church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

I note with no surprise whatsoever the news out of England, which is that the Church of England has decided to bless homosexual partnerships.  Two priestesses, the Rev. Catherine Bond and the Rev. Jane Pearce had their union blessed at St John the Baptist church, in Felixstowe, in eastern England, where both are associate clergy (see photo above).  This came after a compromise was struck last February following five years of debate about the church’s position on homosexuality and the inevitable apology offered for the church’s failure to welcome homosexuals. 

The compromise consisted of saying that the church would bless their partnerships after they had a civil wedding, but that these partnerships (which were marriages in all but name) were not marriages, because marriage was the union of one man and one woman.  In classical Anglican fashion which has always tried to maintain contradictory views at the same time within the same church by using prevaricating and ambiguous language, the compromise was intended to placate traditionalists while also capitulating to liberals.  

As might have been expected, it has done neither very well.  Anglican bishops from the so-called “Global South” now refuse to recognize the leadership of the Church of England’s primate Justin Welby as a result of the change, while some homosexual Anglicans have called the compromise “insulting”, noting that it still leaves unchanged the Church’s other teaching on marriage and sexuality.  That is, of course, what happens when one tries to speak out of both sides of the mouth at the same time.

What does this mean for the Orthodox and for traditionalists generally?  I suggest that there is a larger lesson to be learned from Anglican dust-up, and it is this:  the move from traditionalism to secularism always occurs slowly and incrementally.  One thinks of the parable of the frog:  you can (the story goes) get a frog to sit still in water while you boil it to death if only you turn up the heat slowly enough.

People of my ancient vintage who can look back half a century will remember it well.  In the case of the Anglicans (which I observed firsthand and up close), no one started by saying that the church should marry homosexuals. The earlier liberals of the previous generation didn’t begin by talking about ordination or sexuality.  Rather the opening discussion began by questioning the authority of Scripture.  C. S. Lewis (who died way back in 1963) noticed the change, and warned even then that if the C. of E. didn’t clamp down on those rejecting Scriptural authority, “the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short” (from his Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism). 

Liberals were not censured—but neither were Traditionalists.   Live and let live!  The C. of E. was a big tent, able to contain such varieties of opinion.  Unity was what mattered most and (of course) love.  Since the liberals continued to use the same buzz words as the traditionalists, the full extent of their denial of basic Christian truth was not immediately recognized, and the liberals settled in for the long haul.

Then came the encounter with the next secular movement which encroached upon the church’s traditional teaching:  the notion that women could be clergy.  Not deacons, priests, or bishops—oh no.  Just deaconesses, which were of course different than deacons.  The church had deaconesses in the past, so what was the problem?   

So deaconesses were ordained, and then (surprise!) declared to be deacons.  But women priests?  Never.  Until, of course, their liberal logic was applied, which had long denied the authority of Scripture.  And then there were women priests.  But bishops?  Never.  Then came lots of debates and study groups and activists—all of the sound and fury of which led to the inevitable result of having women bishops.

Any objective observer could recognize the engine driving all these developments—namely the embrace of secular cultural norms against which the church was now powerless, having rejected the authority of Scripture and Tradition which alone could provide a standard and a bulwark.  So, right on time, the next secular movement which contradicted the church’s standards and beliefs came down the road, this time involving homosexuality.  This acceptance of homosexuality (which of course included gay marriage) was a part of secular culture, but not a part of the church’s tradition, and so the battle was joined. 

Again with the debates and the study groups and the activists—and again with the inevitable result of victory for the secularists.  Given the church’s helplessness before the secular onslaught, no other result was for a moment possible.

The sad thing, of course, is the prevarication and obfuscation.  If the church desires to conform to secular norms, it should simply do it, regardless of what its tradition says.  What’s the sense of limping between two opinions?  Either choose Baal or Yahweh, secularism or tradition.  Whether or not one should be liberal or traditional can be debated, but surely all should be able to agree that all parties in the debate should be honest and consistent?

The lesson, to repeat again, is that the whole process takes place gradually, and that one move inevitably and inexorably leads to the next.  It is no use jumping off the roof of a tall building and then saying as you pass each floor “so far, so good”.  The time to save yourself is before you reach the ledge of the roof and jump off.   As Fr. Tom Hopko once said, “If you say A you have to say B; if you say B then you have to say C.  I’m interested in where you get when you’re at LMNOP…If you take a step in a particular direction, you must see the full implication of where you are going.” 

The time for the Church of England to have saved itself was decades ago, when it allowed a liberal rejection of Scripture and Tradition to find a place in the church.  One can talk about the “thin edge of the wedge” or the camel’s nose under the tent flap, or one can use Pauline language and talk about how a little leaven or yeast leavens the entire lump of dough.  But after you allow the wedge or the camel’s nose or the leaven to find a welcome, the eventual and complete capitulation of the church to the world is assured.  The leaven will eventually work itself through the entire lump until it has changed everything.  That is the real lesson to be learned from the recent Anglican dust-up (and possibly from the coming Roman Catholic dust-up too).

And one final observation:  in churches which have bishops (like the Orthodox Church) the ones ultimately responsible for holding the line and removing the leaven are the bishops.  Parish priests and deacons can only do so much, even if they do post online a lot.  There are wolves out there, seeking things which will, if they succeed, make the future history of the Orthodox Church in the West as short as that of the Church of England.  Their error must be denounced plainly and forbidden a place among us—in other words, those promoting error must be censured or removed. 

A beginning has already been made in this.  Our ecclesiastical history teaches that part of the censure involves breaking communion with those who embrace the error.  Erring bishops of other jurisdictions (some of whom may live far from us) may not be a factor in our daily lives, and we may be tempted to ignore them.  But they form part of the same lump nonetheless.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.