Monday, November 05, 2007

The Identity of Fuller Seminary: An ironic via media

(an article for our school paper written by me & my buddy Andrew)

The Episcopal Church has been in the news a lot lately. Most of the stories concern the denomination's relationship with its worldwide body, the Anglican Communion. We have become a "poster child" for church family dysfunction.
The conflicts have arisen due to significant theological differences, including views on social issues such as the ordination of gay persons and same-sex blessings. Individuals in the church are feeling especially confused about their commitment to a worldwide body, and about what to do when that body has dissension in its ranks.

In the middle of the third century, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote his highly influential treatise "On the Unity of the Church." It is a provocative question to ask how many of us today would take seriously his contention that schism is a worse sin than heresy. The authors of this article strongly believe that nothing should divide the Christian church. Nothing. If we are willing to grant that those with whom we disagree are Christians nonetheless, then we have no excuse for schism. If we are incapable of making peace with one another in the church, how can we offer any hope to a war-torn world?

There seem to be two sides to the current upheaval within the Anglican Communion. And the Anglican situation is not an entirely unique one - many Christian denominations are facing similar dilemmas.
We often feel like there are these "camps" that are at wide opposites screaming at each other. Ideological rhetoric often wins the attention of the press and many in the churches.

Those of us in the middle try to cover our heads as the barbs fly, yet we have found it impossible to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. The reality is that for most of us, whether we’ve made up our minds on the “gay issue” or not, we don’t want it to be the litmus test for our faithfulness to Christ or the church. We don’t want to be immediately sized up spiritually based on this one issue. And we certainly don’t want to judge who can and cannot be our friends or worship with us over this.

The beautiful thing about the Anglican Communion is that while we come to worship with a great diversity of ideas, we are united by our common liturgy. An important aspect of the Anglican way of being Christian that drew many of us to this tradition is the breadth of the theological spectrum found among us. We identify with Anglicanism because we feel that it has historically been a Communion that exemplifies the church’s endeavor to maintain a distinction between essential and secondary matters. It is not that secondary matters are unimportant; it is simply that they are not more important than the unity which we so obviously see held up as a standard for the church in the New Testament.

What amazes us about Fuller is that it is a place – quite possibly one of the only places in the world – where Anglicans and Episcopalians on both sides of the current divide can come together to take the same classes, learn from a variety of other Christians, and worship together despite our differences. The authors of this story are a member of the L.A. Diocese, perhaps one of the most “liberal” in the country, and of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which is considering a formal split from The Episcopal Church. And yet, we are friends – really friends, not superficial tokens of “diversity” – our families share meals together, we laugh together, we pray for one another, and we simply enjoy hanging out together. More than this, we are committed to worshipping together and to listening to one another. Really listening. We are committed to open conversation and an honest attempt at laying aside prejudices for the sake of truly understanding each other. And, even when this communication fails and we don’t quite understand each other, we know that we share a common Lord; therefore, we are committed to worshipping together at his Table because this is what we as a church have been called to do.
What has kept us talking is that although we disagree on some (really important) matters of biblical interpretation, we both agree on the authoritative role of Scripture and on the Lordship of Christ. We have found common ground in what is most essential. Fuller ought to be given the credit for creating the kind of space where this type of relating is possible. It is rarer than we think.

We are watching our church tear itself apart, and it is breaking our hearts. Neither of us knows how this thing will end. We don’t know who will prove “right” or “wrong.” But we pray (yes, we actually pray, actively and together) that the end won’t be more division. Jesus too prayed that we would all be one. We know his desire for us is that we love one another. And we believe that this means not only loving those who have historically been shut out, it also means loving those with whom we disagree at present.

The Anglican Communion has long been known as a via media, a "middle way," between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It is at least mildly ironic that at this point in our journey, Fuller Seminary has become for us a via media between two poles within the Anglican Communion. It seems that even those of us in the via media need a middle way now and again! The identity of Fuller as an institution where we would be able to walk together along the path of a middle way is largely what drew us here. We believe that our being here – and being willing to worship together, our most important act of solidarity – offers an important alternative approach to repairing the Anglican Communion. We also believe that our Communion, long known as Christianity's via media, represents something important for the larger global body of Christ-followers. It is our desperate hope that this body may someday, against all odds, truly be one.


Ann said...

Thanks for this - I posted it to the bishops and deputues listserve - maybe we can hear you.

Jim Stockton said...

My experience was much the same at Harvard Divinity School. Quite against the stereotype of the place, genuine evangelicals thrive among both the student body AND the faculty. As a philosophical, not ldeological, liberal, I found this environment extremely stimulating and challenging to my spiritual growth and reflection. While there, I also took a couple classes at the Episcopal seminary, as well as the Jesuit one, in Cambridge. Then, returning to Texas, I was required to take classes for one year at the Episcopal seminary in Austin. I found the intellectual and spiritual environments at each of the seminaries (the Jesuit and Episcopal seminaries in Cambridge share classroom facilities) quite different from that at the divinity school. Fuller is specifically Christian, yet apparently benefits the students by being inclusive of a wide spectrum of opinion and conviction. Moreso, Harvard Div School's student body includes Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, and Taoist students, with the various streams and sects of each present, as well, represented by both lay and clergy. This circumstance helps students realize that two of the best things they can do is to be the best practioner of the religous faith to which one ascribes, and to encourage the other person to be the best Chrsitian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, pagan, animist, etc. that he or she can be. Honoring one's own convictions and honoring those of others whose convictions do not match one's own truly helps each of us to discover our true beliefs about our chosen faith, and to conduct ourselves in accord therewith. This doesn't preclude true evangelism, but it does require true listening. With all due respect I can only report that my experiences of the seminaries leave me with the impression that they are, rather, more trade schools than institutions of higher learning. I must assume that our seminarians, and our Church as well, would benefit from religious formation and education in an environment that is widely ecumenical, and better still, is widely inter-religious. Those who cannot or will not abide such a context for their learning and their faith may well not thrive in a healthy Episcopal Church, and it's better for all that they discover this early on in their process.

Stasi said...

Harvard Div would be a dream school for me, because of that diversity...unfortunately it won't work for me because 1) my GRE scores aren't high enough and 2) apparently they don't take people from evangelical institutions such as Fuller (a well-qualified colleague was told not to bother applying). So it's quite surprising to hear you say there are evangelicals there...I wonder what they would think of my friend's experience...

Jim Stockton said...

I attended after an undergraduate degreee in Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University, a Churches of Christ affiliated university in Texas. So, they certainly accepted yours truly, even though applying from a very evangelical, even fundamentalist, education. (Though even that assumption is not entierly correct. ACU had its own share of libs on faculty, though they kept their heads low.)

Grace thing said...

Great article. Thanks for this, Feminarian.

JTB said...

Who knew Feminarian had another ACU reader? Jim Stockton, whoever you are, visit my blog and write me an email.