I am not a biblical scholar, but I’ll bet you that words and phrases that speak of religious authority, like orthodoxy, discipline, doctrine, dogma, rule of faith, and magisterium, were not among those attributed to Jesus in any of the synoptic gospels or in John. Of course, they may have been uttered by the Scribes and Pharisees, who seemed to be fixated on adherence to the letter of Mosaic law and who missed the point of Jesus’s preaching, of his preference for association with the “unclean,” and of his way of living, all of which were about love, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. His final commandment to his apostles was “Love one another as I have loved you.”
As a simple Christian who is seeking to experience God in the Church, I find these words of religious authority to be alienating. I believe them to be exclusive rather than inclusive, divisive rather than unifying. In fact, they are often used as weapons against those within the Church who dare to profess any degree of spiritual independence. If one does not cleave to orthodoxy, one is therefore un-orthodox and, depending upon the degree of un-orthodoxy, one is less than a full member of the group. If a parishioner does not believe in all the doctrines of the Church, he or she should not presume to receive Holy Communion along with those who do believe. Heaven forbid that one should be an actual dissenter: Catholic theologians like Charles Curran, Hans Küng, and the late Yves Congar have all paid dearly for their public disagreement with tenets of Church doctrine.
A friend and former colleague, who is (or once was) an Anglican, regularly sends me a copy of the ANiC Newsletter. The ANiC (Anglican Network in Canada) is a group of parishes that split from the Anglican Church of Canada over issues such as the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex relationships. After the schism, the ANiC affiliated itself with other conservative Anglican bodies, such as the newly formed Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), of which ANiC considers itself a member diocese, and the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. The ACNA constitution blames the split in the Church on “those who have embraced erroneous teaching and who have rejected a repeated call to repentance,” referring of course to the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church (TEC), which is the Anglican Church in the United States. Both of these churches have moved toward blessing same-sex relationships and have approved ordination of openly gay clergy.
The ANiC, along with other breakaway conservative Anglican groups, affirms the Jerusalem Declaration, a set of “tenets of orthodoxy that underpin [their] Anglican identity.” These tenets include belief in the Old and New Testaments as “the Word of God written” and as containing “all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.” They also include upholding Anglicanism’s Thirty-nine Articles “as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.” And this one on ecumenism: “We are committed to the unity of all those who know and love Christ and to building authentic ecumenical relationships. We recognize the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice, and we encourage them to join us in this declaration.”
Thus if I do not believe in the Bible as the literal Word of God, if I disagree with any of the Thirty-nine Articles, or if I do not completely “uphold orthodox faith and practice,” I am not a true Anglican and am therefore on the outside. Recent statements by some bishops, members of the Anglican Communion, which is the embattled umbrella organization of all Anglican churches worldwide, confirm this to be true. According to the April 11 edition of the ANiC Newsletter, these bishops believe that the authority of the Anglican primates and the Primates Meetings has been trumped by other organs of the Communion in dealing with the “sustained crisis” in the Church. The Primate of Uganda, Archbishop Henry Orombi, claims that “Anglicanism is a church of Bishops and, at its best, is conciliar in its governance. The grave crisis before us as a Communion [i.e. disagreement over ordination of openly gay clergy, blessing of same-sex relationships] is both a matter of faith as well as order. Matters of faith and order are the domain of Bishops.” Archbishop Orombi goes on to make the following recommendation:
There is an urgent need for a meeting of the Primates to continue sorting out the crisis that is before us….The Primates Meeting is the only Instrument that has been given authority to act, and it can act if you will call us together….Finally, the meeting should not include the Primates of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada who are proceeding with unbiblical practices that contradict the faith of Anglicanism [my italics]. We cannot carry on with business as usual until order is brought out of this chaos.
The same edition of the ANiC Newsletter contains excerpted information from an article in a British Columbia diocesan newsletter. The article points out that “the Anglican Church of Canada has lost almost 60 percent of its membership since 1961”; that “70% of baby-boomers are church drop-outs”; that “people under 55 constitute only about 12 percent of the average Sunday attendance at the average Anglican church”; and finally that “if the present trend continues, the last Anglican will leave the Anglican Church by 2061.”
If the hierarchy of the Church—any Church—continues its hubristic insistence that it possesses the divine authority to determine what people in the Church must believe, how they must practice their faith, and who must be respected as the sole voice of authority, and if it fails to recognize the need for Christ-like compassion and humility in an age in which many of the social and cultural contexts of the Bible are irrelevant, the members of that hierarchy should not be surprised that the pews continue to empty.
According to Church leaders, dogma and doctrine are immutable. Orthodoxy is unbending loyalty to “established teachings.” But if these leaders will only look around them at the world—at the universe—that God created, they will see that God’s creation is an ongoing symphony of change. The People of God live in a world of rapid and constant change—technological change, scientific change, environmental change, cultural and social change. We have discovered and acknowledged that men and women are different but equal; we have recognized that races and ethnicities are different but equal; we have come to understand that gay and lesbian people are different but then not different from straight people. God has blessed his creation with diversity and has blessed this modern age with unprecedented recognition of the possibilities inherent in diversity. So when increasing numbers of people under the age of 55 are claiming to be spiritual rather than religious, perhaps they are saying that they need God in their lives, but that the insistence of the Church on adherence to doctrine and dogma and orthodoxy and the conflict and division such insistence creates is either irrelevant or abhorrent to them.
If we presented to them instead an image of an open-armed Christ embracing people from across the grand spectrum of life—Christians and non-Christians, people of all colour and ethnicity, men and women, LGBT people, the young and the old—they might just be intrigued enough to want to hear more of the message of love that was at the core of Christ‘s mission.