Alec Ryrie’s “Protestants” — another uneasy moment

If you have put up with this blog long enough, you will have discovered that I go through times when I am uneasy about my Protestant identity but not convinced enough by the claims of the Orthodox to join them (let alone the Romish — I mean, Roman Catholics). Last week I finished off Alec Ryrie’s book Protestants, and it makes me uneasy once again.

First, though: I recommend this book. It is a look at the great love affair with God that Protestants have had over the last 500 years. Ryrie seeks to have sympathy for most of the weird, wonderful, beautiful, and bizarre characters and ideas that fill the page. The chapters on transatlantic slavery, Nazism, and apartheid are particularly powerful and uncomfortable because they show how Protestants were instrumental in the rise and fall of all three. On the subject of Nazis, he notes how few Germans resisted the regime and its ideology, and observes that if we had lived through what they had lived through, would we fare any better?

This sort of sympathy is not there to exonerate the guilty but rather to keep us off our high horses.

My favourite bits were about Luther, the English church from Henry VIII to the Methodists, and the chapter about Pentecostalism. Indeed, the Pentecostals were my favourite part of the twentieth century.

So what makes me uneasy?

As the book wound its way through the seventeenth century, I found myself being reminded of all the things I love and loathe about Protestantism. I tend to get fired up by the story of Martin Luther, whether played by Joseph Fiennes, or told from the perspective of print technology by Andrew Pettegree in Brand Luther, or wherever you meet the man. His story and his ideas make me love Protestantism. I also enjoy the English Reformation, of course.

But Protestantism is not so cut-and-dried. We may all have some family traits in common, and we may all cling to the words “justification by faith alone” (although we may also mean different things by them), but we are not all descendants of Luther. The ecclesiastical eruption that occurred because of him took many shapes even within his lifetime.

One of the by-products of the Protestant Reformation is the subjectiveness of the Christian faith now, coupled with the rise of individualism. For people like Luther to take a stand for conscience in the face of the machinery of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical power was heroic and maybe even necessary. But when combined with sola scriptura and the polysemous nature of textual meaning in the Bible, its results have been disastrous.

Who is Martin Luther to tell Zwingli that his interpretation of the Bible passages about the Eucharist is wrong? If it goes against Zwingli’s conscience to interpret Luther’s way and to celebrate Holy Communion in anything resembling the Roman Mass, who can stand in his way? And thus it goes, unsurprisingly producing not only Baptists and Methodists but Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Mormons as well.

We are an extraordinarily divided bunch of people, Protestants. Some say that the word is utterly meaningless these days.

Moreover, Protestants have had a harder time resisting the wider culture around us than our Orthodox and Catholic siblings. Sometimes, of course, Protestants were instrumental in shaping consensus — thus, after having had their wills bent to accept slavery, they would later be among the earliest, most prominent abolitionists. Yet behold the Nazis. Or consider the Anglophone mainline today and their stance on any ethical issue.

The hope that Ryrie does not express is that, as western society drifts farther away from Protestantism and secularism becomes more hostile to its roots in liberal Protestant religion, Protestants will find following western society less and less appealing.

Not that the Orthodox have never been seduced by secular cultural power. But in the West, because they are already the “other”, originating either as immigrants from Eastern Europe or indigenous Christians in the Arctic, they seem less prone to accepting western societal trends as norms for themselves. As an example, I read something by Frederica Mathewes-Green about the gay marriage debate and how she was slow to write on the subject because she felt American society had long ago already rejected traditional marriage from an Orthodox standpoint.

Anyway, what’s remarkable about our current Protestant moment is that even as statistics show that the more you give in to the wider culture the more likely you are to die as a church, much of the Anglican Church of Canada and United Church of Canada continue to pursue the path of accommodation that has been killing them.

And so do the evangelicals, they just don’t realise it yet — but Jesus of suburbia is a lie.

Anyway, I am about to read Archimandrite Sophrony’s book Saint Silouan. (I tend to alternate between East and West in my spiritual reading.) We’ll see where I stand when I’m done, right? For now —

Here I stand. I can do no other. 😉

Rediscovering the Transcendent God: A way forward for the West

I recently wrote a post at Read the Fathers about Irenaeus and divine transcendence. Over there, I try to keep things a bit dispassionate. My main goal is to be a guide to reading the Church Fathers — who were they? what did they say? what do they mean? what was their context? Over here, on the other hand, my goal is also to go a step beyond that to ask:

And so what?

I broke my rule about dispassion in that post very briefly at the end, admitting as much, and writing:

There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.

Consider this. I was reading a news article not too long ago about the potentially amicable split in the United Methodist Church in the States. This article cited someone claiming that many millennials are leaving the church (not just the UMC but church in general) over concerns about gay/LBGTQ+ rights. The author made it sound like this was a cause for a majority, but given the ongoing haemmorrhaging of the Protestant mainline, there’s more to it than that. Apologies for not having kept track of this article to link to it.

So let’s look at both sides for a moment. When I mentioned to a pastor once about the church in Canada and the USA having lost its sense of God’s transcendence and this being a cause of church decline, he quickly set off in the direction of the declining mainline. I had to gently course correct him, because evangelicals are as guilty as the mainline, they just go about it differently.

We all tend to tame God. So if a lot of people who grew up in theologically and morally conservative churches are leaving over LGBTQ+ rights and issues, and not just going to liberal churches (some do, I admit; and some who do eventually slip away from the faith as well), somehow the God being preached and encountered at evangelical churches is not bigger than the wider culture.

We are not debating whether same-sex sex acts are sinful, nor whether the sacrament of holy matrimony should be restricted to heterosexual monogamy. I like avoiding trolls and so avoid this question on this blog. But let us, as a premiss for this thought experiment, take evangelical sexual ethics as granted. If a person finds that they are having trouble with this part of evangelical Christianity, leaving the Church, or least leaving the Christian faith, doesn’t strike me as an option if this person has also encountered the transcendent God.

If God is big enough, shouldn’t we be willing to hold unpopular opinions, or to spend time with Him — and even His people despite some discomfort?

It strikes me that if evangelical preaching of traditional sexual ethics is enough to drive churched people away, evangelicals haven’t been preaching enough Gospel, enough of the explosive truth that the untouchable, incomprehensible God Whose essence is unknowable came to us in the flesh in order that we might know Him. LGBTQ+ issues may be the presenting, conscious issue, but I suspect much more lurks beneath the surface when people leave.

Let us now consider the liberal churches, such as my dear, old Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada, it turns out, is in such decline that if rates of decline continue (which they probably will not), there will be no members in 2040. Now, to be sure, many of us who grew up Anglican don’t darken the door of an Anglican parish on a Sunday morning because we find Anglicans exhausting, LGBTQ+ issues aside. Nonetheless, if the author of the article was right, it strikes me that liberal Anglican churches and United Churches should be flourishing.

Instead, two of the Anglican parishes in my neighbourhood have merged, and I noticed that at least one of the downtown churches has closed its doors during the decade I was away. If people were leaving evangelical and conservative churches over LGBTQ+ issues alone, would they not say, ‘But Jesus is worth it, I’m going to the liberal Anglican or United Church down the road!’

I think, instead, people are going nowhere. Maybe some people try a more liberal church for a while. But both sides have their own special tamed gods to preach instead of the wild God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Haven’t we all met the God of being nice from both liberals and conservatives? Or the God of self-help/pop psychology? The genie God of Joel Osteen? The God of moralism and legalism? The God of ritual perfectionism? The God of feel-good emotions? The God of social justice?

Or that sort of preaching that doesn’t really need God at all, but is an interesting bit of religious thought/ethics/philosophy/literary criticism/psychology?

Now, I believe that Scripture and tradition teach a moral code, and that we can’t just avoid morality in our Christian walk. And I think love and justice for the poor, downtrodden, beaten, and bruised is part of a sound, biblical moral vision. And it’s probably a good idea to be nice. And that Jesus can bring mental and emotional healing to our lives.

But do you know what else the God of the Bible, the God of Irenaeus, the God of the Nicene Creed has done?

He made everything out of nothing. (By everything, I mean the entire, majestic universe, from quasars to the quantum realm.)

He made a bush burn without being consumed. (And talked out of it!)

He parted the Red Sea.

He also entered history as one of us. The Mighty God became a helpless baby!

After performing many miracles, this Mighty God died. (‘Tis mystery all — th’immortal dies!)

He trampled down death by death.

With the lightning flash of his Godhead, he broke the gates of Hades.

He rose from the dead.

He ascended to the heavens.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And He invites us, poor, broken, dying, dead sinners to join Him in glory.

Not because we deserve it. Just look at the world around you. Does any of us really deserve glory? Left? Right? Centre? Rich? Poor? Young? Old? Think about.

But God, the Creator of the Universe, loves us so much that He took on flesh and died so that we could be with Him.

Let me tell you, this is a God Who is so much more thrilling than “5 Steps to a Better Marriage” (however helpful that may be).

Are we preaching Him and helping others find Him?

This question is one reason I write this blog and read the Fathers (and manage Read the Fathers!). We need to encounter this God Whom so many others have encountered, and bring His light to the world around us. For many, reading Irenaeus or Basil of Caesarea or John Chrysostom or Bonaventure or Gregory Palamas, or least meeting their ideas, is a gateway to worshipping the wondrous, transcendent God.

But this isn’t Rimini, let alone 359…

This bridge, on the other hand, was in Rimini in 359

It’s Vancouver in 2019.

I’ve been thinking about my experimental thoughts concerning church councils and General Synods in these days after General Synod here in Vancouver. The thing that most seriously differentiates the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada from an ancient council (ecumenical or otherwise) is not whether the Holy Spirit turns, or whether it gets things right, or whether it is accepted immediately, or any of that, but denominations.

Writing several decades later, St Jerome said of the aftermath of Rimini, “The whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.” (Dialogue Against the Luciferians 19) The ancient church was the church. There was nowhere else to go. Sure, there were a few schismatic groups outside the imperial church in the 300s, especially the Novatianists in most provinces and the Donatists in North Africa.

For most cities, however, the bishop was the bishop. If the faithful disagreed with his stance at any major synod, there was usually nowhere else to go.

This fact, combined with the coercive force of the Roman state, is why the church was able to resolve the Arian/Nicene debates. It wasn’t just the truth of the Nicene faith or the superior theological skill of Athanasius and the Cappadocians that won the day. It was the fact that the day had to be won by someone. The church could not have Jesus as both God and not-god, with perhaps a diocesan option based on the opinion of your local bishop and his reading of the creed or something.

Those who disagreed with Rimini had no option but to stay and fight, even if that meant facing exile, imprisonment, torture, and even death. I would like to say that the unholy alliance between church and emperor would mean that, in overturning Rimini, its supporters would find themselves in a like position. I am not saying, that is, that the supporters of Rimini behaved much badly than anyone else — actually, I will.

The Emperor Constantius II, engineer and enforcer of Rimini (killer of various relatives, torturer of various bishops), was a bad dude.

Anyway, the ancient church saw itself as a single thing. Therefore, when a council claiming to represent the whole church made a ruling a bishop or theologian felt was wrong, he did not simply leave. He stayed and fought — this is why we have so much high theology running through the fourth century as the church argued over how to express the Godhead of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Before Chalcedon in 451, the only people who did leave were people who left because they believed that the hierarchy was, in fact, null and void. The Novatianists and Donatists believed that the holy orders of the rest of the church were invalid because of their treatment of the lapsed in the aftermath of persecution. They did not separate over doctrine, per se, but over canon law — if you believe that someone is unfit to be a bishop but has been selected by the church, anyway, it strikes me as a different category of separation from if you believe a council or bishop already in power has erred and separate from it or him. Donatists and Novatianists would argue that any of the unfit bishops’ actions would be invalid and inefficacious; it’s a different variety of schism from those today.

In our time, on the other hand, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada has decided that, since the bishops cannot agree on a major matter not simply of canon law but of moral theology (and therefore of biblical anthropology and the question of holiness and what sanctification looks like and the history of redemption and how we read the Bible — marriage is no small matter), that everyone can do as they please.

The result is that certain liberal/progressive/post-liberal bishops will authorise same-sex marriages within their dioceses. Others, including both traditionalists/conservatives/catholics-evangelicals and liberals/progressives/post-liberals of a certain mind on canon law and its pastoral use, will not.

Why even have a General Synod or a national church, in that case?

cut rant about canon law and remedies and church order short here

The disillusioned and weary will continue to leave, I can assure you.

Most of those who leave will be traditionalist/conservative/catholic-evangelical types. They will go where they have been going for a decade or more — the Anglican Network in Canada, the Anglican Mission in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, maybe even the Anglican Catholic Church, as well as whatever evangelical congregation is nearest home or has the best preaching or the best outreach to the homeless or whatever other criterion one uses in choosing a church that is not actually one’s ultimate preference. (We go for the criteria: ‘closest to home with preaching we can stand and working with nap time’ ourselves.)

I know not the mind of the liberals/progressives/post-liberals who support same-sex marriage and were disappointed by the failure to change the marriage canon — especially those in dioceses with bishops who will not endorse lawlessness. I can see some finally giving up and leaving the church altogether, or others going to the United Church which seems to have a more united (ha!) front on this issue. I bet some who would have stayed to fight for a change to the marriage canon will leave now that lawlessness is the way forward.

This is the chief difference between now and 359. There is always somewhere else to go for the weary Anglican who doesn’t want to give up on church. I thought of this one Sunday sitting quietly and anonymously at a megachurch in Vancouver. How many other weary Anglicans attended that service, happy to hear a sermon about our mission as Christians, sad maybe not to have the liturgy, but somewhere inside, relieved not to continue this pestilential non-conversation, fake dialogue of people talking past each other even when they have goodwill.

All churches, whether evangelical or mainline, but especially white ones, in Canada are haemorrhaging members. This will only accelerate the Anglican Church of Canada’s decline.

Well done, General Synod.

Experimental thoughts concerning General Synods and the theology of councils

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.

For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.

For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.

A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.

As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.

Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
  2. Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
  6. Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)

The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.

The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.

But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in  Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.

Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?

By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?

What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:

  • The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
  • The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
  • In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
  • In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.

If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.

So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?

Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.

Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.