Is the Episcopal Church a Truly Catholic Church?

Is the Episcopal Church a truly catholic Church? I ask this question in response to a series of blog articles and comments written by the Rev. Dr. Daniel K. Dunlap. I reference in particular the following: GAFCON—Initial Thoughts, Personal Reflections for Remaining in TEC, The Problem with Confessionalism, Why Anglican Confessionalism will Undermine the Anglican Catholic Position, Restating a Third Mill Catholic Prophecy, Response to Al Kimel, and “Anglicans and Orthodoxy” from the Land of Unlikeness Blog. Also see Dr Dunlap’s article “Why I ‘Migrated’ to the Episcopal Church.”

Fr Dunlap is a former minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 2004. Six months ago he was ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to the sacred order of priests. He is presently Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at the Houston Graduate School of Theology. He has also been blogging at Catholic in the Third Millenium since March 2006.

Fr Dunlap considers himself a catholic Anglican and is distressed by the emergence of GAFCON, which he sees, quite probably rightly, as an attempt to impose a Reformed confessionalism upon the Anglican Communion. He himself is content to remain within the Episcopal Church. While he acknowledges that preaching and teaching contrary to the Church’s credo is now occurring in parts of the Episcopal Church, this does not mean that the denomination as a whole has become heterodox:

In essence, I don’t believe that the simple “two gospels” dichotomy is an accurate working description of the way things really are in TEC or the Anglican Communion. Truth be told, people are all over the map. Only the most tenacious folks on the extreme wings are living into the reality of “two gospels” and believe it to be their divine calling to impose one or the other “gospel” on everyone else. That’s why the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is the Church’s credo, not our individual “credos,” and endeavoring to live into it.

As a new convert to the Episcopal Church, Dunlap can perhaps be excused for his benign assessment of the state of the Episcopal Church. Clearly his acquaintance with the denomination, and particularly with its seminaries, diocesan bureaucracies, and political and theological struggles of the past thirty years, is limited. Perhaps his direct experience of the Episcopal Church has been restricted to a few conservative southern dioceses. Perhaps he has never come face to face with a roomful of honest-to-God revisionist Episcopal clerics. Perhaps he really does not know that despite the presence of the Nicene Creed in the eucharistic liturgy, Nicene orthodoxy is truly optional in the Episcopal Church. It may well be true that Episcopalians are theologically “all over the map,” but this diversity conceals the depth of hostility that exists among both clergy and laity to the exclusive claims of traditional Christianity. Yes, Episcopalians still employ the vocabulary of the inherited faith, but the words are reinterpreted through the hermeneutics of personal experience. In the categories of George Lindbeck, Episcopalians are “experiential-expressivists” to the core. The essential identity of the Episcopal Church is well expressed in the oft-recited mantra: “There will be no outcasts in this church.” The Episcopal Church comprehends great diversity, but this diversity is both determined and limited by the dogma of radical inclusivity: to be “catholic” is to be inclusive, and to be inclusive is to be committed to the ultimate exclusion of the exclusive claims of the catholic faith. Philip Turner has accurately identified radical inclusivity as the working theology of the Episcopal Church.

In the early 70s the large majority of catholic Episcopalians firmly opposed the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate, believing that it was contrary to the will of Christ and the ecumenical tradition of the Church. When the 1976 General Convention decided to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood, most Anglo-Catholics decided to remain within the Episcopal Church and to fight for a reversal of church policy. What happened? The older generation retired or died. The younger generation, including the present writer, eventually got with the national church program. Seminaries and bishops carefully weeded out the opponents of women’s ordination from the prospective ordinand pool. Thirty-five years later we find that a new orthodoxy has been successfully imposed and the opponents of women’s ordination marginalized. Twenty years ago one might have been forgiven for thinking that it was still possible to reverse this situation, but surely no one can persuasively argue this any longer. Something very similar is now happening on the question of the moral legitimacy of same-sex unions. The goodness of same-sex unions is now widely affirmed in the Episcopal Church. New ordinands are expected to support this policy and the doctrine underlying it. Perhaps freedom to oppose this policy is still allowed in some dioceses (presumably Texas); but the number of such dioceses declines each year. Within a decade or two Episcopal priests will no longer be permitted to teach the catholic understanding of Holy Matrimony nor to declare the immorality of same-sex unions. In the inclusive Church, even tolerance has its limits. The recent history of the Episcopal Church demonstrates the harsh truth of Neuhaus’s Law: “Wherever orthodoxy is optional, it sooner or later will be proscribed.”

Yet Fr Dunlap is committed to remaining within the Episcopal Church. I know many faithful believers who are likewise committed to remaining in the Episcopal Church. I certainly do not criticize Fr Dunlap for doing so, though I find his assessment of the state of the Episcopal Church to be deeply flawed. The Episcopal Church, Dunlap insists, remains a catholic Church, despite false teaching and practice. Hence he does not need “a reason or strategy” to stay in the Episcopal Church. Really? Is the catholicity of the Episcopal Church so apparent, so manifest, so self-evident, so primordial that it needs neither defense nor apology? What would the Episcopal Church need to do to move itself over into the category of heretical or schismatic Church? In Dunlap’s judgment, the decision to ordain women to the presbyterate and episcopate does not represent a church-dividing departure from catholic order, despite the contrary judgments of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He notes that he made his peace with the innovation some time ago. But what about the popular embrace of the pan-sexual morality? What about the ritual blessing of same-sex unions? What about the Episcopal Church’s consistent refusal to assert the evil of abortion? What about denials by many Episcopal preachers that the salvation of humanity is accomplished through Christ and Christ alone? What about the refusal to discipline bishops and priests who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection? Are the historic episcopate, communion with the see of Canterbury, and liturgical use of the Nicene Creed really sufficient to secure the catholic identity of the Episcopal Church?

And so I ask Fr Dunlap: What is your breaking point? Where does the confessional rubber hit the road? At what point would conscience forbid you from summoning sinners into the communion of the Episcopal Church?

And to all others I ask: Is the Episcopal Church truly a catholic Church? What does it mean for the Episcopal Church to claim to be a branch of the Church catholic when it has departed so significantly from catholic norms in faith, morals, and order?

(To be continued)

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum.]

~ by Fr Aidan Kimel on 29 July 2008.


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