Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reinhold Niebuhr Remembered

I stumbled across this piece from Time Magazine (1971):

Monday, Jun. 14, 1971
Death of a Christian Realist

In the decade before World War II, liberal Protestant theology in the U.S. had become a stagnant residue of the social gospel. There was an uncritical assumption that the sins of society would be inevitably overcome with education and religious good will; the concept of individual sin was formally acknowledged but widely ignored as a potentially meaningful element in normal life.

Into this comforting, wan world of theological thought came Reinhold Niebuhr, loosing the sobering wind of "Christian realism." Original sin stemming from Adam's fall was to be taken seriously but not literally, said Niebuhr. Man's great sin was willful pride, a universally "entrenched predatory self-interest" that exists in everyone, "benevolent or not." To ignore this basic reality—and man's need to struggle constantly against it—could only lead to moral and political confusion. The individual, Niebuhr contended, cannot excuse his immoral actions by "attributing them to the actions of others, even though there has been a strong inclination to do so since Adam excused himself by the words: The woman gave me the apple.' "

Niebuhr's theology was often called an American version of Karl Barth's neo-orthodoxy, but Niebuhr was very much an American original. He himself criticized Barth for being too controlled by the Bible and so far above the social tumult that he fostered "eschatological irresponsibility." For the past four decades, Niebuhr has been preeminent in his field, the greatest Protestant theologian born in America since Jonathan Edwards. Last week Niebuhr died at 78 in Stockbridge, Mass., the same town where Edwards once lived in exile—banished for his too-demanding theology. The funeral was held in the church where Edwards had preached.

Free Spirit. Niebuhr left behind him not only a heritage of theological realism but a career of political involvement almost unique in his profession. He insisted that man is the image of God not merely as a creature but as a morally responsible free spirit. Nevertheless, Niebuhr was not sanguine about the effectiveness of individual self-improvement; the acknowledgment of man's inevitable self-pride, he believed, should lead neither to despair nor to unproductive popular preachments about "positive thinking." The cross of Christ, he said, shows that "God's mercy must make itself known in history, so that man in history may become fully conscious of his guilt and his redemption." Though choices in a sinful society are morally ambiguous, a sensible effort must be made to balance conflicting, selfish powers.

Niebuhr's fresh, demanding analysis brought theological ethics into the midst of the secular arena, influencing the pragmatic liberalism of many prominent Americans, including George Kennan, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and James Reston. Niebuhr was a prime mover in Americans for Democratic Action and New York's Liberal Party. His political biography reads like a history of the left in his time: socialist disillusionment with capitalism, then with Marxism; pacifism, later abandoned during the rise of American isolationism and European fascism in the 1930s; cold war strategy to counter Communist expansion, followed by apprehensions about U.S. power.

Niebuhr was often a step ahead of history. In 1932, he advised Negroes to organize Gandhian campaigns of nonviolent coercion rather than count on white benevolence. He first protested military involvement in Viet Nam when John F. Kennedy was President.

Niebuhr was a preacher's kid from Missouri who said that he got into Yale Divinity School because they were hard up for students; his degree was from Elmhurst (Ill.) College, a small, then unaccredited school run by his Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Synod of North America, now part of the United Church of Christ. "I desired relevance rather than scholarship," he recalled and, rather than earn a doctorate, he plunged into an industrial parish in Detroit. His 13 years as pastor there honed his moral passion. After visiting a sick, unemployed Ford worker in 1927, he wrote bitterly: "What a civilization this is! Naive gentlemen with a genius for mechanics suddenly become arbiters over the lives and fortunes of hundreds of thousands."

Golden Age. In 1928, the tall, balding pastor began a 32-year teaching career at Union Theological Seminary in New York; his presence helped make that period Union's golden age. In 1930, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Socialist ticket; a year later, he married one of his students, a bright, elegant Briton.* They had two children, a son and a daughter.

Before World War II, Niebuhr seemed almost singlehandedly to goad idealistic Protestants into supporting the imminent war against Nazism; he founded the journal Christianity and Crisis to promote his views. Once that war ended, it was the growing power of the Soviet bloc that worried him. Communism was "cruel and fanatical," he wrote, because of its illusion that private property caused the sins of man and any means was justifiable to eradicate it.

During his active years, Niebuhr was a 17-hour-a-day dynamo who kept students breathless with rapid, challenging lectures and intense conversations in his unostentatious, book-lined office in the seminary tower. He lived a disciplined, mildly ascetic life and produced 17 major books, plus a torrent of trenchant speeches and articles—often turned out at the last minute. Generous but no word mincer, Niebuhr called pacifists "parasites," death-of-God theologians "infants," and White House religious services "complacent conformity." In 1952, he had a heart attack, the first of several physical ailments that slowed but did not stop his activity.

Liberal Drift. "People always wonder about people of faith—whether they live it," remarks Niebuhr Biographer June Bingham. "The last 20 years of his life were years of severe pain. He bore them with grace and humor." In those same years a younger generation of Protestant liberals was drifting away from Niebuhr's concept of constantly contending self-interest to revolutionary, third-world romanticism. He had decried "a too-simple social radicalism [that] does not recognize how quickly the poor, the weak, the despised of yesterday may, on gaining a social victory over their detractors, exhibit the same arrogance." It was a comment typical of his hardheaded, pragmatic realism in human affairs. His successor as the leader of Protestant thought cannot avoid dealing with Niebuhr's forceful logic; he will have to abandon it deliberately or build on it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mel White Video

Ed Bacon recently asserted on Oprah that being gay is a gift from God. Of course for so many this is a very challenging statement - and for many else it has been extraordinarily helpful to hear. But Ed is not himself gay, and I think it is valuable to hear the stories of gay Christians as we continue to think about all of this. Mel White is an evangelical pastor, and author, who I first learned about from a lecture series by Philip Yancey - author of 'What's So Amazing About Grace?' and "The Jesus I Never Knew." Yancey gives voice to White in his book on Grace, by way of saying that the presence of gay Christians in the Church is a challenge which needs to be taken up mercifully, gracefully and faithfully. This is not all about power politics, pop culture, or New Age spirituality. Just as the 1998 Lambeth Conference called for all Anglicans to listen to gay Christians, I think the following video of Mel White giving his testimony is valuable.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Transforming Bible Study

I wrote a small booklet about transforming models of Bible Study - published by the Diocese of North Carolina. I offer it to you for your use for free. Click the image above to be directed to it.

In Christ,
Greg Jones

Obama Invites Robinson to Lead Prayer

From Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson will give the invocation January 18 at the first event in a week of celebrations marking President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

Robinson told Episcopal News Service that his participation in the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is "a wonderful opportunity for the Episcopal Church and certainly the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New Hampshire to be represented at this historic event and I am honored and not a little overwhelmed at the responsibility."

"I just hope I can live up to it," he added.

Robinson said he was invited by the inaugural committee to participate in the event about two-and-a-half weeks ago and that he had cooperated with the team's request that an announcement be held until some details were worked out.

His participation in the event stands in contrast to the December 17 announcement that Obama had asked the Rev. Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and a leading conservative evangelical, to deliver the invocation at the January 20 swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Robinson, who is openly gay and in June entered into a legal civil union with his long-time partner Mark Andrews, was prominent among those who criticized the president-elect's choice of Warren, who has equated gay relationships to incest and child abuse.

When Warren's invitation was announced, Robinson told the New York Times that "it was like a slap in the face," adding that "the God that he's praying to is not the God that I know."

Robinson told ENS that "the [Obama] transition team was in touch with me about that and I with them and I was very forthcoming in my feeling that this was a very troublesome choice not because Rick Warren's voice shouldn't be at the table but that this particular venue where he was being invited was not a roundtable discussion of a lot of different opinions" but that instead Warren would be "the prayer voice at the most-watched inaugural in history."

He praised parts of Warren's ministry. "I feel very positively about Rick Warren in some ways. He has broken from his evangelical brothers and sisters around his compassion of AIDS victims and his working on alleviating global poverty," Robinson said. "It's just that the views he holds about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are pretty awful and he even confirmed the statements that he has made comparing our relationships to incest and child abuse. That is extraordinarily troublesome."

However, Robinson told ENS January 12 that he did not think the invitation to participate in the Lincoln Memorial event was meant to balance out Warren's participation. Instead, Robinson suggested, the invitation was based on his early support of Obama, with whom he met several times during the New Hampshire primary.

"I became very convinced that his message against polarizing the nation but in fact drawing it together was one that everyone needed to hear so I became quite supportive of him and his campaign," Robinson said, adding that he advised the campaign and Obama "behind the scenes" particularly around gay and lesbian issues.

"It's certainly the case that the LGBT community will notice [Robinson's invitation] and it will matter a lot but I don't think that was the primary impetus for this," the bishop said.

Clark Stevens, a spokesman for the inaugural committee, confirmed to the Concord, New Hampshire, Monitor newspaper January 12 that Robinson was invited because he had offered his advice to Obama during the campaign and because of his church work.

When asked whether Robinson was included to calm the complaints about Warren, Stevens told the newspaper that said Robinson is "an important figure in the religious community. We are excited that he will be involved." He called Robinson "one of our nation's most prominent religious leaders."

Robinson, whom ENS reached in Seattle where he was delivering a series of sermons and lectures, called the invitation "an awesome and humbling responsibility" and said that "I've hardly been thinking about anything else" other than just how to pray on the 18th.

"I want it to be a prayer for everyone so it will not be overtly Christian so as to be a prayer for all people of faith," he said. "Certainly there will be prayers for the new president but also prayers for the nation. I think we have laid so much on the shoulders of this man and we need to be reminded that we have an enormous role to play in what happens in these next four years as well."

Robinson predicted that he would use some of the prayers he wrote to be run in the February issue of GQ magazine. A draft version of those prayers had been posted on the front page of the diocesan website but was no longer available there after his invitation was announced. A copy of those prayers can be found here.

The time of the event, which will be open to the public, has not yet been announced. In announcing that the event would be broadcast later that evening on HBO, the inauguration committee said that Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden will attend the free event that will "feature some of the biggest acts in the world of entertainment to celebrate our common heritage and our new direction." Calling the event "a declaration of common purpose and new beginnings" the committee said it will "be grounded in history and brought to life with entertainment that relates to the themes that shaped Barack Obama's campaign and which will be the hallmarks of his administration."

Robinson said that the inauguration committee had invited him and Andrews to attend a number of inaugural events during the week, including the swearing-in ceremony, the national prayer service to be held January 21 at Washington National Cathedral "and some private events with the president."

The Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, president and general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), will deliver the sermon.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christians Speak in Holy Land Against Destruction

Here is what the Christians of the Holy Land have to say.

We, the Patriarchs, Bishops and the Heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem, follow with deep concern, regret, and shock the war currently raging in the Gaza Strip and the subsequent destruction, murder and bloodshed, especially at a time when we celebrate Christmas, the birth of the King of love and peace. As we express our deep sorrow at the renewed cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and the continued absence of peace in our Holy Land, we denounce the ongoing hostilities in the Gaza Strip and all forms of violence and killings from all parties. We believe that the continuation of this bloodshed and violence will not lead to peace and justice but breed more hatred and hostility -- and thus continued confrontation between the two peoples.

Accordingly, we call upon all officials of both parties to the conflict to return to their senses and refrain from all violent acts, which only bring destruction and tragedy, and urge them instead to work to resolve their differences through peaceful and non-violent means.

We also call upon the international community to fulfill its responsibilities and intervene immediately and actively stop the bloodshed and end all forms of confrontation; to work hard and strong to put an end to the current confrontation and remove the causes of conflict between the two peoples; and to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a just and comprehensive solution based on international resolutions.

To the various Palestinian factions we say: It is time to end your division and settle your differences. We call on all factions at this particular time to put the interests of the Palestinian people above personal and factional interests and to move immediately toward national comprehensive reconciliation and use all non-violent means to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the region.

Finally, we raise our prayers to the Child in the manger to inspire the authorities and decision makers on both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, for immediate action to end the current tragic situation in the Gaza Strip. We pray for the victims, the wounded and the broken-hearted. May the Lord God Almighty grant all those who have lost loved ones consolation and patience. We pray for all those living in panic and fear, that God may bless them with calm, tranquility and true peace.

We call on all to observe next Sunday, January 4, as a day for justice and peace in the land of peace.

* Patriarch Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate
* Patriarch Fuad Twal, Latin Patriarchate
* Patriarch Torkom II, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate
* Fr. Pier Battista Pizzaballa, ofm, Custody of the Holy Land
* Anba Abraham, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate
* Archbishop Swerios Malki Mourad, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate
* Abune Matthias, Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate
* Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayyah, Maronite Patriarchal Exarchate
* Bishop Suheil Dawani, Episcopal Church of Jerusalem & the Middle East
* Bishop Munib Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land
* Bishop Pierre Malki, Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate
* Bishop Youssef Zre'i, Greek Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate
* Fr. Raphael Minassian, Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Part of the Problem with Pagels

by Bryan Owen

Part of the problem with Pagels’ Beyond Belief is that she offers a selective retrieval of Gnostic Christianity. She omits at least the following core Gnostic convictions:
  1. The world was created, not by the true God, but by a demiurge (the purportedly jealous, judging "god" of the Old Testament). The Church condemned this as a heresy, and for good reason: it not only rejects the goodness of creation, but also leads to rejecting the Jewish influence on Jesus and the Church, and/or it encourages a kind of anti-Semitism.

  2. Creation, the flesh, the body, etc., are at best illusory, at worst evil. Salvation is attained by transcending the body/flesh.

  3. Jesus didn’t really suffer in the crucifixion, and/or he left his body on the cross and “the real Jesus” appeared to the disciples while the nails were being driven into the body. In other words, Jesus only appeared to be a flesh and blood human being, and he only appeared to suffer on the cross. The Church rightly rejected this teaching (called “docetism”) as heresy.
I note that every time we recite The Apostles’ Creed in the Daily Office and at Baptisms, and every time we recite The Nicene Creed in the rite for Holy Eucharist, we drive a stake into the heart of these core Gnostic convictions.

Other ideas Pagels does include (however subtly) in Beyond Belief are equally troubling:

  1. The world is divided between the simple-minded (creedal Christians or “believers”) and the spiritually elite (“seekers” who alone attain salvation by transcending dogma for direct knowledge of god within). Practically speaking, this means that the private and the subjective are more important and better guides to truth than the public and the communal. The dichotomy of "believers" vs. "seekers" strikes me as so incredibly simplistic that it seems, well … beyond belief!

  2. Pagels posits a kind of works-righteousness by saying that salvation is attained through gnosis (the right knowledge). There's little room for a theology of grace here.

  3. Pagels posits a kind of predestination on the basis of intelligence. Only “the elect” with the right spiritual and mental capacities can acquire and understand the true gnosis. This paints a pretty grim picture for infants, the mentally retarded or disabled, and for those who aren’t intellectually gifted.

  4. Theology and practice are incompatible. Put another way, you can have corporate practices without the corresponding doctrine. I find this ludicrous. Liturgy (corporate practice in the Church, or common prayer), always presupposes and enacts theology that can be formulated as doctrine. At its best, the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer enact the faith of the Church as articulated in scripture and the historic creeds. Liturgy (the work or practice of the people) goes hand in glove with theology (the faith of the Church). But Pagels is so strongly anti-doctrine and anti-creed that she drives an untenable wedge between theology (doctrine) and practice (liturgy).

  5. Orthodox Christianity is not inspired by the love of God and revealed truth, but rather by a ruthless desire to maintain power and control. A similarly reductionistic approach can be found in the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. So Pagels’ agenda is as new and “postmodern” as mid to late-nineteenth Century hermeneutics of suspicion.

  6. Orthodox Christianity reduces faith to “mere” belief and downplays action. I can’t help but wonder how anyone who has read the synoptic gospels and the epistles (including, especially, the letter of James) could possibly make such an erroneous assertion.
Pagels deserves credit for successfully popularizing an alternative to the Gospel proclaimed in the New Testament and by the Church through the ages. However, this alternative amounts to little more than a sanitized, safe, and subjective “Christianity” that fits comfortably with contemporary middle-to-upper-middle class, white, college-educated, suburban culture (the sort of stuff that, as one website puts it, “white people like”). Institutions stifle creativity and spirituality. God is within you, not “out there” somewhere. Truth is subjective. Act however you feel is okay. The important thing is to be true to yourself and to live and let live.

As Christians living in an increasingly post-Christian culture, we need to understand why alternatives like the one offered by Pagels resonate for so many people. What needs does it address that, for whatever reason (whether real or perceived), the Church is failing to meet? How can we do a better of job of communicating the faith of the Church and why it matters?

One of the strengths of the Anglican tradition in this regard is our liturgy. We are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but our focus is pragmatic rather than dogmatic – on common prayer first, the substantive content of doctrine second. (Granted, this can become a weakness if we forget, downplay, or reject the importance of doctrine!) As a patristic maxim puts it, “Praying shapes believing.” If I were asked to summarize the Anglican Prayer Book tradition in one sentence, that would be it.

I think this is one area where so-called “seekers” – those who so highly value “experience” (something which folks like Pagels hone in on to great advantage) – can connect with The Episcopal Church. The practice of our faith through common prayer is the primary focus. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for the finer points of doctrine, and lots of room for experiential exploration. (Again, this can become a problem if the finer points of doctrine are neglected or brushed off as unimportant.) So it’s possible that “seekers” can be converted to orthodox Christianity, not necessarily by argument, but by a personal connection with faithful Episcopalians and by regular, ongoing participation in the common prayer of our liturgy. In the process, orthodox doctrine slips in through the backdoor of liturgical practice (a historical and corporate rather than a merely immediate and subjective mode of experience) in the right way and at the right time. It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others. When it does, it’s powerful stuff!

Even though she has attended worship in The Episcopal Church, Pagels doesn’t seem aware of this alternative approach to orthodoxy in her writings. Instead, her diatribes are so fixated on (oftentimes stereotypical) portraits of rigid Roman Catholicism and Bible-thumping Protestantism that there doesn’t appear to be an alternative. As reformed catholics who inhabit a middle-ground between these extremes, we Episcopalians don’t easily fit the model Pagels works with.

At its best, Anglicanism can learn from and meet the challenge posed by figures like Pagels by using what it already has: its inner resources that emphasize doing the faith of the Church (especially liturgy) as a doorway to believing the faith of the Church.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Jan Nunley

Brad Drell is a 'conservative' blogger. He wrote an open letter to a number of 'liberal' voices in the Episcopal Church, which goes like this:
I stand, where I stand, until the Lord calls me from it. My misery or my happiness is not an issue. His will is. I have called upon the Lord to show me the path and help me to walk it. There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. I am walking the path, having to call on the Lord at every fork in the road. I know not where it leads; there are no hard and fast deadlines in time, but there is a hard and fast faith to which I cling.

If the Lord calls me to question most heartily the path you would lead the Episcopal Church down, so be it. If I am to be a witness against you, yours, and your agenda, so be it. If I, a cradle Episcopalian, stand against you who joined the church out of rebellion to your former churches, then that is my role. You have taken the freedom Anglicanism provides to a Christian and gone wacko with it. If you were a cradle Episcopalian (and I just have no explanation for Susan Russell), you might understand this. There were always bounds to that freedom; I pity you were never taught this, that what cannot be proved by scripture cannot be a part of the Church. There is still a valuable place for Anglican Christianity in the world. If TEC chooses to forfeit it, may others take up its cause, for it is worthy.

In other words, people need Jesus, not the Jesus seminar.

I wish I could say I wish peace upon your houses. But I wish Jesus upon your houses, despite the complications that brings.

Jan Nunley, the former head of communications for 815, wrote this commendable response:

I too stand where I stand, Brad, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and where I stand is not liberal or conservative: it is in joy and wonder at the empty tomb of Christ, with brothers and sisters all over the world, rejoicing in the power of His mighty Resurrection. "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow!"

I did not ask to be who and what I am, and neither who or what I am is defined by any single aspect of my life, save one: I am defined for eternity solely by what I have chosen to be--and that is a follower of the risen Jesus Christ.

I thank God that in mercy I was born in a time and place where I can be the beneficiary of the wrestling of faithful Christians with the perspectives and interpretations of other faithful Christians in ages past. Truly, "we feebly struggle, they in glory shine/But all are one in thee, for all are thine/Alleluia!"

Because I stand at an empty tomb, every other thing is relative to that fact. It is to the Risen Lord that I cling, not to particular dogmas or doctrines, creeds, canons or constitutions. These are guidelines, and in the main they are good ones: I study them gladly, and I follow them gratefully. But like you, Brad, I call on the Lord at every turn for guidance, and that may put me on a road less traveled by the rest of the world--and by you. My call is to be faithful; I leave it to God to be right.

I did not join the Episcopal Church out of rebellion, but in gratitude for the Anglican Way as I received it at a time when I most needed it: a Communion catholic, reformed and always reforming in the light which God gives her for the times...a place of common prayer and uncommon grace...a place where head and heart may be gladly joined, where "our selves, our souls and bodies" are offered daily for service, to the end that God's reign of justice and peace for all creation may be established "on earth as it is in heaven."

With Article VI, I agree that "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." It is for that reason that I contend with those who have essentially taken the position that heterosexuality, in orientation or practice, is necessary for salvation. (The story of the Incarnation, which we celebrate at the coming season of Christmas, should be enough to disabuse any Christian of such a notion--unless you disavow the Virgin Birth!)

I agree that "people need Jesus, not the Jesus seminar." And I would add that people need Jesus, not Alpha or any other program for reducing God to a slogan or a system.

I wish Jesus upon your house, and I do so not in spite of, but because of the complications that brings. Let us rejoice and be glad in them, for it is in experiencing uncertainty in our own human passions and designs that we are brought closer to the heart of God!

I have to say that I think Jan's answer is fantastic.

Friday, January 2, 2009

I Believe, Too

By Eric Von Salzen

[This is a sequel to “I Believe . . .”, posted on Anglican Centrist on November 28, 2008. Soon to be a major motion picture.]

Tom: So, this business in the Creed about believing in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. What’s THAT all about?

The Godfather: Oh, we’re back to that, are we?

Tom: Sure, you said you’d . . . .

The Godfather: . . . talk about it? Of course. What’s your problem?

Tom: Well, for one thing, the word “one”. I understand that in the Fourth Century, when the Creed was written, it was probably accurate to say that there was “one” Christian church. The Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, and then gone so far as to make it the favored religion of Empire. At that time, it really was “one” church. But since then the church has divided over and over again: the division between the Roman Catholic west and the Orthodox east, in the Middle Ages all the Popes and Anti-Popes, and then the Protestant Reformation. Today there are scores if not hundreds of Christian denominations, many of which disagree strongly with the beliefs and practices of others. You can’t very well believe in “one” Christian church today unless you close your eyes to reality, can you?

The Godfather: I’m not so sure that you can say there was “one” church in that sense in the Fourth Century, either. After all, the whole point of the Council of Nicea, after which the Creed is named, was to deal with a disagreement between Arius and Bishop Alexander of Alexandria about the nature of Christ’s divinity.

Tom: Sure, but the Council of Nicea resolved that dispute in favor of the orthodox position, and condemned Arianism as a heresy. So then you have “one” church.

The Godfather: But Arianism didn’t go away, even if Arius himself was rejected. There were quite a few Arians still around.

Tom: Hey, that’s right. I’d forgotten that. Greg Jones says in Beyond Da Vinci that Constantine was baptized by an Arian bishop, years after the Council of Nicea rejected Arianism.

The Godfather: Quite so. There had been disagreements within the church before Nicea, involving docetism, ebionism, gnosticism, Sabellianism, donatism, and so on and so forth. Nicea didn’t end all disputes – as you say, it didn’t even end Arianism. After Nicea there were councils to deal with Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, and on and on. And although the councils did define orthodoxy, there were dissenters from the orthodoxy, who went merrily on believing doctrines that the councils had condemned as heresy. They were either tolerated within the main body of the church, or they established their own separate congregations.

Tom: OK, but the Christian establishment didn’t consider these dissenters to be Christian, did they? They weren’t Christians, they were heretics. And if the Pelagians, say, weren’t really Christian, then the Pelagian churches weren’t Christian churches, so their existence didn’t prevent the Christian church from being “one” church. The “church” was those who held to orthodox beliefs, and therefore there was “one” church.

The Godfather: That’s very interesting. If what the Nicene Creed meant in the Fourth Century was that there’s “one” church because only those who agree with the Christian establishment counted as a “church”, then we could say the same thing in the Twenty-First Century, couldn’t we? We could say that there’s “one” church made up of those who agree with us, and any so-called “Christians” who disagree with us aren’t really a church, at all. That way there’s only “one” church, and we’ve solved that problem with the Creed. Happy now?

Tom: No, I’m not. I mean, look, it’s no big thing for me if you exclude Arians, or Pelagians, or Gnostics from the idea of the “church”. I don’t know any of those folks. Probably they’re just weirdos. But I’m not happy if the ones being excluded from the definition of the “one” church are, say Baptists, or Congregationalists, or, you know, any other sort of Christian whose practices or beliefs are a bit different from my own.

The Godfather: You might be surprised at how many Arians, Pelagians, and Gnostics you know, Tom, many of them right in your very own Episcopal parish. Some of them are even ordained. But let’s not go there.

Tom: No, please, let’s not. I’m just trying to figure out whether I can sincerely recite this part of the Creed.

The Godfather: OK. Maybe this will help us with that effort. I was trained as a lawyer. Lawyers are taught that, when you try to interpret a word in a statute or a contract, you should read it in its context, that is, you should read the entire phrase or passage that the word appears in. The interpretation of the word must make sense in that context.

Tom: So to understand what “one” church means, we should consider the whole phrase “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”?

The Godfather: That’s what your lawyer would tell you.

Tom: OK. Let’s try that. I’ll start with “catholic”, which I understand means “universal”.

The Godfather: So it does, although as applied to Christianity it’s typically been understood to exclude heretics. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a personal favorite of mine, used the term “catholic” to mean the universal church, but he excluded the docetists, whom he considered “beasts in human form”. Then, St. Augustine . . . .”

Tom: Yes, sure, everyone’s going to exclude someone from the “universal” church, but it seems to me that if you say you believe in “one” “universal” church you can’t very well justify the “one” by defining too narrowly who is part of the church; if you do, you undercut your claim that the church is “catholic”.

The Godfather: That makes sense. How about “holy” and “apostolic”. If you follow the lawyer’s approach you need to deal with all the words in the passage.

Tom: OK, OK. “Holy”. It means “divine” or “sacred”.

The Godfather: Right on. But it means “divine” or “sacred” in two senses. First, it can describe the nature of God. God is holy. No human being or human institution can be “holy” in that sense, can it?

Tom: No. In fact there’s a hymn that says of God “only thou are holy.”

The Godfather: It says the same thing in Revelation. The second sense of “holy”, the sense that refers to things human, means not divine or sacred directly , but related to the divine or sacred.

Tom: I see your point. A human person or institution can’t be holy in the way that God is holy, but a human may have a relationship to God, by doing God’s work or being devoted to God’s service, and thus can be said to be holy in the second sense – as in the "holy prophets", or the "holy temple". I guess that’s the sense in which the church could be said to be holy.

The Godfather: Does that help interpret what the “one” church is?

Tom: It does, now that I think of it. It undermines the argument that you can get to “one” church by excluding those who disagree with you. If the Creed spoke of a “virtuous” church or a “pious” church, then maybe that would be consistent with the idea that only those who hold a particular set of beliefs constitute the “one” church. But the Creed says the “one” church is a “holy” church, and you don’t get to be “holy” as a result of doctrine or practices. If you get to be “holy” at all, it’s by having or seeking a relationship to God.

The Godfather: Well, you’ve considered three of the four descriptions of the church, but it seems to me you can’t avoid grappling with “apostolic” any longer.

Tom: Yeah, I guess you’re right. The problem is, I really don’t want to say that the “one” church I believe in has to be one of the churches that follows the apostolic succession. That would exclude an awful lot of Christians.

The Godfather: We Episcopalians and other Anglicans think the apostolic succession is pretty important, and so do our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox and several other churches.

Tom: Sure, I think it’s important, too, but I can’t accept that it’s so essential that the “one” church in the Creed has to exclude the Baptists and Congregationalists and all those other Protestant denominations that abandoned the apostolic succession when they abandoned Rome.

The Godfather: Not liking a conclusion doesn’t make it wrong, though, does it?

Tom: No, but it does provide an incentive to reach a different conclusion.

The Godfather: Spoken like a lawyer. Can you support a different conclusion in this case?

Tom: Hmm. Yes, I can. The Creed says the “one” church is “apostolic”, but it doesn’t say it follows the apostolic succession. It seems to me that a church can be apostolic in other ways. A church can be apostolic if it traces its doctrines and practices back to the apostles’ teachings, back to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, even if it can’t trace its clergy back to the Apostles. In the Baptismal Covenant we say we will "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship".

The Godfather: Like Liza Doolittle, I think you’ve got it! That’s a perfectly plausible interpretation of “apostolic”. It’s not even a stretch.

Tom: Good, but who’s Liza Doolittle?

The Godfather: Young fellow, one of these days we’ve got to get you a cultural education. Theology isn’t everything. But let’s stick to the subject. You’ve now considered the whole phrase, “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, from the Nicene Creed. Do you have a sense now of what it means, and can you affirm it?

Tom: I do have a sense of what it means. I don’t think it refers to any religious institution that actually exists today. I think it refers to a church that is yet to come, a single church that one day will incorporate all true Christians. When we say in the Creed that we “believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, we are identifying an ideal and a goal to strive for. It’s like saying, in the Pledge of Allegiance, that the United States is “one Nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”; we don’t really claim to have achieved liberty and justice for all, but those ideals are part of what our country is all about, they are what we aspire to. "One holy, catholic, and apostolic church" is what Christians hold up as an ideal to aspire to.

The Godfather: And you can affirm that? You can sincerely say, “I believe” in that kind of church?

Tom: Yes, I can.

The Godfather: Well, that’s fine then.

Tom: Is that the interpretation you were leading me towards?

The Godfather: I wasn’t trying to lead you anywhere. We were just having a discussion.

Tom: Well, OK, but do you think that interpretation is right?

The Godfather: It’s a reasonable interpretation, and it works for you. That’s as right as things like this get.

Tom: But do you interpret the phrase that way?

The Godfather: I interpret it a little differently.

Tom: How?

The Godfather: To me, the phrase “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” doesn’t refer to an ideal church to which we aspire, but to a present reality. It refers to all the Christian people of the Earth, of all denominations, and without regard for all their various disagreements with each other. All of us are “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church” right now, even though we so often don’t act like it. When the Prayer Book says, “we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people”, that’s another way of saying, “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”.

Tom: Interesting, but I like mine better.

The Godfather: That’s fine, you’ve got every right. The problem I personally have with your interpretation is that it could mean someday that there actually will be only one church to go to.

Tom: And what would be wrong with that?

The Godfather: It might not be an Episcopal church. And if it isn’t an Episcopal church, you know the music won’t be as good.