September 21, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument “From Tradition” is not the “Traditional” Argument

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 9:26 pm
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Holy GrailBack in the days when families still baked bread, a mother was teaching her daughter to bake bread using the recipe that had been passed down from her mother and her grandmother before her. After she had kneaded the dough and formed it into a loaf, she took a knife, cut off the end of the loaf, threw away the cut-off end, and proceeded to bake the remaining loaf that was left. Being a dutiful daughter, the young girl followed her mother’s instructions, but one day she asked an innocent question, “Mom, why do we cut off the end of the loaf, and throw it away before we bake the bread?” Her mother responded, “I’m not really sure. That’s just how my mother taught me to bake bread. We’ve always done it that way in my family. Let’s telephone your grandmother, and ask her why we do that.” So they telephoned the girl’s grandmother, and asked her why she had taught her daughter always to cut off the end of the loaf of bread before she baked it. She replied as her daughter had. “I’m not really sure. That’s just the way my mother taught me to to do it, so that’s how our family has always baked bread. Let’s ask my mother.” So they telephoned the girl’s great grandmother, who was quite elderly but still baked her own bread, to find the reason for this ancient family tradition. The great grandmother laughed. “When you were a young girl, and I taught you to break bread,” she told her daughter, “we only had one bread pan, and it was too small to hold the entire loaf from the recipe that my mother taught me to make, so I just cut off the extra. Years later, after you had grown up and were married, I bought a new bread pan, and I haven’t cut off the end of the loaf in years.”

I tell this story to make a point. A tradition is only as good as the reasons behind it. The same tradition done for different reasons is not the same tradition, but a new tradition. After learning the true story of why Great Grandmother had cut off the end of the loaf, the mother and daughter of our story might have decided to continue to cut off the end of the loaf when they baked bread – perhaps just as a way of honoring an old family tradition – but they would not have been keeping the old tradition, because they would not have been doing it for the traditional reasons. They would have been inventing a new tradition – the tradition of cutting off the end of the loaf “because we’ve always done it that way.”

One of the the most frequently used arguments against women’s ordination is the argument from tradition: The contemporary church cannot ordain women because there is a universal tradition against it. In my first post in this series, I distinguished between “Catholic” arguments and “Protestant” arguments against women’s ordination. The argument from tradition is primarily a Catholic argument; those who oppose women’s ordination for “Catholic” reasons link ordination to a sacramental understanding of orders and the sacraments that is often connected to a particular understanding of apostolic succession. Contemporary ordinations are valid only if they can be traced through an unbroken chain all the way to the time of the apostles. On such a view of ordination, an unbroken tradition is necessarily important because if someone is ordained invalidly, the chain of apostolic tradition is broken.

At the same time, the argument from tradition, while not as important for a “Protestant” understanding or ordination – which bases its case more on biblical exegesis – still has weight because the argument can be made that ordaining women is an innovation, something that Christians have never done. Protestants who oppose women’s ordination can argue that they are simply defending a position that all Christians held until recently because it is the self-evident teaching of the Bible, and it is the way that the Bible has always been interpreted. (more…)

September 14, 2013

Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 7:51 am
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Canaanite WomanSeveral years ago, I wrote an essay entitled General Convention and Its Aftermath: Non-theological Interpretations and a Theological Alternative, which was published in The Trinity Journal For Theology and Ministry, fall 2008. In this essay, I looked at the explanations that were being offered for the theological crisis that overtook the Episcopal Church after General Convention 2003, and argued that the dominant evaluations were based on pragmatic or secular political considerations, and that the issue needed to be addressed in a properly theological manner instead. The three primary non-theological arguments (1) echoed the political rhetoric of the culture wars, (2) argued against a so-called “Fundamentalist” takeover of the Church, (3) and argued for diversity over against exclusivity. In each case, the evaluation leaned more on emotional rhetoric rather than careful argument, and, in no case were properly theological concerns addressed. I argued that the real crisis in the Episcopal Church was a loss of theological integrity, that the the ordination of a practicing gay bishop was symptomatic of a loss of faith in the key doctrinal subject matter of Christian faith, and that the real dividing issue was not about sexuality but about Christology and the meaning of salvation.

Concerning women’s ordination, I find an uncomfortable parallel between the kinds of arguments used by advocates of the new “inclusivist” theology in the Episcopal and other mainline churches, and many of the arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination; in both cases, many of the arguments are not properly theological. Many of the arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination are reverse mirror images of the kinds of arguments that were used by advocates for the ordination of a gay bishop a decade ago.

In what follows, I want to address some of these non-theological arguments against women’s ordination. The following sections in italics are my summary of actual non-theological arguments against women’s ordination that I have encountered.  They are used frequently enough as to be considered “standard” arguments. (more…)

September 9, 2013

Concerning the Ordination of Women: Preliminaries

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 7:31 am
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christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryThe following is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on the question of women’s ordination. This is something that I have not addressed on my blog up to this point, for a number of reasons. Most of what I write, I hope to be in the flavor of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” I prefer to be an apologist for Evangelical Catholic theology from an Anglican perspective. Theologically, my approach tends to be ecumenical, looking for areas of agreement and consensus among orthodox Christians. On the occasions where I have ventured into polemics, it has been in response to the challenges of those who reject this perspective. So I have consistently written against liberal Protestantism, which I think is the great heresy in the church today. I have engaged in argument against those who have challenged the catholicity of Anglicanism on such questions as the development of doctrine. But there are some issues on which I have not written precisely because I have preferred to avoid the kinds of heated polemics that these issues raise. I have not yet written on Christianity and politics. I have not written on women’s ordination.

However, in recent years, a number of people have asked me to write something on women’s ordination, either because they wondered what my position was, or because they knew my position and wanted me to put it in writing. I do endorse the ordination of women, and it is a position endorsed by numerous orthodox Christians. T. F. Torrance, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, Robert Gagnon, and Alan Padgett are just some of the male orthodox biblical scholars and theologians who have written in favor of gender equality or women’s ordination or both. The number of orthodox Christians endorsing women’s ordination is not a small or insignificant group. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, they are not as vocal as those opposed to women’s ordination, and, especially among orthodox Anglicans lately, the loudness at least of those opposed to women’s ordination has reached such a crescendo (at least in public discussion) that one might get the impression that this was a decided issue.

I have also known a number of orthodox ordained women clergy who are my friends, and whom I greatly admire, and, at the seminary where I teach I have been privileged to have as students women who were among the best students, finest preachers, and some of the most promising theologians of any of my students. I think it would be a great tragedy for the church to deny these women the opportunity to use their gifts and pursue their callings, but, even more,  to be served by them. I am writing this series of posts primarily for these women. (more…)

September 4, 2013

What is the Greatest Sin? A Sermon on Pride

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:03 am
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Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1,7-14

Lamb of GodA generation ago the Christian essayist Dorothy Sayers wrote a kind of imaginary catechism in which she summarized what she thought people of her time actually believed about Christian faith. It included the question “What does the Church call sin?” And the answer was: “Sex . . . getting drunk; saying ‘damn’; murder’ and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. ‘Original sin’ means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.”1 In another essay, she mentions a young man who once said to her, “I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.”2

I would like to ask the question this morning, “What is the greatest sin?” I think that fifty years after Dorothy Sayers, a lot of people still think that the church believes that sex is the greatest sin. Perhaps the only sin. At least the conservative or orthodox church is thought to believe that. On the other hand, a good argument could be made that the progressive church believes that “lack of inclusiveness” or “intolerance” is the greatest sin.

It might be interesting to ask people to set aside their assumptions about what they think Christians believe is the greatest sin, and answer the question in their own way. What do you think is the greatest sin? Murder? Hatred? Betraying a friend? Certainly these are things that people do that cause real harm, and everyone would agree that they are morally wrong. The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson suggests that all societies endorse the content of the second table of the Ten Commandments – the commandments that prohibit lying, stealing, murder, and so on, because any society that does not prohibit these things will not last long as a society.3

What might surprise people is that historically the Christian church has not specified any of these as the single greatest sin. (more…)

August 20, 2013

Presumption and Despair: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 11:26 pm
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Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 12:1-7, 11-14
Luke 12:49-56

CrossI am going to talk about sin this morning. I am not talking about sin because this is my favorite sermon topic. I am talking about sin because this is the common subject of the lectionary readings. Sin is a difficult topic to preach on for at least two reasons. First, in today’s popular culture, Christians are accused of being obsessed with sin, or, more specifically with other people’s sins. Second, Christians are accused of being judgmental of other people’s sins, and no one likes to be judged.

I do think that there is some truth to these accusations. There are preachers who love to talk about sin, but one gets the impression that too often they mean the sins of the people in their pews that they find most irritating. There are few things that turn people off from the church like a preacher who scolds parishioners from the pulpit, reminding them of just how far they are from living up the pastor’s expectations.

At the same time, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in all of this. The same culture that criticizes Christians for being obsessed with sin is absolutely unforgiving of behaviors that they don’t call sin. They just call these behaviors by different names. Hatred, intolerance, and bigotry, are the three main sins condemned in our culture today. And all you have to do to be guilty of one of these three offenses is to disagree with the current spirit of the age. Again, although no one likes to be judged by others, there is plenty of judgment to go around. The news media loves to tell the stories of the latest celebrity who has, once again, had to check into a rehabilitation program because of a drug or alcohol addiction. You cannot buy groceries without noticing the tabloid newspapers and magazines with the latest shocking headline about which Hollywood actor was caught having an affair, or, an even worse sin, which Hollywood actress has gained too much weight to wear a bikini at the beach. And, of course, there is the world of politics, which has become something of a contact sport in our society. One of the ironies of today is that we live in a culture where no one believes in sin, but everyone blames other people for things we do not call sin, and where no one believes in forgiveness for any of these things. If you’re ever guilty of the kinds of things that one group or the other disapproves of in our culture, God help you, because only God can. (more…)

August 12, 2013

“The Assurance of Things Hoped For”: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 1:16 am
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Genesis 15: 1-6
Psalm 33
Hebrews 11: 1-16
Luke 12: 32-40

ship

The common theme in the lectionary readings today is that of hope. This is a topic that one usually associates with Advent, but it never hurts to be reminded from time to time of things we need to hear. Think of the sermon this morning as a little bit of Advent in the summer.

The Old Testament passage focuses on Abraham, and his hope for a son. In this morning’s passage, God appears to Abraham, and promises him, “Fear not, Abram. I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1) Abraham is now an old man, and his response is perhaps understandable. Basically, he asks God, how can my reward be great? I will not be around much longer, and I do not have any children to give any reward to when I die. God’s response is one of the key passages in the Bible. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . So shall your offspring be.” (v. 5) This seems to be a highly unlikely promise to make to an old man beyond the prime of life, but we know something Abraham did not. We know how the story turned out. We know that Abraham’s descendants would become the nation of Israel, and Jews who read this passage in their Scriptures would have realized that their very existence was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. If we include Christians, who also understand ourselves to be descendants of Abraham by faith, the promise to Abraham was fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. According to the experts [Wikipedia], there are somewhere between 13 and 15 million Jews in the world today. There are something like 2.2 billion people who could be considered Christian in at least some sense living in the world today. So that’s a lot of descendants for Abraham.

Verse 6 reads: “And [Abraham] believed the Lord, and [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness.” This is a key verse for later Christian theology. In both Paul and the book of James, the passage is crucial for the discussion of justification, how it is that we are considered righteous by God. That, however, is not the focus in today’s reading. The author of Hebrews talks about faith in a slightly different way. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) Referring to Abraham, the writer of Hebrews says “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” (v. 8) And, of Abraham’s wife Sarah, the writer says, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (v. 12)

So Hebrews focuses on “faith” not as touching on the question of righteousness, but on faith as trusting in God’s providence, that God will provide despite evidence to the contrary. Abraham obeys God “by faith,” and leaves his home and family to go to a new land, a land which will become the home of his descendants, the nation of Israel. Although Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children, they trust God who gives them Isaac as their son.

This sense of faith as “hope”for that which is not seen, is a necessity of human life – which leads to my first point: Hope is basic. (more…)

July 13, 2013

New Page on “Hermeneutic of Discontinuity”

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 2:47 am
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I have added a new page entitled “A Hermeneutic of Discontinuity,” a theological discussion of the current ecclesial crisis. Click above or on the link on the left.

June 5, 2013

Taste and See that the Lord is Good! A Sermon on Doubt

Filed under: Sermons,Theodicy — William Witt @ 4:21 am
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Psalm 138
Hebrews 10: 32-39
Matt. 24:9-14

chaliceToday’s lectionary readings are for the feast day of the Martyrs of Uganda. These were a group of Roman Catholic and Anglican men who were killed by King Mwanga on June 3, 1886 for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith. The martyrs went to their deaths singing hymns, and praying for their enemies. The bravery of these young men so impressed the bystanders that many converted to Christianity, and the deaths of the martyrs of Uganda is considered the real beginning of the spread of Christianity in Uganda. There are today around nine million Anglicans in Uganda, and Trinity School for Ministry has close relations with them, especially with Uganda Christian University, and also with their Archbishop, Stanley Ntagali.

Given that today’s lectionary readings are for the feast day of martyrs, it is not surprising that the focus of the readings is on holding on to faith in the midst of doubt. The Matthew and Hebrews passages specifically mention persecution. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” (Matt. 24:9). Hebrews speaks of “the former days,” when the hearers were “publicly exposed to reproach and affliction.” Some were imprisoned, and some were “plundered” of their property. (Heb. 10:33-34). The Psalmist mentions another kind of threat to faith: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.” (Ps. 138:7). Jesus’ Parable of the Sower mentions a third threat to faith: those who are distracted by the “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and desires for other things.” (Mark 4:18).

These passages might be discouraging. They indicate that it is a normal part of the Christian life to experience doubt, to be tempted to abandon one’s faith, to just give up on being a Christian. I would suggest that these passages are actually cause for encouragement. They give us advance warning that being a disciple of Jesus is not all picnics in May, or singing “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul” when we’re at summer camp, or the first day of June Term at seminary. They tell us that if you are a Christian, and you take the thing seriously, there is going to come a time when you are going to wonder, “What was I thinking?” And, “Is it too late to get out of this?” They also tell us that when it comes to reasons for doubting your faith, there is nothing new under the sun. (more…)

March 1, 2013

Grace That is Greater Than All our Sin: A Lenten Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 10:03 pm
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Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 103
I Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

The Prodigal SonWhen I was a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, there was a less than charitable joke among the graduate students about one of the the priests at the local church many of us attended – that he had only two sermons, a love sermon and a sin sermon, that he was for the first and against the second, and he would preach one or the other every Sunday. If I were that priest this morning, the readings would leave me with a dilemma. I could preach my love sermon, in which case I would preach on the Old Testament readings. Or I could preach my sin sermon, in which case I would preach on the New Testament readings. But I couldn’t preach on both.

However, if I am going to be responsible to my task as preacher, I think I need to be honest with the readings the lectionary gives me. That means I have to preach on both. And I have to ask how what the Bible says about love is connected to what the Bible says about God’s judgment of sin – because that’s what the passages are about. My starting point will be Psalm 103, where we find a clue in the Hebrew word hesed,which is usually translated in English as “loving kindness” or “steadfast love” and appears several times in the Psalm. The Psalm begins: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” It continues in verse 4, “who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” In verse 8, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” In verse 11, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.” In verse 17, “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.” This word translated “steadfast love” is not the sentimental love of pop ballads: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Or the Beatles’ “All you need is love.” It is certainly not what our culture currently means by “tolerance” or “inclusiveness.” (more…)

January 14, 2013

It’s about communion! But communion with whom??

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Over at Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, South Carolina, Fr. Dow Sanderson speaks about his decision to remain in the Episcopal Church:

I especially urge those of you who feel that you must leave your church home, in these difficult times, and seek another Anglican “safe haven”. Like so many things in this broken and highly polarized world, some would frame this discussion as simply a choice between Biblical, Orthodox Truth on the one hand, and very progressive, liberals on the other.   This simply is not true.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of Anglo-Catholics in the United States remain a part of the Episcopal Church and have absolutely no intention of doing otherwise.  These would include, of course, very famous places like St. Paul’s in Washington, Church of the Advent in Boston, St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue in New York, St. John’s in Savannah, to name just a few.

What is at stake here is Communion. Anglicanism, in all its expressions, has always claimed to be something more than just a church of the Reformation.  Reformed, yes, but through our ties to the ancient See of Canterbury, we have depth of Tradition and continuity with the Apostolic Church that has always been highly valued.

I certainly think that people of good conscience can remain in The Episcopal Church. At the same time, Fr. Sanderson begs a number of questions. Foremost, he states that the question is one of “communion.” But this begs the question, “communion with whom?” The Catholic tradition is quite clear that communion is only possible with those who hold the Catholic faith. One of the better books on this subject is Werner Elert’s Eucharist and Communion in the First Four Centuries (Concordia Publishing House, 2003). St. Athanasius was not in communion with the heretic Arius. St. Cyril of Alexandria was not in communion with Nestorius. St. Augustine was not in communion with the Donatists. After the ecumenical councils of the early centuries, those who refused to subscribe to them were no longer in communion with the Catholic Church. For example, the Copts refused to recognize Chalcedon, and have been out of communion with the Orthodox churches to this day. Rome and Orthodoxy do not agree on the role of the pope, and so they have been out of communion since 1054. And, of course, Anglicans have been out of communion with Rome since Henry VIII.

The second question that Fr. Sanderson fails to address has to do with canon law and the role of the bishop in a diocese. As a priest in a diocese, what is one’s obligation when one’s bishop is deposed for “abandoning the communion” when he has not in fact done so? Bishop Mark Lawrence did not leave the Episcopal Church. He was kicked out. He was kicked out based on the misuse of a canon that was intended to be used for clergy that really had left the Episcopal Church and joined another denomination. But Bishop Mark was actually trying to keep the Diocese of South Carolina in TEC, not leave. In a case of double jeopardy, Bishop Lawrence was re-tried (without a trial or representation) on charges that had already been dismissed a year ago. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori stated that she had accepted “the renunciation of the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church of Mark Lawrence,” although TEC’s canons state that such renunciation must be received in writing, and Bishop Lawrence has denied that he made such a renunciation.

So the Presiding Bishop’s claim that Bishop Mark had “abandoned the communion,” was, at the least, a very creative interpretation of TEC’s canon law.. To be blunt, Bishop Mark did not abandon communion. TEC broke communion by deposing him. It was only after TEC violated its own canon law by deposing Bishop Mark that South Carolina left TEC. Moreover, the Global South bishops (who represent the majority of bishops in the Anglican Communion) have refused to recognize the deposition of Bishop Lawrence, and they continue to recognize Bishop Lawrence as the legitimate bishop of South Carolina: “We want to assure you that we recognize your Episcopal orders and your legitimate Episcopal oversight of the Diocese of South Carolina within the Anglican Communion.” So the question of “communion” is not a straightforward one.

Given that Bishop Mark’s deposition was contrary to TEC’s own canons, it would seem that Bishop Mark still the legitimate bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, and, as a priest in that diocese, Sanderson either acknowledges the legitimacy of TEC’s deposition, or not. By placing himself under TEC’s authority in South Carolina, Fr. Sanderson is making a choice. He is choosing to be in communion with TEC. But he is also choosing to refuse to be in communion with Bishop Lawrence, who, until TEC wrongfully deposed him, was Fr. Sanderson’s bishop.

When I lived in Boston, I attended Church of the Advent, which Fr. Sanderson mentions, for a year or so. Fr. Sanderson finds it significant that the Church of the Advent remains in TEC. However, I know something of that story. During the time I lived in Boston, Advent survived a near schism when the unique governing board at Advent (a “corporation,” not an elected vestry) attempted to leave TEC (not over doctrine) and take the building with them. But the majority of the congregation did not agree with the corporation, and the matter went to court. The congregation won. The corporation lost. But that set a legal precedent. The building belonged not to the corporation, but to the diocese. The current congregation at Advent has not left, and could not leave, because they would lose their building to the diocese.

When I attended Advent, the average Sunday attendance (ASA) was around 400. TEC’s statistics page indicates that it is now around 250. So the Church of the Advent has not left TEC. But somewhere around a third of its Sunday attendees have. When I attended, Advent had two kinds of members, those who were serious Anglo-Catholics, and those who attended because they liked the beautiful music and liturgy. I cannot be certain, but I would imagine that the vast majority of those who no longer attend Advent on Sunday mornings were the serious Anglo-Catholics. Those ones who still keep coming are likely those who come for the music.

So what’s my point? My point is not to criticize Fr. Sanderson for his decision to remain in the Episcopal Church. For those of us who are committed to orthodox Anglicanism, and have struggled with the Episcopal Church crisis over the last decade or more, where we end up is never simple. People can stay, and they can leave, and both decisions can be made in good conscience.

At the same time, Communion is important. But communion is also a choice, and a necessary choice that we all must make. To choose to be in communion with some is by necessity to choose not to be in communion with others. If one stays in the Episcopal Church, one has not chosen “communion” over non-communion. One has chosen communion with some (such as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori) over others (such as Bishop Mark Lawrence). Unfortunately, it is impossible to choose both, and I would suggest that it is the Episcopal Church that has forced that decision on the orthodox, not the reverse.

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