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Orthodoxy, “Inclusion,” and TEC’s Earth & Altar

By Fr. Mark Perkins

TEC Earth & Altar's logo

Turns out millennials of various Anglican inclinations have been been reading — singing — their Chesterton. That’s the only reasonable explanation for the impending launch of another Earth & Altar, this one out of the Episcopal Church (TEC).

I do not typically follow TEC developments closely, and if this new project had been called literally anything except for Earth & Altar, I am not sure I would have noticed them at all. But after taking note of their emerging social media profile (a Twitter publicity campaign kicked off in early November, and they are launching in full during Epiphany), I suggested that while there is a potential for mistaken identity — as indeed has been the case here and there — we are serving such different constituencies that it seems unlikely to create widespread confusion.

And that’s pretty much where I left it.

Only I couldn’t stop thinking about the basic premise of their site — and about this one tweet of theirs in particular:

We are not at all associated with TEC, but I object strenuously to the implication that we, by contrast with them, exclude “women and LGBTQ people.” Of course, I know — you know, we all know — what they mean: the Anglican Province of America (APA), for whom and within which Earth & Altar was conceived, does not believe in the ordination of women or in same-sex marriage (though this is hardly the only LGBTQ-related question worth considering, as I have noted here before). To them our position obviously and undeniably excludes women and LGBTQ people. Probably they see their statement as essentially descriptive and not even remotely tendentious; I imagine they would be startled that anyone in the APA would even take offense at such an obvious statement of fact!

But I do.

To be clear: I am not at all interested in arguing our claims about women’s ordination or same-sex marriage. I wish only to clarify what our view and their view of orthodoxy hold in common — and why, therefore, the labels they use to describe their vision of orthodoxy, while rhetorically powerful, are ultimately distinctions without meaningful theological difference. Their take on creedal orthodoxy — which they alternately describe as “inclusive,” “expansively conceived,” and “generous” — is in principle just as exclusive (and inclusive) as our project, and indeed for the same reason: because the truths in question are of divine origin; because we are neither permitted nor indeed capable of altering them; and finally because we do not get to be more inclusive or generous or expansive than their divine source.

In what follows I briefly work through each of those three modifiers in turn — “inclusive,” “expansively conceived,” and “generous” — and in so doing reflect upon what it means to be orthodox. Our mission and theirs is, ultimately, to trust in the God of the creeds over the many and proliferating voices of doubt and denial.

Let’s begin with the first: what, exactly, is an “inclusive” creedal orthodoxy? On a purely semantic level, this is a nonsensical phrase. Orthodoxy is always by definition both inclusive and exclusive. The creeds by nature include and exclude. There is no getting around that — nor do the folks behind TEC’s Earth & Altar wish to do so in the first place! They assert that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds ought to be “understood in a more-than-metaphorical way,” and also that these creeds “are the authoritative teaching of the Church.” The phrase “more-than-metaphorical” is impressively and no doubt deliberately ambiguous — but even so, it is not meaningless. At the very least, it must exclude the Bishops Pike and Spong of the world, not to mention all non-Christians. (“Exclusion,” I perhaps should clarify, need not be connected to damnation — those outside creedal orthodoxy cannot be considered orthodox Christians, but what this means for their eternal destination is a separate question.)

Insofar as world religions and Bp. Spong are concerned, both Earth & Altars (Earths & Altar? Earths & Altars? Earthae & Altrae?) are equally orthodox — which is to say, equally exclusive.

So our friends at TEC’s Earth & Altar do not mind boundaries and exclusion per se. They rightly recognize that orthodoxy as such requires them. They are not universally inclusive. But they are, they imply, much more inclusive than we. Indeed, they claim to conceive of orthodoxy “expansively” — and this is so precisely because they conceive of the creeds minimalistically. Let me be clear: in and of itself, this is not a bad thing! Like them, I fear the boundless expansion of “orthodoxy” — the multiplication of doctrines and dogmas deemed necessary to be orthodox. For instance, the precise dating of the Book of Daniel or the historicity of the Exodus are important matters of biblical debate — but they are not creedal matters. Nor should they be.

It was for this reason that James K. A. Smith quite controversially asserted that, while same-sex marriage is contrary to Scripture, tradition, and even natural law — it is not, strictly speaking, “unorthodox.” The specific contents of the creeds do matter — and neither they nor the Councils define the priesthood as male-only or marriage as male-female.

Now, I might respond, “That’s because it was obvious and assumed.” To which they ought to respond, “Well, it isn’t anymore — and we do not know why they thought it obvious. Isn’t it just as likely that they were influenced by regnant cultural assumptions about sex difference and marriage — rather than the guidance of the Holy Spirit?” To which I would respond, “Good point.” Proving the creedal and Christological implications of sex difference when it comes to the priesthood and marriage requires demonstration and not mere assertion. These implications — while ultimately unavoidable — are not self-evidently obvious.

This, of course, is what they mean by an orthodoxy that is “expansively conceived”: whatever is not explicitly maintained and required by the creeds should not be considered necessary for orthodoxy. Hence one can uphold orthodoxy and at the same time make room for practices and positions that seem to fly in the face of historic Christianity.

An image from TEC Earth & Altar's Twitter feed

Is this expansive orthodoxy therefore more “generous”?

The phrase “generous orthodoxy” brought to mind Paul Avis’s principles of ecumenism [see Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (2007), 142, 111]. In ecumenical dialogue Anglicans have always emphasized the “historic episcopate” — but they have generally been silent about why. Avis describes this silence as “a generous and hospitable understanding” because it does not “unchurch” Protestants. But such adjectives only make sense if we are dealing with an entity of our own construction rather than with a prior ontological reality. If the Church really exists — if she really is, as Avis himself argues, an extension of the Incarnation in time and space — then the boundaries are determined by God and not by the supposed generosity of Anglicans. Either one is or is not part of the Church, and the most charitable thing we can do is try to be clear about that. Avis does, in fact, define the boundaries of the Church — and while his boundaries are wider than those of Rome or Constantinople, they are not universal. Yes, more are included — but it is no more “generous” or “hospitable” to those it excludes.

So too with TEC Earth & Altar’s “generous orthodoxy.” To those, for instance, who deny the virgin birth, they and we are equally exclusive, which is to say equally “ungenerous.” How can they — how can we — justify this apparent failure of generosity and inclusivity? I think and I hope they would say that the truths contained in the creeds are of divine origin. Just so. We don’t get to challenge or change them. We don’t get to be more inclusive or more generous than the God who is love.

I stated earlier that we in the APA do not “believe in” women’s ordination or same-sex marriage. This “belief” is not fundamentally ethical (“women shouldn’t be ordained;” “same-sex marriages should not occur”) but rather ontological. Whether we like it or not, these things do not exist and cannot happen, and we are simply not able to change that fundamental reality. If marriage and holy orders are, like creedal orthodoxy, of divine origin, then we are likewise forbidden from altering them to suit our or our culture’s desires.

By contrast, they believe that women’s ordination and same-sex marriage are “fully compatible” with creedal orthodoxy — which presumably means that God’s intentions in instituting marriage and holy orders included, respectively, the possibility of same-sex marriage and of women’s ordination. It is beyond the scope of this brief essay to explain why I find such arguments fundamentally unpersuasive. But it is quite in keeping with my recent reflections in this space to point out that, even if I found their claims entirely persuasive, I would nevertheless deny that any jurisdiction, acting alone, has the right fundamentally to alter Vincentian canon matters — especially ones that pertain to the sacraments. If the Church — and Israel, into which she was grafted — has since her institution mal-practiced ordination and misinterpreted marriage, then these errors can only be resolved by the universal voice of the undivided Church in Ecumenical Council.

Until then, we must continue to hold true to that which was believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all. We must continue to trust Christ’s Spirit-filled, Mystical Body. We must do so with unwavering confidence in the God who knows more and loves better than we.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.

1 Comment

Dec 15, 2019

I am new to organized faith, but in years previous when I was studying various Christian denominations, it seemed to me that the views of TEC were completely congruent with modern American pop-cultural values guided by individual desires, not God's word, reason, or long-established authority. That alone guided me away from that church.

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