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On the Parabolic Interpretation of the AMiA by Dr. Joseph Murphy

On the Parabolic Interpretation of the AMiA

By Dr. Joseph P. Murphy

“Some of the last shall be first and some of the first shall be last,” easily grips us as poetically just, one of the many ironies of the spiritual life as the human approaches the divine.

Recently the Episcopal theologian Ephraim Radner has written a Parable of the AMiA, in which he refers to the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) as a movement in the Church seeking autonomy without accountability, even as it seeks to be obedient in the face of the spurning of God's Word carried out by the Episcopal Church the USA (ECUSA) in their General Convention of 2003 approval, and the subsequent consecration of the active homosexual Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Church. However, Dr. Radner views as simply prosaic what I see as greatly ironic.

Surrounding the creation and establishment of the {AMiA} has been charge and countercharge, innuendo, deceit, treachery, gossip, backbiting, lawsuits, and more. Substitute just about any initiative of value that you'd like in between the braces { } in the sentence above, and chances are it will still be true. To prove this point, and for fun, gather a roomful of Roman Catholics and Orthodox folks, and say out loud, "Henry VIII is the beloved founder of our Church."

Not only are the origins of the movements of God's Spirit surrounded by controversy evident in the life of Jesus, Athanasius, Luther, Cranmer, Wesley and Whitfield, and many more; it is trivial to stoke their embers back to life. The motivations and promptings of the Spirit revealed to us in the Book of Acts weren't clear in the marketplaces of the early Roman Empire. "Don't you know what kind of criminal Jesus was?" "Don't you know what criminal activities His followers practice, their preachers drawing away disciples after themselves?"

Today, we believe that the truth of the matter was very different. Yet why do the epistles correct, rebuke, and warn those early churches so vigorously? Human activities are ugly, fraught with sin, because we all are. The Church is *called* to be different, because Jesus clearly was and is different. But that call does not purify us immediately, not back then, not now.

For more than thirty years John Spong has been unrebuked in the ECUSA. Yet the AMiA in its short life of 3 years has been rebuked over and over by members of the ECUSA, though AMiA is not part of it. Remaining in organizational communion with Spong for decades was acceptable, but affirming our fellowship in the Spirit with AMiA is not?

What's wrong here? I asked myself that question in course of the 2000-2001 school year as an Anglican Studies student on the campus of Virginia Theological Seminary. I saw ECUSA seminarians who could not passionately give a personal testimony of Christ, passionately respond against the founding of AMiA. I saw students who openly and unabashedly admitted that they did not understand what all the bloody sacrifice in the Book of Hebrews was about, denounce the founding of the AMiA with great conviction.

This has convinced me of one thing: such conviction and antipathy has nothing to do with knowledge of the truth. Should a Christian hesitate to join the AMiA because of the furor surrounding it, whipped up beyond previous such examples to a far greater degree by the internet age in which we live? As in every case of innovation and change, it is difficult, if not impossible, to lay blame appropriately without incurring it ourselves. If one needs to know the truth underlying the internet noise, it may be a lifetime before a winner declares the truth of it. Personally, on the grounds of the Scripture's teaching about human nature,

I assume the worst of all parties, and proceed from there. Jesus' teaching on forgiveness, seventy times seven times, strongly suggests that you and I, no matter who we are, do err and stray in many ways, in thought, word, and deed. A sound ecclesial body formed during this time of human redemption in Christ, is not formed on the righteousness of actions which it has achieved and maintains, but partially on its members’ response of forgiveness to the failings of their brothers and sisters to achieve such actions.

The Church cannot survive—it does not even exist—without forgiveness. After all, the Rock upon which the Church is founded is both our example and our source for forgiveness. A sound ecclesial body is also partially founded on its vision and mission, that to which we are called, again, Christ Himself. The Church, comprised of the very same sinful men and women we encounter in this troubled world, has this one distinctive: we are responding to a call beyond ourselves.

The tension of that upward call in Christ to us who are bound by selfish desire to this world, allows the light of His glory, however small, to shine through us to our colleagues lost in darkness, but only as we obey that call. The force of those bonds are always present in this life, even when we choose to obey the voice of God instead of self. Lapsing back is a constant potential, but God's grace is sufficient for us all. His grace is not as some would suppose, merely forgiveness, although it overflows with that. His grace trains us to renounce ungodliness and the passions of the world within ourselves (Titus 2:11-12), even as forgiveness is lavished upon us. The path of obedience to that upward call, then, is critical for the Christian life.

To whom do I submit as unto the Lord? This is the question that we face in the most ultimate way if we seek to obey the upward call of God in Christ. For me, the answer rests not in any ecclesial organizational genesis, but in the body of its faith, the clarity of its vision and mission, and its current practice, all of which connect it, or not, to the only true Genesis of the Church. Current practice can never be an absolute determiner, because of the great need for forgiveness.

Clergy and members become so, not because of their church’s purity of practice, but in spite of it. When I was ordained in the ECUSA, though, with but minor irritations, I embraced the faith, vision and mission of the Church as it was expressed in its Prayer Book and Historical Documents, which point so clearly to the Scriptures and to our Lord.

The practice of the ECUSA, embodied in canon and resolution, at places struck discordant notes for me. One pertinent example has to do with its internal policy regarding discipline and Church property in relation to its external policy in regard to ecumenicity. Any casual observer can see that Anglican Continuing Churches in the US, for example, are far closer to Episcopal faith and order than are Lutheran and Moravian churches.

Yet, the ECUSA has entered into formal relations with the latter, not the former. Sharing clergy and sacraments with Lutherans and Moravians, we demonstrate unity with them, praying for them in our services. We wish their success. Yet, if a congregation wishes to leave ECUSA to join those of far more kindred faith and order than the Lutherans, such as an offshoot of the ECUSA among the Continuing Churches, the Dennis canon seeks their property back, as practically seeking their demise as housing the poor is practically seeking their welfare.

Looked at in terms of its rational consistency, the Dennis canon is bad enough. But it becomes monstrous when one recalls that we are called to keep the unity of the Spirit which has been given to us (Eph.4). Twenty-first century Christians know that such unity is not merely organizational. Formally, the ECUSA's relationship with the ELCA and the Moravian Church acknowledge that it is not.

Brokenness is the profoundly sinful context of the Church in our time, as Ephraim Radner and Rusty Reno have described so well. Encouraging and perpetuating that brokenness cannot be healthy and good. So, Ephraim counsels us to stay where we are ecclesially, suffering the destruction, maintaining our witness, humiliated under the might hand of God as that which must be destroyed is destroyed around us and in us.

Yet, we find ourselves one in the Spirit with our brothers and sisters in other churches, and faced with some of the most egregious instances of gnosticism in the history of the Church within the ECUSA that remain unrebuked by the Church, while its Prayer Book, enshrining the Creedal rebuke of gnosticism by the early Church, remains contradicted in daily practice and pulpit teaching.

Is this not the irony Jesus describes in Matthew 23:29-32, that the fathers are esteemed for all but the truth they died for? What did our fathers practice in regard to false ecclesial leadership? Athanasius tells us that, "...while the ministers of the Church are under persecution, the people who condemn the impiety of the Arian heretics choose rather thus to be sick and to run the risk, than that a hand of the Arians should come upon their heads." (Epistola Encyclica, 5). The numbers in Athanasius’ day were wholly stacked against him. By force of truth, he fought until victory.

That inspires us today, but we easily forget that the Church had deeply intertwined connections with State and Society that we no longer have. There will be no State executions as a result of the AMiA. Society will not be in chaos, if it even notices. The Church has only to answer to its Lord, none other.

If Athanasius faced down the Arians so boldly, why must we obey the Church canonical order when we know it is wielded by heresy worse than Arianism, which accepted the Scripture as it is(!), and nothing in Society or State rests on it? “We are the Church,” as the heretics say.

Why does the Church not act like it, having nothing to do with those who do not submit to Jesus as Lord, submitting only to those who do? Again, irony: the Church fails to *be* the Church when it plays Church. If I as a presbyter in the Church proclaim the gospel of Christ, calling all who hear to partake of the grace of God in Christ through faith and repentance of worldly passions in obedience to the Scriptures, but my ecclesial colleague on the next corner dismisses such repentance for his or her hearers, what unity do we share? Is the Spirit Who authored the Word of God through men that we preach an idiot?

Or should that be "Idiot," a new vision of irrationality in the Godhead? Does God know what He wants, or did we make the Scriptures up? Theology from above, and theology from below have met in the Episcopal Church. Only one is of God. For those who practice theology from below, any and all contradictory theologies can be held within the Church, never violating its unity, because its god is merely the image of humanity.

For orthodox Christians, maintaining ecclesial unity in the ECUSA as it now stands in 2004 is tantamount to affirming such idiocy in God. It is a denial of the revelation of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit "...with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change..."(James 1:17 ESV) that we find in the Scriptures, as we are guided in our reading of it by the Creedal tradition of the Church. Now by its formal practice the ECUSA denies what the God of the Scriptures is like, in Whose image we are made.

The Church’s need for apologetics has always been to explain to the world why the wisdom of God in Christ appears foolish to it. Today strenuous apologetics are needed to explain to those who come to Christ why the ECUSA does not believe the gospel they have believed.

Babes in Christ can see that there are two spirits present in ECUSA's leadership and membership, speaking two divergent visions and missions, two gospels. Can one hand over a new Christian to be discipled by the neighboring ECUSA priest? The biblical injunction to maintain the unity of the Spirit does not apply to the ECUSA per se—it applies to the Church of Jesus Christ. Ironically, thinking outside the box is ordinary orthodox Christianity.

It is the box of denominational order that imprisons souls when that order no longer expresses the sole Order in the Church, that of its Lord. Human beings are amazingly inconsistent, doing the best things for the worst reasons, and the worst things for the best reasons. Not only must I consider the "Parable of the AMiA" as Ephraim Radner has told it a misreading of the phenomena, but I must refrain from dismissing brothers and sisters who are acting out of faithful obedience.

That does not mean, however, that the best motives are matched by theologically and rationally coherent actions. All of our actions are open to critique, where our motives are known only to God. I remain convinced that Jesus alone is our Lord and Shepherd, and it is He Who works in and through all shepherds that He appoints, to which we are called to submit in ecclesial life.

As He is present wherever two or three are gathered in His name, and as He rules through His Word, all of us are united to Him through faith, and are able to obey and submit to Him. Seeking autonomy, as described by Ephraim, sounds like rebellion. But is it? The irony here is that rebellion to the authority of God through His word is now embraced by submission to an ecclesial order that has lost connection to the Head of the Church.

Dr. Radner, while denying the Reformers' concept of an invisible Church (see his The End of The Church), views the Episcopal Church as now having vacant sees where revisionists have voted for Robinson (expressed in his recent lecture at the Charleston 2004 ACI conference).

Instead of breaking visible ties with those who violate the invisible Church, he refuses to break visible ties, and maintains that violators of the visible Church in its leadership are themselves invisible! Such an ecclesiology is incoherent. If the visible Church is only that, it is only that, and the ECUSA has all its bishops intact, and is apostate.

If the Church is invisible, and is only approximately expressed in our sight, then the visible ECUSA has lost the marks of that Church. The Church can also be viewed as the future reality of the eternal kingdom of God here in the present. Internal contradictions of that future reality in terms of the Church's purity and witness to Christ temporize it, cutting it off from the eternal.

The ECUSA has affirmed that what we perceive ourselves to be, is what we were made to be. It has embraced an anthropology without a fall, a past that is one with its present. In so doing, it has embraced a future that is one with its present, a heaven without a hell. "As I feel now without repentance, so must I ever be, only better." That lie is now the core of the ECUSA's mission statement of inoffensive welcome, in which no upward call exists to bring us out of that into which we have fallen, toward that which we shall become through repentance and faith.

In contrast, we must maintain the renunciation of sin, the devil, and the world common to all Christian witness. In so doing, we must submit to an ecclesial body where the gospel is maintained in its integrity as the word of Christ, our sole Authority, a word not divorced from the Scriptures or contradicting them but opening their given meaning and showing their fulfillment in Christ. Any spiritual authority under Christ's Lordship in an ecclesial body must maintain the vision and mission of the Church that Christ has given it, to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that He has commanded us (Matt. 28:14).

The AMiA in its vision and mission preserves the integrity of the gospel. Its current practices, difficult to discern through internet ranting, appear to me certainly no worse than what I have known in the ECUSA, and quite possibly a good bit better. Certainly in respect to tolerance of heresy, it is an improvement demonstrating the repentance never seen in the ECUSA.

In personal interaction, I sense unity in the Spirit in a common gospel vision and mission, with all the variations of perspective, emphasis, and understanding common to people bound by a call to obedience to Jesus. Until the Lord returns, there will be need for forgiveness for the members and leaders of the AMiA. The same applies to the ECUSA and the American Anglican Council (AAC), no?

The AMiA is also convinced of how much we are in need of forgiveness, that our very desires are untrustworthy in the sight of God. In a contrary affirmation of the innate purity of desire, my ECUSA bishop voted for Gene Robinson. To submit fully to him, I would disobey the Lord. To obey the Lord by disobeying that bishop, I would violate Anglican order.

To submit to the AMiA I would violate Anglican order. Yet, there is no Anglican order that specifies how to violate Anglican order. Any action, therefore, that is disobedient to the ECUSA as it now stands, is a violation of Anglican order. Who decides which violation is best?

Any theologian, leader, other diocesan bishop, or group of them directing us to violate Anglican order, does so without the authority of Anglican order. That leaves each of us having one decision to make which is either to obey God, or man, and in that decisive action viewed in relation to the authoritative structure of the Church—but without viewing it in relation to God(!)—we are self-appointed.

Yet Dr. Radner describes the establishment of the AMiA as a warning lesson because self-appointed priests led the way to autonomy, as if anything but self-appointment characterizes AAC leadership overriding ordinary diocesan order. Self-appointment in a time of crisis of order due to corruption of duly ordained order cannot be unquestioningly construed as an evil. One could ask, who appointed the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI, formerly SEAD) to counsel the Primates?

Who appointed the leadership of the AAC? Certainly not the Church in authoritative council. What is construed as service in one context, may be viewed as self-appointment in another. Motive lies hidden to us, but what of authority? Are all actions that do not arise in committee self-appointment? Can they not come with the authority of God the Holy Spirit? Or is the Church a closed system of canon and constitution such that not even God can break through?

If Jesus is present where two or three are gathered in His name, and they are Primates, must a constitutional quorum and majority consensus exist among Primates first before they can act in the name of Jesus in a manner consistent with His Word against glaring denials of His Word? Do human politics ultimately trump divine authority itself? John the Baptist anointed Jesus in baptism, but, "The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?"(Matthew 21:23-27)

The sovereign prompting of the Spirit of God, the Lord, is not self-appointment—not at least, if we hear Jesus’ question. It may well be that the AAC is led by the Spirit. It may be that the Spirit has led the ACI to offer its counsel to the Primates in an effort to mend the net of the Anglican Communion.

That makes both efforts no less self-appointed in terms of existing ecclesial order than the AMiA, when they direct faithful Christians to "faithful disobedience to the canons of the Episcopal Church," a phrase used by Geoffrey Chapman of the AAC. May it not be that the AMiA is led by the same Spirit? Or are we to believe that 12 dioceses out of 114 (10.5%) constitute an appropriate structure of accountability while 2 Primates out of 38 (5.3%) do not? Ephraim says of the AMiA consecrations that they were, “…only tenuously tied to and approved by a tiny minority of leaders of the larger Anglican Communion and positively rejected by most orthodox Primates.”

Are we to conclude that there is at the heart of this argument a Kabbalistic divine calculus? Since 5 Primates supported the 2004 AMiA conference, does that change the will of God? As Christians in the Anglican Communion in America, does our obedience to God exercised through ordered structures of accountability boil down to correctly playing the numbers, and then, only the very latest numbers? No, the validity of leadership in this time of crisis does not derive from Anglican order but from God Himself, from Whom alone all valid authority comes.

What is clear here is that any counsel of faithful disobedience does not stem from existing order, but from outside it, because the order itself is corrupted. No political culture bearing the appearance of accountability can hide that fact. The arguments against the self-appointment of the AMiA over against the self-appointment of the AAC reduce to the all too familiar, "Not made here," a form of spiritual immaturity admonished by the epistles to the first churches (I Cor. 1:10ff).

If one is to obey Christ in rejecting false teachers and prophets who are in ecclesial authority, seeking apparent autonomy in terms of visible Church authority is an ironic necessity in order to submit to God. I Peter 2-3 immediately comes to mind to counter this thought, urging us to suffer unjustly if need be in our submission to all human institutions.

But if the Church is merely a human institution, and Peter's logic applies to it thoroughly as well, why did he not submit by ceasing to preach in the name of Jesus, unless such submission itself was wrong?(Acts 5:28-9) Further, a thoroughgoing application of this reasoning would have us first return to Rome since the Reformation was wrong, then return to the synagogue, since leaving it was wrong.

Then, as new members of the synagogue, we would presumably in obedience to the gospel mandate do all in our power to turn the synagogue into the Church. Such "members" would have all the integrity of John Spong, professing one thing by membership, and something very different in thought and intention. Unity is not a matter of some common beliefs, much less a common structure, but of the heart, with its faith, vision, and mission.

By the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, through Christ, as citizens of another Kingdom, we are able under that Authority to act without rebellion, though we disobey any fallen ecclesial structures in this world. Ephraim's vision of Christians acting in faithfulness to the Word of God but without the mutual accountability of existing structures is one of chaos.

But it is not a lack of accountability to those who fail to submit to God's Word that brings chaos, but failure of submission to the One Who orders all things. On the other hand, accountability to those who do submit to God's Word is accountability to that Word, not in the first instance to His human servants.

Shall we entrust ourselves to the uncertainties of Episcopal politics? We see where that has led. Shall we entrust ourselves to the uncertainties of Primatial politics, taking care not to upset the apparently delicate "dynamics of Communion decision-making"? Do higher echelons cleanse the presence of sin and error from the Church? We know it does not.

No, our trust can only be given to the One Whose right it is to rule. In the mystery of Christ, He exercises His authority through our fellow man, and when He speaks, His "...sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."(John 10:4-5 ESV) For the record, what we have heard by voice of authority from the gathered leadership of the Anglican Communion is a condemnation of homosexual practice, a voice consistent with the voice of God in the Scriptures.

What we have heard from many individual Primates and their Proivinces is a breaking of communion with the ECUSA who have ignored that voice of authority. We have heard non-authoritative opinion about the genesis of AMiA from individuals, which may include sour grapes, and if so, it is murmuring against the Lord’s anointed—which isn’t the AMiA, but the Primate they serve.

We have not heard any authoritative statement from the Primates or the Communion regarding AMiA. Consequently, as things now stand, a member in AMiA is under the godly authority of Primates in good standing in the Anglican Communion. A member of the ECUSA in a diocese without an orthodox bishop stands under authority rebellious to God, maintains communion with the ECUSA when orthodox Provinces do not, and so is spiritually at odds with the Communion, with the Scriptures, and therefore with God.

Members in the ECUSA who affirm the AAC and seek to follow it, but who are not under the ordinary authority of an AAC bishop, violate Anglican order by following the AAC over their ordinary bishop, seeking a yet-to-be-established Anglican order, but having no order to do so, humanly speaking, but only self-appointment. Members in the ECUSA who come under the authority of the AMiA violate Anglican order in similar self-appointed transition, but only to remain in Anglican order. All such talk of self-appointment, however, ignores the leading and sovereignty of the Lord, the Spirit, Who acts consistently with Himself, the Author of the Scriptures through the agency of men.

While Dr. Radner and others attempt to aid the Anglican Communion to mend nets, the AMiA is fishing. While the former is necessary, the latter is the Church's mission. Indeed, one could ask whether it is a Church structure that catches lost souls, or the proclamation of the gospel. The Celts, from which our Communion derives, went about successfully with the gospel, blissfully unaware of their structural “problem.” It is the primacy of obedience to the direct authority of God in the life of the Christian expressed through Scripture that has been rejected by the ECUSA.

The restoration of that obedience will only come, in my estimation, from rebuilding the Church’s spiritual foundations that have been washed away, through uncompromising submission of our individual lives to Jesus Christ. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. I embrace the vision put forth by Bishop Duncan at the first Plano conference, of a uniting of all orthodox Anglicans in North America.

I pray that his vision is soon realized, and commit to seeing it come to pass, praying with those faithful in the ECUSA who are being led by the Spirit. For my own part, I consider Dr. Radner's Parable of the AMiA inadequate in the very least, and his apologetic for remaining in the ECUSA unconvincing, incoherent with the biblical vision and mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. An ironic reading of the phenomena of the AMiA is surely far closer to the truth, offering a very different Parable. Most importantly, I consider entirely rejecting what appears to be autonomy, as spiritually dangerous on the side of failing to recognize the actions of God (Matt. 12:22-38), as is rebellion to Him on the other (Psalm 19:12-14).

I understand how congregations united in protest against General Convention 2003 in the ECUSA wish to retain their Church property. Not being in that position, I can see no warrant whatsoever to remaining within its institutionalized disobedience. Consequently, in order to fulfill my own ordination vow, I have now followed the voice of our Lord to serve Him in the AMiA under the Anglican Province of Rwanda. Recognizing the authority and leading of one Lord, I understand this to be a faithful, Anglican response to the heresy of the ECUSA, as is rightfully violating its order to cross diocesan bounds to join with the emerging network.

No matter which path we choose, what aspects of Episcopal life and culture are safe to keep, and which will prove to be household idols smuggled into the new edifice, like those of Rachel when she left her father's house with idols hidden under her saddle? In reflection upon the culture of the ECUSA of which I have been a part for 15 years, I consider the lack of a corporate culture of heart submission to the Word of God to be the critical issue demanding our repentance.

In a recent issue of the Anglican Digest an article purports to tell us what the Church expects of each of us as faithful Episcopalians. There is not a single mention of the Scriptures in the entire article. Why is it that such an omission goes unnoticed? They are no longer part of Episcopalian culture—the Scriptures have become just a liturgical object. Without a Church culture formed by His Word, in which heart submission to Him through His Word is cultivated, we will only succeed in rebuilding what must be torn down. The sacrifice of all for the sake of the gospel, leaving everything behind, is a tried and true, divinely ordained method that can reestablish a culture of genuine discipleship because it partakes of it; many in the AMiA have followed this.

There is also divine warrant for leaving Egypt with its plunder, but not for refashioning it into its gods. My prayer for safe journey goes with the AAC. My plea to the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner in this time of crisis is to focus not on what constitutes orthodox faith and practice structurally, but spiritually, from which only, unshakeable structure can arise.

©2004 The Rev. Joseph P. Murphy, Ph.D. Carol Stream, IL

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