A few years ago there was a piece published somewhere that expressed a sentiment buried deep within the hearts of most people attracted to the Anglican way. The author said, in essence, that we should all just try to get along. She knew that there had been some sort of trouble on the matter of sexuality, like ten years ago, but it was time to heal the breach between the ACNA and TEC and move on from the pain of the past. That idea, if I am remembering correctly, was festering especially at Duke, where a good number of ACNA clergy still go to get their theological education. Unhappily, not only has that project not gone away, it has spread to Nashotah House. The Living Church has done due diligence to report what’s happening at these two seminaries. The article starts this way:
Two seminaries have been making conscious efforts to recruit future priests affiliated with both the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and the Episcopal Church (TEC). After arriving on campus, seminarians of differing convictions find mutual suspicions weakening while they study, worship, and dine together every day. Friendships begin. Both churches are well represented in traditional three-year, residential master of divinity (M.Div.) programs at Nashotah House in Wisconsin and at the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies (AEHS) at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. Both seminaries also offer “hybrid” degrees — mostly online instruction, with a few intensive weeks on campus. Hybrid programs have the salutary effect of broadening the pool of potential priests, but the immersive residential model is a key element of this story. Duke, an ecumenical seminary founded by the United Methodist Church, has 46 residential M.Div. students pursing certificates in Anglican studies through AEHS. Roughly two-thirds are from TEC and one-third from the ACNA, said the Rev. Joe Ananias, interim director of AEHS. Nashotah, one of nine seminaries recognized by the Episcopal Church, has 38 residential M.Div. students. Half of them are from TEC, close to a third from the ACNA, and the remainder are from other Anglican or non-Anglican affiliations, according to Lauren Cripps, communications and marketing manager.
That’s such an interesting line—“seminarians of ‘differing convictions’ find ‘mutual suspicions’ weakening while they study ‘worship,’ and dine together every day.” That is how it goes. Seminary is by no means the most intense educational experience you can have. Exegesis and the study of Church History aren’t that hard, though many do find them excessively boring. No, it is in the meals, the small group discussions, the networking, the astonishing revelation that the best place to find an unbeliever is in a cassock and surplice leading the psalm that can really shake a person to the core. You go in all dewy-eyed, excited to serve God in the church and discover that most of the people around you are super cynical. That’s when what you think and how you feel really begins to take shape.
A lot of ordinary Episcopalians were shocked, over the decades, to discover that the nice young believers they sent off to seminary invariably came home no longer believing in things like the Resurrection or the Atonement. How could that happen, they asked. Well, two ways. First, those “theological positions” were derided in class by the professors. But then, second, over dinner and breakfast, you find it just isn’t cool to be “orthodox” about those types of things. This way of things apparently hasn’t changed:
“There’s a communal gathering space down the hall from my office where students congregate, and it’s not uncommon to hear either hearty laughter or thoughtful conversation,” Ananias told TLC by email. “It’s often students from both TEC and ACNA, across the theological spectrum, clearly enjoying each other’s company.” But the most eloquent testimony comes from seminarians and alumni who have forged friendships despite fundamental disagreements — participating in what the Episcopal Church has come to call “communion across difference.” TLC interviewed eight current or former seminarians, representing both churches at both schools. Here is some of their witness.
“Communion across difference” sounds a lot like “walking in good disagreement” which ACNA clergy are not supposed to do, as our province has signed onto the Kigali Commitment. And that’s not because we’re bigots and haters who are experiencing a lot of personal pain. It’s because back in 2003, when TEC decided to bless a gay man in a same-sex relationship as bishop, the “communion” was broken. That means that we could no longer share spiritual worship with those who had decided to walk away from the faith and disobey scripture. I should just point out, again, that what TEC did back then—and has never repented of—is what the Church of England is doing now. It has to do with the Bible. Either you read it and obey it, or you explain it away. These two ways of being are mutually exclusive. Two opposing views can’t both be true at the same time. It is spiritual malpractice to say that it’s ok just to disagree, that both people, because they mean well and are trying hard, can worship and pray together because they’re basically talking about the same thing. It’s just some details—like the nature of the Bible and who Jesus is—that they quibble over.
I do hope you’ll read the whole thing because what each student says needs to be listened to carefully. These are the people, as I said, who will be filling pulpits and running vestry meetings and staggering up to the pulpit to preach the homily for your family when you finally die. This one, in particular, should alarm and trouble you:
“I believe the Bible is saying that marriage is between a man and a woman. And sexual intimacy is intended for marriage. So that’s where I stand,” said Hannah Howland, a third-year ACNA student at Duke. And yet, “one of my closest friends is a man married to a man. And I look forward to seeing his ministry unfold. He’s a dear brother in Christ. And we pray together.”
Observe how boldly this person makes this declaration. “We pray together.” To whom do you pray? What Bible are you reading? How has it come to be that this “disagreement” is a matter of personal conviction? We are defeated already.
And this one:
“I’m friends with liberal Episcopalians who I vehemently disagree with,” Anglin said. “But I think, ‘You’re a good Christian who feels led this way.’ And I can’t see you as the devil, I can’t see you as a heretic, I can’t see you as the enemy.”
That is the crux of all our trouble—how do you know who is a Christian and who isn’t? What does it mean to “be” a “heretic?” These students don’t know the answer to either of those questions, based on the declarations they are making with no blush of shame or anxiety about whether they are right or wrong. Which means that the culture in these institutions is deeply corrupted. It means that what these students are learning in the classroom is spilling over into their mealtimes. And this one:
Hope Anderson is a first-year TEC student at Duke. “I’ve never met a student in my program who would say, ‘The thing I’m looking forward to most, in the three short precious years I have in seminary, is fighting about one critical social issue,’” she said. “This is not the hill anybody wants to die on.” The immersive environment fosters candor. “We’re learning how to risk these vulnerable, intimate conversations, and then keep coming back to the table again and again and again,” she said. At Nashotah, “I like to call it rubbing elbows literally and figuratively,” Hendrix said. “Because when you’re sitting in the choir stalls, you are literally sitting on top of everybody’s surplices, and you’re literally rubbing elbows. The ethos of Nashotah itself forces us to come to grips with our own prejudices.”
Why isn’t it a “hill anybody wants to die on?” Why is it cast as “one critical social issue?” Because that’s not what it is. That’s never what it was. It’s about the authority of scripture, the nature of Christ, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that there is no life apart from him. And also, how are you going to seminary if you haven’t already dealt with your own “prejudices?”
And then someone said this:
“There’s a Rowan Williams essay on making moral decisions, where he talks about discerning a grammar of obedience,” Hogan said, adding that the essay is assigned reading in the moral theology class at Nashotah. “There are reasons why I couldn’t in good conscience be in the Episcopal Church, but I learned to discern a grammar of obedience in colleagues of mine. We disagree on important things, but we can actually talk about them, because we’re trying to follow the same Lord.”
You’re not “following the same Lord,” though, if you think that that the Lord does not bless sin (the official position of the ACNA) and your classmate thinks that he does (the official position of TEC). Try all you like, but this is an essential issue that divides people whether or not they want to be divided.
No more is it about your personal conscience. Are you not bound in obedience to your bishop? And if you are, how is he ok with you saying any of these things? Why are you reading articles by Rowan Williams about obedience? As I said, we are defeated already.
“The only thing that I could see changing that would be time, and generational transfer of leadership,” he said. “All of the senior priests in my diocese, they all lived through the split, they all lived through getting letters from the presiding bishop telling them that she was defrocking them and deposing them. “There’s a lot of hurt there. I don’t see a willingness on my side of the fence to come back to the table,” he said.
As I said whenever this came up a few years ago—Dear Heart, we are not hurting. We are not in pain. Yes, we did all get those letters. Yes, we did lose our buildings and our pension plans. Yes, we did walk away from it all. But it didn’t hurt that much for the astonishing reason that getting to tell the truth about who Jesus is was such a balm, such a blessing, such a gracious thing that we were comforted and renewed. It’s not our personal feelings of anguish about Katherine Jefferts Schori that keep us up at night. We don’t have any left, if indeed there ever were any. What makes us very anxious is that young seminarians are being steeped—in seminary—in an expressive individualism that is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and that will, if it’s not nipped right in the bud, lead actual people into hell. The article concludes this way:
“Being angry is exhausting,” Anglin said. “Let’s actually love God and do the work he has given us to do, in the ways that we can, as clergy or lay people in Christ.”
But what does the word “love” mean—to you?
Jesus says, in the gospel reading for this morning, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Israel, all through the scriptures, is the vine—the rebellious vine, the wicked vine, bearing rotten fruit. And even that night, as Jesus spoke those words, his betrayer was rushing through the dark streets to bring the rulers of that rotten vine out to kill him—the true one.
“Abide in me,” says Jesus in the text, “and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” Your personal convictions about the issues of the day might be fascinating—for you—but if you don’t know Jesus and “keep” his “commandments” you will but cut off and thrown into the fire. Not only will you not bear fruit, you won’t be in Christ.
The Lord’s commandments, furthermore, are knowable, because his Word, the Bible, makes them clear. You may not bless sin. You may not call good what the Lord calls evil. You may not follow your heart or offer pastoral care that “misleads people, by pretending that God blesses sexually active relationships between two people of the same sex. This is unloving as it leads them into error and places a stumbling block in the way of their inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).”
I pray that the Bishops who are sending students to these institutions will repent.
Oh! And happy Mother’s Day! Go to church, etc.
Photo by Mediocre Studio on Unsplash