Life in Christ: A Series of Pastoral Reflections
A devastating cartoon appeared recently in our local paper. The caption reads: "The New Sacrament." It depicts a somber and stately Episcopal church, with stained glass windows and cathedral ceiling. The view is from the back of the altar area, looking out toward the nave. Several small, robed figures surround a cleric, who is garbed all in white. According to the inscription on his vestments, he represents "U.S. Episcopal Bishops."
We see the scene from behind, so the figures are turned away, facing the congregation. An open service book, a cross, and two cruets, for wine and water, are to the bishop's left; a chalice stands to his right. It is the moment of the Elevation of the Host. The bishop's hands are lifted high above his head, raising the object of veneration. On the uplifted Host are inscribed the words, "Anything Goes!"
This may be a depiction of the "new sacrament" in the Episcopal Church. Then again, it may represent a bitter reaction to what has long characterized Anglican tradition: an openness to new things - movements, ideas, trends - with a genuine concern to be all-inclusive, to embrace all peoples, with their vast spectrum of theological and moral perspectives. As long as the faithful, with their clergy and theologians, respect the Gospel's first commandment to "love" the neighbor, whoever she or he may be, then other matters, particularly of faith and morals, can be left to the individual believer.
In such an ecclesial world, the only unacceptable theological perspective holds that "heresy exists." For orthodox Christians of any stripe, this is hard to swallow.
All of this has come to a head, of course, because the Episcopal House of Bishops recently confirmed the election of an actively homosexual priest to be bishop of a New England diocese. That gesture has deeply divided Episcopalians, setting "traditionalists" against "modernists," with the risk of sundering their Church in this country and throughout the world.
It would be - and has been - easy for us as Orthodox Christians to point an accusatory finger, to condemn outright what we take to be a gross if not fatal misstep on the part of ecclesiastical authorities, and to dismiss the Episcopal Church as hopelessly beyond the pale. We can not and should not follow the path they have taken. That to most of us, I suppose, is self-evident. But we need to avoid the path of the Pharisee as well.
Perhaps the most appropriate emotional response we as Orthodox Christians can have to these recent developments in the Episcopal Church is one of sadness. If it were not for Anglican friends in England and throughout Western Europe, the Russian communities of the diaspora, in the years following the October Revolution, would likely have faced insurmountable difficulties establishing their own churches and providing for theological education. The Anglican-Orthodox Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius in London served to create bonds of unity and provide material aid that permitted the founding of numerous Orthodox parish churches and the continued life and work of the St Sergius Theological Institute in Paris. Independently and through the World Council of Churches, the Anglican Communion provided our forebears with precious help, together with countless signs of friendship and love.
But I think especially of those in the Episcopal Church today, who are suffering in ways we can hardly imagine, because of the direction their ecclesial authorities are taking them. It would be easy, and fatuous, to say: "Well, let them become Orthodox!" Many of them were born and raised in a tradition they love and cherish. All their life they have prayed, sung and served in "their Church." And now their Church seems to have been taken hostage by forces alien to what they have known, trusted, respected and honored. As they put it: they have not left the Church, the Church has left them.
Nevertheless, however much we may reject the outcome and the reasoning that underlies it, the vote in the House of Bishops reflects an aspect of the Gospel of Christ that we too often tend to neglect. This is Christ's call to minister to outcasts and the marginalized, whatever the reasons for their behavior or their infirmity. How often was Jesus criticized for fraternizing with tax collectors, prostitutes, the blind, the demon-possessed, and others who were deemed worthy only of divine wrath? If we are tempted to cast stones at the Episcopal authorities, it is in large part because of their defense of gays and lesbians. We Orthodox, on the other hand - missing the crucial distinction between disapproval and judgment - have a long tradition of taking up stones against homosexuals, rather than leaving judgment where it belongs, in the hands of God.
We in the Orthodox Church have our own issues with homosexual behavior, and we mustn't forget that. Just as we are called to minister to our own, whatever their sexual orientation and behavior, we are called to serve those of other communions, or of none. In this respect, at least, we are called as well to honor the motivation of many in authority within the Episcopal Church: not to pander to the "gay agenda," but to accept every person, without exception, as a bearer of the Image of God.
Rather than cast stones, then, may we implore God's mercy upon the Episcopal fold. May we offer them up, like the eucharistic Host, with the earnest desire that God will grant them healing. And may we pray for them as for ourselves, that we be faithful to the life and faith to which God calls us, for our own salvation and the salvation of all His people, whoever they may be.
The Very Reverend John Breck is a professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.
Read this article on the Orthodox Church in America website. Reprinted with permission of the author.