A vote for the resurrection

The Rt. Rev. Nicholas Thomas Wright believes in the resurrection.

The bishop of Durham, England, doesn't think the disciples who said they saw Jesus after his death were describing his spirit dwelling in their hearts. The former canon theologian of Westminster Abbey doesn't believe that Jesus swooned on the cross and woke up three days later. He doesn't believe robbers stole his body, leaving the grieving apostles to explain away an empty tomb.

No, the famous New Testament scholar -- author of 30 books, both lofty and popular -- believes that Jesus rose from the dead and talked with his followers, walked with them, touched them and, in one mysterious episode in the Gospel of John, prepared them grilled fish for breakfast.

"None of the disciples dared ask him, 'Who are you?' because they knew it was the Lord," said Wright, speaking at recent commencement rites at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin. This simple statement "speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus' resurrected body. It was the same body, yet renewed, transformed into a physical body, now beyond the reach of suffering and death -- yet still bearing the telltale marks of the nails that spoke of that suffering and that death."

Wright's speech received little or no media attention in the days leading up to the 75th General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church, which began this week and ends June. 21.

This is no surprise.

After all, the 200 bishops and 850 delegates gathered in Columbus, Ohio, face many hot-button issues -- such as how to respond to demands by Anglican archbishops around the world that they apologize for the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. This and other issues related to sex and the sacrament of marriage could shatter the 70-million-member Anglican Communion.

Truth is, it isn't controversial when an Anglican bishop says that he believes the resurrection of Jesus actually happened.

But, in this day and age, it also isn't controversial when Anglican bishops, priests and seminary professors quietly suggest that the resurrection was a spiritual, but not historical, reality.

Wright knew that when he stepped into the pulpit.

"Questioning the biblical accounts of the resurrection has been the general direction of liberal British scholarship for quite some time now," said the Very Rev. Robert Munday, dean and president of Nashotah House.

"Given where we are in this church on a wide range of issues, I don't know what would happen if someone proposed a resolution that affirmed that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead," said Munday, after arriving in Columbus. "I'm not sure if that resolution would make it out of committee. I'm sure it would be controversial."

After all, a 2002 survey found that a third of the clergy in the actual Church of England doubt or disbelieve in the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Daily Telegraph reported that only half of the 2,000 clergy in the survey said that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Conservatives may, said Munday, make another attempt to defend doctrines such as these. In 2003 they offered a General Convention resolution stating that "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man" and that the church must not teach what is "contrary to God's Word written." This failed in the House of Bishops. They may try a new resolution this year.

While Anglicans wrestle with these biblical issues, the public is searching for answers in shopping malls. In fact, "The Da Vinci Code" offers a picture of what faith looks like without the resurrection, said Wright.

According to author Dan Brown and many others, "Jesus was just a good man. He taught people a pathway of inner spiritual self-discovery. The early Christians had no thought of an institutional church or of Jesus as divine, or a savior, or risen from the dead. Jesus certainly didn't think of himself like that," said the bishop.

This multi-media myth of Christian origins has the potential to undercut centuries of doctrine and faith.

Rather than waffling, said Wright, church leaders must face this challenge head on. Otherwise, they will find it all but impossible to preach "a Gospel in which Jesus did actually rise from the dead and, therefore, really is Lord of the world."