Orthodoxy (whether generous or not) in disarray

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

During the 14 years I spent at Grace Church in New York City, April Fool’s Day fell on a Sunday twice. In those days we had a beautiful church bulletin printed by a real printer in Brooklyn who set the type by hand (can you believe that was still going on? in the 1980s?). As the editor, I prepared the content and sent it over to Joe in Brooklyn every week (I think that delivery was probably by hand, too). On the Sunday morning of April 1, a couple of years after I’d been doing the bulletin, the “real” bulletin was intercepted by a benign conspiracy of our young  parishioners — I was completely in the dark about this — and replaced by a subversive bulletin (also printed by Joe, who was in on the joke). The ushers did not realize what they were handing out, until a number of chortles and pokes in the side among the arriving parishioners that morning alerted them to the headline on the front page: THE FEAST OF ST. PELAGIUS. The substitute bulletin was an affectionate, knowing satire on the clergy, the prayer groups, the Bible studies, the worship, the romantic entanglements among the young parishioners, and especially the well-known and well-loved content of the preaching and teaching at Grace Church. It was one of the most marvellous things that happened during those years in that congregation. Seven years later a new committee of wits (with some holdovers from the first time) did the same thing all over again, with the same headline. The”St. Pelagius’ Day” bulletins are remembered with much delight to this day.

If you don’t know who Pelagius was or why he matters (or doesn’t matter), then the whole thing would have been lost on you. At Grace Church in those days, a lot of people knew. A lot of the young adults, as well as the older ones, knew that the very knowledge of our salvation depended on the outcome of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine won the debate — theoretically — but the Pelagian position has remained the default for everyone, and must therefore be identified, understood, and rejected all over again in every generation.

What’s this all about? We’ll get to that, but the first thing to be noted is that there is now an overt, intentional, and quite serious move afoot to reclaim Pelagius as a Doctor of the Church. J. Philip Newell, a very popular author and “spiritual” leader, is one of the chief cheerleaders; you can read about him at

This move is associated with the current enthusiasm for all things Celtic, which has deeply penetrated the mainline churches, perhaps especially the Episcopal Church. Closely related is the overt outreach to the group, now growing in numbers, of those who define themselves officially as “spiritual but not religious” (hence the earlier use of quotation marks for the word “spiritual”). The New York Times last week ran an article about that phenomenon, with a reference to the delightfully fearless Lillian Daniels, who can be found here: 

Lillian is a tonic. She understands, for instance, that the phenomenal popularity of “Celtic” services being held for all comers, with open communion for the unbaptized, is not going to strengthen the faltering churches. Her voice is valuable and much needed. She does not, however, seem particularly interested in The Great Tradition (aka generous orthodoxy) of the church, but rather, in what the church asks of its people — and more power to her on that. Doctrine, however, still lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. As soon as one becomes unmoored  from the Great Tradition of biblical interpretation and Christian doctrine, there are unnumbered, treacherous currents, tides, and rocks to get lost in or run aground on. Moving away from the church (with all its all-too-obvious defects) means exchanging one flawed organism for another — oneself. Pelagius was a Christian, a very serious one, but the teaching that Augustine was dead set against was his tendency to substitute human agency for divine agency.

In the end, it’s about God. Who is God, and what difference does that make? There are a number of dangers in the Pelagian route, but perhaps the primary route out of biblical faith is the redefining of the identity and nature of God. It is simply tragic that the issue defining the various parties in the church today is same-sex unions. The passions surrounding this debate have almost entirely obscured the all-important questions of Christology and the role of Scripture in an age when an unprecedented number of books and media messages are bent on undermining the church’s ancient confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

This is the first post of two or three to follow on the subject of Christian doctrine, the Augustinian position, and the fashion for spirituality.

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