A reader writes in:
What is "Orthodoxy?" I don't mean the Eastern version of Christianity - I know what that is. :) What I'm getting at is, what is considered the core, true Christian doctrine in the Episcopal Church?
You see, I am thinking of joining. I was brought up a Lutheran (LCMS), but ultimately found the faith too cold and distant for me. Then I got involved in the New Age movement, which I found didn't hold any water and also led to some disturbing experiences. After one particularly bad experience, I found I needed Jesus back, really bad, but not the Jesus I was raised with.
Now I am torn between ideas of what the Episcopal Church really teaches. From those who adhere to a more conservative Christianity, the church is infected with the same hippy-trippy, everybody's going to heaven, vague and noncommittal "faith" that can be found in, say, Unitarian churches - even that Jesus isn't really considered all that important, according to them. Others say it's just another traditional Protestant denomination.
Personally, I lean Anglo-Catholic, but I feel that a lot of the issues that are raised - homosexuality, female priests, even vestments - must be irrelevant in the light of actually accepting Christ as your savior. But does the church teach of this central role of Christ anymore? Is Jesus still the only way to the Father? Personally, I feel that not being God, I cannot with certainty state the eternal fate of others; yet, there is no denying the role of Christ as redeemer. I leave it up to God, and perhaps hope that there is grace for those who are good yet unbelieving. I am still compelled to live and share my faith, though. Of that I feel I can be certain.
So, are Episcopalians really Christians, or somewhat Jesus-leaning New Agers? My experience with my old ways taught me the real, awful outcome of believing oneself to be God, or all there really is. Who is Jesus, and God, in your Church? What is the Bible, and what is our purpose in life?
That’s a tall order, and I’ll link to some other articles on the role of the Bible in the Episcopal Church at the end of the post. But the central question is one of “orthodoxy.” Are Episcopalians “orthodox” Christians or not? It depends on your definition of “orthodoxy,” of which there are many. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, it means a Christian who is part of the Orthodox Church. For Roman Catholics, it means a Christian who accepts the all the Dogmas of that church. For Fundamentalist Evangelicals, it means a Christian who accepts (among other things) the literal inerrancy of the Bible. When the term is used in the Anglican tradition, it is often being used by conservative Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical separatists to define themselves over and against the existing church. That definition usually has to do with positions over human sexuality couched in scriptural language.
The word “orthodoxy” is made up of two greek roots, “ortho” meaning “right” and “doxos” meaning “Praise.” Orthodoxy is literally using the right praise of God. However, most people interpret it to mean something doctrinal. Some start with the so-called “Vincentian Canon,” which was formulated by St. Vincent of Lerins in 434, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” My experience is that those who quote it think that whatever they believe fits that category. However, it is very hard to get down to something that basic. The Trinity? Not for many early Christians before the first church councils. The two natures of Christ? Not for the Oriental Orthodox Churches. None of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity can be said to be held “everywhere, always and by all” except perhaps the Biblical exclamation, “Jesus is Lord!” and the reality of the Resurrection in some form.
Since “orthodoxy” is a hard target to hit, perhaps it would be better to ask “What do Episcopalians believe?” and then decide whether that accords with your understanding of the Christian faith. The normative beliefs of Episcopalians are to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Catechism on page 845 is a starting point. One Anglican writer notes that the “Anglican Dogmas” are the Trinity and the two natures in one person of Christ. Now, do ALL Episcopalians believe in the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the bodily Resurrection? Nope. But that’s no more an indication of the central teaching of the church than nuns fomenting for women’s ordination reflect the central teaching of the Papacy.
The Anglican tradition has been one of a “Middle Way” between Catholicism and Protestantism, where membership has to do with participation in worship rather than affirmation of any catechism or confession. This goes all the way back to the Elizabethan Compromise. As a result, our doctrine IS a little vague, and intentionally so. We are more a family of churches than a singular incarnation of Christianity. There is room in the Anglican tradition for manifestations of various flavors of Christianity. We have extreme gin-and-lace Victorian Anglo-Catholics, Bible-thumping Evangelicals, Crypto-Unitarians, liturgical Pentecostals and more variations on those themes than you can imagine. Yes, there is a “hippy-trippy” element to parts of the Episcopal Church, but that part has always been there. The first Unitarians in America at the time of the Revolution were Anglicans who removed Trinitarian references from their BCPs and we have always retained that edge.
No matter what certain individual members may beleive, as a denomination we affirm Jesus as our Lord, even while engaging in interfaith dialogue. I highly commend the Statement on Inter-religious Relations and Interfaith Dialogue which was passed at our 2008 General Convention for an excellent exploration of how we uphold our truth claims about Jesus while talking to others.
Whether the Episcopal Church is a good fit really has to do with HOW you view your Christian faith. If you are the kind of person who wants a strict set of doctrines to believe, and to think that everyone else in the church has that same exact set, the Episcopal Church is not and has never been that place. Much of the turmoil in the last few years has been due to people finally realizing that. However, if you are “playful” with your faith, and think you might have something to learn from someone who believes differently, we might be the place for you. Our rock is Jesus as the second person of the most Holy Trinity. The rest, while sometimes important, is commentary.
Further Reading on AskThePriest related to this post:
And one from my personal blog: