Monday, October 23, 2006

Kennedy on Heresy: I

Recently a rather lengthy debate transpired between Father Woodward of Episcopal Majority, who wrote a piece defending TEC from insinuations launched by the Episcopalian right, and Father Kennedy of Stand Firm, who produced a long series of articles in response to Woodward's defense (see parts I, II, III, and IV). The exchange was genuinely informative, I think, showing the way to common ground suitable, one hopes, for still more productive future debate.

I. The Core of Kennedy's Argument
I am used to hearing claims from the right that TEC has fallen into heresy or apostasy or whatever, but Kennedy lent that claim concrete content, illuminating at least one interpretation (I wonder how far he can really be taken as a spokesman for the Anglican right?):

The case against the Episcopal Church is not that there are influential false teachers in the church and therefore the Church is heretical. Nor is it that “hundreds or thousands” of parishioners hold beliefs consistent with the heretical teachings espoused by the false teachers above and therefore the Church is heretical.No. The Church is in error becuase the election, consent, and consecration of V. Gene Robinson officially moved the Episcopal Church beyond the limits of orthodoxy. [my emphasis] (Pt. III)

Wrangling over the doctrines of Spong and Borg--or other assorted pluralists real and imagined, for that matter--and the extent of their influence aming the laity is truly beside the point. The problem is GC2003 and the consecration of Robinson. Kennedy claims that the Anglican right thinks Robinson's consecration implies the Episcopal Church is heretical--a claim which before would have been false of the Episcopal Church. Note well--the consecration of a non-celibate homosexual man is what pushed TEC over the line for Kennedy, and if he is a reliable spokesman, much of the rest of the Anglican right as well; other stuffabout how to read the Bible, toying with same sex blessings, et al is relatively peripheral, though still troubling.

I'd like to see the argument for Kennedy's point. I think he would have a hard time, for he writes quite reasonably that

The only fair way to measure or consider the faith of a given denomination is to examine the official teachings of that body. If having done that, you find a real deficiency; say a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, then there is good cause to examine a wide range of evidence, including the prevalence and influence of false assumptions, teachings, and ideas within the denomination in hopes of determining the source or foundations of the error. (PtIII)

Here are two rather distinct questions: (1)Is it part of the official teachings of TEC that non-celibate homosexual men may be consecrated? (2)Would that be a "real deficiency"? Kennedy thinks the answer to (1) is a clear "yes":

But first it is important to understand that the official adoption of heresy by the Episcopal Church is a matter of historical record. It took place in the summer of 2003 and was completed by November of that same year. (PtII)

Likewise for (2):
His consent represents a blatant rejection of the plain reading of Scripture, 2000 years of Christian tradition, the contemporary teaching of every branch of Christendom (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant…with the exception of the UCC and the Metropolitan Church) the clear teaching of the Anglican Communion as articulated at Lambeth98 in resolution 1.10, and, lastly, godly reason by the official consenting body of the Church. His consecration in November 2003, over and against the unanimous warning of the primates in October, represented a public confirmation of that rejection by the presiding bishop and all those assembled. (PtII)

Whatever you think of Kenndy's take on (1) and (2), at least his points are clearly made, and his case is laudable on that score. Of course, I disagree that the answer to either (1) or (2) is "yes"; quite clearly, the Episcopal Church has neither introduced an official teaching that noncelibate gays may be consecrated, nor--even if it had contrary to fact--would that be a real deficiency amounting to heresy. Where to begin?

II. Heresy?
Following Roman Catholicism and especially Aquinas, it seems right to say heresy is a special kind of sinful unbelief, to be distinguished from cases of unbelief that fall short of sin, as when unbelief proceeds

by way of pure negation, as we find it in those who have heard nothing about the faith, it bears the character, not of sin, but of punishment, because such like ignorance of Divine things is a result of the sin of our first parent. If such like unbelievers are damned, it is on account of other sins, which cannot be taken away without faith, but not on account of their sin of unbelief. (ST IIpt IIpt Q10 a1)

Heresy requires a willful turning away from the truth of the faith, rather than mere variance born of sheer ignorance. The line may be a bit gray in cases. We may presume most churchgoing Episcopalians are not in sheer ignorance of what at least was taken to be the teaching of the faith, that (a) all homosexual activity is sinful. But (a) is not the issue in Kennedy's argument--the issue is over (b): the church may not ordain a noncelibate homesexual male. Is (b) a matter of faith most of our churchgoers would have been exposed to?

Well, suppose it was for the sake of argument. That is, take (b) to be a genuine part of the faith and say most of our members have been exposed to it. Then their surely at least apparent acceptance of the negation of (b) at GC2003 and GC2006 reliably indicates a willful departure from the faith, right?

Not so fast--we must yet distinguish material and formal heresy (from an older version of the Catholic Encylopedia online). Perhaps that acceptance in GC2003 and 2006 came out of an imperfect apprehension of the truth of the faith, a type of intellectual confusion. It is prima facie very, very likely they thought they were doing the right thing, and indeed what God called upon them to do in the power of the Holy Spirit. Presuming they were nevertheless in error, what we'd have is only material heresy. We may yet hope the error, if error it be, comes out in the wash and becomes merely transient, a passing fad. After all, the proof that TEC can make 180 degree turns would be GC2003 itself; it is reasonable to work and hope for another such turn in the future, if there be need.

The more serious formal heresy requires "obstinate adhesion" to the error. That may be a tall order in the case of (b)--after all, just how many Episcopalians are clear on the whole of what the faith requires for consecrating a bishop? And even now, there is no compelling case in Anglican circles for the truth of (b), certainly none making a case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Whatever happened to the Episcopal Church at GC2003 and 2006, it falls short of formal heresy, and for that matter, "heresy in the first degree": Pertinacious adhesion to a doctrine contradictory to a point of faith clearly defined by the Church. For the doctrine around (b) is not clearly defined in the church, and our adhesion does not rise to the point of being pertinacious. Still, given (b) it may yet be the Episcopal Church is given over to sententia haeresi proxima--an opinion close to heresy, or propositio theologice erronea, a proposition theologically in error. The range of opinons around which the Episcopal Church would be capable of formal heresy is rather small I suspect, as clear definition would exist in very few cases; heresy rising above the merely material would be rare.

At its best, that is, with the truth of (b), Kennedy would have a rather limited case for accusing the Episcopal Church of heresy.


At 11:19 PM, Blogger Caelius said...

To be honest, Scotist, this argument isn't particularly effective in convincing anyone of anything beyond your grasp of Scholastic vocabulary.

You would be better off, I think, arguing for some definition of heresy not so beholden to the Western Church in the Middle Ages or so difficult to apply in our context. My suggestion would be "overt contradiction of the anathemas of the First Four Councils." As far as I can tell, Father Kennedy's definition of heresy is anything Father Kennedy says is heresy. Your job is to show how erroneous this is. Discussing how the heresy of TEC is only this minor form of heresy really doesn't confront Father Kennedy's argument, it only makes him look right and you look pedantic.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for the comment; I prefer to operate from within the theological framework of the RCC on this, only because it is so very well defined and I am relatively familiar with it. It is not in any sense a merely medieval framework, despite my appeals to Aquinas. I hope only that critics from the right will more readily accept the authority of the RCC and Aquinas on the nature of heresy than my own, or that of any Anglican body. My aim here is to convince them they have no cogent case for splitting.

And so, to reply to your concerns directly--concerns that are quite important I concede--I have made a separate post, "Kennedy on Heresy: II". Hopefully, you might agree that these ruminations do have a practical point.


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