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On the Northern Michigan Episcopate

My position
on the Northern Michigan Episcopate

Bishop Paul V. Marshall
April 5, 2009

The Church, as it ponders scripture, tradition, in the light to the best reason it can muster, is itself the judge of the Church's latitude in doctrine and practice. It defines that latitude from time to time, seeking to welcome the broadest possible expression of the basics of the faith. Core doctrines are maintained most notably by unambiguous reference in liturgy and catechism.

Thus when Bishop Righter was tried for allegedly violating the Church's doctrine in accepting certain persons for ordination, the court was able to say that while the question was a theological question, it was not a matter of core doctrine and was not addressed in our central documents. Unpublished documents from the right wing opine that they subsequently think they would have more likely gotten a conviction if they had charged Righter with violating the discipline (operating rules) rather than the doctrine of the Church.

When Bishop Robinson was elected, there was again a question of doctrine, but no core doctrine in prayer book and canon to which appeal could made. (Attempts to apply to documents from the UK still cause me to wonder.) When a multiply-divorced man was elected in Northern California, at least a majority in both houses believed that the New Testament teaches about divorce, and particularly its prohibition of remarried bishops did not form an absolute barrier. Although I did not agree, this made a kind of sense, the question of moral modeling aside, because the Church is in fact now more open to remarriage. Beyond that, both Bishops Pike and Righter had contracted serial marriages, not to mention many priests.

In the case of the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, perhaps we can get our ducks in the correct rows. His Buddhist practices are sensational but not the point. In sermons and other writings (including eucharistic prayers which I fear were used outside Rite III settings, giving us a question of discipline as well as doctrine), the bishop-elect makes it clear that the doctrine of the Trinity as confessed in the Creed and explained in the Catechism is not what he holds.

He will use base-three theological language, but never in service to the proposition that in Jesus of Nazareth God became fully human. Similarly, his understanding of the atonement is not conformable with the liturgy or catechism, but appears to be something like gnostic enlightenment. His writings represent a very shaky understanding of the Second Person of the Trinity, God incarnate, severely weakening his gospel.

Apart from his sense of freedom from the seeming minutiae of rubric and liturgical text, in which he is by no means alone, Fr. Thew Forrester seems to have been an exemplary priest, a saintly pastor and an enviably fine human being. That is not the point. The point is that there has been no time like the one we inhabit for bishops to proclaim unambiguously the gospel of Christ in all its fullness.

In a cardinal church in the west the creed is never used, and a eucharistic prayer from around the world is used each week, along with other ritual freehand before and after the gathering. I couldn't tell what I had just attended or what the church actually celebrated.

As a Church we are increasingly a laughing-stock. Not because we welcome lesbian and gay people, and carry on social ministries that enact the sacrifice of Christ on a corporate basis, and certainly not because of our latitude and the conversation it engenders. We are a laughing stock because we do not consistently proclaim a solid core, words as simple as "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," yet "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself."

Increasingly it seems that the Cross has become foolishness in the Church, and our former hallmark teaching of the Incarnation is seldom heard, and less seldom heard to matter. If our embarrassment is going to end, the voices of bishops as clear, traditional, and powerful evangelists need to be raised in the churches and in the market place. Many bishops find a number of techniques that come from the social sciences useful in their ministries, and have significant investment in Eastern meditation -- their qualification to be bishops, however, is as the chief confessors of the creeds and presidents at the sacraments. They are to be unambiguously ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through them.

For these reasons I believe the present election cannot go forward and hope that it will not.

Paul Marshall
bpoffice@diobeth.org

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