The Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, has recently spoken of "the great Western heresy" and has described it as follows: "that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God." This heresy, she explained, is "caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus."  Such an accent upon the individual, she insists, is "a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being."

This is radical theology, and it is essential that we not misunderstand its meaning. The Bishop is not proclaiming that personal salvation occurs only in the context of a community of faith.  Nor is she declaring simply that we come to know who and what we are in a personal encounter with God.  Nor is her point concisely summed up by assigning metaphysical priority to God in the Christian's vision of reality.  All of these ideas are hovering around the periphery of her assertion and will, I predict, be mistaken for it.  Yet they fail to penetrate to the heart of what she is really saying; that is, that we Christians should forget trying to save the world one person at a time.  We should discontinue the "charade" of inviting others "to name Jesus Christ as their personal savior."  Creedal formulations, designed to safeguard and to nurture the faith, we ought also to regard as passé.  We should back off our "petty" emphasis upon the cultivation of "personal virtue."  No, a broadly encompassing collectivist perspective is all that is allowable:  either we are saved together or, presumably, not at all.  Any eschatological language regarding a "final judgment," in which divine punishments and rewards are apportioned to sheep and goats individually, is heretical.  (Never mind that Bishop Jefferts Schori's newfound "heresy" is all over the pages of the New Testament itself.)

The casual observer might impiously wonder, "What in hell is going on here?"  The answer, I think, is that many leaders of mainline Protestantism no longer have any biblical or theological integrity.  They have no moral integrity either.  I suspect that Bishop Jefferts Schori has been attempting, at least since the ordination of homosexual bishop Gene Robinson, to find an apologetic, which will allow her to change the subject, or at least the focus of an old subject.  Her latest statement, pertaining to "individualist salvation," may seem to her and to a few others to fit the bill.  She is trying to counterpunch evangelicals where she thinks it will hurt the most: "Why are you so personally concerned with having a clear conscience before God?" she might ask.  Nothing really matters except the collective will and conscience.  How dare you serve up your personal virtue and righteousness to me!  I am no longer interested in hearing your self-righteous blather!  I am, in fact, declaring you 'a heretic'."

Okay, let's assume that salvation is to be conceived corporately as opposed to  individually.  I wonder if Bishop Jefferts Schori is oblivious to the fact that the collective will and conscience of Christendom in general is foursquare opposed to her latest theological rant.  Most Christians, practicing and non-practicing, think that a personal relationship with God is important, and they disapprove of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. A large portion of them, I suspect, do not think that Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism should be mentioned in the same breath as Christianity.   So, this being the case, the requirements for "salvation" do not change much pursuant to a collectivist formulation, do they? The Christian community tends to revere the Bible as something between the "normative witness" for belief and practice and the "verbally inspired Word of God."  The Christian community tends to regard homosexual practice as sin.  How will a collective theological ethic possibly be of advantage to the Bishop?  I don't see it.

Maybe, in fairness to her, we should fine-tune her position in a way she herself has not explicitly done.  She cannot, as we've seen, possibly be conceiving the collective will and conscience according to a majoritarian rendering.  Rank-and-file Christians will not decide the theological direction of the Episcopal Church.  "Who will?" you ask.  Bishop Jefferts Schori and a coterie of other denominational leaders will chart that.  You can bet that the Episcopal Church's understanding of the term "salvation," however formulated, will reflect far more the Bishop's own mind-set than the beliefs, traditions, and practices of Christians in general, especially the first-century variety.  Pardon me, but power, pride, and marching in lockstep with a retrograde popular culture are what I see in this woman's latest pronouncements.

"The more things are new, the less they change."  The fact that we have a presiding bishop of a leading mainline denomination who now opposes the idea of individual (or personal) salvation signals little more than a roguishly decadent religious establishment, socially and morally analogous to a country club. The Episcopal Church in the United States has demonstrated once again that it is, in comedian Flip Wilson's captivating words, "The Church of What's Happening Today."  This is shorthand, by the way, for an institution that has lost its way.

July 17, 2009