Monday, December 04, 2006

Episcopal Churches on the verge of separation

You say "liberal", I say "libertine" -- either way, it's "schism". And all over a gay woman bishop, it seems.

I' ve often wondered if some of the more liberal groups within a given church might not, deep in their heart of hearts, have a death wish for their church. Certainly the Catholic Church leadership (not just the popes -- take it almost all the way down to the local level) during the Renaissance could provide a fine example of what happens when the top becomes arrogant and assumes that, because it has the ear of the highest of the high deities, it can get away with anything. Yeah, that really worked with the selling of indulgences and the promoting of the sons of "celibate" priests, bishops, and popes to positions of political influence.

Can anybody say, "Martin Luther"?

In the years leading up to Luther's having (as the legend goes) nailed the 95 Theses to the church door, The Church had allowed its followers to comfort themselves with indulgences -- if a rich man sinned every day of his life, he didn't actually have to worry, because he could still buy his way into heaven. Repentance was not necessary, cessation of sin even less so. The Church made you feel good about having money, and so long as you sent enough of it in the right direction, that was all they asked for. Naturally, this chafed, a bit. Those who worked hard to earn the respect and love of their deity were treated like the son who had stayed home while the prodigal wandered. Where was their fatted calf?

Luther's final two treatises summed it up nicely for the masses (and the Masses):
94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
No indulgences, no political sway with pope or banker or any such beats living according to the guidance of the Gospel... believe, and strive to follow the Scripture, not the latest fad at the altar.

So, half a millennium later, a major church -- one pretty much directly spawned by Luther's demand for recognition and strict adherence to the Gospels -- is on the brink of division over precisely the same issue, except that, this time, it isn't overtly about cash. It's about political clout, which brings its own indulgences. It's about feeling good about yourself regardless of what the Good Book says. But, it seems to me, the point of faith is not just to assume that, because I say I love Him, He will forgive my faults and love me back wholly.

True faith is about deeds, not words. If the Word of one's faith says, "go, and sin no more," I'd imagine the point is to do my dad-blamed best to avoid doing what raises the wrath of Him who told me that. Even though His wrath is ever slow to rise, I think it is probably not ready to abate, if I say, "sorry I stole a cookie," and then immediately dip my hand back into the cookie jar. (Knowing that my biggest sin is gluttony, I doubt I'd make a very good leader in faith. Peer counselor, maybe. Twelve-step partner, probably. But leader? Talk about the blind leading the blind!)

The point is, finding faith may be easy for most, but keeping that faith is hard work. Luther's protege, Philipp Melanchthon, I think, summed up the essence of what I learned from my Uncle Cecil (the best example of a true Christian Gentleman I can think of): "If I myself do not do my part, I can not expect anything from God in prayer."

I hope that each of the churches facing schism over the issue of liberalizing their houses learns those words, before they completely lose their identity, and certainly before they lose their true purpose.

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