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The Network’s Foundations (Philip Turner)

The keynote address at the Colorado meeting of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, at Christ Church, Denver, on 21 February 2004.

By Philip Turner


I have been asked to address a notoriously broad and difficult subject, “The Foundations of Christian Belief and Practice.” The subject is broad because “the foundations” involve more than a few simple statements. They involve a complex of mutually dependent and interlocking beliefs and practices that are notoriously difficult to summarize. The subject is difficult because the minute one tries to identify the foundations, someone offers a different list. At this point statements intended to produce unity become themselves the cause of disagreement and, on occasion, division. Despite these difficulties, however, the cry to return to foundations appears again and again; and it does so because in times of conflict, persecution, and/or suffering people feel a need “to look to the rock from which they were hewn.” When the earth moves, people desperately search for solid footing.

The recent actions of the Dioceses of New Westminster, of ECUSA’s General Convention, and the subsequent ordination of Gene Robinson to be the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire have indeed caused the earth to move; and those who deny that they are feeling shock waves live in a world whose physics I fail to understand. The foundations have indeed been shaken; and consequently, despite the difficulty of the project, I agreed to comply with your request. For the next few minutes, I am going to ask us to consider the foundations of our faith.

Before I do that, however, I think it will be helpful to state at the outset where I am going to end up; namely, with a challenge that is fearfully difficult to state, hear, and accept. The challenge is that we seek to overcome among ourselves the forces of individualism and congregationalism that have shaken the foundations of our common life; and that we do so by forming a communion of parishes jointly committed in mutually supportive ways to building a common life upon the foundations I hope to identify. To put the matter another way, my challenge is to join (right here in the Diocese of Colorado) as brothers and sisters in fellowship with Christ and with one another in a common movement of repentance, reconciliation, reform and renewal whose purpose is nothing less than the reform of and renewal of the Episcopal Church. Conversely, my challenge is for us to cease thinking of ourselves as distressed individuals joined together on the basis of shared preferences and a sense of affliction into distinct congregations whose purpose is self-protection, self-promotion, and the pursuit of privately held religious and moral beliefs.

Both the positive and the negative statement of the telos of this address are intended to strike at the heart of the individualism and congregationalism (and so also the sin) that have combined to shake the foundations not only of ECUSA but also of the Anglican Communion as a whole. Given this purpose, when writing this address, these questions posed themselves. If I am to speak of foundations, how do I get from A to B More specifically, how do I get from a place where there seems to be no solid ground to one that is as firm as a rock-a rock so firmly implanted in the earth that it can be called “the rock of ages” For better or worse, in search of an answer, I decided to address three questions, and they are these:

• What purpose does God ask of those who search for foundations — who look to the rock from which they were hewn?

• How do we recognize and come to rest upon the foundations of our common belief and practice?

• What shall we do if we find ourselves standing together on the foundations God provides his Church?

Foundations and Purposes

Let me put the first question in this way. If in a time of turmoil, uncertainty, and distress, we seek to relocate ourselves on a firm foundation, what purpose drives us Why, in such circumstances, does the question of foundations arise Do we seek an answer for no greater reason than to save our own skin Is our purpose simply to keep the house from falling in on our own heads Or are we, perhaps, simply trying to distinguish ourselves from people with whom we do not wish to be identified

Though I do so at some risk of giving offense, I must at this juncture speak with considerable candor. Too much is at stake to beat around the bush. I have been involved in the church struggle in which we now find ourselves for some 30 years, and during that time (particularly in the last three or four years) I have noted a change in the purpose a search for foundations serves. The search has less and less been directed to finding common ground upon which all members of ECUSA, despite their differences, can stand. Conversely, the search has been directed more and more toward finding a self-definition that distinguishes my group that holds to right belief and practice from another group that does not. In short, the notion of foundations serves less and less to provide the fundament of a common dwelling place and more and more as a totemic symbol that distinguishes warring clans engaged in a deadly family feud.

There are several reasons for this shift. The first is self-protective. The reasoning seems to go something like this. If we can raise the totemic symbol of foundations high enough, then our people will not seek membership in another clan. More bluntly, if we can identify our congregation as clearly orthodox as opposed to heterodox, people will not (as good Americans though not good Christians do) shop around for another that better suits them. I must say that despite the many good things that went on recently in Plano at the conference intended to establish a network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, one thing troubled me profoundly. Though I support this network and desire more than I can say to see its tribe increase, I must note that at the Plano meeting, far too many people wanted to join in large measure because they were afraid that apart from this option many of “their people” would leave. The driving force behind their support of the movement was self-protective.

I detected also a second (less than optimal) reason for support of this particular attempt to define foundations. To declare for foundations may serve the purpose of establishing my obedience and virtue and exposing the disobedience and vice of someone whom I now hold to be a stranger rather than a member of my own family. I am sad to say that, in the heat of our present struggles, I have found this attitude all too common both in myself and in others. I certainly have found it increasingly common in the way in which some Episcopalians often refer to other Episcopalians. Foundations (sadly) have become a means of breaking communion rather than one upon which it is built.

Now I would be the last to deny that the fundaments of Christian belief and practice serve to reveal false accounts of these matters. I would also not like to deny that they might serve to hold people together in times of division and stress. I am convinced, however, that neither purpose ought to dominate our search. In searching for foundations, our purpose under God ought to be to rebuild the house of the Lord; and that rebuilding cannot be done with the purpose of excluding members of the family who may have lost track of those beliefs and practices that give the family identity. The first purpose of a search for foundations, if it is to be a godly search, is to call everyone, both orthodox and heterodox, to look to the rock from which they were hewn.

If the search for foundations is intended simply to keep some people in and keep others out, it will, despite its necessity, prove an ungodly course of action. If the search for foundations is only a matter of truth: if that search takes place apart from love and mercy, then the truth becomes an instrument of war and not a bond of peace. To paraphrase the psalm, truth and mercy must kiss if God is to be served.

If this is so, then the search for foundations, if it is to be godly, must begin with a desire to include one’s opponent. Its purpose must be to find a foundation upon which all are called to stand. This desire must be accompanied by the hope of reconciliation and agreement. To be godly, the search must be born of hope rather than despair. To be godly, the search for foundations must be born of eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace rather than an eagerness to establish the righteousness of one’s own cause. It cannot be godly if it is in essence an attempt to define one part of the Church over against another. Such an attempt screams not of obedience but of disobedience.

I conclude, therefore, with the observation that a godly search for the foundations of Christian faith and practice must necessarily be accompanied negatively by repentance and positively by love and charity toward the neighbor in Christ who may well have strayed far indeed from the common foundations upon which God’s temple, the Church, rests.

Recognizing Fundaments

If the purpose under God of a search for foundations is to call everyone, both orthodox and heterodox, to look to the rock from which both were hewn, then one must ask first not about building foundations but about recognizing those God has already provided. How shall we find the foundations upon which the ruined walls of our church can be rebuilt The answer to this question is simple to state, but extraordinarily difficult to put into practice. If we wish to recognize the foundations God has provided, we can do so only as a people who are immersed in the Holy Scriptures as read and commonly interpreted within the context of the prayers, worship, and common life of the Church.

In making this statement, I am offering neither a truism nor a bromide. I am in fact calling for something quite radical; namely, a return to what I take to be the foundational principle of Anglicanism as set forth by Thomas Cranmer at the time of the Reformation in England.At the beginning of the “Preface” to the Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1549 Cranmer notes that his arrangement for having the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) read through once a year by both clergy and people has its origins in the ancient practice of the Church. In his essay “Of Ceremonies: Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retained,” he grounds his revision of the prayers of the Church in Holy Scripture and the practice of the early Fathers rather than in ecclesial authority, doctrinal propositions, or canon law. He believed that the way to foundations lay in the ancient practice of the Church. The conviction led him to believe that the best way to discern the foundations was neither by reference to the office of bishop, nor to formularies (like a confession), nor to canon law. The best way to look to the rock from which the Church is hewn is by “scriptural exposition within the divine service of clergy and people.”

Cranmer looked to the Fathers of the Church and in doing so held that repetition of “scriptural exposition within the divine service of clergy and people” promotes communal edification in a way that is more effective than a focus on “right doctrine.” He certainly believed in the importance of right doctrine, but he believed also that what he called “decent order” and “quiet discipline” is a necessary precondition for the preservation of right doctrine. The reiterative reading of Holy Scripture within ancient forms of worship produce, as he notes in “Of Ceremonies,” “unity and concord.”

We may summarize Cranmer’s position by saying that, in his reform of the ceremonies of the Church of England, he sought an ordered, communal, and prayerful process in which the people, joined in worship, heard the entirety of the Bible in an ordered manner. The purpose of this reiterative reading and prayer was the formation and strengthening of a common mind and form of life, and so also peace and unity within the Church. This common scriptural formation was for Cranmer of more fundamental importance and of greater effect in maintaining the health of the Church than confessional statements or forms of ecclesial governance, episcopal ones included. He believed that within the boundaries of common prayer and ordered communal hearing of Holy Scripture, one can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead God’s people in the way of truth and love. Cranmer believed that this practice would, if faithfully carried on, reveal the foundations not simply to a clerical elite (who are not to be trusted on their own) but to the Church as a whole, composed as it is of both clergy and laity.

I might add parenthetically that William White, ECUSA’s first bishop, in his The Case of the Episcopal Church in the United States Considered, believed something very similar. He wrote that the Episcopal Church is defined by “ancient habits” and “stated ordinances” that render a church closest to the “form of religion of the Scriptures.” It would appear that for Anglicans, even of an American variety, foundations are discerned by communal reading of the Holy Scriptures within the context of ancient forms of prayer and worship.

Here, however, we are presented with the nub of our present problem. Episcopalians, both lay and clerical, are no longer immersed in the ordered reading of Holy Scriptures. Our clergy no longer stand under the mandatory discipline of reading the daily offices, and our laity no longer are in possession of functioning forms of domestic piety that focus on daily readings that take them regularly through the entire sweep of the biblical narrative. The result is that, within ECUSA, clergy and laity alike are incapable of recognizing a fundament even if they run headlong into it. We no longer can have a scriptural argument that amounts to anything because we have not been shaped by comprehensive reading of the basic witness to the foundations of our faith and life. So if I am to talk of foundations, it will not do to state a series of theological propositions and urge you to agree with me. Apart from communal insight born of common immersion in Holy Scripture, such talk can only appear subjective, arbitrary, or even tyrannical.

So if in this time when the earth is moving and the ground under our feet seems full of cracks and crevices we wish to fix our feet on the solid ground of foundations, we will have first to find a way to become a people immersed in Holy Scripture. Apart from such immersion, foundations will become a source of division rather than unity. Everyone, friend and foe alike, will fail to recognize them. Consequently I take the formation of a people immersed in Holy Scripture to be the first and foremost responsibility of clergy and laity in our time. Apart from such formation, the search for foundations will fail and the walls of the Church will remain in ruins.

But how can such a reform be brought about For the moment I shall do no more than place before you two changes that must come about if we are to speak of foundations in a way that unites rather than divides. The first concerns the clergy among us. Our preaching can do much to beckon people toward the pages of Holy Scripture and display their meaning. It can also do much to turn them away and occlude its witness to the fundaments upon which our life together rest. As things stand at present, I have become convinced that, on the whole, the preaching of ECUSA’s clergy (both orthodox and heterodox) does more to hide the meaning of Holy Scripture than reveal it-more to chase people away than to attract them.

Why Because our seminary education has left us in thrall to a form of interpretation that focuses on single texts and asks only what this or that particular text meant in its original context. The more conservative among us will tend to see the original meaning as applicable to our circumstances. The more liberal will tend to focus on the differences between our circumstances and those reflected in the text. Thus one group will say the text is authoritative and the other will speak of how it is relative to a particular time and place. Neither conservative nor liberal, however, locates the text within the sweep of the biblical narrative. Thus, in contradistinction to the Fathers of the Church, neither sees each text as a figure that points to others. The result of this textual myopia, this failure to see the Bible whole, this failure to link one text with another, is the increasingly common view that the Bible can yield no perspicuous witness to foundations. One can hardly be surprised, therefore, that laity and clergy alike turn increasingly away from Holy Scripture and toward some form of experience or some doctrinal definition. One can hardly be surprised either by the increasingly common use of isolated verses in a manner that reminds one more of a war club than a healing poultice. Either way, the Bible does not serve as the ether that sustains God’s people in the oxygen-starved air of their trials and travails.

The first thing necessary for a people immersed in Holy Scripture is for the public exposition of the reiterative reading of Holy Scripture to become of the sort that locates given texts within the full sweep of the Bible’s testimony. The second thing necessary for common recognition of the foundations is the reconstitution of forms of domestic piety that, within the context of daily life, immerse people in the same narrative sweep. My grandmother provides a homely example of what I mean. She had a favorite chair and could be found sitting in it each morning and evening. On the table beside her chair could be found the novel she was reading, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Bible. The first books she reached for morning and evening were the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. She was immersed in Holy Scripture, and could comment on the Sunday sermon with more critical insight than can the vast majority of seminary-trained clergy in our day.

I do not wish to be a romantic. I am fully aware of the time constraints modern life places upon both individuals and families. I am also aware, however, that the search for foundations will certainly go astray if that search is left to presbyters and bishops who are not in conversation with a biblically literate laity whose lives are formed by the prayers of the Church and daily immersion in the pages of the books that display our foundations. Either we find a way to renew domestic piety and the figural reading of Holy Scripture, or the Holy Scriptures will remain strange to us and the walls of the Church will remain in ruins.

Naming the Foundations

Now I come to the hardest and most controversial part. If we were to become a people immersed in the Holy Scriptures as read and interpreted with the context of the common life, prayer, and worship of the Church, what are the foundations that would be revealed to us I will attempt no complete answer to this question. I will suggest only those things I believe would jump out at us. The first thing we would discover is that the fundaments concern a notion very much out of favor among Episcopalians — “salvation.” I do not mean that they are first of all about bringing relief to some privation experienced within the compass of what the Bible is fond of calling “this present age” or “the world.” It is not that the witness of Holy Scripture is unconcerned with the state of the poor, or the suffering of the outcast, or the plight of the prisoner, or the pain of the infirm. I mean only that these matters are penultimate to another-our broken relation with God. At the center of the witness of the Bible is Christ’s death for sinners. It is precisely the ugliness of our state before God that the theology of incarnation now so popular with Episcopal clergy seeks to cover over with bromides about God’s accepting love and his affirmation of creation. Indeed, I will make bold to say that the regnant theology within ECUSA has removed salvation as a concern. Since God is loving and accepting without qualification, there is no need for salvation. Within ECUSA Christianity as popularly preached is no longer a religion of salvation.

This observation leads me to say that once one leaves the language of the Book of Common Prayer and steps into the pulpit or the rector’s forum, generally speaking, one leaves behind as well the issue of salvation. With this departure, the foundations of our common belief and practice lie in ruins. I can only say that a people immersed in Holy Scripture would know right off that they were being passed a counterfeit coin. I know of no other way to understand the sweep of Holy Scripture than as a witness to a good creation gone wrong and to God who will pay a terrible price to reconcile and redeem that world.

The first thing a people immersed in Holy Scripture will discover is that their religion is indeed one of salvation; and that the salvation in question has to do first of all with their life before God. This simple discovery would change the subject in most parishes I know in ways that render what went before, from a Christian perspective, unrecognizable. They would see much of what went before as but a strange caricature of Christian truth.

The second thing that such a people would recognize is that the story of God’s agonizing reclamation of his world is given form, not by the internal dynamics of the world itself, but by God’s own being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The biblical narrative would no longer fall apart into a host of unrelated and time bound stories and sayings both difficult to understand and infrequently applicable. Rather that narrative would display the fearful holiness of the Father who in love begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit to form a people for his service and to return the world to the right worship of its creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. A people steeped in the witness of the Holy Scriptures would come to understand that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not an impossible logical conundrum about three being one and yet remaining three. It is rather God’s provision of himself as the way back to himself. A biblically immersed people know that the fundament of their life is that they may be confident (or “bold”) to pray to God as he in fact is. So biblically immersed people know what it is to pray to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.

They know also to read the story of their own lives and that of the world through the same prism. The Father, through the death and resurrection of his Son and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, both overcomes and reconciles the world in its defection. As Augustine saw so clearly when he wrote his Confessions and the City of God, both biography and history receive their intelligibility from this extraordinary story wherein God, who has taught us to address him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, creates, reconciles, and redeems the world. A biblically immersed people would read life through Trinitarian glasses.

The foundation revealed to a biblically immersed people is God; God who is to be addressed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; whose nature is displayed in this name; God whose way of working in the world is made manifest as the Church invokes this name. This statement brings me to the final point I wish to make about the foundations revealed to a biblically immersed people. If it is the case that God the Father effects our salvation by bringing us to himself through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, a certain form of life will become a part of the foundations for which we search. Those who seek the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit will struggle to live a life that images, reflects, or imitates that of the Son. They will not depend upon the success of their imitation for salvation, but they will live before God with adoration, praise, gratitude, and fear. This way of standing before God will drive them toward a life worthy of a holy God. The Holy Scriptures contain abundant accounts of the form such a life is to take. In its lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance, and eagerness for unity; in its kindness, tenderheartedness, and mercy; and finally in its willingness to suffer, the members of Christ body seek in the power of the Holy Spirit to display Christ as the way to the Father.

When we speak of foundations, we think on the whole of matters of doctrine rather than conduct. However, a people immersed in the Holy Scriptures will recognize among the foundations not only doctrine but a very practical call to a devout and holy life. Once again, despite the familiarity of such a statement, I must insist that I am not offering either a truism or a bromide. The fact is that as I survey the parishes and congregations dotted about the city in which I live, I do not see bodies of people whose lives are immersed in the Holy Scriptures, whose understanding of themselves and the world about them is shaped by the providential action on the part of the Father in the Son and through the Spirit to reconcile all things to himself; and I certainly do not see a common struggle to live, after the pattern of the Son, a devout and holy life.

What I see with too few exceptions are voluntary associations formed to meet the religious, spiritual, moral, and personal needs of those whose tastes draw them to this group rather than to another. What I see is in fact example after example of American denominationalism-that extraordinarily American effort to market religion on the basis of consumer sentiment. If there were world enough and time, I could demonstrate the truth of this statement over and over again. It is enough to say at the moment that, on the whole, the parishes of the Episcopal Church, like the congregations of most other American denominations, are organized around the expressed needs of the congregants rather than the fundaments I have identified ever so briefly above.

When I was the Dean of a Seminary, I used, once a year, to run conferences for the Rectors of larger parishes. Once I noted that they were remarkably successful in devising programs that attracted people by addressing the issues and concerns most on people’s minds. I then asked them how successful were their efforts to draw people more deeply into the Christian mystery-into the beliefs and practices that give identity to the purposes of God. My question was followed by an embarrassed silence that I will never forget.

What Then Shall We Do

This observation brings me to my last question. If as a biblically immersed people we find ourselves standing on the foundation of the saving economy of God whom we address as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and upon our calling to a devout and holy life; what is to be done to rebuild the walls of the Church upon this, rather than its present foundation of consumer sentiment If those historians and sociologists who comment on American religion are correct in their assessment, undertaking such a task can only be compared to turning a ship the size of a Nimitz class carrier a full 180 degrees when one is in the midst of a gale force storm. It will require us to revision, reform, and rebuild the parish as we know it.

We may quibble over details and dispute this or that point, but what Bellah, and others tell us about American Christianity is basically true. Our religion is highly personal and acquisitive. We shop for a “religious affiliation” that meets our needs and tastes. The denominational system is set up as a response to this religious consumerism. Within this system, God is portrayed as a kindly Father anxious to meet the needs of his children. The Holy Scriptures are viewed rather like a table at a jumble sale-one on which all sorts of things are set out and from which one may choose according to taste and need. The primary issue is not the purpose of a Holy and transcendent God who, out of sheer mercy, wills the redemption of the entire creation, but the usefulness of a limitlessly tolerant and kindly God for addressing our hopes and fears. The foundations are, in the end, laid by our own desires and tastes rather than by a sovereign God.

Given the real state of the churches in America and that of ECUSA in particular, I do not find it surprising that all find themselves in one or another form of crisis. God will not be mocked as we now do. We must assume, therefore, that our present distress is a sign of divine judgment rather than divine favor. Further, we dare not assume that we, unlike others, are righteous-free from that judgment.

The judgment of God, who as the Father comes to us in the Son through The Spirit, is always accompanied with a promise of forgiveness and a call to repentance. Repentance is consequently the first step necessary if we are to rebuild the walls of the Church upon the foundation God himself provides. It is my view that the last thing genuine repentance requires of us is the arrogant step of founding a pure church set apart from that of the miserable sinners. What repentance requires is admission of one’s sin and amendment of life. And here is my main point. Repentance and amendment of life when applied to parishes and congregations requires a common effort to reconfigure our life together and place it upon the foundation God himself provides.

At this point, I come to the challenge with which I began. The act of repentance required of us is a corporate one. Just as YHWH through the prophets called all of Israel to return, so he calls his Church to return as a body. If we are to hear for ourselves the words God spoke to Francis, “rebuild my Church,” we must hear these words as a body and not as isolated selves or even as distinct congregations. The task of rebuilding lies beyond the reach of individuals and separate congregations. Divided efforts of this sort will simply reproduce denominationalism in different forms. To rest once more upon the fundaments of our faith and to live once more as a people will require us to become a communion, a fellowship. To repent and amend our lives as a Church requires that our parishes give up self-protective and self-promoting strategies and give themselves to a common struggle to rebuild the walls of the Church.

I know that it was the intention of the people who drew up the theological charter commended by the newly formed network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes to begin exactly this sort of movement of repentance and reform. My challenge to you is to form within the Diocese of Colorado a part of such a network and to come together in a movement of repentance, reconciliation, reform, and renewal intended to rebuild the walls of the entire Church upon the foundations God graciously has provided his people.

In line with this challenge, I would like to conclude these remarks by sharing with you a dream. Suppose it were the case that the parishes represented here today in the persons of both clergy and laity were in full cooperation one with another to undertake to shape the program of each congregation so as to help its members better fulfill this simple promise made when each was baptized. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers What would have to happen in a parish to encourage and enable people to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship What would have to happen to help them continue in the breaking of bread What would have to happen to help them continue in the prayers And what would such a communion of parishes do jointly to see that together they sought to fulfill the other promises made at baptism How jointly, for example, might they seek to persevere in resisting evil And how jointly might they seek to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ How might they jointly attempt to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”

Suppose these questions became the basis of common prayer, discussion, and endeavor Suppose questions such as these shaped the way in which the leaders and people in each congregation sought to worship, honor, and serve the Father through the Son in the Spirit I believe that such an effort would not prove to be self-protective and self-promoting. I believe it would run against the grain of our individualism, congregationalism, and sin. I believe it would signal a repentant heart. I believe that it would prove an effort blessed by God. I believe finally, that it would reflect a biblically immersed people whose lives rest upon the foundation of God’s salvation procured by the Father, in the Son and through the Spirit and whose manner of life reflects God’s own.

Posted at 12:00 am 2.21.2004 | Permalink