An Open Letter to St. John the Divine (July 27, 2013)
I sat in the sanctuary on Rally Day and listened to Barbara Rountree as she told how a chance acquaintance on a shuttle in Britain (a minister, it turns out, from a parish in Cincinatti) not only identified her origin by her accent, but, on hearing that she and some other parishioners had been at Wycliffe Hall studying, immediately named her as a parishioner of St. John the Divine in Houston. Dumbfounded, Barbara asked him how he knew that.
His answer was that St. John the Divine was known everywhere as a bastion of orthodoxy in faith and practice (presumably a group of lay parishioners studying Scripture at Wycliffe Hall was a tell on from which parish Barbara and the others had come), and was important to the witness of Truth in our darkened denomination.
This is not the first time I've heard such a statement concerning St. John the Divine, and it is no understatement, but simply the plain truth. There simply isn't another parish like ours.
I don't say this unadvisedly. In the four decades of my walk with Christ, I've been a member of, and served in ministry, a plethora of churches across the denominational spectrum, arriving some twenty years ago at Episcopalian/Anglican conclusions (from the Bible, by the way, rather than from tradition), and embraced Episcopalianism while still teaching and playing at various churches across the continent (and a couple of other continents, as well). I've never known another congregation like SJD. Anywhere.
The combination within our parish of charismatics, anglo-catholics, and evangelicals is not only rare, but is actually unknown anywhere else, as far as I've been able to tell, a unique situation where each of these three traditions not only co-exist, but contribute each to the other, absorbing the strengths of the others while balancing the weaknesses of their own, producing a much more vital and balanced expression of the Faith: a Biblically-driven, Spirit-sensitive, sacramental/liturgical, mission-minded culture unlike anywhere else (whether within or without the Episcopal/Anglican pale).
This is important, and I think it's a reality all too often lost on our parishioners who frequently don't grasp the full scope of what God is doing in our church, and consequently neither realize nor value St. John the Divine as they should.
As Barbara's acquaintance on the shuttle spelled out for her, St. John the Divine is important to our denomination, but there's more going on here than that: St. John the Divine is important to the Church across the denominational spectrum and across the world, as the seemingly precarious and unique balance of Christian expression and emphases that it is.
The issue of importance to our own denomination (The Episcopal Church or TEC, as it now unfortunately calls itself) is in the fore at present, of course, because of the shameful and unScriptural actions recently taken by the General Convention in July of 2012, actions which have understandably generated dismay and distress among Bible-believing Episcopalians, provoking some, in a desire to register protest against the sinfulness of those actions, to leave our parish and our denomination.
In light of the importance and unique witness of St. John the Divine, I want to proffer a few observations concerning these very actions.
I would first like to point out that it was the very advance of anti-Biblical belief and action in the denomination which has given rise to the unprecedented mix in our parish. This shouldn't surprise us, of course, since Romans 8:28 tells us that God is in the business of bringing good out of evil (a great thing, since, were it not so, the destiny of the human race would be to burn forever had God not acted in Christ to bring good from our evil...).
The doctrinal rot which has eaten away a great deal of the soundness of our denomination has been spreading, cancer-like, since the 1960's, when Episcopal leaders first began to proclaim disbelief in Scripture as the Word of God which provides unchanging norms for faith and life, a disavowal which, once embraced, destroyed any basis for belief in Jesus' Divinity or Resurrection (duly denied shortly after) or sexual mores and roles (first officially breached openly a decade and more ago, and, of course, the very issue of the General Convention's latest debacle).
I have to interject at this point that, though I realize that some of St. John the Divine's parishioners have only recently become Christians, or have come to our parish from churches outside our denomination, and were thus (blissfully) unaware of the doctrinal attrition in the Episcopal Church over these long years, and were thus surprised and understandably disgusted and outraged by the recent actions of the General Convention, many of us are either cradle-Episcopalians or have long been members of the parish, and cannot have been unaware that the liberal element of the denomination has been rejecting and working against the truth of the Bible and the Creeds for decades.
While understandably the majority of our parishioners registered dismayed protest at the General Convention's most recent shenanigans, those of us who are long-term parishioners, it seems to me, cannot have been surprised that those who have consistently rejected Biblical and Creedal norms would have continued along the logical extension of those heretical beliefs to assault the nature of sexuality and gender-relations, especially since they began to tout such assaults at least a decade ago, a logically consistent perversion.
That being said, it is perplexing to me that we who have remained steadfast parishioners in the face of decades of widespread denominational rejections of Scriptural and Creedal truth, and previous unBiblical assaults on godly sexual norms, in the event of this most recent and logically consistent action of the General Convention, would suddenly be moved to leave the parish in protest, making this the hill to die on, straining at a gnat, as it were, after having swallowed the camel.
I certainly believe that people receive legitimate calls from God to move to another parish or church for any number of reasons, and I certainly cannot read the hearts of men clearly. Every person can and should obey the leading of God. Yet I must confess that when we who have stayed firm and resistant in a denomination which has for decades denied the Divinity and Physical Resurrection of Jesus (and which views the Word of God as only that of men) and who have withstood that denomination's previous assaults on God-given sexual norms, suddenly determine that a less-egregious sinful belief, as compared to the denial of Scripture and the Divinity and Resurrection of Christ, is the straw that broke the camel's back, I am left wondering how it is that we who have overcome the evil denial of Christ, Scripture, and Creed to remain and serve, yet could or would not remain in the face of a logically-consistent assault on sexuality. In what way has the advance of the already-advanced wickedness of the General Convention's decision actually changed our situation on the ground, parishionally speaking?
Should disgust concerning homosexuality and associated practices trump rejection of Scripture, Christ, and Creed? Do we despise homosexuality more than we despise blasphemy against Christ and His Word?
I suspect, of course, that this is rather a case of long anger coming to a head, and the perceived need to register protest and outrage. We must, however, weigh our decisions soberly, and reckon who our actions will actually hurt. Let us not strain at gnats and swallow camels.
In past decades our denomination, as orthodox belief and practice were warred upon, and more and more priests and bishops were captured by unBiblical belief, an hejira began to take place in the parishes, as evangelicals, charismatics, and anglo-catholics left by the thousands, many gravitating to the congregations of the Continuing Anglicans, but, in Houston, a goodly number of believers from all three of these emphases came to St. John the Divine, which, due to the orthodox teaching and broad vision of Larry Hall, was considered a safe haven for conservative Episcopalians of whatever stripe.
Each of these refugee groups found a generous place to co-exist and interact with the other orthodox traditions, and to learn from and shape one another, which was the genesis of St. John the Divine's current congregational make-up, as God has shaped a new and unique good from a grim situation.
I'm of the opinion that the unprecedented and singular situation at St. John the Divine is God's intended answer to the current wickedness of so much of our denomination in our time, an answer that demonstrates that the Lord Jesus can take the broken pieces generated by the chaos of the struggle in our denomination and make something exalted and beautiful of them by the power of His Spirit.
The refuge of St. John the Divine has drawn increasing numbers of believers together (both from within and without TEC), so that, both in numbers and resources, the parish has become one of the largest Episcopal congregations on the continent.
St. John the Divine's size and principled stand for historic and Biblical Episcopalianism have made our parish not only a bulwark for orthodoxy, but also an encouragement and strengthening influence on conservative parishes throughout both our diocese and the denomination. In addition, in company with St. Martin's here in Houston and a few other large congregations, St. John the Divine is a shield for smaller orthodox parishes whose numbers and resources might be considered somewhat more "expendable" in the eyes of the TEC hierarchy (our diocesan bishop apparently excepted, thanks be to God), and the weight and pressure of the larger parishes help to carve out somewhat more protected spaces in which the smaller churches can shelter, a matter of some moment to orthodox Episcopalians everywhere.
Our existence in TEC is a threat to the forces of evil which have afflicted the denomination for decades now. This is so because of the Biblical principle of the Remnant. Again and again in Scripture (in Isaiah 10: 21-22; 37: 31-32; Ezra 9: 8; Jer. 23: 3; 31:7-10; Ezek. 6: 7-10; 14: 22-23; Joel 2: 32; Micah 2: 12; 5: 7-8; Rom. 9: 27; 11: 5), God brings judgment on nations and on apostate Israel only to purify and raise up a remnant of His people to inherit His blessings and favor.
The remnant not infrequently suffered through the judgment of God upon the nation before that judgment removed His enemies, at which time the remnant would occupy and inherit the land and former possessions of the wicked in the favor of God. The remnant overcame simply by maintaining fidelity to the Lord.
Likewise, the orthodox congregations in TEC will inevitably inherit the denomination if they remain faithful to godly belief and practice. We see this Remnant principle already playing itself out across TEC parishes, as the heterodox congregations steadily shrink, while the orthodox churches grow.
Overall, TEC is shrinking (57% of the denomination's congregations bleeding out in worship attendance; 42% declining in membership from 2006-2010, but don't take my word for it: check the denomination's own statistical research at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/research . Read it and weep. And that's only up to 2010!). It has continued to do so for decades now, and it will continue to do so in the Biblically unfaithful parishes.
Discerning the reasons for this is not difficult. The anti-Biblical and heterodox agenda of the liberal element of TEC first began driving away conservative parishioners from the parishes in the 1960's (back when TEC was called ECUSA), a process which has continued apace and escalates even today. The remaining heterodox elements in those parishes either sought (as they do today) to feel "progressive" by allying themselves with concerns of the society-at-large (which had largely been eschewed by the Church traditionally since those concerns endorse sinful actions and lifestyles, etc.) or by seeking vindication by the "church" for their own sinful beliefs or life-styles.
In both cases, the initial "rush" of accomplishment or acceptance eventually fades, and residual sentiment is neither a compelling reason to stay (once the rush dies), nor an enticement for new members to come into the Church. After all, if the Church is the same as the world, why bother going in? Sentiment is not enough.
The Biblically-oriented parishes have real life and truth on offer in Christ Jesus, not mere sentiment, and it is that truth and life in Jesus which draw people to believe and join themselves to those parishes.
The Bible-affirming parishes (like St. John the Divine) offer Christ; the liberal parishes have bupkus to offer. This is not rocket science, and unbelievers are not stupid, they're just unbelievers. Jesus said that if He was lifted up, He would draw men to Himself (John 12:32). Lift Him up, people are drawn. Deny His lifting up, nobody is drawn. Do the math.
The attrition inherent in the denial of the full range of Scripture, and the growth inevitable in the preaching of Christ and the full range of His Word will eventually deliver the denomination into the hands of the faithful remnant. This is the logic of faith. It is only necessary that the faithful remnant remains faithful, and that they remain.
This is another reason why St. John the Divine, with its unique congregational make-up, numbers, resources, faithful preaching of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments, and leadership among the evangelical parishes, must remain in TEC.
Remaining in hostile periods of contention for the Church has long been a winning Biblical strategy, as the Church faced successive heresies across the centuries which threatened the unity, the doctrine, and the very continued existence of the Church, heresies such as Nestorianism, Gnosticism, Donatism, and Arianism.
Arianism (the belief that Jesus was not God, but only an exalted man) at one time captured almost two-thirds of the Church, and the Arian Roman emperor exiled the great orthodox bishops, such as Athanasius, from their sees, and sought to deliver the orthodox episcopal seats and church-buildings into the hands of the Arians.
Yet Athanasius and the orthodox Christians of that era did not abandon the Church. They stood their ground, and prayed, and bore witness, and debated, and wrote, and worshipped, and spoke against the Arian heresy, and overcame, taking back the Church from the devil. The same resolve to remain and overcome internal assaults on the Church resulted in the defeat of the other heretical deviations which Satan sowed among the faithful.
The connection, of course, is that the attacks on Biblical and Creedal belief and practice today are the same Satanically-inspired heretical ideas which the faithful Church defeated in past. Everything old is new again, and just as happened in the past, the faithful are being called to stand and overcome.
There have been voices raised calling for St. John the Divine to withdraw from TEC and join one of the Continuing Anglican communions, since they unequivocally affirm the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the Articles. Let me say here that the Continuing Anglicans have proven a safe-haven for conservative Episcopalians who have exited or been driven from TEC by the liberals (sometimes because of conservative stupidity in choosing their actions, but generally just because they were orthodox Christians), and that the Continuers are our brethren who are seeking to honorably serve the Lord Jesus and His purposes.
I know this because I came to St. John the Divine after twenty years of being a Continuing Anglican. So, if the Continuers are so great (and they are), then why did I leave them to join a congregation in ECUSA (this was before the denomination's name to TEC)?
Eight years ago, I came to St. John the Divine because I believed that God was doing an important work of renewal here, and that He was calling me to take part in that renewal. I already knew Larry and some of the other priests at the church (having known some of them for years, in fact), and had worshipped here whenever my schedule allowed, and knew that the leadership and parishioners there were absolutely as faithful and orthodox as any Continuing Anglicans anywhere.
What only became apparent to me as time went on (and the renewal began to grow) was that the crisis in the denomination had given rise to the unique situation in St. John the Divine, the situation, as I've explained, that is so important to both our denomination and to the larger Western Church. As I've said, there is nothing like our parish anywhere, even among the Continuers, and I've been privileged to worship and serve in the midst of God's Work here.
Many who have left TEC (and many in the Evangelical Church generally) seek a safe-haven free of sin and error, a place of protection and safety. This is, of course, an understandable desire in a fallen world. Yet Scripture tells us that, like the poor, the tares we have always with us (at least until Doomsday, cf. Matt. 13: 24-30). In the last analysis, there is no utopia into which we can escape on the earth.
Even so, it's still incumbent upon us to work and pray for holiness in our parishes, and for our priests to stand as guardians against the incursion of anti-Biblical thought and practice- to guard the flock against the wolves. In this broken time, when so many of our bishops and priests have failed in their responsibility to guard the Church, it's at the parish level that protection from heterodoxy can most frequently be found, and (though our bishop has acted to protect our parish) St. John the Divine is a primary example of faithful priests acting as shepherds to their flock, who both teach and model godly behavior and belief, and who will not allow our parish to be compromised by unBiblical assaults, regardless of the source of those assaults.
Our parish stands as a circle of light; not a utopia (there will be no utopias prior to the end of days), but an arena of God's action through Word and Sacrament, where believers can by God's grace be transformed more and more into the Image of Christ, with advantages unique to our situation.
The future belongs to those who serve God, and time is thus on our side. The position and witness of St. John the Divine, for our denomination and the Church generally, as well as for the sake of those of us who are being shaped by the unusual confluence of traditions in our parish, must be maintained as the important influence and bastion of orthodoxy that it is.
My wife frequently comments that we who are the parish at St. John the Divine were called here to change lives for God in Jesus Christ, and that we pray regularly to see that happen. And here we are, put in a situation by the Lord to do just that. What we have is just what we prayed for (my wife says we should be careful what we pray for, because God answers prayers). Yet here we are by the Will of God.
It was in the midst of our Rector's Rally Day homily that Barbara Rountree related her experience of the conversation concerning St. John as she returned from Britain. Larry preached that day on Ephesians 6: 10-18, a passage in which verses 13 and 14 exhort believers to stand in the armor of God so that they might "withstand in the evil day," and he rightly urged his flock to do so in the face of the challenges which are being raised against St. John the Divine and our denomination.
If we remain faithful, God will give us the victory, and we will overcome. Now is not the time to break and run; now is the time to stand.
- Kemper Crabb
"...our task is to stand fast, watch, fight, and pray for better things: for the true authority of the Bible, for the 'true truth' of the gospel, and for the salvation of gay people for whom we care."
- J. I. Packer