By Bart Gingerich (@BJGingerich)
Last week, orthodox Christians convened at the historical St. Philip’s Church to participate in theological discussions at the Mere Anglicanism Conference. Most of the attendees expressed support for the Diocese of South Carolina under Bishop Mark Lawrence, which has been forced out of the Episcopal Church through heavy-handed persecution against traditional Christians within the denomination. Ironically, revisionist Episcopalians met only eight blocks away to reorganize the rump diocese loyal to the national Episcopal Church, USA under Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.
Mere Anglicanism started off on January 24th with a traditional evensong from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding of Trinity School of Ministry acting as officiant. The Rt. Rev. Dr. Paul Barnett lectured the next morning on five epiphanies that convinced him of the historicity of Christ. The former Anglican Bishop of North Sydney emphasized the powerful manuscript evidence, the archaeological-geographical credibility of the Biblical record, the multiple attestations to miracles, and the existence of external hostile sources. He likewise excoriated the textual skepticism and deconstructionism that dominates many seminaries today. “The health in the seminary influences the health of the ministers, and the health in the ministers influences the health in the churches,” he surmised.
The impressive scholarship continued with Dr. Allen P. Ross of Beeson Divinity School, who exposited Zechariah’s concept of holiness, its role in God’s people, and its accomplishment through Christ. The Old Testament and Hebrew professor observed, “God requires holiness from people who serve Him and promises deliverance from unrighteousness.” Quoting Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes, Ross advised, “It is not our task to tell people what they want to hear; we must tell them what in some sad future time they would wish they had heard.”
The Rt. Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali taught the audience about the “unique and universal Christ.” In this informative lecture, the former Bishop of Rochester noted that Christ’s divinity is under cultural attack. He mounted a defense of the principle of substitution within Christian atonement theory, which frequently comes under assault in nearly all theological circles. Nazir-Ali reported that imams in Islamist societies now translate and distribute revisionist biblical scholarship undercutting biblical accounts of the supernatural in order to discredit Christianity. Bishop Nazir-Ali also critiqued the Insider Movement, a missiological theory proposing Christian converts “follow Jesus in the context of another faith.” The Pakistani native worried about a “loss and crisis of integrity.”
That evening, conference attendees celebrated Eucharist led by Bishop Mark Lawrence, with Bishop Barnett preaching on the conversion of St. Paul. The Australian church leader emphasized the importance of the apostle’s theological and evangelistic vision, especially in a 21st-century context.
The Rev. Dr. David Wenham, who teaches New Testament at Trinity College in Bristol, explored St. Paul’s witness to Christ. He defended the Pauline teaching regarding Jesus from critics who desire to push a wedge between the Gospels and the more “dogmatic” epistles. In Wenham’s view, such a project is truly vain from a scholarly point of view. Wenham and Barnett both affirmed the reliability of Pauline epistles; they criticized accusations that St. Paul “reinvented” early Christianity into a heavy orthodox dogmatism so hated by liberal seminarians. As Bishop C. Fitzsimmons Allison summarized in one of his conference comments, Christianity in America faces a crisis of trust and love. Instead of cultivating devotion through and affection for God’s Word, theologians now often look at biblical texts with suspicion and clinically sterile distance.
Finally, the Mere Anglicanism crowd enjoyed a riveting presentation by noted author Eric Metaxas, who recounted the social witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. Metaxas hoped that Christians would continue to offer a bold religious witness in the public square, especially in the spheres of traditional marriage, abortion, and religious liberty.
Meanwhile up the street, disaffected Episcopal South Carolinians met at Grace Episcopal Church to cast their lot in with the fast-declining national denomination (TEC). A sign outside the parish was labeled the Diocesan Convention for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, replete with the diocesan shield blanked out with “image not available.” A South Carolina court ruled in favor of the departing diocese, forbidding TEC loyalists from using the seal and name of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. In her opening remarks to the Friday evening meet-and-greet, Presiding Bishop Schori was careful to avoid any legally problematic language, gingerly calling the convention an “occasion.” Obviously, the TEC weekend proceedings focused on policy rather than theology.
The next day, TEC loyalists celebrated a choral Rite II Eucharist with Schori serving as celebrant and preacher. She marched into the sanctuary to a particularly defiant rendition of Highland Cathedral. In her controversial sermon, she likened Bishop Lawrence and his colleagues to terrorists and mass murderers. The attendance at the official convention Communion was about 2/3 the size of the Mere Anglicanism crowd at its height. The Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenburg was instated as bishop of the rump diocese. When Presiding Bishop Schori brought the meeting to order, she called quorum by what seems to be sheer force of will. While the Diocese of South Carolina under Lawrence had 71 parishes and missions; only 9 parishes, 10 missions, and 8 “continuing” parishes (disaffected shadow congregations) attended the convention.
While Schori’s tone has proven harsh, the future interaction between the original South Carolina diocese and the liberal rump remains uncertain. Some supporters of Lawrence’s diocese express the famous South Carolinian fighting spirit, referring the rump as the “Vichy diocese” and wearing “bonnie blue” crosses in solidarity. Nevertheless, many on-the-ground observers foresee an unfortunate but civil divorce between the diocese and TEC.