IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH: Honoring Anglicanism's History
By TOM WILSON
TIMES-DISPATCH GUEST COLUMNIST
Falls Church. This winter a dozen congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia -- constituting perhaps 20 percent of the average Sunday attendance in the diocese -- have voted by overwhelming margins to sever our ties with the Episcopal Church (TEC) and to affiliate with another branch of the Anglican Communion. In doing so, these congregations have made a difficult decision that has prompted criticism and scorn, has invited challenges to our property rights, and has put strains on valued relationships. Why did we take this painful step?
The simplistic answer that one would gather from the headlines is that TEC consecrated a gay bishop. While sexual morality is indeed the flashpoint of the controversy, it is but one instance of the real, underlying issues: the authority of the Bible (which is very clear on the subject of sexual ethics) and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The church has tolerated bishops who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, deny His resurrection, and deny His being the unique and essential Savior for the whole world. The breaking point came in 2003 when the church defied the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion by setting aside the Anglican standard, consecrating a non-celibate homosexual as a bishop, and condoning the liturgical blessing of same-sex unions -- all with the support of the bishop of Virginia and the majority of the Virginia delegation. In response to the Communion's subsequent call for repentance, TEC declined, and elected as its presiding bishop someone who had favored both of those aberrations. TEC's trajectory is clear.
THE DIOCESE of Virginia is by no means among the most aggressively revisionist dioceses. On the contrary, even when it is not conservative in theology, the Diocese of Virginia tends to be conservative in temperament; and its longtime bishop is a centrist (by TEC standards) who values unity in the diocese and tolerates those committed to biblical orthodoxy. This fact enabled us to delay our decision as long as we did, and to attempt to work for renewal within the church.
However, this diocese is increasingly compromised by its membership in TEC. While the position of the diocese so far is to refrain from ordaining practicing homosexuals or blessing same-sex unions, its most recent resolution on the subject (Resolution 22a in 2005) characterized this position not as a mandate based on morality but as "voluntarily refraining." For the diocese's annual council this past weekend, four priests and five lay delegates proposed a resolution allowing the blessing of same-sex unions. Although it did not pass, their efforts show that, in this diocese, the issue is treated as subject to shifting human consensus, unhinged from divine revelation.
MOST OF THE disaffiliating congregations have chosen to affiliate with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America ("CANA"), which is organized under the Anglican Church of Nigeria. This has caused the Episcopal bishop of Virginia to refer to us (somewhat dismissively, we feel) as "Nigerian congregations." It is a title of which we could be proud but which we may not deserve, since the church in Nigeria is in fact a heroic, vibrant Christian church that thrives in a majority-Muslim context despite hardships, threats, and persecution. However, we have been and remain a thoroughly American expression of Anglicanism, under a local bishop, Martyn Minns, in a coalescing "Anglican District of Virginia" that will value and perpetuate the 400-year legacy of Anglicanism in Virginia.
We are not on a misguided quest for the "perfect church." On the contrary, all the members of these congregations are sinners who hope to be saved only by God's grace, and our congregations surely have our share of hypocrites. CANA will likewise have its faults and defects. But precisely because we are sinners, we are not well-served by a church that pretends to supersede God's principles and to re-name our sins as if they were divine gifts.
We know that we need a church that will call us to repentance from sin and will offer us not rationalizations of our faults but, rather, God's forgiveness, transformation, and healing in Christ. To the sinner, Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more." We must be in a church that preaches that same message to us, in both its aspects: forgiveness and a call to a changed life.
Tom Wilson is the senior warden at The Falls Church in Northern Virginia. He is also chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia.