Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Old Language, New Religion

"In the current Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, there is, as we would expect, a service of Holy Baptism. If you come to it, having been used to the services in the traditional Book of Prayer, you may be able to read it as if it were simply an updating of these. Further, if you examine the layout of this service, you notice that there are several types of sub-headings within the text. Those in the largest type are obviously intended to indicate the important nature and content of the material that follows and there are three of these: “Presentation and Examination of the Candidates,” “The Baptismal Covenant,” and “The Baptism.” It is here that you may begin to suspect that it is more than simple updating that has occurred here...

In “An Outline of Faith” in the same Prayer Book a covenant with God is defined thus: “A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith.” And the New Covenant is said to be “the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.”
So what we learn from the Service itself and from “An Outline” is that God as the senior Partner in the agreement/covenant/contract sets things in motion — initiates — and the human being as the junior partner accepts certain beliefs and conditions. (In terms of the beliefs and conditions, it would appear that the Episcopal liturgists actually created the terms of the contract of what they deemed God required in the modern world. And they used Scripture, Tradition and “Experience”. In doing this, they innovated in their placing in the contract the requirement of striving for “peace and justice” in the world, and “respecting the dignity” of each and every person, themes which most agree come from the late 1960s when the Service was first planned.)

Recently a female theologian of The Episcopal Church, Frederica H. Thompsett, deeply committed to “The Baptismal Covenant” gave great emphasis to it in an essay entitled, “Baptismal Living: Steadfast Covenant of Hope.” In the first sentence she writes:

Baptism is deeply grounded in the generosity of God. Like all other biblical covenants, whether the Hebrew covenants of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Jeremiah, or the new covenant proclaimed by Paul and others, baptism is a response to God’s initiating love. (Anglican Theological Review, 2004)

This is quite amazing. She equates the baptismal covenant with the new covenant in terms of importance, but as somehow different from it! And in this equation she apparently speaks for many in The Episcopal Church.

What was made clear in Columbus, Ohio, at the 75th General Convention of The Episcopal Church in June 2006, where I was present, was that there is a very clear connection and route from the content of its innovative 1979 Prayer Book to its major innovation in the secular areas of self-worth, human rights and freedoms, especially sexual. And that connection is specifically through the constant use of part of the text of the “Service of Holy Baptism” (1979, pp. 299ff.), specifically “The Baptismal Covenant.” Overseas journalists present at the Convention were mystified by the constant references in Committees, the Houses of Deputies and the House of Bishops to “The Baptismal Covenant” as the apparent basis of Episcopal religion. One journalist, who knows well the Church of England General Synod and its favourite themes, admitted on his Blog that he could not understand why Baptism was mentioned so often in an American Anglican Synod. At this stage he had not yet seen — the penny had not yet dropped — that this Covenant is the foundation of the progressive, liberal agenda.

In The Episcopal Church in 2007, Baptism seems to be widely understood as the ritual entrance into a community (a community in modern terms is the coming together of “individuals” for a common purpose). But what kind of community? This is presented within “The Baptismal Covenant”. Though there is a promise to be committed to certain traditional things such as church attendance, resisting of evil and proclaiming the Gospel, the innovation is in two questions which require an affirmative reply: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” And, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” Then these themes cast their shadow backwards over the topics that went before them so that, for example, proclaiming the Gospel becomes proclaiming what would be called in political terms, a radical, progressive agenda of human affirmation. (All these new explanations of old themes are possible because for many God is no longer perceived in terms of classical Trinitarian Theism but, at best, in terms of panentheism and, at worst, in terms of pantheism; and thus God’s being and the being of the world are seen to be intimately related and so concern for the things of God is necessarily this-worldly, of this cosmos!)
Anyone who has followed the debates and resolutions of the General Convention from the 1960s through to 2006 will have no doubt of the great importance attached to these innovative, radical commitments to “God” based on “The Baptismal Covenant,” which provided not a few General Conventions with their titles and themes. What these commitments mean — if we listen to the General Convention and the Executive Council — is a virtually total dedication to the expanding agenda of civil and human rights and the support of all moves to affirm self-worth and human dignity. Thus anyone making these commitments within the context of the Episcopal Church is virtually committing himself to all the innovations introduced by the General Convention since the 1960s, from the right to divorce and remarriage in church, through a variety of women’s and minority rights, to the rights of homosexual persons to be true to their orientation. To see what “peace and justice” mean the place to go is to the work of the “Peace and Justice Commission” of the Episcopal Church since the 1970s, and to see what “dignity of persons” is all about the place to go is the General Convention and its resolutions arising from acceptance by this Church of most of the agenda of the LesBiGay and Feminist lobbies.
It is also important to note that the new Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, at her installation in The National Cathedral in Washington D.C. on November 4–5, 2006, made “The Baptismal Covenant” central on both days, and also had the ceremony of sprinkling the congregations with “baptismal water” as a sign of their commitment to and renewal of this covenant. Both her sermons presented the Christian Gospel in terms of a commitment to bringing into being a better world for the poor, needy, outcasts and sick. She presented what seemed to be an updated version of the old liberal doctrine of the realization of the kingdom of God on earth as that to which The Baptismal Covenant commits both God and the people of God..."

From Mystical Washing & Spiritual Regeneration by Peter Toon, Preservation Press of the Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A., 2007. Italics mine, ellipses indicate several sentences edited out for sake of brevity.

What Toon writes here, while part of a penetrating analysis of the attempt of the American Anglican establishment to forge a new religion under the guise of traditional Christian language and sacraments, also applies to much of the mainstream Lutheran and Reformed world (and much of Roman Catholicism in Western Europe, North America and Australasia too, for that matter).
For a time it was thought that the impact of Karl Barth, particularly in the English-speaking world in the period from 1920-1959, had overcome the old liberalism in the mainstream Protestant denominations, but since the 1960s "social justice" concerns have brought the old liberalism back into these denominations like a Trojan Horse, and by and large the laity have remained oblivious to the fact. After all, what reasonable person does not want to be seen to be in favour of peace, justice and human rights? Who in their right mind would rather have war, injustice and oppression?

It is only when one takes the time to delve behind the familiar language and examine the concepts involved - as Toon does here and elsewhere in his writings - that one discovers that the language of Zion is being appropriated for the purposes of a neo-Marxist agenda that is fundamentally opposed to everything that these Christian confessions represent. In the neo-Marxist agenda, the oppressed are no longer the urban proletariat, who long ago forsook socialism for the increased standard of living that capitalism provides, but the gay, lesbian and womanist sub-cultures whose rights are denied by conventional, Pharisaic society. The Gospel in this New Religion is a message of radical liberation, not from sin, death and the devil, but from the death-dealing strictures of conventional 'bourgeois' society, in so far as that society remains informed by traditional Christian values.

In a logical development, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church USA, has recently labelled the concern with individual salvation of traditional Christianity a barrier to the church pursuing its real agenda in the world.

However, faithful Anglicans are waking up to the attempt to usurp their religion, and are leaving the ECUSA denomination in droves. Even Rowan Williams has been drawn to comment unambiguously on the recent Episcopal Convention's decision that being in a same-sex relationship is not an obstacle to occupying even the highest of offices in the church.

Members of the Lutheran Church of Australia who engage with Anglicans need to take note of these developments. In most Australian Anglican dioceses, the lines of division have not yet been drawn as clearly as in the US, and since the Evangelicals here are more powerful in the church than in the US, it is harder for the progressives to impose their agenda on the church. But we would be short-sighted to think that the same struggle is not happening here.
For example, the new Prayer Book for Australia (sometimes disparagingly referred to as the "Prayer Brick", due to its hefty size and weight) published in 1999, not only replaced the hallowed traditional phraseology of the 1978 Australian Prayer Book with more prosaic modern sentences, but it also requires candidates for baptism to renounce "selfish living and all that is false and unjust".
Again, at first glance there is perhaps nothing objectionable in this, although it is quite a nebulous sentence. The average church goer might conclude it is derived from John the Baptist's ethical instructions to his baptismal candidates. But how exactly does one define what is selfish, false and unjust today, and therefore to be renounced? One needs to look to the social justice statements of the Diocesan Social Responsibility commissions to find out, and there is the rub.

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