A Statement from Bishop Johnston
|The Rt. Rev'd Shannon Johnston, Bishop of Virginia|
This week, I received some questions and concerns about the fact that I was a co-sponsor of a "Clergy Day" with Dr. John Dominic Crossan, hosted by the Church of the Holy Cross in Dunn Loring. This event was in conjunction with two evenings of presentations by Dr. Crossan at that congregation which has been studying his writings as part of a Lenten program. When approached by the rector about the possibility of a day when clergy might have the chance to hear and question Dr. Crossan, I readily agreed that this would be a fine opportunity for our clergy (and clergy from neighboring dioceses) to engage first-hand a scholar who is a world-renowned figure and who would be speaking about a topic of great import: the final week of Jesus' life. It is my firm conviction that clergy should be current in their knowledge of various schools of thought that, agree or disagree, have broad dissemination and can be influential for a large number of people, both churchpersons and those without a community of faith. In short, it is important that our Church's leaders know "what's out there," what is being said and taught.
Admittedly, Dr. Crossan is quite controversial with respect to some of his views concerning Jesus' life, the historical context, and the resulting theology of Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection. But these very controversies are precisely why I believe it is important to have the opportunity to hear directly from him, to think critically (in the larger sense of the word) about what he has to say, and to ask probative questions so as to gain the clearest possible understanding.
Due to the meeting of the House of Bishops, I was not able to be in attendance at the Clergy Day, and so I did not myself hear Dr. Crossan on this occasion. But from my own reading and from what I have heard about the Clergy Day's content, I have been able to gather some perspective. Reports of the presentation and the Q & A sessions, even from those who took issue with him, have been quite affirming, saying that Dr. Crossan was energizing and provocative, substantive and responsive. I think it is a healthy dynamic that some questioners pushed back at Dr. Crossan's premises; I also know personally that Dr. Crossan encourages and welcomes critical feedback, as he did at this event.
What concerns me is the assumption that by co-sponsoring this event, I am "endorsing" or signaling agreement with Dr. Crossan's opinions and teaching. I mean to imply nothing of the sort. I simply do not think that we need to be fearful or reticent to encounter ideas different from our own personal convictions and the Church's official teachings, even if we find those ideas to be objectionable in some way. Indeed, I find some of Dr. Crossan's points to be offensive to the faith.
Some of the questions put to me about allowing Dr. Crossan to teach in the Diocese of Virginia challenged my own creedal orthodoxy - a kind of "guilt by association." I reject such reasoning completely. Allow me to quote from my own pastoral address from January 25, 2013, delivered before the diocesan Council:
"I am as creedal a Christian as you will ever find. The core of my faith is utterly and absolutely defined by the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. I do in fact believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation. But I also think that inevitably, people will have differing ways of understanding, interpreting, appropriating and applying these essential truths. I do not accept that my own dearly held faith is in any way compromised by agreeing to disagree over the ways in which the catholic and apostolic Church gives witness and offers ministry, any more than I feel that my Church is compromised by my doing so . . . To me, the plain fact is that I - we - need to hear and understand other views of Christian truths."
As I've noted here, I quite disagree with many facets of Dr. Crossan's theology - for example, his view of the Resurrection of Jesus, which I believe to have been bodily, personal and unique to the Lord, accomplished in a moment of historical time. This is a central tenet of the Christian faith and is without qualification the proclamation of the Episcopal Church and of this bishop. Indeed, any teaching that is contrary to the Creeds is contrary to the witness of our Church and, specifically, is at odds with my own faith and teaching.
Nonetheless, I will not be a censor of ideas, a roadblock to inquiry that is grounded in a search for "God with us." The Holy Spirit is still at work with and within the Church and, in my view, we cannot shut down that which pushes our limits. Many times in human history, we have seen how the Spirit has pushed the Church beyond itself.
I give thanks for scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, who are part of that work that challenges us, even if it turns out to be an occasion to return to our own orthodox convictions with stronger roots. No less do I give thanks for scholars, like N.T. Wright, who keep us grounded with such compelling integrity. I also give thanks for those places, like Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, that provide the forum and the hospitality for all who would seek a deeper understanding of faith in Jesus as our risen Lord and Savior.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston