Virginia Episcopal Bishop Defends & Criticizes Radical Theologian in Anglican Controversy

on March 15, 2013


Virginia Episcopal Bishop Shannon Johnston on March 15 defended his sponsorship of a diocesan event hosting radical Jesus Seminar writer John Dominic Crossan even though he called some of Crossan’s beliefs “offensive.”   Meanwhile, a prominent Anglican pastor of a former Episcopal church in Virginia has severed his “peacemaking work” with Bishop Johnston over Crossan.  The controversy was originally sparked by a report of Crossan’s presentation at a Northern Virginia Episcopal church by IRD Anglican staffer Jeff Walton.

“Admittedly, Dr. Crossan is quite controversial with respect to some of his views concerning Jesus’ life, the historical context, and the resulting theology of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection,” Bishop Johnston said in his public statement.  “But these very controversies are precisely why I believe it is important to have the opportunity to hear directly from him, to think critically (in the larger sense of the word) about what he has to say, and to ask probative questions so as to gain the clearest possible understanding.”

Crossan spoke on March 10 and March 11 as part of a Lenten study at Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Dunn Loring, Virginia outside Washington, D.C.  Bishop Johnston “readily” agreed to sponsor the March 11 talk as a “fine opportunity for our clergy (and clergy from neighboring dioceses) to engage first-hand a scholar who is a world-renowned figure and who would be speaking about a topic of great import: the final week of Jesus’ life.”

As Crossan referenced in his talk at the church, he does not believe in Christ’s divinity, virgin birth or bodily resurrection, nor does he believe in an afterlife or any personal deity.  Instead, Crossan believes Jesus launched a quiet political revolt against the Roman Empire, and the beliefs about His deity were created by the early church in later years.  A former Catholic priest and professor at DePaul University, Crossan has long served on the once prominent Jesus Seminar, a group of very liberal scholars who gained headlines in the 1980’s and 1990’s for denying the supernatural aspects of the New Testament.  Now mostly retired, Crossan still appears on PBS and cable television shows about Jesus. 

“It is important that our Church’s leaders know ‘what’s out there,’ what is being said and taught,” Bishop Johnston explained.  Although he could not himself attend, Johnston said the reports he heard were “quite affirming,” calling Crossan’s presentation “energizing and provocative.”   Johnston said his co-sponsoring did not signal agreement with Crossan, calling “some of Dr. Crossan’s points to be offensive to the faith.”  Johnston insisted: 

“I quite disagree with many facets of Dr. Crossan’s theology – for example, his view of the Resurrection of Jesus, which I believe to have been bodily, personal and unique to the Lord, accomplished in a moment of historical time. This is a central tenet of the Christian faith and is without qualification the proclamation of the Episcopal Church and of this bishop. Indeed, any teaching that is contrary to the Creeds is contrary to the witness of our Church and, specifically, is at odds with my own faith and teaching.”

But Johnston said he would not be a “censor of ideas,” as the “Holy Spirit is still at work with and within the Church and, in my view, we cannot shut down that which pushes our limits.”  Johnston concluded that he gives “thanks for scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, who are part of that work that challenges us, even if it turns out to be an occasion to return to our own orthodox convictions with stronger roots.”  He said he also is thankful for more orthodox scholars like retired Church of England Bishop N. T. Wright “who keep us grounded with such compelling integrity.”  And Johnston is thankful for places like “Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, that provide the forum and the hospitality for all who would seek a deeper understanding of faith in Jesus as our risen Lord and Savior.”

Meanwhile, Truro Anglican Church pastor Tory Baucum of Fairfax, Virginia released his own statement on March 14 explaining why he was ending his “peacemaking work” of reconciliation with Bishop Johnston.  Truro Church was one of about a dozen former Episcopal congregations in Virginia that quit the Episcopal Church in recent years over that denomination’s departure from theological orthodoxy. Most of these churches lost their properties amid multi-million dollar lawsuits, although Truro continues to meet at its building by temporary consent of the Virginia Diocese. 

Baucum said his “peacemaking” was based on creedal Christianity and the belief that every individual carries God’s image.  He called Crossan’s work a “contradiction of Nicene faith,” and hosting him as a church speaker would “undermine Nicene Christianity.”  He also called Crossan’s “theories” lacking “support in fact and scholarly analysis.”  Although “he appears to have come as a Christian teacher,” in fact “he is not,” Baucum said.  With the “advice and counsel” of Bishop John Guernsey of the Mid-Atlantic Diocese of the Anglican Church in North America, Baucum is “ending this work” of reconciliation with Bishop Shannon.

Bishop Guernsey on March 14 offered his own statement on the controversy with Bishop Shannon and his “personal friendship” with Baucum.  Calling Crossan a “radical theologian famous for his denials of biblical truth and the historic Christian faith,” Guernsey called Johnston’s sponsorship of Crossan “unconscionable.”  Crossan “denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus and says that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs,” and yet Johnston “permitted him to speak unchallenged to clergy in his diocese,” Guernsey regretted.   He and Baucum together agreed that Baucum’s “relationship with Bishop Johnston can no longer continue.”  Guernsey concluded:  “There can be no reconciliation with The Episcopal Church apart from its repentance for false teaching and practice and its return to the truth of the historic Christian faith.” 


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