Op-eds outline two sides of Virginia dispute

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has published two op-ed pieces that outline the essential arguments in the current court case of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia vs. CANA and the Anglican District of Virginia.

The perspective of the Episcopal Church is written by The Rev. Dr. David Cox, David Cox, who holds a Ph.D. in theology and is author of ‘Priesthood in a New Millennium,’ a study in Anglican ecclesiology.

Taking CANA’s side is the Rt. Rev. David Bena, who is a contact bishop in the Anglican District of Virginia and suffragan bishop in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

Saying “Don’t Let the Courts Dictate Theology,” Cox writes:

When congregations in Northern Virginia and elsewhere seceded from the Episcopal Church, they did two things: First, they took a theological step, not simply because of why they seceded, but also in the very act of seceding.

Second, their act effectually altered the ecclesiology that they had earlier accepted. These dissenters claim to remain “Anglican” by joining themselves to another Anglican entity, under bishops in Africa or South America. To do so, though, by congregational vote is suddenly to adopt a Congregationalist ecclesiology which is contrary to the Episcopal tradition. They made a momentous theological change.

Aside from the fact that these two theologies don’t mix, what’s relevant for the judiciary is that this is a theological issue. It is at heart a conflict of ecclesiology.

Theology, though, is profoundly not a matter for courts in the United States to decide. For secular judges to determine whether a congregation may or may not depart from its denomination is to enter into an ecclesiological debate. To find for the plaintiffs would say to the Episcopal Church, “you must now follow a free-church ecclesiology.” But in so doing, the court would thereby establish a particular form of church governance that is foreign to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion — even, ironically, to those Anglican provinces that are now accepting these parishes.

In other words, the government would be establishing a religion. And if government can apply these standards to the Episcopal Church, then it can do so to Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Orthodox, and other faiths that vary from free-church ecclesiology. For that reason, denominations from the Methodist, A.M.E. Zion, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and even Seventh-Day Adventist traditions have filed briefs supporting the Diocese of Virginia.

To enter into this debate is inherently to “do theology” and, in the end, risk specifying how people should live their faith. Barring some clear violation of law (as with polygamy), under the First Amendment the government simply may not regulate the faith and order of a religious organization. It cannot, must not dictate a doctrine of God, or a doctrine of the church. Not in America.

Bena says that the Diocese of Virginia is “attacking the faithful:”

Our congregations simply wished to remain faithful to the historic teachings of the Anglican Communion and could not in good conscience follow the revisionist direction of the Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church and the Diocese walked away from us and the worldwide Anglican Communion by choosing to reinterpret Scripture on a number of issues. They sued us when we refused to follow them on that prodigal path.

Read the two columns here and here.

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