It is a puzzle to Christians who have left the Episcopal Church: why would faithful Christians stay? Given its manifest errors, and its resistance to reform, is it not their duty to leave it, and to seek to build new institutions elsewhere? Do we not want to be part of a church in which the gospel is more fully expressed? And they wonder if those who stay have abandoned the Gospel and the historic Faith. Episcopalians who are content with their church’s recent direction may object to the way our separated brethren put the question, but I don’t dispute their contention, that the Episcopal Church has departed from its constitutional commitment as “a constituent member of the Anglican Communion” to “[uphold] and [propagate] the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer” (a reference, of course, to the classical Anglican doctrine of the old Prayer Book – not to its replacement of 1979). (Conforming Episcopalians may justify their departures from the historic faith and practice of Anglicanism – but that they have departed cannot be disputed.) Nor do I dispute the contention of critics of the Episcopal Church, that the present official teaching and practice of the Episcopal Church obscures the gospel. It is not a happy state of affairs.
So why are we still here? As it happens, in my Sunday morning Bible class we have been reading the history of the kingdoms of Israel set forth in the books of Samuel and Kings. We are nearing the end of 2 Kings, and the final days of Israel’s kingdoms. At times, the recurrent pattern of lukewarm faith, uncertain obedience, and outright apostasy that has persisted through much of 1 and 2 Kings becomes as inconsequential to the readers as it no doubt seemed to the Israelites of those times. With no consequences to suffer for their departures from God’s law, pragmatists ancient and modern conclude that they are free to make the world according to their will. But they are despising “the riches of his goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Romans 2:4). God is very slow to abandon his people. Long after Israel’s kings have embraced apostasy, God continues to send them prophets who proclaim the gospel of his love for Israel, even when there is very little response. God will persist in grace, so long as repentance is still possible; but when the capability of responding to his grace has withered, then there is nothing left for the hard of heart but judgment. And though judgment may be long delayed, when it arrives, its coming is swift and devastating.
These books are instructive reading for churches which have forgotten the gospel, or grown bored with it. On the one hand, God’s justice may be delayed, but the day of reckoning will come, and it will be all the more terrible for our despisings of his grace. There is no place for pragmatic complacency. But that’s not the only lesson to be derived from these pages. For God continues right to the end, and even beyond it, in sending prophets to offer his grace in the gospel. And that seems to me to be a precedent with implications for us also.
Another instructive parallel was brought to mind by the ancient Sunday gospel for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, St. Luke 19:41-47. When Jesus came to Jerusalem for the last time, he wept over it, because it did not know the things that make for its peace, it did not know the time of its visitation by God’s grace, and it was on course for judgment (a calamity which came to pass in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70). But even though he knows Jerusalem is doomed, he does not abandon it. Instead he cleanses the temple, restoring the holy commerce of prayer, and teaches daily in the temple. Even after his resurrection, the disciples “continued daily with one accord in the temple” (Acts 2:46); and the Christian community did not leave Jerusalem until the zealot ascendancy in the Jewish rebellion made it impossible for them to continue in the way of Christ.
This Biblical history is not a mandate to compromise the gospel and historic faith. This history is a charter to stay and bear witness as long as we can – so long as we may freely proclaim the gospel ourselves, so long as teaching and practice contrary to God’s word is not imposed on us. Though too many Episcopalians seem to have forgotten or grown bored with the gospel, and though their teaching and practice may depart from the historic faith, we must still take very seriously their baptism and profession of faith in Christ, and the genuine elements of truth and virtue that remain in them. Our witness in the Episcopal church is not a cold war of civil hostilities, but an honest and loving engagement with fellow-Christians, if by any means, we may recall them to Christ.
This leaves a congregation like St. John’s in a slightly awkward place – regarded with a degree of suspicion or even hostility by Episcopalians and Anglicans alike. They both want us to “get with the program”, however differently they define it. But that’s not what God wants us to do. We have a mission from him to be the church and to proclaim his gospel in this time and place – and that is enough. Let us be content with it. GGD