The Fork in the Road
During all this growing struggle, a clergy friend of mine expressed that one way to approach these concerns is to remind myself that adulthood is rife with continual negotiation. There are no easy answers or infallibly clear alliances. Everyday we are faced with various compromises through which we negotiate our faith. So while this moral and theological fragmentation which is occurring in the Episcopal Church is regrettable, it is nonetheless part of the realities of adult life: we pick and choose our battles and our allies, hopefully and prayerfully with the guidance of and in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Conformity to an ideal might not be so much a sign of orthodoxy as it is a sign of immaturity.
But the actions of the Episcopal Church’s national leadership and other laity and clergy were deeply troubling to me nonetheless. Furthermore, it could be responded that a sign of adult maturity is to recognize one’s limitations and obligations. This willful disregard for catholicity and tradition in which the Episcopal Church is engaged may not be so much a sign of relevance and sophistication as a sign of regression to adolescent rebellion and lack of a formed identity. An “adult” church would then be one which realized that one had an obligation to be faithful to the Tradition, and that limits are not always signs of oppression but signs of protection and of responsibility.
I also had it expressed to me that the Episcopal Church is still orthodox: the Creeds are recited, the faith is proclaimed, the sacraments are administered. The other matters going on in ECUSA are important, but ultimately not the reality that is the Church. In some ways, this made sense to me. Just because a bunch of folks are behaving foolishly, doesn’t mean that all are foolish. Jesus, himself, said that the wheat and the tares would grow together. But it was clear to me that in ECUSA de jure orthodoxy is not a guarantor of de facto orthodoxy. A creeping nominalism of theological word games had become the political tool in recent decades. One could say certain words, but what did one mean by them? More to the point, one must ask the question: Where is the demarcation between faithfulness and apostasy in a denomination? When could one say that ECUSA had become apostate? Must it only be when it officially pronounces a heresy? And how many heresies must it officially pronounce to be “really” apostate?
It is rather ironic to reflect that among my hesitations in being confirmed in the Episcopal Church were my beliefs about baptism and the orientation from my heritage regarding the Lord’s Supper and church polity. Similarly, the breadth and via media style of thought regarding theology and doctrine in the Episcopal Church was at that time refreshing as compared to a more monochromatic reading of Scripture with which I’d grown up. Now, however, it was just that lack of clarity regarding the wide range of the Church’s orthodox and traditional beliefs that made such things as pouring versus immersion, real presence versus memorial, and elders versus bishops seem, not unimportant, but at least less critical. It was symptomatic of a greater disease.
But the conflicts mentioned previously continued to grow in intensity. Furthermore, I was becoming increasingly aware of my passion for and abilities in philosophy. It began to appear to me that my vocation lay not in the priesthood, but in the teaching and writing of philosophy. I had hesitations about ordination I couldn’t shake. In early 2001, a friend from Lincoln Christian Seminary encouraged me to listen to those hesitations. Then in late 2001 I did so.
On Christmas Eve morning, 2001, I spent some time listing the various matters which had occurred or were occurring in the Episcopal Church that were of deep concern to me. These were all developments that occurred, or things about which I became aware, after my confirmation. In my naiveté, I might still have been confirmed had I known of them, reasoning that prayer and strong witness would result in repentance, renewal and reform. Having witnessed the unchecked downward spiral of the few years since my confirmation (and the couple of decades before that), however, I was not optimistic. Not because I doubted the power of the Holy Spirit, but because I doubted the willingness of the major players to place themselves under the conviction of God.
As the new year 2002 rolled in, I found I could not reconcile what I knew to be happening on the national and diocesan levels in the Episcopal Church with the whole set of reasons I’d been confirmed in 1996. So, with heavy heart, on 7 January 2002, the day after Epiphany, I composed and sent a note to my priest informing him I was withdrawing from the ordination process. I would no longer seek to be a priest in the Episcopal Church. I followed up with a note to my parish discernment group and one to my bishop. Their responses were compassionate. Nor were they surprised, as I’d wrestled with these issues ever since beginning study at the Episcopal seminary I had been attending.