24 October 2011

When heresy really is heresy: The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and a bizarre draft resolution

As mentioned before, I would generally place myself on the liberal side of the middle of the Anglican spectrum. That said, it may come as a surprise to those who are more conservative and who disagree with me on things like women's ordination that I do, in fact, place great value in Tradition and ecumenical councils – I merely come to different conclusions on some issues. I'm quite willing to use the H word when I see it – heresy.


This is one reason I am so uncomfortable with our parish's choice of a patron saint, as mentioned previously. (I decided I can at least live with it, since she was chosen for her reforms and personal spirituality and not for her doctrine or associations, but I'm still not very happy about it.) While the Jansenists generally were maltreated and persecuted, and I certainly don't approve of any of that, I also agree quite firmly with the verdict that Jansen's teachings were in fact heretical.

I was particularly irked at our church's consecration in September by the speech of a professor of theology at the end of that service, who basically ignored the entire content of Jansen's or his supporters' writings and described the Jansenists (without naming them as such) merely as a persecuted minority. She also claimed that theologists today are reappraising Jansenism, that the verdict at the time was overly harsh, and so on.

Dunno, but the doctrine of free will so central to what it means to be Christian for anyone of a Catholic bent (that includes the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches) that I can't get my head wrapped around the idea that someone denying free will, claiming that God predestines some (indeed most) of us to suffer eternal damnation with no chance to do anything about it, isn't a major problem for the faith.


I feel the same way about the Gnostics. For some time it has been in vogue to view the Gnostics as misunderstood proto-hippies and kinda-sorta-feminists as portrayed in The Da Vinci Code. Yet I think all you need to know about the Gnostics and their view of women (and thus of humanity) can be summed up in the Gnostic so-called Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven."

I don't see how you can remotely think of the sexes being equal while believing something like that. Yet it is precisely in some of the more extreme liberal circles where the very same people who ardently support women's ordination also want to reappraise Gnosticism. The cognitive dissonance is mind-boggling.

Mind you, I have no problem with someone believing Jansenism. That is anyone's right. I would even happily go to the altar with them if they did and receive Communion, nor would I do anything to exclude them from the Church. Dissent is always allowed, and even should be protected and welcomed: Dissent is a necessary part of the dialectic to seek the Truth. But once that person starts to push to change long-held and explicit teachings of the Church as defined in ecumenical councils, even if only by implication, my alarm bells start ringing. Loudly.


So you can imagine my disquiet when I read Resolution R11-7, a piece of proposed legislation (!) for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. The text reads in its entirety:

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and
whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and
whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and
whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans,

Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition. And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

Wait, what...?!

I could hardly believe my eyes – that anyone could submit such a resolution with a straight face. It sounds like something The Onion would publish as satire, not a serious proposal. What next, reappraise Aleister Crowley?

It is true that, based on some of my thoughts and positions on free will and grace, many Western Christians, in particular Protestants of a Calvinist or Lutheran hue, would accuse me of being Semipelagian. Then again the same people generally like to accuse the Orthodox Church of the same, so I feel I'm in good company. (See the Orthodox concept of theosis.)

But here is why I think Pelagianism is such a danger for the Church and for belief in general: It essentially teaches that we are not hard-wired to sin, and that it is possible on one's own to achieve spiritual perfection without the action or support of God, or of anyone else for that matter. If these things were true, then there would essentially be no purpose to the Church at large – why bother if we don't need to try in order to free ourselves from sin? If we are already free from sin, what is the point of Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross?

The heresies of the unloving God and of hubristic humanity

Orthodox teaching on the subject of justification and sin is really quite simple to understand and, I think, common sense. I think it could be summed up with two words: "Nobody's perfect". (Well, except for Jesus, of course.)

I strongly disagree with extreme Calvinist views where humanity is described as being "depraved", not least because that implies that God somehow created something that He either wasn't able to improve or control, or never intended to improve in the first place, both of which are impossible for me to swallow. I cannot believe that a loving God would create a living thing expressly for it to suffer the fires of Hell, without giving him or her a chance to turn oneself to God and accept Jesus in their hearts so that they really can change things with God's help. That just sounds incredibly cruel. And pointless, too.

At the same time, the opposite extreme of Pelagianism seems equally implausible – it implies that we began spotless and only choose to do bad or good things based on circumstance. Yet I think that anyone who studies the human condition will come to the conclusion that we are at heart intrinsically prone to be selfish, greedy and cruel when left to our own devices – all you have to do is observe how children act in a kindergarden towards each other to prove that we aren't little angels from the beginning. Without some firm and loving guidance, children generally turn into little monsters. That's really all orthodox doctrine is saying, that we need that firm guidance as well, throughout our whole lives. Compared to God, we are all children, no matter how old we are. It's hubris to think otherwise.

Walking in love as Christ loved us

The thing is, Jesus repeatedly emphasized our collective responsibility to aid one another in our spiritual journey, and described Himself as The Way – not a goal, but a path with no end, and one with a heavy burden: to take our Cross and follow Him. As mere human beings, we cannot and will not ever achieve true perfection in this life, but we can still walk that path towards perfection. To do that we need Christ to guide us, and we need each other to support one another along that path. This is precisely why the Church exists as a gift from God, to support, encourage and sustain us along that difficult and arduous path to the end of Time. Like it says in Ephesians, we must walk together in love as Christ loves us. It is our only hope of saving ourselves from war, disease, hunger, greed, injustice and all the other ills that afflict humanity from its earliest days.

Mind you, I am quite happy to entertain the idea that Pelagius himself was misunderstood. In fact what few of his writings I am aware of, he seems to have felt just that, while (to my knowledge) the things he was accused of teaching or claiming are not documented in his extant writings, so it is quite possible that he as a person was unjustly accused of the doctrine that bears his name. But in any such examination of the history involved, we have to also be incredibly careful to continue to stay away from the doctrine of Pelagianism, whether its name is justified or not, and most certainly not to legislate such change before the case has been made and accepted by consensus.

I hope that this resolution is shot down, or at least amended in dramatic fashion to distance the church from the doctrine of Pelagianism. I can only shake my head in disbelief that anyone felt it necessary to even submit it. It's one thing for Anglicanism to be comprehensive and inclusive. I think it's part of the beauty and strength of Anglicanism that we generally don't try to define every aspect of faith in detail. But It's another thing entirely to effectively say "anything goes" and challenge what few standards we do have. No matter how expansive or inclusive the faith, it still will have boundaries at some point.

An appeal

In closing, I would like to address an appeal to the people of the Diocese of Atlanta: Please consider what you would be saying with this resolution if it passes. Please think of what signals you would be sending by accepting it, and how you would be cutting yourself loose from the conciliar church just for the sake of rehabilitating one man, no matter how noble the motive behind that wish my be. Please remember the three Anglican pillars of Scripture, Tradition and Reason – and that this resolution challenges Tradition by definition. With all due respect and Christian love and charity, this resolution is simply wrong, pointless, a waste of time (what does it do to help people in need or to further Jesus' message?) and should be defeated.

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