In an interview entitled “Why
We Stand,” published on the Web site of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, former
church history professor the Rev. Dr. Leslie Fairfield describes his view of the
present division in The Episcopal Church. In doing so, he presents a fair view
of his own faith position, but he paints a barely recognizable picture of those
with whom he disagrees. As one of those, I would like to take this opportunity
to offer an alternative portrayal.
Fairfield dates the origin of our present division into “opposing camps” to the
early nineteenth century, and the introduction of biblical criticism—with its
scholarly examination of Scripture, leading to conclusions that challenged ideas
such as Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch, and developed theories about how
the Gospels were composed. However, he might as easily have traced this stream
of critical thinking back to the time of the Enlightenment, or even earlier to
the Renaissance, when thinkers such as Erasmus began to grapple with the text of
Scripture in critical and scholarly ways. Which is not to say that even earlier
scholastics and theologians of the Patristic era did not also engage in a
critical examination of the texts, using the reasonable tools at their disposal
to harvest the benefit of close inspection. The Church has been wrestling with
Scriptures for as long as those texts have been in its keeping.
Fairfield, however, loses this long historical view of the Church’s theological
richness, and instead focuses on what he calls “Modernism.” Unfortunately, he
then proceeds to attribute to this movement a whole range of opinions (as
“logical conclusions”) that few, if any, of those who consider themselves
progressive would think either logical or defensible.
Fairfield produces Bishop James Pike—last century’s favorite whipping boy—but
fails to acknowledge the origins of Pike’s doubts in his own personal loss, and
the extent to which Pike was seen as a peripheral and tragic figure, allowed to
keep his seat in the House of Bishops more out of charity than conviction.
Bishop Pike no more represented the mainstream of Episcopal thought then than
Bishop Spong does now.
On the contrary—speaking for myself, but knowing that I represent a goodly
number of those tagged “re-appraisers”—I can affirm each and every statement
that Fairfield describes as “Classical Biblical and Anglican theology” and
reject the doctrines he attributes to Modernism.
It is often said that you can only have a reasonable discussion with those with
whom you disagree when you can state the opposite side’s case in language they
recognize and affirm. Fairfield—who feels “there is no halfway point … between
these two opposing religions—has instead created not simply a straw man but a
straw church against which to argue. This is tragic, in that it obscures the
things about which we really do disagree—which have little or nothing to do
with his caricature of Modernism, in which few progressive Episcopalians will
recognize themselves portrayed.
Rather, we will stand upon Christ’s Gospel—which teaches us that we are to love
God and our neighbor as ourselves; which means, in part, to give to every human
being the respect and dignity worthy of one who bears the image of God; to take
the Scriptures seriously and as authoritative indications of God’s will—but as
inspired, not dictated, and requiring the employment of the wealth of rational
and spiritual tools at our disposal in order to, as Richard Hooker said, “reap
by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yieldeth.”
Here we stand—ready to worship the One God—in Trinity of Persons, Incarnate in
Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world—with any who will stand with us on
the basis of this Faith.
Tobias Haller BSG is Vicar of Saint James Church, Fordham, in the Bronx
Note: This essay is available here as a PDF.