UPDATE: This is the mother load of Zahl sermons and forums. Great stuff here. I’ve been listening all day.
I’ve discovered Paul F. M. Zahl, and I’m beside myself with enthusiasim for his writing on grace and the church. The only problem is that there’s not much of it, and that is truly a loss. Zahl is an Episcopal minister who has served as dean of a theological school as well as pastor. He’s a marvel of humor, grace, hope and balance. A delight to read and listen to. Here’s Zahl speaking recently about his knock-out book Grace In Practice.
I found this talk by Zahl given at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. It is a talk given in the light of the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop, and it is a talk given by a traditionalist seeking to plead with a Robinson-approving majority to find a way to accommodate traditionalists. It’s quite interesting given what has now unfolded with the formation of GAFCON, ACNA and the radicalization of TEC at their recent gathering.
Be sure and add to this talk the excellent interview Ryan Cordle just posted with AMiA missionary bishop Doc Loomis. Zahl and other traditionalists who stayed with the ECUSA are the subject of several of his comments.
The majority of this talk is a reasoned traditionalist analysis of the issue of homosexuality. Zahl, who is the most gracious of Christians, makes it plain where many of us are on this issue: the reasoning used by the other side passes the bounds of integrity and conscience. No matter how much we must repent of our homophobia and exclusion- and I am all for that- we cannot give up our convictions about the Gospel. Zahl makes that very plain.
At any rate, that seems dishonest to me. So I shall begin this brief keynote address summing up the actual reasons why traditional Episcopalians are opposed to the consecration of Gene Robinson and are also opposed to the blessing in the church of same-sex unions. I wonâ€™t harp on this, but feel the reasons need to be acknowledged, publicly, and theologically. It is not fair to call people on the traditional side “homophobic”. Of course homophobia is possible, but it is also a terrible slur in the contemporary context. It is like the word “anti-semitic”. It halts all discourse. Full stop. And it destroys people and careers. Homophobia and anti-semitism are real things. But as words, they are used overmuch today to tar and dismiss voices that may in fact be sincere and liberal.
So what is the big deal? Why do people like me stand against the Gene Robinson consecration and the blessing of same-sex unions? Why do we feel these two things are destructive of life in the Christian church? I note in passing that our struggle against them so far has been unsuccessful, failed, and demoralizing for the zeal and good conscience of our ministries.
Why is the issue so important?
First, we believe the gay position as we hear it undermines the anthropology of the Gospel. It undermines the teaching concerning the inherent sinfulness of the creature before the Creator. It wants to exempt a particular category of persons, gay men and women, from Original Sin on the basis that they are “created” a certain way, therefore how can it be wrong? For reasons beyond our human understanding we are all created sinners: distorted, inverted, libidinal and narcissistic. Our baggage is psycho-genetic, not the sum of our deeds. The gay argument confuses creation with redemption â€“ as in the old 1970â€™s poster “God donâ€™t make no junk”. That was a half truth then, and it is a half truth now. The core, universal, and seemingly impenetrable claim of the gay lobby is this: If I came into the world this way, then how can it be wrong? That claim is in opposition to the classic Christian doctrine, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, of the human being as being intrinsically and inherently fallen in all cases. The claim is Arminian explicity and Pelagian implicitly.
If the anthropology is flawed, then inevitably the soteriology is flawed. If “God donâ€™ t make no junk”, then what need is there for a Savior? Why did Christ have to die on the Cross, if the need of the human race were not rooted in our paralysis and inability to help ourselves? The result of an overly high anthropology is an overly low soteriology.
The result of an overly low soteriology is a weak Christology. If Christ is not a Savior in the full and plain sense of the word, then He did not have to be God. The whole encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees in Mark, Chapter Two, when he made a connection between his divine authority and the forgiveness of sins, ceases to mean anything. High anthropology means low soteriology means inadequate Christology.
Finally, the Trinitarian implications of the weak Christology implicit in the gay lobbyâ€™ s argument â€“ become now the Episcopal Churchâ€™s argument â€“ are devastating. The Son who is no Saviour becomes automatically subordinate to the Father. We are quickly into Arianism and what we today call unitarianism. Now most theological liberals I know in ECUSA insist that they are Trinitarian Christians. And I believe them. But I wonder whether they have realized the implications for the whole of theology of the overly high anthropology of the arguments we have been hearing from the gay lobby and their friends. Please, think through the implications of a weakened profile of Original Sin.
The second “theological” argument traditionalists want to use is the hermeneutical one. I myself think this is second in importance to the theological “domino effect” I have just tried to spell out. The hermeneutical objection to the Robinson consecration is very important, but it is not decisive in quite the same way the argument from anthropology is. Nevertheless, we believe the plain and unexceptioned meaning of the Bible is against the practice of homosexuality in all cases. We cannot get around this. And I am grateful when folk on the other side acknowledge and do not try to weasel out of the “fact on the ground” of the Biblical voice against their idea. Yes, I realize there are wholly inclusive implications to Jesusâ€™ and Paulâ€™ s Gospel, but they stop at the Rubicon of homosexual practice.
The third “theological” argument â€“ and I put the word “theological” in quotes to make the point that these arguments, unlike my first one, are more ecclesiological than theological in the pure sense â€“ relates to tradition. We believe, and especially the many Anglo-Catholics among us, that such a break with catholic and universal Christian tradition that the Robinson consecration constituted is a mighty and awesome thing. To do any thing so completely in discontinuity with what everyone has said everywhere and in every time is simply so ambitious. It feels Promethean to me.
And finally, related to the argument from tradition, there is the ecumenical argument. It is alarming to have split ourselves off from the Roman Catholic Church and almost all the Orthodox Patriarchates, not to mention the large numerical majority of our Anglican co-religionists overseas, especially in the Global South.
Conceptually, neither the ecumenical argument nor the argument from tradition is binding for most theologians, and certainly not for most Protestant ones. That is why I emphasized the first piece of this â€“ the move from low anthropology to final unitarianism. But the ecumenical argument does involve peopleâ€™s lives, and respect for (millions of) othersâ€™. It surely has got to be weighed in and not just portrayed as a sort of primitive reaction to American unilateralism. I think of Janet Jacksonâ€™ s Tuesday apology this week to 99 million Super Bowl viewers: “if I have offended anyone…” Both her action and her apology smack of opportunism, and make me sick. Is our church guilty of Janet-Jackson thinking?
Now I began by saying that we need to look at the arguments concerning the issue, at least the losing ones â€“ the ones from “my” side â€“ so we donâ€™t just skip over them in our rush to ecclesiological or structural arguments. I would like to conclude this part of our debate concerning “Anglican comprehensiveness” with a plea, from the position of weakness, to you, and by extension to the Episcopal Church as a whole, and to its bishops in particular.
My plea has a formal side and it has a material side.
The formal side, and I intentionally use philosophical language here in order to be as clear as possible, is a plea for Alternative Episcopal Oversight. Traditional people in the Episcopal Church, in order to feel able to stand and be secure, require a concrete gesture of generosity on behalf of the bishops. This would be to let us sign up with ECUSA bishops, and some overseas Anglican bishops, with whom we feel safe. Most of us, because of the titanic nature of the issues involved in the Gene Robinson consecration, no longer feel we can serve with zeal and in good conscience within the structures of ECUSA. We need the freedom to sign up with bishops and structures â€“ and I do not mean the AMiA, although many of us feel we are being pushed out in that direction â€“ we need the freedom or space to sign up with ECUSA and other overseas Anglican bishops with whose commitments we feel safe. We no longer feel safe in ECUSA.
I should add that my own bishop, Henry Parsley, voted against Robinsonâ€™s consecration and has been respectful of the traditional position.
What the ECUSA bishops need to allow us to do is have Alternative Episcopal Oversight on our terms, not on their terms. They need to cede control, for a season and a space, to us, the losers. The concession has got to come from the victors, the ECUSA bishops who have won this most impressive victory at Minneapolis, and not from the losers: us, in other words. I use the language of power here because our Christian faith teaches us that the stronger has always got to give up power to the weaker. That is Grace. God did it. Philippians, Chapter Two enshrines this principle theologically. “…Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” (vss. 6-7).
The stronger, I repeat, the stronger, the victor, has to give up control and power to the weaker, the loser, in order for reconciliation, in the Christian sense of the word, to take place. So the formal side of my plea is for ECUSA to allow Alternative Episcopal Oversight without control or condition. My plea is for the bishops to lay aside their fears and trust us to God. I predict that if the bishops were to see their way to conceding this to us, the defensiveness and anger of people on my side would go down by half if not by three-quarters. In fact, if I understand people right, the day we are allowed to “call our own shots” in the area of AEO will be the day we come back to our original loyalty. I predict that. I predict it because it happens that way in love. Which brings me to the material side of my plea.
We are talking about Grace, or love, here. In relationships with people you love, you often do what they want to do simply because they want to do it. If my wife has an interest that I regard as dumb â€“ letâ€™ s just imagine! â€“ I still need to make it, at least somehow, my interest. Not because of the interest itself â€“ not at all â€“ but because of my love for her. The ECUSA bishops need to give us what we so obviously, urgently, and desperately need, out of love. Not because of anything else. It has been astonishing to me, after almost 30 years ordained service in the Episcopal Church, that almost none of my old friends who are now Episcopal bishops or leaders on the ascendant side have reached out, personally. Ian Douglas is a significant exception.
The material principle behind the formal concept of Alternative Episcopal Oversight is, simply put, love.
There are so many illustrations in life of the principle of love from the stronger to the weaker. Lincolnâ€™ s choice of “Dixie” as the song to be played by the White House band on the night that word arrived of Leeâ€™ s surrender at Appomattox; the amazing overture of the Catholic President of the Republic of Ireland, John Bruton, to the Protestant Orangemen at Drumcree in the historic stand-off at Portadown in 1999; the simple miracles of reconciliation that happen every day in marriages and families and friendships throughout the world of our common life. Do you remember that line in John Fordâ€™s 1939 legendary masterpiece, Stagecoach, when the whisky drummer beseeches the bickering passengers on the coach, just before the Indian attack as it turns out, to “have a little Christian charity”? The point is extremely important.
With the formal side of my plea granted, rooted and rooted only in the material principle of Christian love from the stronger to the weaker, the whole situation we are in would turn around. With its not being granted, I think I might safely predict that almost every traditionalist Episcopal minister and priest in the United States will no longer feel able to serve in ECUSA. There is a dire reality we are looking at. It is also a promising new future out there if the church can heed this plea.
Thank you very much.
If you have Zahl resources you can link, please do so.