Their Truths Shall Set Them Apart

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

The slightly built and smiling Anglican archbishop from Malaysia didn't seem like a troublemaker.

But as the ecstatic congregation in Denver sang a rousing hymn Sunday, the Most Rev. Datak Yong Ping Chung thrust his delicate fist into the air to punctuate the lyrics: "Forever I'll love you. Forever I'll stand."

Like so many others who had led movements that splintered a faith, Chung had chosen what he saw as biblical truth over unity with his church.

In the next hour, Chung, the Anglican primate of Southeast Asia, together with Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican primate of Rwanda, dramatically increased the likelihood of a breakaway Anglican denomination on American soil to rival the established Episcopal Church.

Bedecked in flowing vestments of red and white, they ordained four conservative American priests as Anglican bishops. The new bishops' mission: ministering to former and currently disaffected members of the Episcopal Church, which they charged is fraught with "manifest heresy."

Evidence of the slide toward heresy, they said, includes the Episcopal Church's decision 25 years ago to ordain women, and the current practice by liberal bishops of ordaining noncelibate gay men and lesbians to the priesthood, and of tacitly approving the blessing of same-sex unions by some of their priests.

One of the questions asked of the new bishops during the service was, "Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?" They answered, "By the help of God, I will."

For the time being, the "missionary bishops" will be attached to the archdioceses of Southeast Asia and Rwanda. They will remain on American soil to minister to 37 congregations with a reported 8,000 members, most of which bolted from the Episcopal Church in the last several years. The new bishops, all former Episcopal priests, made it clear that they will actively start new parishes and welcome parishes that want to leave the 2.3-million member Episcopal Church and affiliate with the new Anglican Mission in America.

Ordination Denounced by Anglican Leaders

Their action was denounced as schismatic by Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey, the spiritual head of the 70-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church among its members. The primate and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold III, was equally critical.

Schism within Christianity is an old story. Throughout the ages the once united apostolic church splintered over issues of power, governance and doctrine. In the last two decades, churches have been confronted with centrifugal forces driven by the clash of a changing secular culture and traditional biblical morality. Almost always, the breakaway group claims that it is the "faithful remnant," the church that remains true to the early vision.

Tension has been particularly acute over such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women. These issues are being faced by virtually every major mainline Protestant denomination, including the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptist Churches USA and others. The Roman Catholic Church, while officially saying the issue is closed, still writhes internally over the ordination of women. The nation's Reform rabbis put off a vote one year and then agreed the next that Jewish men and women in same-sex committed relationships were worthy of a synagogue's blessing.

So it was Sunday that the Anglican archbishops and American members of the Anglican Mission in America charged that the Episcopal Church's failure to uphold the authority of Scripture had led to a "crisis of faith."

"We do not need to debate in this body the lordship of Jesus or biblical authority," Chung said of the Anglican Mission in America.

Both Factions Resort to Scripture as Proof

In sorting out the issues that divide them, those on both sides of the divide often point to Scripture to prove their point and to assure themselves that they are, after all, on God's side.

In his sermon before the ordinations, Chung quoted a New Testament passage from 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

The trouble was, he said, many in the churches devalue the Bible through what is known as higher criticism, a scholarly approach that takes cultural, sociological and historical factors into account in reading the text. Such scholarship has led some to conclude that despite the apparently clear reading of the Bible against homosexuality, the Apostle Paul and others were not alluding to committed, monogamous same-sex relationships as they are known today.

"The enemy, the devils, try to discount and destroy the church by promoting the so-called critical approach to the Bible," Chung said. "This critical approach reduces the Bible to a common document, void of God. . . . Thus, there is no more authority in the Bible."

Liberals deny the charge. They argue that it is not so much that one side questions the "authority of Scripture," but that both earnestly interpret the Scriptures differently.

In deciding crucial religious, moral and social issues of the day, the worldwide Anglican Communion has relied on what it calls a three-legged stool: Scripture, tradition and reason. Take one leg away and the whole edifice topples.

Confronted with a knotty problem like homosexuality or the ordination of women? First turn to Scripture. It takes priority. If Scripture is ambiguous, the church next turns to its tradition. What has it said over the ages? What has it taught? If the issue still remains murky in light of new understanding of, say, human sexuality, the answer may lie in applying God-given reason--not reason in a vacuum, but reason informed by Scripture and tradition.

This approach has allowed their ancient faith to remain relevant in a changing world. "The Bible doesn't tell us about lots of things," New Testament scholar and Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop Frederick H. Borsch observed recently.

The rightness or wrongness, for example, of cloning humans comes to mind. Historic scriptural understanding or church positions on other issues such as homosexuality may no longer be appropriate in the light of experience and reason. Sometimes it isn't demons but epilepsy that causes a person to go into convulsions and foam at the mouth.

Says John Booty, who this year retired as the Episcopal Church's historiographer and takes the liberal view: "When [conservatives] say we no longer regard Scripture as the authority, what they mean is that we don't follow Scriptural strictures concerning homosexuality. Anyone who has been deeply involved in biblical studies knows there are various possibilities in terms of interpretation of what the Scripture says on this. They refuse to see that. This indicates a certain hardening of position: 'So if our Lord did not appoint women as disciples, then we should not do it.' That's fallacious. What happened in Jesus' time is a reflection of the culture of that time."

Some conservatives remain within the Episcopal Church, trying, as they see it, to reform it from within. Liberals like the Rev. Edwin Bacon Jr. of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena want to keep the conversation going.

Conservatives "are drawing the circle smaller to draw themselves out," said Bacon, who blesses same-sex unions. "Our response must be essentially Christian. You cannot say [as Christians] to another group of people, I have no need of you. We need them desperately," Bacon said.

Yes, conservatives agree. But they said unity must be grounded in biblical truth. Anglicans in the audience Sunday night in Denver were through talking.

During the ordination service a lay reader read the epistle later quoted by Chung--the one referring to Scripture as "God-breathed."

"The word of the Lord," the reader concluded. "Thanks be to God!" the congregation shouted almost defiantly, so loudly that members chuckled self-consciously afterward. They and the rebellious archbishops had made their point.

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