To the **** Church
Vestry & Search Committee:

[COMMENT: I wrote this piece in 2001 when the church I was attending was searching for a new rector.  It thought of itself as a conservative church, and has a history going back to colonial days.  The search committee apparently thought of me as a "trouble-maker" and did not respond to my queries.  And there was no discernable open discussion of vital issues in the parish.  They are "conservative" in the contemporary sense of being comfort oriented.  They just want conservative comforts, but are able to conserve very little.

However, this piece may be helpful for any church that wishes to find clarity on some essential issues.  Clarity always favors truth, and unclarity always favors falsehood.  

NOTE: the "vestry" is the governing body in an Episcopal church.  E. Fox]
 

To the **** Church Vestry and Search Committee:

I am responding to your request for input on the selection of a rector for ***** Church.

Though a clergyman myself, I am writing simply as a deeply concerned Episcopalian and ***** member. This is a "wake-up call" to the Episcopal Church. I want to share with my brothers and sisters in Christ the love of the Father as He has given me light to understand that. This piece is a bit long, but we will not renew the Church with slogans and sound-byte discussion. It will be renewed by persons dedicated to spending time, effort, and sometimes sweat and tears, at the task before us.
 

I. Parish Discussion for Calling a New Rector

The primary issue before us is holding discussion which is both honest and loving. Much of the dialogue sponsored in the wider Episcopal Church has been "managed" so that no substantive issues could be addressed. One is often called bad names merely for questioning the oppositionís view, so the discussion that needs to happen is never allowed, especially in sexuality issues. The agenda is sidetracked down "feel good" rabbit trails to prevent "conflict" (love without the discipline of truth), so that no honest conclusions based on fact and logic can be made. One is allowed to raise any issue he wants -- so long as it does not hurt anyoneís feelings i.e., proposes no serious changes. So if you do not want an issue raised, you quickly develop hurt feelings over it and play the victim role.

That, however, does not mean that life and death decisions affecting all of us are not being made -- only that they are being made without our being asked. We are treated as children who are not capable of gracefully handling substantive issues, never mind that it is our lives and deaths with which they toy. We Christians have become docile men and women rather than spiritual warriors for truth and for the Lord of truth. If we will not, as mature adults, do our own informed decision-making, then the incompetent, the cowardly, and the charlatan will do it for us.

These manipulative strategies are often defended on the grounds that unity is more important than truth. Unity is very important, but we attain unity only by becoming of one mind in the truth, not by merely feeling good together. The truth, not comfort, as Jesus reminds us, sets us free. Reality will give us Godly comfort, comfort-seeking will not give us reality. The love of our Father is built on the solid rock of objective truth.

Some things ought to be done well or not at all. Calling a new rector is one of those. There is no way to intelligently call a new rector if we parishioners are not well informed on the issues confronting the parish and the larger Church.

That does not mean, as many fear, that love must get lost in the debate over issues. We should speak the truth as we see it because we love one another. But (unless I happen to be infallible) I must also have a correctable attitude, seeking the truth, not merely the establishment of my own current opinion. Neither love nor truth will survive without each other. Honest compassion is always rooted in truth. An uncorrectable spirit (donít bother me with the facts, my mind is made up) is the only thing that God cannot deal with -- whether conservative or liberal.

There are good and honest people on both sides of our present debates. There are liberals who liberate with new insights, and there are conservatives who conserve valid and established truths. In that sense, every community needs both liberals and conservatives. But we are fallen creatures, subject to our own prejudices, so we each need to meet those with whom we disagree in candid discussion in order to keep ourselves honest.
 

II. Where Is the
Episcopal Church Going?

Because discussion and truth are being subverted at the highest levels of authority, the Episcopal Church is on the verge of disaster, and may not survive the next decade in its present form. Membership of the Church is for the most part kept ill informed of issues which threaten to fracture us. The Church, like a democratic republic, cannot survive apart from an informed people.

Lay people who allow themselves to be kept ignorant of the issues before the Body of Christ in our own culture and our own time betray their responsibility before God because they will not be able to choose new rectors who can lead to the Kingdom, they will not know how to elect vestries, or delegates to the diocesan councils or conventions. And the diocesan councils and conventions will not be able to elect bishops who are grounded in the Fatherís love.

The House of Bishops themselves in Phoenix in 1991 declared, as everyone with their eyes open already knew, that they were a dysfunctional House. In two General Conventions since then, it has gotten worse, not better. That means that those who elected the bishops were also dysfunctional, i.e., the diocesan councils and conventions. Following right back down the election trail, that means that local parishes are dysfunctional. We have a dysfunctional laity as well as clergy. We do not have a laity who consistently know how to choose competent and Biblically based leaders.

A good part of that dysfunction is the prevailing desire for comfort over truth. We Americans have become so comfort-oriented that we cannot tolerate open and honest discussion of volatile issues. We hardly know any more how to set up an honest discussion where parties can disagree vigorously, yet with mutual respect. We run from the conflict.

The Episcopal Church has been deteriorating for well over three decades, contrary to the recent comment from our presiding bishop that our Church is in healthy shape. We have lost over a third of our membership in thirty years. Not only thousands of individuals, but whole parishes are leaving the Episcopal Church because they see no hope of having honest discussion. We are at sea on a number of issues including the identity of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, and sexuality, to name a few. The Episcopal Church has lost its way, and God cannot be happy about that.

But our parishes continue on as though everything will be fine. "Children are shooting children in other schools, but not here." "Clergy are sexually assaulting parishioners in other parishes, but not here." Most Episcopalians, as they say, are fiddling while Rome burns. We all need to repent of our betrayal of the truth-seeking process.

It is my hope that the next rector of ***** will be a man of courage and principle, a man who can lead the parish in honest discussion of the issues before us, a man who has clear and firm Biblical convictions, and therefore will not flinch from vigorous disagreement. God sifts us by confronting us with the truth. Painful as it may seem, honest and mutually respectful dialogue is required if we are not to give a false image of the Fatherís love. The way of the cross requires that I submit my agenda to the public test of fact and logic. In Isaiah 1:18, God says, "Come, let us reason together...," meaning, "Letís have a reality check..." We become allies of God in that sifting by being graceful truth-seekers and truth-speakers ourselves.

One will hear the retort, as I often have: "Whose truth?" or "Who do you think you are to assume that you have the truth?"

If truth is really that impossible to come by, we must stop proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ because we would have no way of knowing that we were not misleading people. God is quite capable of making Himself known to those who are willing to hear. Jesus said (John 7:14 ff.) that people do not understand what He is saying because they do not want to. They do not want to do what the Father is asking of them, so they hide in self-imposed ignorance. Cowardice and rebellion are the key issues among us, not ignorance, not sex, not violence.

Truth is hard come by, not because it is out of sight, because we are fallen men and women. We do not want our boats to be rocked, we do not want to do the hard work of truth-seeking, and we do not want to consider the possibility that we might be wrong in our most cherished beliefs. Comfort is often more important than truth. But an honest discussion requires that each side admit that it is fallible, and that it therefore needs a candid airing of the facts to keep itself honest and on track with reality.

If we will not take charge of our own lives again, if we will not insist on full disclosure of the issues and of the facts we need to make an intelligent and Godly decision on a new rector, we will abort our responsibility not only to ***** Church, but to the Episcopal Church, to the Body of Christ around the world, and to God Himself.
 

III. 5 Questions

In that spirit, I would suggest that the following questions ought to be raised for any candidate interviewed as a possible rector. Our situation has become so cloudy that people use the same Biblical words, but mean entirely opposite things by them. So search committees need to know clearly at least what they themselves mean. Each of these questions addresses a central element of Christian faith and practice:

1. What is your view of the authority of Scripture?

2. What is your view of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as lord and savior?

3. What is your view of the ordination of women?

4. What do you believe is the Biblical view of marriage and sexuality, and of homosexuality in particular?

5. Who ought to own the property of the parish, the diocese or the parish?

These issues ought to be discussed and aired in the congregation. If this seems an overwhelming task, that is an indication of how little we are accustomed to having honest discussion, and of how ignorant we are of those very issues which openly, aggressively, and everywhere confront the Church. That is an appalling condition which I hope the search committee, vestry, and our new rector will help to remedy. God calls us into a reality check because we are so out of touch with reality in all the basic areas of our lives. Revelation is Godís invitation/command to get us back into reality. Open airing of truth is an absolute essential of that process.

Romans 1:18 ff. lists subversion of truth as the first step in the Fall. From there we fall into idolatry, worshipping the creation rather than the Creator, and then into compulsive and self-destructive behavior. When we do not routinely promote honest discussion, we are guilty of subverting truth, and thereby siding with the father of lies, not the Father of Light. Jesus reserves some of His harshest words for such persons (see John 6).
 

IV. Traditional/Conservative
or
Liberal/Progressive?

These labels above, I think, do not rightly reflect but rather hide the real issues. But, with that warning, I will use them because in the popular mind they do indicate the sides we generally have "chosen up" for ourselves.

The following is a brief summary of the two sides of the above questions. Part A is the "traditional" or "conservative" view, part B the alternative "liberal" or "progressive" view. There are, of course, other ways of interpreting these issues, but this can perhaps help get a discussion going. Other persons may want to express either the "traditional" or the "liberal" view differently.

1. What is your view of the authority of Scripture?

A. Scripture functions as a "constitution" for the Christian community. Along with the Nicene and Apostlesí Creeds, Scripture defines the very meaning of being a Christian. To subvert the authority of Scripture is thus to opt for a different religion. One is free to be a pagan or secular person. One is not free to pretend to be a Christian while actually being pagan or secular. Today we have persons using all the language of the Christian faith, but with a meaning that is essentially pagan and secular. We do indeed know what the Christian faith is -- it has been preached from the housetops for 2000 years, and is no secret. The Gospel of Jesus Christ can stand toe to toe in any honest discussion with any contestant.

B. Scripture was written at a particular time and in a particular culture in human history, much of which we have outgrown, especially in our scientific era. We must rethink the meaning of our faith as our changing circumstances dictate. Scripture therefore needs to be interpreted according to the best thinking of our time. That may alter radically our view from that of past ages.

2. What is your view of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as lord and savior?

A. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- no one comes to the Father but by Him, as Jesus says in John 14. That does not mean that the visible and institutional Church is the Way, the Truth, or the Life. St. Augustine said: God has many that the Church does not, and the Church has many that God does not. The Living God has ways of touching the lives of Hindus and Muslims. But it is the Living God who touches them, not the gods of Hinduism or other pagan religion. A Chinese woman ran up to a preacher after his evangelistic sermon, saying, "I have always believed in the God of whom you speak. Now I know His name!" God has ways of reaching people beyond our control or knowledge. The Last Judgement in Matthew 25 is the story of how the non-believers, not the believers, will be judged. The Bible clearly teaches that some people who were not able in this life to know and accept Jesus will be with Jesus in His Kingdom. But Christianity is saying something about God, ourselves, and the world radically different from all other religions. There is no parallel to Jesus in any other religion.

B. It would appear that all the major religions of the world are pointing to the same God, that we are like explorers coming up different sides of the same mountain, one on the jungle side, another on the desert side, another on a wooded side, another up a sheer cliff. Each would describe the mountain in radically different ways. But when they reach the top, they will agree that they were all coming up the same mountain to the same ultimate summit.

3. What is your view of the ordination of women?

A. The Episcopal Church made a tragic error when it decided in 1976 to ordain women, yielding to very mistaken feminist demands -- which is leading to the demeaning of both womanhood and manhood. The blurring of gender distinctions implied by the ordination of women undercuts the creation of mankind in the image of God, male and female. The ordination of women will always make us drift toward a confusion of gender images, and to a compromise of teaching salvation by faith rather than works. We were told by the proponents of the ordination of women that they would change the theology of the Church if we would put women in the pulpits and behind the altars. Consciously or unconsciously, they have done exactly that, leading to a fatal compromise on each of the five issues I am raising here. The "feminization" of the Church has not been an honest honoring of Godly femininity. It has resulted in the subversion of both masculinity and femininity, which then helped lead to the homosexual revolution.

B. The ordination of women is a correction to the overly masculine and patriarchal bent of the Church for many centuries. Women have the same rights as men, so there is no good reason for women to be denied entrance into all aspects of the life of the Church. Gender distinctions are of no consequence in the matter of priesthood and church leadership. It makes no difference whether a man or a woman stands at the altar or in a pulpit. The only question to raise is the matter of individual qualifications. This issue is basically a civil rights, not a theological, issue.

4. What do you believe is the Biblical view of marriage and sexuality, and of homosexuality in particular?

A. Sexual activity is meant for a lifelong relation between one man and one woman. The whole of the Biblical understanding of revelation and salvation rests on an accurate understanding of the creation story in Genesis 1, being made in the image of God -- male and female. Gender distinctions (masculine/feminine) are part of the nature of God. God is a spiritual being, not a physical being, so there is no sexual (male/female) distinction in God. But our human sexuality is a physical image (sacrament) of the spiritual gender distinctions. Blurring the gender distinctions results always in a subversion of human nature and of the Christian faith, in particular, the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works.

Concerning homosexuality, the Biblical and the scientific empirical evidence stand squarely together. The empirical evidence indicates that homosexuality is a compulsive and lethal addiction, resulting in a tragic 30% - 40% average loss of lifespan. God says "no" to homosexuality, not because He is a killjoy, but because He knows how self- and socially destructive homosexual behavior is, and He knows where joy really is -- and not because He hates homosexual persons, but because He loves them. Homosexual behavior is one of the compulsive conditions Paul mentions in Romans 1:18 ff. resulting from subversion of truth and idolatry.

B. Just as the Church has worked to overcome its oppression of the black race and of women, so likewise, the Church must overcome oppression of homosexual persons. Our understanding of sexuality has greatly advanced since Biblical times. Homosexuality is an identity just as heterosexuality is, and ought to be respected as such. What God has made, we have no right to denigrate. Homosexual persons are just as much persons as heterosexual persons, and their relationships ought to be honored and blessed by the Church just as heterosexual relations. Homosexual persons should be welcomed into every aspect of the life of the Church, including ordination and marriage. Just as the Episcopal Church has now outlawed opposition to the ordination of women, it ought also to outlaw opposition to the homosexual lifestyle. Any person who holds office in any Episcopal Church should be forbidden to assert his or her authority in any way that demeans persons of a homosexual orientation.

5. Who ought to own the property of the parish, the diocese or the parish?

A. A healthy community will employ a separation of powers similar to the American Constitution (the American constitution and the Episcopal Church constitution were written, as *****ians should know, by some of the same people). The Episcopal Church, by its very name, is a "top down" church in terms of spiritual authority. But it ought to be a "bottom up" Church materially. Those who control the spiritual life ought not to control the material life of the Church. Such control puts the inevitable temptation to tyrannical power in the hands of the bishops and priests, and undercuts the freedom of conscience inherent to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Episcopal founding fathers well understood the threat of tyranny (for nearly 200 years, they had refused to have any bishops in America), and wrote the separation of spiritual authority and material power into the Episcopal constitution. That separation was overthrown only in the last four decades when parish property was by canon law claimed to be held in trust by the diocese for the whole Church.

B. The Episcopal Church is an "episcopal" church. The word Ďepiscopalí means Ďoverseerí. The spiritual authority of the Church flows down from the bishops to the priests and to the congregations. We believe in the apostolic succession of bishops who link us to the whole Church throughout history. We receive our authority to be a Church because of this link to the early Church. Such a church structure implies that the property belongs to the Church as a whole, not to individual congregations, which would seem to be necessary for the maintenance of its security and order. We are not congregationalists, where each individual church is an entity unto itself. We are the corporate body of Christ, tied to each other both spiritually and physically. If a parish should choose to leave the Episcopal Church, the people are, of course, free to go. They are not free to take with them property which rightly belongs to the whole Episcopal Church.

* * *

In each of the issues, I stand firmly on the "traditionalist" side as described above. I am not wedded to tradition in exclusion of honest research to find new ways. But I do not believe that the "liberal" side, as described above, has produced a reasonable argument for its "new ways", and that underneath there lies the conflict of two opposing worldviews -- the Biblical worldview vs. the secular/pagan worldview.
 

V. Again - the Nature of the Discussion

There are both honest and dishonest persons on both sides of the issues, i.e. persons who are (and are not) interested in the truth of the matter. The first task for those on both sides is to learn again how to have mutually respectful conversation engaged in truth-seeking.

Discussing any of the above issues will be difficult because they all touch us so deeply. But it is precisely in the resolving of our deep issues that true compassion, true inclusiveness, and the true love of the Father can be manifested. If we avoid the hard and sometimes painful work of truth- seeking, if we each cannot humble ourselves to say, "If I am wrong, I want to know," then we sabotage our own salvation, creating a very unhappy situation for ourselves, both now and, even worse, on judgement day. Jesus is not interested in disciples who are not truth-seekers.

Not every view is correct. Claiming every view to be equally valid is promoting a self-contradiction and a logical impossibility. That is a dishonest and impossible inclusiveness. But, every view has a right to be expressed -- so that it can be publicly tested for whether it is correct. That is honest inclusiveness. That kind of candid debate and discussion rarely happens in the Church today, and we need to make it happen -- at any cost to ourselves. That is the very meaning of Christian witness. To what, after all, are we witnesses -- if not the truth?

Any dialogue not based on objective truth, on fact and logic, will create a tragic distortion of the Fatherís love. A powerful way to honor and love another person is to offer honest and mutually respectful conversation on relevant topics. The cost will be prayer, fasting, and repentance for misuse of opportunities to listen, or gracefully to share truth as we see it. But that is what we must do.

Will there be division? Of course. God is sifting the righteous from the unrighteous, those who want what He is offering from those who do not. We participate in that sifting first by allowing ourselves to be sifted by truth-seeking, and by promoting rather than subverting the process of truth-seeking. There will always be divisions. The question is only whether the divisions will be decided in truth or in falsehood, in the light or in the dark.

* * *

This letter is chock full, very compressed, and may take more than one reading. I would be happy to discuss the contents with the search committee or vestry, and also to help facilitate deeper discussion in the wider parish on any or all of these issues. Discussion can be managed in a way that is loving, respectful, and inclusive of all views -- and so manifest the Fatherís love for us all.

I trust that the search committee, vestry, and congregation will search for a rector who understands these principles of Biblical Christianity, and especially, "Come, let us reason together..," the Godly principle of honest discussion: Jesus prays (John 17:1 ff.) that His disciples will be unified, for that unity will help convince the world that He is from the Father. Our disunity and false unity convince the world that Jesus and His disciples are nothing but religious hucksters. With honest and charitable discussion, we can indeed hope to have a ***** Parish and an Episcopal Church both reasonably and powerfully of one mind and one heart, with a compelling Gospel message which will do honor to our Lord Jesus Christ, and through which the love of the Father will flow into the world.

Faithfully in Christ,

Earle Fox

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