”Continue in the Apostles’ Teaching and Fellowship”

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24th Diocesan Convention

Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17 & 18, 2006
at St. Peter & St. Paul Episcopal Church, Arlington

 
Bishop's Address    
November 18, 2006
 
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“Continue in the Apostles’ Teaching and Fellowship.” This is the theme of our 24th Annual Diocesan Convention. It is a theme that presents us with an invitation. It is also a challenge that requires from us a commitment.

The words of our theme are, of course, very familiar to all of us. We hear them again and again, every time we have a baptism or a confirmation and renew our Baptismal Covenant. After reaffirming our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the celebrant asks the congregation:  “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And we answer: “I will, with God’s help.” We accept the invitation. We embrace the challenge. We commit ourselves to apostolic discipleship.

It’s one of those passages of the Prayer Book that sounds very much like the Bible, doesn’t it?  That’s because it is a quote from Acts 2:42, a verse that all of us would do well to memorize: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It describes the vibrant life of the early church in those first days following Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the apostles, and it is descriptive of the apostolic church in our own day as well. It is not a bad way for you to explain to others what our church is all about. We are committed to continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. That’s what makes us catholic, apostolic Christians.

It is also a helpful lens through which we might view some of the current difficulties and divisions in our church at the present time. Departures from apostolic teaching and practice have fractured our fellowship and divided us. False teaching always leads to brokenness and alienation in the Body of Christ. It has been true in the life of the Church in every generation. For the sake of unity and truth, we must continue to believe and to practice what the apostles believed and practiced. It is called the Apostolic Tradition, and it refers to the historic faith and order of the catholic church.

 
 

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” (I Cor. 11:23) And again later on, he says: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” (I Cor. 15:3) This is the meaning of the word tradition, coming from the Latin word traditio. It is the action of handing over to another what you yourself have received. St. Jude calls it “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints,” (Jude 3) and he urges us to contend eagerly for this faith which some would seek to pervert and subvert. The Apostolic Tradition is the handing down from the apostles themselves, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the information, beliefs and customs of the New Testament church to the next generation of believers. Sometimes it was done by word of mouth. Sometimes it was done by following the example of the apostles. Sometimes it was done by means of written instruction, as in the Gospels and the Epistles, and in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers of the first centuries of the church.  But one thing for sure, you did not make it up as you went along, nor were you free to change it to better suit you. You did not subtract from it or add to it. You handed it on to others intact, whole and complete, just as you had received it. It is the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

The Apostolic Tradition of the church – with a capital A and a capital T – does not simply refer to doing things the same way as we have always done them. No, it is much more than that.  It is Spirit guided and Spirit formed. It is the sacred tradition of Jesus and the Apostles, which the church has faithfully guarded and preserved in every generation and culture where the Gospel message has been proclaimed. It is the inherited faith and order, the sacred pattern of thought and action that has been carefully continued down through the ages from the first apostles to our own time and place. It remains unchanged in the midst of a changing world.

At the heart of the Christian faith we proclaim, there is continuity and connectedness. St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century defined the catholic faith as “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” What we believe and do as a church, dear friends, must meet the rule of universality, antiquity, and consent of all. If it fails to meet this test, it is a departure from the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the very thing we are committed to maintaining and propagating. Compare decisions of recent General Conventions to this Vincentian Canon (as it is called) – everywhere, always and by all – and you will see why we are in the conflicted situation we are in as a church body.

Should someone ask what this diocese is going to do or where we are going to go, let us reply that we will continue doing what the church has always done and going where the church has always gone. For ours is a missionary diocese, committed to taking the whole Gospel to the whole world.  We will equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ. We will confess what the church throughout the world confesses – nothing more and nothing less. We will not depart from the historic interpretations and teachings of Holy Scripture as our supreme authority in all matters of faith and morals. And we will not stand by in silence while others belittle and betray the faith once delivered to the saints. We will preserve the truth of the catholic faith inviolate, unadulterated and uncompromised.

 
 
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Let us remember today the words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who once said: “We have no faith of our own, but only the Catholic Faith of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic Creeds.” There is no such thing as the faith of the Episcopal Church or the creeds of the Episcopal Church. The Holy Scriptures are not ours to alter as we wish by majority votes of national conventions. Nor do the threefold orders of ministry, of bishops, priests and deacons, belong to us, that we may alter them as we desire. Scripture, creeds, sacraments, and orders are all part of the Apostolic Tradition, the Apostolic Succession that we have received, and we must hand them on to others as we in faith have received them. The highest authority in this church is not the General Convention, my friends, but Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the divinely inspired and revealed Word of God, containing all things necessary to salvation.

Our highest loyalty is not to a denomination, but to the Lord Jesus Christ. However much we might love our church, we must not love it more than God. It becomes idolatry when we place anything else before Him. I say this because some would make an idol out of The Episcopal Church, it appears, and claim for it an infallibility that they deny the Holy Scriptures. If we deny biblical infallibility and papal infallibility, surely we must deny General Convention infallibility.  Councils of the church can and have erred. It is troublesome to me when some talk more about why they are an Episcopalian than why they are a Christian. Evangelism is not bringing more people into the Episcopal Church, but bringing more people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We are first Christians, who follow the Anglican way of being evangelical catholics, and we must be careful that denominational loyalty does not lead us away from biblical truth and order. I love The Episcopal Church most when it talks least about itself and more about Jesus Christ. I love The Episcopal Church most when it is true to our heritage as a biblical church, standing under the authority of the Word of God, not as an American denomination, but as an integral part of the historic church of the ages that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

As your bishop, it is my first duty to guard and defend the faith, unity and discipline of the historic church, as we have received it, and when the time comes, to hand it on intact to my worthy successor. But no bishop contends for the faith on his own, and I am deeply grateful for the support and faithfulness of the clergy of this diocese. I am also blessed and encouraged by you, the faithful lay leaders of our diocese, who stand with me in making our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Convention is an invitation for us a diocese to say once again that we will continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, that we will accept the challenges presented to us by difficult times, and that we commit ourselves once again to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives.

 
 

We have been strengthened and encouraged in this resolve over the past three years by our active participation in The Anglican Communion Network of Dioceses and Parishes. As you know, we were founding members of  the Network, which was formed as an alliance of orthodox Anglicans in the United States. We are very pleased to have with us as a special guest of this Convention, the Rev. Canon Daryl Fenton, the operations officer of the Network, who was our preacher last night and who will be giving a report later on this morning. I thank God for the Anglican Communion Network for giving us a place to stand and for standing with us. It is through our membership in the Network that we continue in an unclouded relationship with the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Those 22 or so Anglican Provinces that have declared impaired or broken communion with The Episcopal Church are careful to point out that they remain in full communion with those who are part of the Network. A recent statement from the Global South Primates called the Kigali Communique´ said: “We are greatly encouraged by the continued faithfulness of the Network Dioceses… We value their courage and consistent witness.” As you know, one of the resolutions proposed to this convention has to do with how a congregation in this diocese might be able to withdraw from membership in the Network, since the diocese itself is a Network diocese.  The only question I would propose is, “why in the world would anyone want to withdraw from the Network?” It is a biblical, missionary, uniting movement that protects and insures our full communion relationship with the rest of the Anglican world.  What’s not to like?  Over 70 percent of the world’s Anglicans are in the Global South, which honors and commends the Network. Why would any parish wish to stand in opposition to that witness?

I will not rehearse the various events of the past few years that have brought divisions and broken fellowship to the worldwide Anglican Communion. I trust that all of you are well informed about these things. But I will repeat the central point that I made at each of our pre-convention deanery meetings last month. We are seeking differentiation. We seek to dissociate ourselves from the direction being taken by The Episcopal Church. We are faithful Episcopalians who stand in opposition to actions taken by the General Convention of this Church that have divided and alienated us from one another as never before.  We as a diocese will remain a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, fully committed to the recommendations of the Windsor Report, even though other dioceses seem intent on walking apart from us. Two resolutions are presented to this Convention to seek the differentiation we require, and I urge you to support them both.

First, let us endorse and affirm the appeal we have made for Alternative Primatial Oversight and pastoral care. As an orthodox diocese committed to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, we require a Primate who is biblically orthodox and fully compliant with the Windsor Report to act and speak for us as Chief Pastor and Primate. Second, let us endorse and ratify the decision to withdraw our consent to be included in Province VII. The Constitution of The Episcopal Church recognizes our right to take this action, and again it differentiates this diocese from those in the Province who have taken actions contrary to the biblical faith and witness. The fact is that for the past three years the Anglican Communion Network has served as our Province for purposes of joint mission and program, and it is an association based not on geographical proximity, but on theological affinity. Both Resolutions 1 and 2 seek to unite us with the wider community of faith, and both actions declare that we will maintain and propagate the historic faith and order of the church, just as we always have.

 
 

Two other resolutions to come before us at this Convention have to do with our internal life as a diocesan family and how we relate to those who differ from us or hold convictions that are contrary to our own. Surely we will want to find a way to recognize and honor the minority position of our brothers and sisters in Christ in this diocese. All baptized believers are valued and loved members of the family of God and are welcome in our fellowship. All of us are called to repentance and conversion and amendment of life, for all of us have sinned against God and against one another. All of us stand in need of forgiveness and grace, as we seek to live our daily lives in conformity to the teachings of Holy Scripture, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must listen to one another and care for one another as a way of life, and we must seek to work and minister together. Pastoral support and care for one another, including gay and lesbian people, is a way of life for us. But it is not a six week program or a carefully orchestrated “process” of open hearings and the like. Nor is it the task of a commission or committee. Careful listening to one another is an attitude, and it is not something that can be assured by a resolution. I certainly want to commit myself to such listening and openness of spirit as chief pastor of this diocese and to minister with compassion and concern for all our people. It is the responsibility of all us as the church, a shepherding community, where we serve Jesus himself by serving those in any need or trouble. What a blessing it is to have such faithful pastors and priests who listen to the needs and concerns of their people as they lovingly tend after the flock committed to their care in the name of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. No sinner is beyond His love and mercy, and that, my friends, is the Good News.

Over this past year I have labored diligently and traveled extensively in order to attend many meetings and consultations in pursuit of the objectives I have outlined in this address. We are making progress, but there is still much that remains unsettled and unresolved. It requires patience and perseverance. I thank all of you for your support, encouragement and prayers in the midst of all of this. You have sustained me and upheld me before God, and for that I am deeply grateful. I am proud to be the Bishop of this “problem diocese.”

 
 
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The one assurance I can give you in the midst of much that is uncertain is this:  whatever may happen in the months ahead in the life of our church, the Sunday worship and daily ministry of your congregation will continue to be there for you in the future just as it has been in the past. We will not become something other than what we are and whose we are. God is faithful, and He will continue to bless and guide this diocese in the trying times that are before us. By His grace we accept the invitation, we embrace the challenge, and we renew the commitment – we will continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.