Who is a "Christian"?

703 765-7862 emmfox@juno.com
The Rev. Earle Fox
2605 Schooley Dr.
Alexandria, VA 22306

May 28, 2001

The Rt. Rev. Peter Lee
Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
110 W Franklin St.
Richmond, VA 23220

Dear Bishop Lee,

I received your letter inquiring whether I made a remark attributed to me in an email, which apparently got fairly wide circulation. I appreciate your courtesy in making the inquiry. This reply is a bit long because my article and your query raise many of the deepest issues facing the Church. I very much agree with your concern that the debate raging in the Church be conducted with grace and truth, and want to support you in that endeavor.

The quote is indeed accurate. I do not believe either Frank Griswold or Jane Dixon to be Christians -- not in any sense that would permit them to be leaders in the Church. I perhaps should have nuanced my statement that they are not bishops in the Church of God with the note that they are bishops in the institutional sense. They do occupy an office. That is a position which many people take in the Church today who believe that our leadership is leading us headlong into disaster.

It is my perception that the Episcopal Church is in serious trouble, contrary to what the Presiding Bishop has said on occasion. It is not doing well largely, I think, because our episcopal and priestly leadership has been unwilling to discern, or is incapable of discerning, the boundaries of Christianity. The Biblical worldview and the Gospel of Jesus Christ have been preached from the housetops for nearly two millennia, and there is a reasonably clear picture of what constitutes the Christian faith and what does not. There are reasonably clear lines between secularism and paganism on one hand, and Biblical faith on the other.

In both secularism and paganism, clarity of truth is ultimately and inherently not attainable. But one of the foundational premises of Biblical faith is that truth about God and His will for us is sufficiently discernible to guide our lives and to act upon. Thus we have the highest obligation to be truth-seekers at any cost to ourselves. It would not be too strong to say that any person not committed to truth-seeking need not apply to Jesus for discipleship.

One is quite free to make his own assessment of what truth is, and to act upon it, but one is not free in any reasonable sense to take beliefs which are clearly contrary to the Christian faith and to promote them as though they were Christian. If anyone at all, especially a bishop, is badly confused about the nature of the Christian faith, that should be dealt with gracefully. But it should not be taken lightly, nor should it be taken to mean that all the rest of us are obligated to be confused as well. Nor to mean that we should call "Christian" that which is not Christian.

Bishop Griswold has made many public statements to the effect that truth is "pluriform". If he is saying that truth can be expressed in various ways culturally, or that our perception of truth may at times be cloudy, that is obvious, and few would disagree. But he is saying something quite different. He is using "pluriformity" to justify behavior, moral values, and beliefs which are not only contrary to a reasonable interpretation of Scripture, but drift decidedly toward secular and/or pagan interpretations of reality.

If, as I believe, Scripture (seen through the lens of the Nicene Creed) is our "constitution", that which defines the meaning of the word 'Christian', then teaching pluriformity of truth is a very serious matter.  Truth is not, and cannot be, pluriform in the sense he uses the word. Truth in and of itself is clear and unambiguous. And so is the Lord of truth. A "relative" or "pluralistic" view of truth is both logically and spiritually self-destructive. Pluriform truth would be at home in Hinduism, but not in Christianity.

Bishop Griswold has steadfastly refused to respond to challenges to his statements. Bishop Wantland, a medical doctor, and myself wrote him several times about a statement he was quoted as making in the Boston Globe many months ago to the effect that homosexuality was scientifically proven to be inborn. There is no such evidence, and he has given no substantial response to our query.

One cannot say that truth is relative or pluriform and legitimately call himself a Christian. That is the basis of my statement that Frank Griswold is not a Christian. He is teaching something about the nature of truth which is destructive to the Christian faith. The same appears very much to be true of Jane Dixon, and indeed many other bishops.

Both Griswold and Dixon are apparently telling Fr. Sam Edwards that he is a "schismatic". One might ask: If truth is pluriform, how can anyone be schismatic? A pluriform truth is too indeterminate to be schismatic against. Where there is nothing clear and distinct, there can be nothing over against it.

It would seem that truth is only selectively pluriform. They apparently want their opposition's truth to be pluralized and relativized so that there will be no defending of it, but when their truth is challenged, they stoutly defend it against "schismatics" as though it were real and objective. That is manipulation, not dialogue.

It was the two bishops' remarks critical of Fr. Edwards which inspired my article in the first place. Dixon is referring to Sam Edwards as an unfit priest as well as schismatic. Making such a charge is not itself the problem. It is rather the intransigent and dictatorial manner in which she is conducting herself that is the problem. Bishop Iker has referred to her behavior quite accurately as "totalitarianism". Should Bishop Iker's remarks also be held unacceptable? Sam Edwards is quite willing to have his views and behavior publicly examined. Jane Dixon, I think, is not.

A bishop has the right, even duty, to examine the character of a priest entering that diocese. But by the same token, the members of the Episcopal Church have a right, even a duty, to examine the character and qualification of their leaders. We who are not in high positions of authority do not have the clout that those in authority have. But we must exercise our Godly judgement nevertheless. That is what I am trying to do.

It appears to me that neither Frank Griswold nor Jane Dixon are interested in the truth of the matters that confront us today. They are, with quite different styles, interested instead, it appears to me, in getting their way and using dishonest and manipulative means to do so. So on both theological and behavioral grounds I call their Christian faith into question.

The "parable" which I related in my email about Mr. Hob requiring the white corpuscles to "dialogue" with the Virus family is an accurate description of what I see the Presiding Bishop doing. The last thing he appears to want is discussion based on fact, logic, or honest Biblical principles. He could very easily and quickly prove me wrong by promoting such a discussion. I would like to have that happen, I invite it to happen. But I think it will not.

Whether my words constitute a "personal attack" as you suggest, each person will have to decide. I suppose Jesus' reference to certain Jewish leaders as sons of the devil could be called a personal attack. He apparently thought His description of them to be accurate. When I am told that I am being unfair to someone, I ask myself two questions. First -- Is what I said factually true? If not, then I should not be saying it at all. But then -- If it is true, could I have said it more gracefully?

I believe my remarks to be true, so it would be cowardly or dishonest, not compassionate or loving, if I did not say so. My saying so is not an attack, but simply an attempt to describe the way things are -- in the same way Bishop Dixon ought to be describing Fr. Edwards. But if it can be shown that either of the bishops in question is indeed Christian in teaching and practice in the matters I have described, I will publicly recant and apologize. And if I can be shown a more graceful way of saying that a person is not a Christian than saying simply that he is not a Christian, then I would gladly yield to the better way.

But I would want the two bishops to make themselves vulnerable also by opening discussion of such issues, not ignoring them behind privileged position.

In your response to me, you say that my words are "unacceptable", which seems to imply that no Christian, perhaps especially bishops, should be told that they are not Christians, and that it is "unacceptable" to say so. Such language would be unacceptable, I think, only if the public evidence adequately testified to their being followers of Christ in word and deed. But when public evidence supports the contrary, surely that should be said and examined. We Christians, of all people in the world, should be aware of our fallen natures, and therefore make no unexamined assumptions about the worthiness of any person for spiritual leadership. We have come to the astonishing pass where clergy must have a background check before they may minister in a parish, a sad recognition indeed of our fallenness. An occasional reality check on our bishops is surely not out of order.

In civil law, the parallel would be making it illegal to accuse a person of a crime on the grounds that such accusation was abusive. That is precisely where our so-called "hate crime laws" are taking us. Serious critique of homosexuality is already being outlawed in certain areas. There must be the freedom to raise any issue at all, with the obvious protections against frivolous or deliberately slanderous charges. One must prove his case. But that cannot be done if the very raising of the issue is forbidden. We must raise the issue of what and who is legitimately Christian.

Raising that issue requires a reasonably clear notion of what the word 'Christian' means. And that is precisely where we have failed so badly. We have no consensus on what the word means partly because we have swallowed a pluralistic notion of truth which allows almost any definition of a word. That, in my opinion, is intellectually and spiritually irresponsible and indefensible. It does nothing at all for true inclusiveness, compassion, or freedom, it only opens the door for charlatans and manipulators.

If someone were to say that I was not a Christian, I would ask him why he said that -- rather than accuse him of abusing me. That would be a loving and intelligent way to respond. After all, there might be some point on which he was correct. It would be immature and self-serving to take it as an "attack" on my person -- unless he was not willing to state his case clearly and allow reasonable response from myself (the very thing guaranteed by honest due process). That would be abuse, and indeed unacceptable. I am willing to state my case clearly and I desire open response. That is not abuse, and should be supremely acceptable.

I would recommend to all of us, but especially to our bishops, the attitude of Socrates: If I am wrong, please inform me -- I wish to be disabused of my ignorance. Or the attitude of Jesus: Pick up your cross daily and follow Me -- into truth, into reality.

I bear neither bishop any personal ill will over this matter, and would be overjoyed to find that I am wrong, but I have little hope that either bishop would be willing to have such a candid discussion. Frank Griswold declined to discuss his remarks on the homosexual issue. And Jane Dixon's current handling of the Christ Church, Accokeek, matter does not suggest openness to honest dialogue. I am not making my comments without significant public evidence or out of personal pique.

The sad truth is that a large and growing number of Episcopalians believe as I do. I am chagrined that most will not speak their minds so as to force the matter onto the table. Many are voting instead with their feet. Whole congregations have lost any faith that they will have an honest hearing in ECUSA. They are leaving because they believe, as I do, that the House of Bishops is a dysfunctional body, unable to discipline its own members because it is unable or unwilling to draw a clear line about the Christian faith. We believe that the House of Bishops has lost its way, and we do not trust their leadership anymore.

It is long past time that that matter should be dealt with openly and honestly. It will not be done by being "nice" to each other. It will be painful, and there will be "losers" -- to the degree that anyone is less than a truth-seeker and/or unwilling to repent where needed. A "party" or a viewpoint may lose, but the people will win. When truth wins, everybody wins.

The most helpful thing that the House of Bishops could do for the health of the Episcopal Church, in my opinion, would be some serious study on the nature of truth and of due process, and on the boundaries of the Christian faith. I would like very much to be a part of such a discussion.

But we in America have badly fallen into the "relative truth" trap, and have therefore substituted "feeling good" and "polite collegiality" for truth-seeking so that any such discussion will not likely happen in the near future.

Happily, it will happen eventually, because God will not allow it otherwise.

You are known as a centrist, holding the middle ground against extremists on both ends. We have liberals who do not liberate and conservatives who do not conserve, neither very good at focusing us on the truth, and therefore unable to communicate with each other. Both extremes are often more interested in feeling good than in truth-seeking.

I would propose that there is a different kind of "middle ground" to occupy than a compromise between extremes, the ground of objective truth, where liberals liberate with truth and conservatives conserve truth -- at any cost to themselves. We then have a common focus on objective reality, the only possible hope of unity. We begin to occupy that true middle ground when we first give up our right to "be right", and then let the truth and the Lord of truth speak for themselves (i.e., follow the evidence). That is how we pick up our crosses and follow Christ into the kind of truth that can set us free.

Just yesterday I saw the film, The Patriot, and was moved more deeply than ever before to appreciate how we are to lay down our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor for a cause larger than ourselves. Unity in the Body of Christ must be at the top of any such list.

I hope and pray that you will exert your leadership in that direction, and I will support any such efforts 100%. If it would help for me to come down to your office to discuss this matter, I would be glad to do so.

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