”

For all the growth of skepticism, secularism, and an exploding variety of other faiths, it is still true that the Christian faith has been the faith of most ordinary people in the West over the past two thousand years; that it is the wellspring of the most appealing features of the West, such as the tradition of reforms and the culture of giving and caring; and that it is the direct or indirect source of most of the most decisive institutions in the West—most notably the universities, science, capitalism, democracy, and human rights. In the American case, the historic relationship of faith and freedom is closer still—not so much despite as because of disestablishment.

The framers’ foundational triangle of assumptions expresses this link perfectly: “Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith (of some sort). And faith requires freedom.” There is thus a wager at the heart of what George Washington called “the Great experiment.”

On the one hand, freedom requires ultimate beliefs, for otherwise there will be no roots to the rights by which freedom flourishes.

On the other hand, the American republic rejects any official, national formulation of what those ultimate beliefs may be, for here the constitutional separation of church and state is most radical and daring. There is therefore no American orthodoxy or heresy. The republic and its enduring freedom depend on the “best” beliefs prevailing in free, fair, open, debate in the public square.

Crisis of authority

If there truly is a link between faith and freedom, the massive crisis of authority in European and American faith is of momentous cultural significance. In Europe, there are only two countries—Poland and Ireland—where Christians are more than a practicing minority now; and that may not be true of Ireland much longer.

Culturally speaking, the Christian faith in Europe is effectively vanquished at both the elite and the popular levels, at least for the moment, and the ensuing chaos and uncertainty over faiths in private and public life is a major drag on the unfettered future of the European Union.

In the United States, the indicators of belief are still strong at the popular level. Indeed, because of the brilliance of the First Amendment, the U.S. is stubbornly out of line with most modern countries. Whereas most European countries have a confirmed secularity today that is in direct relationship to their corrupt state churches yesterday, the First Amendment has prohibited established religion and therefore prevented widespread antipathy toward religion in America—until the rise of the religious right in the last generation.

Thus whereas other countries have become less religious as they have become more modern, the U.S. is the most modern as well as the most religious of modern countries. But this is not the whole story. First, there is little faith or respect for faith among the major American elites, especially the thought leaders and opinion shapers.

Thus the American elites and their institutions are as much lost to faith as is Europe as a whole. Second, the outcome of the culture wars in the last generation has been to choke off free expressions of faith in public life. However wise and careful the spokesmen of faith are—and many spokesmen of the religious right have been anything but—they have routinely been dismissed as “extreme” and “intrusive.”

Third, this external problem has been reinforced by the internal changes and corruptions in the churches themselves, so that for the first time in American history there is no Christian tradition with unchallenged moral authority in the public square. Protestant liberalism lost its authority after the 1960s, having chased every idea with skirts and ending up with no authority or independent voice.

Evangelicalism has squandered its authority steadily over the past thirty years, through its scandals, public follies, and perceived extremism. And now in the last few years the homosexual scandals in the priesthood and the hierarchy have opened the Roman Catholic Church to the charge that it is a protection racket for pedophiles, with the worst disgraces found among its highest leaders.

Many people predicted that a silver lining of September 11 would be a healthy new recognition of the place of faith in personal and public life. Issues such as evil, death, suffering, and the brevity of life were essentially religious. The instinctive resort was to faith and a religiously tinged patriotism (“God bless America”), and even the most secular thinkers were reminded of the power of religion in the world at large.

Yet the opposite happened. In the two years since 9/11, a huge shift in the landscape concerning religion in public life has slowly frozen into place, at least among highly educated people. Faith is now the culprit. The real issue, it is said, was not terrorism but “religious totalitarianism.” And the problem is not just Islam, but Judaism, the Christian faith, and any faith that makes “absolute” or “exclusive” claims.

Never mind that we have just left the most murderous century in all history; and that more people in the twentieth century were killed under secularist regimes than in all the religious persecutions in history. Never mind that atheism is as intellectually “totalitarian” as the Jewish and Christian faiths. The mantra is agreed and need only be repeated.

Religion is the problem.

At best faith must be strictly private; at worst religion is pathological, and a severe menace to free societies. Need I point out that if historians such as Toynbee and Dawson are right, and if the great American framers such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison are right, inevitable national consequences will follow the final severing of faith and freedom?

The story of freedom carries a simple lesson: It is always harder to be free than not to be free, which is why freedom never lasts long on its own. Thus, just as two and two make four, and only four—never five or seven or ten—so the erosion of faith, vision, and values, will eventually spell decline for our nations and our civilization. The choices are ours and our children’s. So also will be the consequences.

But we need to be clear why the authority of the faiths that have shaped us is not a matter of casual importance. The follies and foibles of church leaders—and rabbis, mullahs, and leaders of other faiths—are of far wider significance than just their own small communities.

If all faiths have leaders cut from the same cloth as the wearers of the Episcopal purple, the prospects for the West are bleak. Letting faith be faith is vital for us all.

Kissing Judases

The second major question applies more to those who take their faith seriously, or to interested observers. Why are certain modern reinterpretations of faith such a menace to faith’s authority? Surely there is nothing wrong with reinterpreting faith, and trying to make it ever more relevant. Surely faithfulness does not have to entail old-fashionedness.

Again let me be absolutely clear. The problem is not relevance itself. Jesus himself spoke of new wineskins for his new wine, and down the centuries no religion in history has been more enterprising and innovative than the Christian faith in translating itself freshly yet faithfully across the various borders of time and geography.

Followers of Jesus believe his way is nothing if not relevant. They believe the gospel is “good news”—in fact “the best news ever”—because it meets the needs of every person and addresses the issues of every generation. The issue, then, is not relevance itself, but a modern view of relevance based on faulty views of time and progress that becomes transient, trendy, and worst of all for faith— unfaithful. Behind the discussion of relevance is a challenge. Jesus of Nazareth called his followers to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

Unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, which are characteristically world-denying, the Christian faith is world-affirming. But unlike Confucianism and humanism, which are characteristically world- affirming, the Christian faith is also world-denying. In other words, the Christian is uniquely “double-edged” or “bifocal” in its vision. It is world-affirming and world-denying at once; and its proven cultural strength comes from its stance in being “against the world, for the world.”

Needless to say, Christians have never maintained this stance perfectly. Down the centuries, some became too worldly and others too other-worldly. But the rise of the modern world represented an enormous shift in the traditional alignments. Such is the power, pervasiveness, and pressure of the modern industrialized world that the world-denying stance has become rare, and the world-affirming stance has become a recipe for compromise and surrender.

In particular, the modern world has reinforced the dramatic impact of clocks and clock time on our awareness, so that we have a disdain for the past and a fixation with the future and with every change and sign of progress purported to be taking us there. Take the three aspects of time—past, present, and future. According to traditional wisdom, the past is the easiest and most important part to understand, the present the most difficult, and the future quite impossible. But under the influence of the modern world we have reversed this wisdom, so that now we ignore the wisdom of the past, exaggerate our knowledge of the present, and presume to speak accurately of our knowledge of the future when quite simply we can’t.

The result is our fatuous modern fixation with the future. “The future is history,” we are told. “Tomorrow just happened.” “Join us or be left behind.” With breathless pronouncements like these, our only hope is to keep in touch and keep on top of the emerging trends with the help of every friendly futurist we can find. Ideally, we are to become lifelong subscribers to bulletins on emerging trends, and live as permanent members of reception committees formed for the fans of the glorious coming Future.

We are to be devotees of a creed whose articles affirm, “The newer, the truer,” and “The latest is greatest.” Above all, we are to shun like the plague the stigma of being “reactionary,” “irrelevant,” and “out of date.” Makeovers, revisions, reinventing, and being progressive are the order of the day. The first siren voice to call in this direction was the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in the eighteenth century, and his laudable plea for reaching “the cultured despisers of the gospel.”

The trouble was, Protestant liberals who followed him not only reached the “cultured despisers,” they became like them, and sired more of them. Since then the extremes of Protestant liberalism, with its heyday in the 1960s, have amounted to the cultural liberalism of their day with little or no Christian remainder.

For in its extremes, the story of liberalism is the story of constant betrayals of allegiance, and of a series of starry-eyed affairs with the philosophical and cultural assumptions of its time. What we need, according to one brave new revisionist Episcopalian bishop, is “a new Christianity for a new world.” In each case it was time to gut the creeds, abandon old images and replace former practices, each one buried in its regulation shroud of caricature.

After all, in the words of the trademark explanation, “It is no longer possible to believe x or y or z.” Trendiness and transience What is wrong with this approach? The lesser weaknesses are obvious.

First, the uncritical pursuit of relevance leads to triviality. Following trends passionately but promiscuously has led many liberals to be trendy. Obsessed with the new, they have produced only novelty. Staggering from one high of excitement to another, they have become jaded and burned- out.

Second, in the pursuit of relevance some liberals have become deceptive—or at least in the name of progress they have promised far more than they have delivered. As George Orwell said, futurism is “the major mental disease of our time.” A quack science, it picks up current trends, projects them into the future, and then pretends that the results are predictions.

Often it is only because liberals hop nimbly from ship to ship with every falling tide that we miss the hollowness of their promises about the last one. Their “new, new offers” are so enticing that we fail to do due diligence and see that their policy of “buy high/sell low” has left them with spiritual poverty and collapsing membership behind their glossy promotions.

Third, the hasty pursuit of relevance has pushed liberals into glaring inconsistencies. The same religious leaders who for forty years, in the name of the third world, have castigated Western political leaders for imperialism, unilateralism, and ethnocentrism—most recently toward Iraq—have been guilty of the grossest high-handedness and the most blatant racism toward their fellow-believers in the same third world.

Fourth, the breathless pursuit of relevance has all too often condemned liberals to transience. With the shelf life of modern ideas shrinking rapidly, liberal relevance is hard-won and short-lived. Many years ago, Dean Inge of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, remarked in words that could be the epitaph for many church leaders, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.”

Fifth, the pursuit of relevance leads all too often to intellectual and moral cowardice. Afraid to challenge the prestige of progress, the lure of the latest, the pull of the politically correct, or—God forbid—to be thought to delay the arrival of the brave, new future, many a liberal has caved in weakly to what they know in their hearts is neither right, nor wise, nor lasting. As the French writer Charles Peguy wrote, “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.”

Death by their own hand

The more serious weaknesses of religious liberalism are more damaging still. First, extreme liberalism abandons the fidelity of faith. Significantly, the Jewish Scriptures always speaks of apostasy as adultery—a form of betrayal or cheating on God as heinous as a husband cheating on his wife. As an observer wrote of the parallel crisis in the Catholic Church, “It is a different and altogether more poignant thing when someone whose calling is to call people to faith no longer hears the call or has the faith.”

The revisionist leaders of the Episcopal Church are openly promiscuous and disloyal in their infidelity to their own beliefs and teaching. Second, extreme liberalism negates the authority of faith. When a modern idea or practice is adopted as normative, and all that contradicts it is abandoned, the day comes when there is no decisive authority in faith and in principle “anything goes.” Today homosexuality; tomorrow bi-sexuality, polygamy, pedophilia, paganism, or whatever the new-new freedom of the hour. The “Sola Scriptura” (by the Scriptures alone) of the Church of England after the Reformation church has been replaced by the “Sola Cultura” (by the culture alone) of the modern church.

The American Episcopal Church today has no authority because it is no longer under authority; either it is its own authority or its sole authority is the shifting winds of fashion. Third, extreme liberalism severs the continuity of faith. Instead of a faith grounded in a word from God that transcends history and spans the generations and continents, the local and the immediate become decisive. Each group is free to “do it their way” according their local and immediate situation, regardless of the faith of our mothers and fathers, the traditions of the running centuries, and the concerns of fellow-believers around the world. And the end result? Chaos and worse— each community of faith becomes the child of its own times and the captive of its own local culture.

The revisionists in the American Episcopal Church today are simultaneously imperialistic toward their fellow-believers throughout the world and abjectly servile in a new cultural captivity to the idols of the contemporary and the local in America society.

Fourth, extreme liberalism destroys the credibility of faith. If the outcome of liberal compromises is a minimizing of the formerly decisive Christian content and a maximizing of the newly decisive contemporary content, there will be an obvious crisis of credibility. There is little distinctively Christian to believe. Is it any accident that almost all the great thinkers who converted to the Christian faith in the last century—from G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis down to distinguished contemporary philosophers—have been attracted to full-blooded orthodoxy, not liberalism?

The watered down gruel of the revisionist gospel is neither satisfying nor sufficiently different from what the intelligent seekers believed before. In the words of Oscar Wilde to a trendy cleric of his day, “I not only follow you, I precede you.”

In the extreme liberal camp of the American Episcopal Church today, there is so little Christian content to believe and so little of anything to disbelieve that believing means next to nothing, and there is no other prospect for the liberal church than massive withering and decay.

Fifth, extreme liberalism obliterates the very identity of faith. When the great truths of the Bible and the creeds are abandoned, and there is no limit to the silliness, dishonesties, or wickedness of the ideas espoused in their place, then the point is reached when there is little identifiably Christian in liberalism—yet liberals are the last to care. To adapt Karl Marx’s comment on the Church of England in Das Kapital, the Episcopal Church “will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39th of its income.” Or in the words of a distinguished English atheist and philosopher, “At that point the creed becomes a way of saying what the infidel next door believes too.”

In the revisionist wing of the American Episcopal Church today, things that matter to the faith, such as truths and traditions, are in tatters; things that remain strong, such as beautiful buildings and endowment funds, do not matter to faith. Soon all that remains of a once proud church will be empty vestments and empty buildings, kept alive by the finances, though not the faith, of the fathers.

Any one who examines the state of the Episcopal Church with theological, historical, and sociological realism must come to a sad conclusion. In the stinging rebuke of Søren Kierkegaard, such faithless believers are “kissing Judases”—they betray Jesus even as they pretend to embrace him, and they and their churches with them come to their death at their own hands.

Astonishingly, that was the fate Abraham Lincoln warned America about too. Addressing the “Young Men’s Lyceum” in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, he dismissed various possible dangers to the country, and highlighted one. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.

As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” For those who ponder history, the link between faith and freedom is inseverable. But if the future of freedom depends upon faith, it is also true that the future of faith depends upon faith’s freedom to be itself. Weak leaders are therefore more deadly to a faith than its worst enemies, for the surest way for faith to die is by its own hands—death by a thousand reinterpretations. The challenge instead is to let faith be faith. It is therefore time and past time to wake up. In such little events as the choice of bishops can the health and destiny of nations be discerned.

--Os Guinness is a writer who lives in McLean, Va. An Englishman, he was born in China where his parents were medical missionaries. He is a graduate of the universities of London and Oxford, where he gained his D Phil in the social sciences. He has written or edited more than twenty books, the latest of which is "Unspeakable -- facing up to evil in an age of genocide and terror." He is a member of Falls Church Episcopal where George Washington once worshipped.

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