Dio TX “Unity in Mission” - Big Hearted but Built On Sand
Back in April, Bishop Doyle of the Diocese of Texas released “Unity in Mission,” a 124-page apology and vision for local (congregational) choice on gay marriage.
Let me confess from the get go that I am by disposition, breeding and whatever else a typical male Episcopal priest of the baby boom generation, totally allured by efforts to keep everybody together and happy. My basic orientation is to grab onto and advocate an approach like the one undertaken by Bishop Doyle and his diocesan unity team. Before the fire breathing readers of this blog turn away in disgust, let me at least note that Bp. Doyle not only allows but provides a template (p.112) for orthodox congregations to differentiate from TEC innovations, as recommended in several recent SF posts by more fire breathing bloggers.
But as I confess my orientation, I seek to repent of it. Making unity the top goal of the church too often rests on soft ideas - “sand” - rather than the hard foundation of the Word of God. I have to ask if it is wise for orthodox leaders to sign onto a document like “Unity in Mission,” which a good number do on page 120 of the document.
My provisional answer is, “No, not good to sign on.” “Unity in Mission” is big hearted and well intentioned, but sitting on an unstable foundation that can’t support an abiding witness to the Gospel or even mere institutional survival. Here are three samples of the sand:
1. Historic diocesan shift from model to muddle.
Part of Bishop Doyle’s foundation is the historic role of his predecessors in guiding the diocese through constant conflicts.
But an attentive read of the history reveals a decisive shift. The first list of bishops dealt with guiding the diocese to maintain unity and Christian identity in the face of the world’s upheavals - Texas independence, the Civil War, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII and the Civil Rights Movement. The diocese was a model of Christianity’s power to unite around ultimate things in the midst of urgent but passing things.
Then, starting with Bishop Richardson in the 70s, the diocese started to fight over internal church matters about which the outside world cared little - Prayer Book revision, women’s ordination and LGBT religious ceremonies. Bishop Doyle sees this as the same kind of leadership exercised by the preceeding bishops. But there is a Texas-sized difference between guiding Christians to unity in the face of vexing temporal conflict, and trying to get them to stay together when they are fighting one another over irreconcilable visions of the church itself. It is the management of a muddle. And that’s exactly what “Unity in Mission” finally endorses.
2. Illusory strengths vs. very real weaknesses.
Bishop Doyle does not shy away from the sad state of TEC. He admits to decades of fighting and decline (p. 12) and documents the research showing how same sex marriage has been a catalyst for that. He is candid about how “the culture wars…have infected the church” (p. 35) and that our debates have degenerated into “attempting the destruction of one another” (p. 34). Pages 84 through 102 describe all of the “polarization” in gory detail. He sees and presents the denominational disaster rather than indulge in “all is well” propaganda.
Unfortunately, his local option solution points to mirages. It is hard to see how he convinced himself that these fantasies could stand up to all too real problems:
On page 36, he says that Anglicans, and Episcopalians specifically, “are formed by the reading and study of Scripture,” and that this is a source of unity in the face of secondary distractions like fights over sexual morality. As much as any of us might want to believe that, any honest look at the Episcopal Church reveals a massive and seemingly intentional ignorance and rejection of Scripture. Highly placed bishops parrot slogans like “You don’t need the Bible, just the Prayer Book” or “The Church wrote the Bible so the Church can change it.” Parishioners tell clergy “We don’t really believe all the old stuff, now, do we” (yes, a statement, not a question). Just go to your diocesan convention to hear clergy at microphones saying things like, “Jesus said, ‘First go and talk about the problem, but if they don’t listen, then sue them’” (heard that one a couple of years ago here in South Dakota). Then there was this year’s General Convention, in which the Deputies spent days reeling from the discovery that most major New Testament versions really do mention homosexuality in a disapproving way. Think of all the times your friends in other denominations have told jokes about Episcopalians not knowing/caring about the Bible - there’s a reason for the perception.
“Unity in Mission” is itself a piece of evidence. At page 57, Bishop Doyle opens a discussion of “Common Themes and Essential Foundations in Traditional Marriage.” He doesn’t engage the Bible until page 65, and there it’s just to say, “Hey, those Old Testament people had polygamy!” He quotes lots of people talking about the Bible, but does little exploration or exposition of the Bible itself. When he finally mentions Matthew 19:9, he ignores Jesus’ affirmation of male and female creation and union, instead invoking a broad theme of “covenant breaking.”
He starts out speaking of the Bible as “authoritative” but shifts to terms like “guidepost” and “showing us possibilities.”
And the practical outcome is that issues - primary, secondary, tertiary, whatev - can’t be addressed because the church has neither the shared insight from or commitment to Scripture that can provide a foundation for unity. “Sex” might be a “secondary” issue, but the primary conflict has always been over the authority and interpretation of the Bible. So “Unity in Mission” posits the locus of conflict as an illusory source of unity. Why sign onto an approach doomed to frustration and failure?
Then there’s the Book of Common Prayer. At page 48, Bishop Doyle launches into the familiar assertion of the BCP as “Our Episcopal Witness to Unity.” But he sets up a smorgasbord on which some parts of the Prayer Book are essential and others not so much. You can guess where marriage winds up. His argument seems to be that marriage is important but not worth all the fuss. Yet he argues in Chapter 5 that the Diocese of Texas should use local option to become “an icon of the nuptial mystery.”
Thus the vision of “Unity in Mission” rests in part on the “formularies” of the church. But the marriage language in the BCP is a flash point for all of the current disunity. That which Bishop Doyle holds up as an “icon” with one hand he tosses aside as secondary content with the other. Again, why sign onto an approach that is so confused and bound to frustrate those who undertake it?
3. Why sign up for what one already has?
Bishop Doyle lays out some concrete measures that both traditional Christian and LGBT&c congregations can take to protect their turf. I won’t presume to speak for the LGBT&c congregations, but when it comes to traditional Christians, why bother reading and signing onto 124 pages of diocesan stuff when the denominational legislative body already declared,
Resolved, That this convention honor the theological diversity of this church in
regard to matters of human sexuality, and that no bishop, priest, deacon or lay
person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical
disabilities, as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support for the
77th General Convention’s action with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex
There is no need to sign a diocesan document when one can simply assert the stated position of the ostensibly “hierarchichal” denomination. As I recently told a fellow priest who was being hassled by some gay marriage zealot in his congregation, “Just tell him that his position is outside of the doctrine and discipline of The Episcopal Church.”
Reaching the sandy bottom
The bottom line - the epitaph for “Unity in Mission” - is that there is no unity. Not in TEC, not in Texas. If one parish’s mission is to proclaim the Bible’s Good News and another’s is to overthrow it as inconvenient to feelings, they are not unified in any meaningful way, and signing a well meaning declaration of unity doesn’t change that. Nor does it change the reality that any faction can declare anything at any time and overthrow whatever facades of unity are set up:
“...we cannot use dogma, which we believe is essential, to bludgeon our fellow Christians or those who seek a (sic) living Christ… we cannot condemn… myriad local forms…” (“Unity in Mission” pages 23, 26).
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