Just because the early church taught that certain doctrines were true doesn't mean the modern church can't change and preach something else, according to the Arkansas bishop who is a key figure in a global Anglican dispute.
The early church had opinions about truth. Now, the modern church has opinions of its own, said the Rt. Rev. Larry Maze, preaching recently to a regional gathering of Integrity, the Episcopal Church's official gay-rights lobby. But opinions, even ancient ones, remain opinions and it would be wrong to let people who cling to opinions from the past veto those who embrace the present.
"There are those who speak as though they know the mind of God and, with startling clarity, they tell us what pleases God and what displeases God," he said. "They speak of certainty as the hallmark of faithful people. Yet, some of us continue to experience God as the one who chooses to live in the midst of our tensions, in the midst of our ambiguities ... always drawing us to truths greater than the truth of a given moment."
The Arkansas bishop has been in the news this year because of clashes with the newborn St. Andrews Church in Little Rock, which was formed by traditionalists who reject his views on the Bible, marriage, sex, salvation and many other doctrinal issues. When the bishop refused to allow the mission's priest to serve in Arkansas, Father Thomas Johnston had his credentials transferred to the Diocese of Shyira, Rwanda. Ever since, the priest's African bishop has been under pressure to abandon his Little Rock flock.
There's more to this story. Anglicans from Africa and other Two-Thirds World churches regularly use appeals to the past while attacking modernized doctrines in the First World. During this summer's Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, traditionalists stressed that they were defending biblical truths, handed down through the ages.
Maze said that the real split is between those who believe their faith is based on ancient, unchanging truths and modernists who accept ambiguity and change. Ultimately, it is the search for truth that matters. Traditionalists, he said, should admit that they possess opinions -- not truths and certainties -- about sexuality, abortion, family, life and death.
"Opinions that have for generations been layered in sanctified language are, nonetheless, opinions," said Maze. "May God grant us the grace to not deify our own opinions."
Maze isn't the only mainstream Anglican airing variations on this theme. Preaching recently at New York's Grace Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said all churches will need to surrender some traditions in order to join in an ongoing search for new truths. Some ancient traditions may in fact be evil, he argued, noting that St. Paul said, "Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" to deceive believers.
"And what is the shadow side of our own particular traditions? ... Some of our singularities and seeming ecclesial virtues may, in actual fact, be impediments to the realization of God's desire," said Griswold.
Meanwhile, a Canadian bishop openly says that one ancient doctrine that the modern church should shed is "Christian exclusivism," which teaches that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus. Historically, this stance has been closely linked with belief in the literal truth of creedal doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection and the Second Coming of Jesus.
The early church's dogmatic "exclusivism" makes it hard to affirm that God saves souls through all of the world's religions, not just Christianity, writes the Rt. Rev. Michael Ingham, in "Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World." This doctrine offends non-Christians.
The bishop doesn't mince words. Traditionalists who defend "Christian exclusivism" and other judgmental ancient dogmas may, in fact, worship a different god than the interfaith deity who inspires modern pluralists, he said.
This will not be an easy rift to close.
"The problem with exclusivism is that it presents us with a god from whom we need to be delivered, rather than the living God who is the hope of the world," writes Ingham. "The exclusivist god is narrow, rigid and blind. Such a god is not worthy of honor, glory, worship or praise."