Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jeff Murph reflects on Spiritual Authority

Questions of Realignment
What about being under the ‘spiritual authority” of the Episcopal Church?

By The Rev. Jeff Murph, Rector St. Thomas Episcopal Church Oakmont PA.

Though this is not usually a question that progressives tend to ask (or even frame in the same way), many traditional and conservative Christians have expressed the concern about being spiritually connected (or even worse, spiritually under) the Episcopal Church. This view is one that perceives not only human beings but even Creation itself as having a greater dimension than what can simply be seen or tested empirically. It is a view that accepts that there is a spiritual reality to the world in which we live, a reality that has an effect and interconnection with all of God’s Creation.

Perhaps the most familiar passage of Scripture that reflects this perspective is Ephesians 6:12, which comes immediately before the famous “armor of God” section. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The New Testament, of course, makes it clear that Jesus, by his work on the cross, has completely defeated these spiritual powers in rebellion against God. Now, all authority has been given to him (Philippians 2: 9-11, 1 Peter 3:22). This removal of authority from spiritual evil does not, however, mean that they no longer have any power. Indeed, as Martin Luther’s famous hymn says of the Enemy, “his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal” (Hymn 688). As a consequence of being transferred from darkness to light (Colossians 1:13), however, we are now citizens of a different kingdom. The last thing we would want would be to return to that darkness and to that cruel ruler.

In the question of realignment (especially in light of theological statements made by the Presiding Bishop that do not seem to find any warrant in Scripture), one principal reason for leaving the Episcopal Church is to escape to a safer spiritual pasture. No longer is it safe, many realigners say, to stay in such a foggy and confused and fatally compromised church. Many point to the danger of the spiritual authority of a heterodox Presiding Bishop, reflecting the general Anglican understanding that bishops are shepherds, charged with spiritual authority for a diocese.

It is true that the bishop is charged with spiritual authority over a diocese. In fact, the priests exercise their ministry under his. It is not, however, true that the Presiding Bishop exercises this same kind of authority over the whole United States. Unlike an Archbishop, the American Presiding Bishop is primarily a convener (calling the leaders of the church together) and the enforcer of discipline set by the whole church. She has no authority to articulate doctrine. Neither does she have any authority in any diocese at all unless the canons of the Episcopal Church are broken in that diocese. In fact, she cannot even enter a diocese to function ecclesiastically without the local bishop’s permission. With these limits, it is hard to imagine any Presiding Bishop as the spiritual authority over the American Church.

What does articulate doctrine for the Episcopal Church? Quite simply, the Book of Common Prayer. General Convention can approve a prayer book after a lengthy trial period and with two consecutive conventions voting affirmatively. The current Book of Common Prayer, approved in 1979, contains all the historic formularies usually recognized in the Anglican Communion: the three creeds, the Thirty-nine Articles, the Outline of the Faith (called the Catechism), and, of course, the liturgy.

Finally, Anglican Christians have always understood that the real spiritual authority of the Church is Jesus, of course, who is the actual Head of the Church. It is not really St. Peter who will determine who will enter heaven or not but the blood of Jesus Christ. Those congregations who place themselves squarely under the authority of Jesus have nothing ultimately to fear either from powers and principalities nor from unfaithful bishops. Over the centuries, there have unfortunately always been unworthy shepherds; sometimes the Church has been in great suffering because of their unfaithfulness. Yet Jesus the Head always has brought his Church back to the Truth by the power of his Holy Spirit, raising up obedient shepherds and leaders for his people. “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5: 23-24)


Anonymous said...

Thanks Fr. Murph for taking the time to write such an excellent response to a comment from an anonymous poster. The gracious tone was appreciated and it is obvious careful thought went into this response. While I believe I have been convinced that the PB is merely a figurehead with no ecclesiastical authority at all here in Pittsburgh, and no spiritual authority either, my discomfort has not been alleviated. My comments addressed "moral" authority, which I did not mean to equate with "spiritual" authority. Are we not being duplicitous in praying every Sunday for "Katherine, our Presiding Bishop" and yet claiming that in reality she is nothing to us? Can we truthfully say that our PB doesn’t speak for us? As the Presiding Bishop must we not acknowledge being under her leadership in some way? At the very least I would describe it as being under her moral authority. Is the PB not a source of guidance for TEC? Does she not speak for TEC when giving interviews? I’m just not convinced we can safely dismiss the PB as irrelevant to the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I believe however that you have in a way already addressed this concern with your observations regarding unfaithful bishops, and no doubt would say it is our task as Christians to endure such trials with patience.

The great debate in Pittsburgh right now is- can we safely ignore the unfaithfulness in much of TEC and in our PB or must we leave as the danger (to our witness, to our children) is too great? I understand the original answer by Fr. Simons in FAQ #1 and your enlargement on it as being, yes, we can safely ignore the PB and the heterodoxy rampant in much of TEC because we in Pittsburgh are, in a very strict technical sense, not affected by it. Not everyone will agree with this answer.

Robert Christian said...

In my family we are mostly Christian but from variety of denominations. There was a time when the Russian Orthodox would not eat in the homes of some of my RC family members and the RC members were mortified by weddings and funerals held in Protestant churches. Over the years and most of my life I luckly haven't experienced it (there have been a few occaisions that some would skip the wedding cerimony for fear of being tainted by being in another denominations church but that was/is rare).

In TEC we often go to church with people who have a different opinion on many issues, political, social, ect... These people don't speak for me nor do I speak for them. Even my rector, whom I think is wonderful doesn't speak for the entire parish. I wonder if it's possible that we can get to a place were people can hold different opinions on issues and still be respected as God's children? Yes, I feel more in touch with ++KJS's views but that has never meant that I didn't respect and even like Bishop Duncan. In fact there have been many times I've agree with our bishop on many theology viewpoints.

It's a big world and we need to learn to find what we have in common and learn to live together.

Unknown said...

Please reference the following link from the TEC website which defines the role of the PB. It states that the PB's role is to initiate and develop church policy and strategy, and to speak God's word to the church and the world. I'm sorry Fr. Murph, but it sure sounds like the PB is expected to set precedents and to be a spiritual guide for us. Based on her stated beliefs about my Savior, Jesus Christ, I really do not want KJS to speak for me to the world or to tell me how I should worship Him by setting any church policy or strategy (such as initiating changes to the BCP.) And yes, I have always believed that Jesus is the head of my church, but I am NOT sure she believes that.