Anyone who reads GetReligion — or the Washington newspapers — knows that one of the biggest religion stories going right now here in Beltwayland is the decision by a circle of major churches in Northern Virginia to exit the Episcopal Church. Let me stress once again that this is a global, national, regional and local story and it is just getting started.
So several faithful readers have continued to pepper me with emails, asking when I was going to comment on the recent Washington Post story by Alan Cooperman and Jacqueline L. Salmon focused on the influence of the charismatic renewal movement on life in Truro Episcopal Church and The Falls Church, the largest and most famous of these churches that are rebelling against the liberal U.S. establishment in order to remain in Communion — large “C” — with the majority of Anglicans around the world.
I wanted to comment, but I wasn’t sure quite what I wanted to say. Many people were infuriated by the opening of the story, which made it sound as if The Falls Church (and Truro, too) are packed with holy rollers of the most Pentecostal ilk. Yes, I saw that lede and I, too, thought it was over the top:
Parishioners say it happens quietly, unobtrusively: As the sick make their way to the altar, some worshipers begin speaking in tongues. Occasionally, one is “arrested in the spirit,” falling unconscious into the arms of a fellow congregant.
The special faith-healing services, held one Sunday night a month at The Falls Church in Fairfax, are a rarity in the Episcopal Church. But members of The Falls Church have long felt at odds with fellow Episcopalians, who they believe have been drifting theologically in an ever more liberal direction.
Wow, they have a small Sunday-night charismatic service once a month? How many Washington-area Catholic churches have a charismatic service at least once a month?
But that is almost beside the point. Cooperman is a veteran religion-beat writer and he just has to know Anglicanism well enough to know that The Falls Church is a large but typical low-church evangelical parish, one that has been influenced more by the likes of the Revs. John Stott and J.I. Packer than by Father Terry Fullam and the giants of the charismatic renewal movement in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. Now, Truro is another matter, although — as noted in the Post story — worship in that parish is also quite mainstream these days.
The lede was bizarre. But I want to focus on something else — the fact that Cooperman and Salmon grasped that there is much, much more to the global Anglican warfare than battles over sexuality. Some people are so mad about the lede that they missed the fact that the core of this story is spot-on accurate.
How? The charismatic movement did have a major impact on the Episcopal Church, even in the old-line evangelical parishes — almost as large an impact as the Sexual Revolution had in Episcopal seminaries and the national church’s elite leaders. And, yes, the charismatic movement is a major force in the expansion of Christianity in the Third World, affecting a wide range of mainline, Catholic and evangelical churches. The story gets that right. I am also sure that, as these more conservative parishes boomed in Northern Virginia, some liberal Episcopalians moved to other churches. Duh.
But the key to the whole story comes near the end, framed in quotes by Father Rick Wright, associate rector at The Falls Church. This is a long quote, but read it all:
Wright said the diverse membership of both congregations illustrates one of the great changes in American religion of the past half-century: The divisions between denominations are far less important today than the divisions within denominations.
… Attitudes toward homosexuality are one of the brightest lines between the liberal and conservative camps. But few members of Truro or The Falls Church say the division is, fundamentally, about whether to bless sex-same couples or whether to ordain gay ministers — the issues that have strained relations between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the 75 million-member Anglican Communion, the worldwide family of churches descended from the Church of England.
Many say the rift involves something deeper — whether the Bible is the word of God, Jesus is the only way to heaven and tolerance is more important than truth. When he was a newly ordained priest almost 20 years ago, Wright said, he talked with several other priests about how to respond to a teenager who asked, “Do you really believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?”
“The rest of the priests agreed that it was a sticky question, and they felt that way because they didn’t believe in it, but they didn’t want to say so,” he said. “That’s where the Episcopal Church has been for the last 20 years. It’s not where we are.”
This thesis was underlined in an op-ed piece in the Post that followed the page-one news report, written by Father John Yates and the famous writer and apologist Os Guinness:
The core issue for us is theological: the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world. It is thus a matter of faithfulness to the lordship of Jesus, whom we worship and follow. The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. Some leaders expressly deny the central articles of the faith — saying that traditional theism is “dead,” the incarnation is “nonsense,” the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, the understanding of the cross is “a barbarous idea,” the Bible is “pure propaganda” and so on. Others simply say the creed as poetry or with their fingers crossed.
Now, should any of this sound familiar to longtime GetReligion readers — drinking game alert?
(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
Check. That’s in there.
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
Check. That’s in there, too.
(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
Check, although the Post story accurately notes that this is not the pivotal issue.
So what is going on here? The key words are “via media.”
Long ago, a wise Episcopal bishop illustrated the church’s famous “via media,” middle way, compromise approach to doctrine for me in this manner. The right, he said, says, “Jesus is Lord.” The left says, “Jesus is not Lord.” The via media is, therefore, “Jesus is occasionally Lord.” He was joking, of course. Anglicans on the left and right use the term “Lord,” but they merely define the term differently.
But here is another example: “Sex outside of marriage is a sin,” says the right. “Sex outside of marriage is not a sin,” says the left. The via media becomes, “Sex outside of marriage is occasionally a sin.” See how it works? Let’s try it again: “The biblical accounts of the resurrection are true,” says the right. “The biblical accounts of the resurrection are not true, in the literal sense of that word, but true in some spiritual or symbolic sense,” says the left. The via media? “The biblical accounts of the resurrection are occasionally true and, thus, the doctrine is optional or can be defined in a thousand different ways, but please do not talk about this in front of the laypeople.”
So the Post story got far more right than it got wrong. Three (a trio even) cheers!
Now is it time to move one step further and ask the special bonus question that I have long used in coverage of the Anglican wars? That question is: “Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?”