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The Grand Canyon Factor!

News Analysis

By Peter Toon
VirtueOnline Correspondent

If you observe and listen very carefully to the proceedings of the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church USA, you probably will soon come to the realization that there are two basic forms of the Christian religion in this mainline denomination.

For want of better terms, one may call the dominant one, "The New Episcopal Religion," [NER] and the minority one, "the traditional Episcopal Religion" [TER]. Of course, there is a variety of emphases and opinion in each; but, this does not change the fact of the existence of the two as basic, structured realities.

To identify NER and TER is not new. At the General Convention in Phoenix in 1991, this writer published in the conservative daily newspaper, "The Source," an essay using the analogy of the Grand Canyon (north of Phoenix) as a means of stating the obvious gulf that divided the progressive, liberal Episcopalians (the majority) from the traditional Episcopalians (the minority).

The division that was obvious in 1991 is even more obvious in 2006 with the difference that the minority, the TER, is smaller now than then.

If you were not informed, you could approach the Grand Canyon without knowing it was there for you only see it, with its vast depth and size, when you stand looking into it. And it is possible not to know that there is a vast gulf within the Episcopal Church when one simply, as it were, looks around at the varied activities of the General Convention over 10 days or so. Generally speaking people of all types seem to be getting on well together and no major division is visible!

However, if you attend a hearing arranged by a Committee, or stay long enough in the House of Bishops or House of Deputies, or take time to read the Reports submitted to the Convention, or attend the Press briefings for the Media, then you will begin to discern that there is a Canyon. For example, you note that, rather than people talking to one another using the same fundamental foundations and premises, they are addressing each other from very different positions and with different mindsets.

And you soon also realize that they are not merely disagreeing over such well-known [presenting] issues such as sexual relations and ethics, political activism for peace and justice issues, and the use of the Bible in Liturgy, but over three or four fundamental matters - in fact, over the answers to basic questions such as:

1. Who is God? 2. Who is Jesus? 3. Where is authority for Christians? 4. What is salvation?

There are two different religions, NER and TER, because there are different and opposed doctrines of God, Jesus, the Bible and Salvation! The differences are sometime major and severe, and at other times minor but yet significant. But they exist and their existence is the major fact of the Convention.

The Deity that supports the agenda of the NER is so often One that is identified with Pantheism or Panentheism or Process Theology. That is, there is a close identification of the Being of God with the cosmos and with human history and development; and God and the cosmos are seen as influencing one another in a cosmic and historic evolution and development. If traditional terms like "The Trinity" are used it is often as a symbol for human community (i.e., God is said to be Three in One and One in Three and as such this points to the ideal of human variety forming a unity).

Apparently Jesus is supremely the Human Being (some hesitate to call him "Man") who, in the great evolutionary process, has appeared to reflect and reveal God, and does do supremely in his ministry where he identifies with and cares for the poor, the outcast, the despised, the rejected, the unwanted, the badly treated and so on. He is the Savior who impels the agenda of "peace and justice" and "the dignity of all persons" (baptismal covenant) by the people of God, it is believed.

Then the Holy Spirit is the Power of this Deity and of this Jesus and is wholly identified with their mission in the world.

The Bible has a unique place in NER in that it is the first in a line of witnesses to the revelation of God to humankind. It is the written record of how ancient Israelites, Jews and Christians believed that God had visited and spoken to them. Its real authority lies in it being the first testimony. However, since the Spirit continues to reveal the mind of Deity to the people of God, much of the Bible's witness has been made irrelevant. For, in NER, Contemporary Experience very much provides a source and a means of discerning God's will for his people today. So the Bible is important for origins and first principles but it does not stand alone for God has revealed Godself often since its last page was written! The people of God have to consult the whole of this continuing revelation.

Finally, Salvation is all about having a relationship with God, personally and in community, and thereby joining in God's mission of peace and justice in the world. Following Jesus is imitating his example of caring for those who are the unloved, mistreated and abandoned. At death one goes to be with God, that is, to be absorbed into divine being and activity.

In contrast, the TER, begins with God, the LORD, the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who is transcendent and wholly different in his Being and Godhead from the cosmos. It emphasizes Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), the Incarnation of the Son, his ministry on earth, his substitutionary , atoning death for our sins, his glorious resurrection for our justification before the Father, and his exaltation to heaven to be our Prophet, Priest and King, our Mediator and our Saviour. It speaks of the descent of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of the Father and the Son, to continue the work of salvation and redemption. And it teaches that the Bible is the Word of God written, the inspired record in human language of God's self-revelation to man, containing his message of salvation from sin and into eternal life, with his commandments for his faithful people. This revelation is final and authoritative and cannot be changed in essentials.

In the TER there is a clear distinction between God as The Transcendent One and God as immanent in creation, the world and the Church. And the latter is wholly dependent upon the former so that God is the Lord of creation.

In the NER this absolute distinction between God and the world either does not exist or is blurred, for God is very closely identified with the cosmos which like the Being of God is in an eternal process of evolution and change. And if God is changing then the agenda of the church should change, it is claimed!

Between these two religions there is a great gulf, a wide and deep canyon and there is no way to bridge them.

--The Rev. Dr. Peter Toon is president of the Prayer Book Society in the U.S.A.


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