I was so grieved to hear of the tragic and unexpected death of Fr. McKenzie this last week, and of his child. The two were on the road and were killed in a car accident. Fr. McKenzie was in the first few days of a sabbatical, which somehow seems some extra divine unkindness, at least from this angle. If ever there was a moment to stop and number one’s days, so that one may gain a heart of wisdom, this seems like such a one.
In the aftermath of this tragic death, Anglicans have once again had a moment to take stock of the complexity of their theological divisions. The child of Fr. McKenzie was a person who self-identified as transgender. Born a girl, and named Ella, at some point along the way this person decided to be called Charlie and use the pronouns “they/them.” This sort of thing, of course, is a cultural flashpoint, before one even turns one’s attention to the church. But all the more so because Fr. McKenzie was a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Pittsburg in the Anglican Church in North America. The real controversy seems perhaps slight and inconsequential—that the Diocese of Pittsburg released a statement about the death of this child, using the given female name of the child—Ella—but then, after an internet row, changed the statement to refer to the child as Charlie. Why would they do this? That is one important question. Another is, does it even matter? Does it matter what a person is called once that person dies? Surely it is better to be respectful and quietly move on.
And certainly, that has been my inclination for the last 48 hours. I can’t imagine the grief and disorientation of the wife and other child of Fr. McKenzie, of having one’s intimate world so suddenly undone. Not to mention his congregation and all the people he ministered to along the way. Death isn’t a good thing, and yet God is sovereign over it, and uses it for his own purposes, though, at least for me in the last two years, that has felt like pitiful comfort. All any of us can do is pray and beg God to make his goodness known in a way that the grieving can taste, and finally see.
And yet, well, this is all happening in the church that I love, one that is still very new and young, nearly as young as the child that died. Yesterday, for example, came the news that The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth has to pay the legal costs of the last decade of litigation against The Anglican Diocese of Fort Worth, amounting to something like 4.5 million dollars, along with giving back all the churches that they tried to take. This has been the only temporal loss for the Episcopal Church, in a scorched earth policy against churches that wanted to keep their properties and still be able to maintain an integrity to the Scriptures not just on the matter of sexuality, but in every doctrinal sphere. And if you think “scorched earth” is too strong a term, remember that Bishop Bill Love was forced last year to resign or be disciplined for disallowing his clergy from performing Same-Sex Blessings.
Compared to the kind of ideological views of the human person that are careering into the church, the Same-Sex blessing and Gay Bishop trouble now seems rather small and tame. The Bible is clear that two women can’t marry each other, nor have any sexual relations, nor two men, that the only sexual activity allowable within the kingdom of God is inside monogamous marriage. But trans? What if you feel yourself born into the wrong kind of body? Surely it is no one’s business? And everyone should be “tolerant.” Though what “tolerance” looks like can be seen from the, as I mentioned, push back against the diocese for its statement about this young person who so tragically died.
Certainly, it mattered enough that the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America got together and put out a statement in January. In it, the bishops laid out how Christians in our church ought to talk about the human person, and how it is that God created us and for what reasons. Though many people found it eminently pastoral and useful, it also received, to put it mildly, push back, and some clergy and a whole diocese have been given permission to ignore it altogether.
All this before I creep up to our readings for this morning, and consider the person of Moses, standing before the Congregation of Israel, trying to remind them one last time before they make their way into the Land that God promised to them, that they had better obey or things would not go well with them.
“Listen,” he says, “to the statutes and rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the world that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.” Then he goes on to talk about Baal-peor, that unfortunate episode where the Moabites, after certain defeat, never the less managed to draw the Congregation of Israel away from their true worship of God into adulterous idolatry, so that even some of the Elders went in and slept with Moabite women, although of course they were not actually sleeping. Imagine, as a member of the Congregation, watching your Elders going in to foreign women, as an act of worship, and wondering to yourself about the rightness of it all. The Law had been rather long, after all, and you hadn’t paid very close attention. But one of the Big Ten, as they say, had been about not having sex with people you aren’t married to, and another had been about only worshipping God. But can anything be so binary? So uncomfortably clear?
Moses wants the people to obey even if they don’t quite understand why. He doesn’t want them to measure the command by their own inclinations, to judge the Law, as if they know what it is for or even how to keep it. They don’t know themselves, and that is one reason that God gave all these commands, so that they would be able to see that they are idolatrous and adulterous and lying and thieving and greedy, and then fling themselves on the mercy of the God who made them. But, of course, by the end of the book the whole Congregation promises, foolishly, that they will be able to keep it. If you don’t know how the story turns out, you had better go and read the whole thing.
One of the reasons that the ACNA was founded—one for which I was eager to sign up after our church had been sold to a mosque—was so that the whole counsel of Scripture, God’s Holy Word, could be proclaimed and obeyed without apology and without anxious worry about getting in trouble over it. Certainly, if you want to be a Christian out in the world, you are going to get in trouble. Or, at least, all the people who have those Love Is Love Tautologies Are Tautologies signs in their yard do not want to hear about God’s design for marriage. It’s not a good way to win friends and influence people. But that is not what the Cross is for. It is for Life, to live in the glory and light of a saving and magnificent God who gives the Law and then grants to Law breakers both the desire and the ability to keep it. Having once battled over this in a church and lost, I don’t want to do it again. Poor young Ella who died so tragically, and who, I am sure, is gathered into the arms of Jesus at this moment, does not need to have her name fought over. However she self-identified in life, however confused and broken she may have been, God created her for himself, to know and love her. But also—because two difficult things can both be true at the same time—the Bishops and Clergy of the ACNA need to make the church an open and kindly place for true Christian faith.
And this is both good and hard. In the Church, transgenderism, just like homosexuality, and adultery, and lust of any kind, and greed, and idolatry is not a thing. God created man in his image, male and female created he them. He did this out of love. However you were born, that is how he made you. You must not look at some secret within yourself to find something else. And yet, though he created you in his own image, you are part of a great and terrible rebellion against him—the Fall—and so you, and me, and Ella, and Fr. McKenzie, and every single person who as ever walked the earth save our Savior and Lord, have disordered desires. That means we want things we shouldn’t have. And the very wanting of them is wrong, whether we do them or not.
It’s not that we don’t all struggle and fall to sin. Of course we do. And we are confused, and beset, and often wrong. It is that the Leaders, the Elders if you will, not of Israel, but of Anglican Churches in North America, having done what God called them to do, need to go on doing it. They can’t make peace with the world. They can’t find a complicated path between two opinions. They should be pastoral, as they already have been, and loving in their ministry to the broken and grieving, and go on telling the truth.
Or else, well, this whole project is useless. And in such a very short time. Barely a breath has gone by since its founding. But it need not be so. It is not too late to do what Paul exhorts, to “stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” All this is so that you “may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” That, you might have noticed, is the name of this blog, this place where we have gathered to try and hold on to the great riches of God’s mercy. I’m not ready to let go of it. Are you?