In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the General Confession for Morning and Evening Prayer reads in part as follows (emphasis mine):
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults . . .
However, in the 1979 Book, this was changed to
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our
we have offended against thy holy laws,
we have left undone those things which we ought to
and we have done those things which we ought not to
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
spare thou those who confess their faults . . .
What happened to “no health in us”? Where are the “miserable offenders”?
According to Marion Hatchett’s commentary on the 1979 Book, “Two phrases which tended often to be misunderstood, the omission of which had proposed for over two hundred years, have been dropped: “and there is no health in us,” and “miserable offenders.” Hatchett does not say who proposed dropping these over the last two hundred years, or why, although it is not hard to guess how these might be misunderstood. They do not appear in 1549, since there is no general confession and absolution for Morning and Evening Prayer at all in that book; these were added in 1552, when the more “prostestant” version of the Prayer Book was published under Edward the VI, and they have remained ever since, although the offending phrases were only removed in 1979.
Whatever the merits or demerits of “no health in us” and “miserable offenders” might be, I was put in mind of their absence by some recent remarks of Katherine Jefferts Schori, the recently elected Presiding “Bishop” of TEC.
Let me state for the record that I am not interested in attacking Ms. Schori. I recently attended a conference where one speaker went to some lengths to parse some of Schori’s statements as they were recorded in an interview in an Arkansas newspaper. When someone objected that such a dissection was giving Ms. Schori a standing that she did not deserve, since she would not (in his view) be a relevant factor in the church much longer, the speaker agreed and declared that she only referenced Schori as an example of a general attitude, not as an individual in need of correction. My remarks are in a similar spirit. I really don’t care what Katherine Jefferts Schori thinks, except insofar as it informs my prayers for her soul. Since she is not really a bishop, and leads (if you can call it that) an increasingly dysfunctional corporation whose future would appear to be that of the Shakers, it is worth looking at some of her recent statements as a warning to the future.
Ms. Schori has given various interviews to different news organs. I am sure I have not read them all. I am also sure that she has been to some degree misrpresented in the news media, even friendly news media. That sort of thing is inevitable. In an era of sound bites and blogs, it is very easy to take statements out of context, as anyone knows who has read something about someone they know well, including themselves. Just consider our political life (no, Al Gore never claimed he invented the internet). So the thrashing she has received in the blogosphere and elsewhere is doubtless due in some measure to the hostility of those who are not inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt when they read her remarks.
However, when all is said and done, some of her recently recorded utterances really do raise questions about either her theological understanding or her spiritual commitments.
On January 10 Ms. Schori gave an interview to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that has been commented on in several places. (I cannot find the original article online, but readers may be interested in reading the interview, and perhaps some of the commentary, here and here) I do not wish to dissect the entire interview, but only to point up some facets of it that come up again in a more recent article in USA Today. Here are some of her comments from the Arkansas interview:
KJS: . . . There are vast numbers of people in this country who are unchurched, who’ve been raised now without a faith tradition. That may be less so in this part of the country, but in the part of the country I come from, it’s normal. But many of those young people are asking spiritual questions. “Why am I here? What am I supposed to be about as a human being? How am I supposed to live in relationship with other people?” Those are questions that the Episcopal Church is well poised and well experienced in helping people to find answers. Not provide answers, but help people wrestle with the questions.
ADG: How so?
KJS: It’s a matter of openness more than anything else, and listening to the hunger that’s out there, offering a space and a community and a space in which to tell a person’s story and then beginning to connect that story with the larger story of our faith, if that makes sense.
ADG: Could you be a little more specific about some of the things the Episcopal Church offers to help people deal with those questions?
KJS: Well, we don’t come with a prescribed set of answers. We really do encourage people to wrestle with the question. To bring traditional sources to bear on it. Scripture, tradition and reason is how we talk about those sources. We insist that people use their minds in wrestling with questions. Faith is not meant to be unreasoned, or unreasonable. And I think that’s one of our gifts, that we’re willing to deal with a breadth of perspective, and encourage that breadth of perspective. It’s a mark of health . . .
Thus according to Ms. Schori, we all start out epistemologically empty. The church does not, cannot, should not provide answers. Instead, the function of Christianity, or at least Anglican Christianity, is as a kind of Socratic dialogue, where neither party starts out with any answers. (If you have read any of the shorter dialogues of Plato, you can see where this is going). The purpose of the Church, it would appear, is not to function as a repository of truth, but as a sort of Socratic midwife, helping the seeker find the truth through dialogue (“wrestling with questions”).
There is something to be said for this. Any teacher (and I’m one) knows that when a student discovers something for himself, its impact is much more powerful than if the answer were simply delivered on a silver platter. I’ve had many, many experiences, some intensely frustrating, some deeply rewarding, of just this sort of thing in the classroom. Too often religious doctrine can seem like some sort of spiritual SAT, and catechesis as a kind of Kaplan-esque test prep.
However, when it comes to religious faith, the problem with this sort of model is precisely its Socratic assumption that the truth is already in you, just waiting for you to discover it. Such an approach, handled well (and few can—there are not a lot of Socrates’s out there, despite the high opinion some instructors have of themselves) can get you far. But it won’t get you to Christianity, since by definition Christianity is a revealed religion, the product of a revelation, something that we could never discover for ourselves, or in ourselves, and the church is supposed to be the bearer and keeper of that revelation—that “answer,” if you like. If this sounds pretty basic, well, it is, but it seems to be missing from the formulation of Ms. Schori, despite her reference to Scripture and tradition along with reason.
Now, if she had said, “We (that is, the church) have answers, and we encourage people to wrestle with those answers in order to make them their own,” that would be great. I think they call that theology. But this insistence on wrestling with questions (for which Ms. Schori is hardly unique in the Episcopal Church in claiming some special Anglican vocation) is in tune with the exaltation of doubt as a virtue (Ms. Schori’s “mark of health”) which is so common is Episcopal circles these days, as if the purpose of theology is no longer “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm), but rather understanding seeking faith (e.g., Descartes). And the problem with the latter, is: what if your understanding seeks faith and doesn’t find it? Presumably Ms. Schori does not want to oppress such a lost individual with any “prescribed set of anwers.” Quelle horreur! That would be to change the church’s role–her role—from Socrates to sensei (or perhaps from Pilate to Paul), and that will not do.
This notion of the church as partner in a Socratic dialogue comes out even more strongly a bit later in the same interview.
KJS: I certainly don’t disagree with that statement that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. But the way it’s used is as a truth serum, or a touchstone: If you cannot repeat this statement, then you’re not a faithful Christian or person of faith. I think Jesus as way – that’s certainly what it means to be on a spiritual journey. It means to be in search of relationship with God. We understand Jesus as truth in the sense of being the wholeness of human expression. What does it mean to be wholly and fully and completely a human being? Jesus as life, again, an example of abundant life. We understand him as bringer of abundant life but also as exemplar. What does it mean to be both fully human and fully divine? Here we have the evidence in human form. So I’m impatient with the narrow understanding, but certainly welcoming of the broader understanding . . .
Apparently, for Ms. Schori, Jesus is not the way. He’s not even a way. He’s just “way,” a “spiritual journey.” Jesus is not the way to God. He is a journey in search of a relationship to God. What’s that relationship like? We can’t tell you—that would be to offer the dreaded “prescribed set of answers.” Instead, as in Plato’s Phaedrus, faithful Christians are the seekers of truth who rise ever higher through dialectic as they “wrestle with questions,” like horses pulling a chariot together. Or then again, there’s Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates tells how, through dialogue, he was initiated into the mysteries of Love with its indescribable beatific vision of pure being. Katherin Jefferts Schori, the new Diotima.
Then there is her view of the Incarnation. In the passage just quoted, Schori asserts the famous (and famously orthodox) Christian view of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. A bit later she continues
The Anglican tradition of Christianity is world-affirming, it is focused on incarnation, and it insists that we’re not meant to shut ourselves off from the world in a pietistic sense or in a sectarian sense. That we’re meant to be in the world, and transforming the world into something that looks more like the reign of God . . .
So Ms. Schori is big on the Incarnation. In that, she is indeed being (in a way) very Anglican. Meditating on the Incarnation has long been a particular feature of Anglican theology and spirituality. One might wonder just what she means by “pietistic” or “sectarian,” particularly since (some believe) her insistence on blessing same-sex unions in the face of near-universal (i.e., catholic) rejection of such is by definition “sectarian.” But let that pass. Instead, compare these remarks with some of those she made for a recent article in USAToday (and much commented on here and here and here):
Yes, sin “is pervasive, part of human nature,” but “it’s not the centerpiece of the Christian message. If we spend our time talking about sin and depravity, it is all we see in the world,” she says . . .
She sees two strands of faith: One is “most concerned with atonement, that Jesus died for our sins and our most important task is to repent.” But the other is “the more gracious strand,” says the bishop who dresses like a sunrise.
It “is to talk about life, to claim the joy and the blessings for good that it offers, to look forward.
“God became human in order that we may become divine. That’s our task.”
These “two strands of faith” would appear to be separate strands, if I understand her aright, and she appears to set their two “tasks” almost in opposition to each other. The one is concerned with with repentance, with a focus on the atoning death of Christ. The other is the “more gracious strand,” one that focuses on the Incarnation.
Her last line is, in fact, an impeccably orthodox quote: God became human in order that we may become divine. This is the doctrine of theosis, or deification (sanctification if you prefer), so central to Eastern Orthodoxy, but also key to western theology and essential to understanding the faith of the Fathers of the early church.
The locus classicus in Scripture is the famous text from 2 Peter 1:4, where Christians are told they have been made “partakers of the divine nature.” The whole passage is worth quoting:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his presence and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Pet 1:3-4)
Hmmm. Not much here about transforming the world (no Millenium Development Goals here!), but rather escaping its corruption caused by passion (read: death and sin). (For that matter, the rest of the letter has quite a bit to say about sin, false prophets, and deceptive gnostic myths, but let that pass.)
The doctrine of theosis was first put in its famous form by St Irenaeus of Lyon towards the end of the second century: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.” It later served as the key for the soteriology of St Athanasius of Alexandria: “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine.”
This doctrine stands at the heart of all patristic theology. It is the very reason that the first ecumenical council that produced the Nicene Creed insisted that the Son was not merely like, but of the same being as the Father; why Athanasius spent a lifetime defending that creed; why the fourth ecumenical council of Chalcedon insisted that Christ was both one hundred percent human and one hundred percent God at the same time. Anything less and we are not saved.
And deification via the Incarnation is indeed central to Anglican theology. Examples could be endlessly multiplied, but let’s stick to our seminal theologian, Richard Hooker and his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Book Five):
Touching union of Deity with manhood, it is by grace, because there can be no greater grace shewed towards man, than that God should vouchsafe to unite to man’s nature the person of his only begotten Son . . .
Finally, sith God hath deified our nature, though not by turning it into himself, yet by making it his own inseparable habitation, we cannot now conceive how God should without man either exercise divine power, or receive the glory of divine praise. For man is in both an associate of Deity . . .
They which thus were in God eternally by their intended admission to life, have by vocation or adoption God actually now in them, as the artificer is in the work which his hands doth presently frame. Life as in all other gifts and benefits groweth originally from the Father, and cometh not to us but by the Son, nor by the Son to any of us in particular but through the Spirit. For this cause the Apostle wisheth to the church of Corinth “the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost.” Which three St Peter comprehendeth in one, “The participation of divine nature.”
Well, then, could we then say, Good for Katherine Jefferts Schori! She has accepted Chalcedonian orthodoxy! She preaches the true Gospel!
Not quite, because, you see, in order to achieve this theosis, this communion with God, you must first . . . guess what?
That’s right. Repent. For your sins.
The idea that repentance and atonement could somehow be a separate “strand” from incarnation and deification, and a less gracious one at that, would have struck the Fathers who developed it as bizarre, or gnostic, or worse. There are various theories of atonement, and whichever one you adopt or choose to emphasize has theological consequences (count me in the “Christus victor” school). But to decouple, as Schori appears to do, atonement and deification by suggesting that repentance is not at the center of the Christian message is to fatally mangle the very doctrine of Incarnation on which she relies. Atonement and deification are not two unequal “strands.” They are two sides of the same coin. To quote again from St Irenaeus,
. . . if man had not been united to God, man could not have become a partaker of immortality. For the mediator between god and man had to bring both parties into friendship and concord through his kinship with both; and to present man to God, and make god known to man. In what way could we share in the adoption of the sons of God unless through the Son we had received the fellowship with the Father, unless the Word of god made flesh had entered into communion with us? Therefore he passed through every stage of life, restoring to each age fellowship with God . . . The Law, being spiritual, merely displayed sin for what it is; it did not destroy it, for sin did not hold sway over spirit, but over man. For he who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man, who had been dragged into slavery and was held by death, in order that death might be slain by man, and man should go forth from the bondage of death. For as through the disobedience of one man, who was the first man, fahsioned out of virgin soil, many were made sinners; so it was necessary that through the obedience of one man, who was the first to be born of a virgin, man should be justified and receive salvation.
No “strands” here. Rather, it is the one movement of God, from incarnation to crucifixion to atonement to resurrection, and the one movement of man, from repentance to justification to deification and eternal life. God enters His finite creation to fill us with His infinity. It is, of course, possible, at times even necessary, to speak of these matters as separate notions. You can also separate chewing and swallowing, but if you don’t do both, you’re not eating. Once you de-couple repentance and atonement from incarnation and deification, you have in effect de-coupled repentance from new life, you have separated the crucifixion from the resurrection. The result is exactly the kind of gnostic new agey sort of stuff we have become accustomed to hearing from Griswold, Schori, and their ilk. And it is a large part of why we are where we are today.
I have focused on two different sets of comments in two different interviews, but I have done so for a reason, because they suggest a unity of thought in Dr. Schori and in those who support her. In the end, a church that emphasises questions and not answers will be the same church that emphasises blessings without repentance. Its message will indeed be union with God, but union on our terms, not His. It is monism disguised as the Gospel, for without the other “strand” of the atonement, we have only a Socratic mid-wife (not provide answers, but help people wrestle with the questions), not a Master; an enlightener (we understand him as bringer of abundant life but also as exemplar), not a Redeemer. We are still in our sins, and we are not saved. Schori’s comments remind me of the damned bishop in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, insisting on his right to free inquiry (“wrestling with questions”) and that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive (“what it means to be on a spiritual journey”), so I pray for her soul and for the souls of all who think like her.
So count me a “miserable sinner.” The knowledge that there is “no health” in me (Romans 7:18) is only a bummer if I stop there. For I know two other things: that on the far side of repentance and atonement are the “joy and blessings” that Ms. Schori proclaims, but also that there is no short cut.