“Beyond the Litmus-Test”

SCHORI: Beyond the Litmus-Test: The Repudiation of the God of Grace
By Gary L’Hommedieu

“Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. That is not to say that Muslim’s or Sikhs or Jains come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through human experience — through human experience of the divine. Christians talk about that in terms of Jesus.” (Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, in an interview with Robin Young on “Here and Now”, October 18, 2006)

The recent interview with the new PB almost two weeks ago is a “must hear”. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about it through the blogosphere until yesterday. Perhaps it was appropriate as I sat home alone on Hollowe’en night hoping to ignore trick-or-treaters. Along came something I couldn’t ignore, nor should any Episcopalian. (Follow this link to the “Here and Now” web site to download the interview on Real Player: http://www.here-now.org/shows/2006/10/20061018_9.asp.)

As the interview demonstrates, the ascending Primate of the Episcopal Church is a politician of rare polish. By comparison her predecessors are a dim bulb (in the case of Edmond Browning) and a clownish dancing bear (in the case of Frank Griswold). Schori is probably the only member of the HOB with gravitas and (in a word) star power.

Soft-spoken, articulate, urbane, she hits all the buttons that excite the liberal mainstream of the new Episcopal religion: she validates the righteous-rebellion ethos of the Baby Boomer generation that only minutes ago was reported to be on life support.

Let’s not underestimate the eleventh hour genius of the collective unconscious of the Columbus Convention in surfacing Schori as the new icon for the Episcopal Church. She embodies the “clarity” of the Church’s liberal mainstream that has been so much commented on ever since. Indeed, in her own person she reveals the Church’s renewed identity. Beyond that, she points to an underground tributary with the civil religion of America’s past.

The Episcopal Church was a washed out rainbow coalition on its way to Convention 2006. They knew only one thing for sure — who their enemy was (their own Christian past) — and they instinctively flailed against it in legislative sessions and public gatherings. The election of Katherine Schori was truly a surprise. Even more of a surprise was the instant eruption of institutional coherence. Suddenly all the parts fit. The Church’s splintered, moth-eaten radicalism now had a single thrust and a fresh vitality.

This new vitality explains the shift to “mop-up” mode in dealing with the recalcitrant orthodox in recent months, which hourly increases in intensity. And don’t look for a “kinder, gentler conversation” with the Episcopal Church’s new Mother in God — not before you’re spoken with Bishops Iker and Ackerman.

Robin Young’s October 18 interview captures the verbal component of the new icon — the “kerygma”, as it were. Essentially it is this: we come to God by our experience.

Schori’s views have been decried as radical and heretical so many times since June that such a bald reduction of her message doesn’t at first appear to say anything. It doesn’t decry her obvious universalism, denying (as she clearly does) the unique role of Jesus in salvation. Nor does it parade indignation over her “radical” views on sexuality — snatched up, like all of ECUSA’s “radicalism”, from the clearance table of secular politics. These are litmus-test issues for Evangelical Christians. Orthodox Episcopalians get so stirred up by our own saber-rattling in response to some heresy-du-jour, that we don’t see here the essence of a new Gospel.

The rising Primate stated concisely the de facto doctrine of salvation of the Episcopal Church, probably speaking for the majority of Episcopalians in most of the years that the American Church has existed: Christians are NOT saved by grace, nor by a God of grace: that is, supernaturally, by God’s sole initiative, breaking through an impenetrable barrier of human sin, against our wills, in spite of our utter powerlessness and rage against the One who loves us and gives Himself for us.

Here “grace” refers to the willful (arbitrius, hence “arbitrary”) act of God on our behalf — hence, sovereign and providential — by His choice (i.e., His “election”) to act on our behalf, when we were DEAD in sin (not just mortally wounded), not out of response to us based upon our worth or merit (i.e., as a wage owed) or any reason at all, but strictly as an expression of His divine love. The model of this love is the Blessed and Undivided Trinity.

We are saved rather through our own experience, through craning our necks toward the Divine, and being “graciously” drawn in by Him/Her/It, AS IF BY NATURE. Here “salvation” (which, on account of its “terrorizing” associations ought only to be placed in quotes) is not really “necessary”, but certainly it “helps”.

This second Divinity would be described as “gracious” and “grace-ful”, but it is the “grace” of the Nanny Church. It expresses an entirely different species of “condescension” from that of the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. It proclaims a “love” that expects nothing, because it really has nothing to give. It does not lift the beloved, but professes out of “love” to allow the “beloved” to persist in his/her/its present degradation. It lacks the strength of conviction to reproduce itself in the “beloved”, or to say with confidence that as a result of its loving ministrations “the servant will be like the master”, or even “the child will be like the parent”. It knows its so-called “life” will be replicated in its children out of inertia, so it doesn’t need to muster conviction — or risk embarassment.

The model for this form of “love” is the Welfare State, sustained by the illusion that such a social organism has ever, anywhere produced the good it proclaimed. It is the perfect “gospel” for the twenty-first century. Its full articulation, in the person of the Episcopal Church’s twenty-sixth primate, is a stunning revelation.

Ever since Episcopalians were known to be the main signers of the Declaration of Independence, it’s been assumed that most Episcopalians have been Deists for most of our nation’s, and our Church’s, history. Here, then, is an added dimension to the “clarity” we’ve witnessed since this past summer in the re-emerging Episcopal Church. More than “clarity”, there’s a “resonance” — a “ringing true” — and the revealing of a thread that goes beyond the past thirty years of recycled campus radicalism, into the mists of Enlightenment religion in the New World. The election of Katherine Schori thus “rings true” for what the Episcopal Church has always been, perhaps for a majority of her members.

While orthodox observers have long complained about the Deism of the American Church (even long before the era of modern radicalism), there have rarely been accusations of heresy. Deism is an ancient, if rather senile, heresy — even tame and respectable.

The god of Deism is perfect for the Me-Generations especially as a “bridge” between Eastern and Western forms of religion. While Schori’s drifting toward the divine via “experience” has an Eastern flavor to it — and she is quick to affirm Eastern religions by name — her functional Unitarianism places her within the purview of Western theism. Once again she “resonates” with something old and something new.

Let’s not miss what is really wrong about the present moment. The Episcopal Church is not just waffling between hot-button slogans. She is, perhaps for the first time, steeled to a position to do actual battle with the primary genius of historic orthodoxy — the utterly unique God of Grace.

The Church finds itself, in spite of itself, poised with a revelation. Here is the Dragon that lay dormant, or seemed too insipid to be confronted or even named, for centuries. By an unplanned, unthinkable coincidence of circumstances, ideologies old and new have coalesced in the person of THIS rising prelate in THIS time and place.

The Nanny Church finally has a real Nanny. This is no accident. It is what finally accounts for the “resonance” of the present moment.

—The Rev. Canon J. Gary L’Hommedieu is canon for Pastoral Care at Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando, Florida

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