The fallacy of core doctrine

The concerns voiced by Prof Stephen Noll in his 1996 response to the trial of Walter Righter bear re-reading today.

The Aftermath of the Righter Trial (1996)

On 15 May 1996, the trial Court delivered its Opinion, dismissing both counts: that Bishop Righter had taught false doctrine and had violated his ordination oath. The vote was 7 to 1, one judge having recused himself from the case.

The seven majority judges, inspired by C. H. Dodd’s Apostolic Preaching, made a distinction between what they called “Core Doctrine” (kerygma) and “traditional teaching” (didache). Despite the fact that the Canon stated that a bishop might be tried for holding and teaching “any doctrine contrary to that held by this Church,” they concluded that only Core Doctrine could be grounds for a heresy trial. In fact, Core Doctrine as they spelled it out, is so vague that no one will ever be convicted. And surely, that was their point: no more trials!

The Core Doctrine distinction involves a category error. Dodd was describing basic elements of the evangelistic preaching of the Church, not its internal rule of faith and life. The Court majority was a bit uneasy that their Core Doctrine contained no moral norms at all, and so they conceded that a bishop might conceivably be disciplined for teaching or practicing immorality such as adultery, theft, and assault; but the conclusion for such a norm would be that it had never been contested within the Church as homosexuality has. Since Bishop Spong had already contested every known doctrine of the faith, he can presumably breathe a sigh of relief!

The majority claimed to be agnostic on the morality of homosexuality and called for a period of “patient listening and holy discernment.” During such a holy hiatus, of course, a sizeable group of Episcopal bishops will continue to ordain non-celibate homosexuals and push the next agenda item, gay marriage. For if Barry Stopfel is now free to live with his lover as a wholesome example to the flock of Christ, it follows that the Church should formalize that relationship.

Did the Court respond at all to the issues raised in the two papers presented above? Only in one respect, so far as I can see. The judges may have moved to the Core Doctrine distinction, which has no precedent in Anglican theology or canon law, because they realized that the identification of morals with discipline simply would not work.

The main burden of “The Righter Trial and Christian Doctrine” was to argue that homosexual practice was contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture as that teaching had been conveyed through the history of Church. The Court opinion had virtually nothing to say about the content or authority of Scripture. Two of the bishops “concurred” with the majority but criticized Bishop Righter for acting preemptively in a matter where Scripture is silent. In making this claim, they simply ignored the burden of the Presenters’ case. Only Bishop Andrew Fairfield, the lone dissenter, accepted biblical authority, and he made his own thoughtful analysis of biblical teaching.

As to matters of discipline, the judges made use of Richard Hooker in a purely formal way: “For our purposes, it is enough to note that Hooker’s effort a comprehensiveness has shaped the tradition extending through such figures as Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Gore in the last century, and William Temple and Michael Ramsey in our own.” I suspect that there will be a lot of turning over in the grave when the exemplars of this tradition discover that they have paved the way for gay ordination and gay marriage.

The judges acknowledged some uneasiness that their decision “may be difficult for members of other Communions.” Indeed it will. The real question, however, is whether members of their own Anglican Communion will have difficulties with the Episcopal Church. The Presenter bishops have announced that they will not appeal the trial verdict; they have promised to propose, against all odds, a traditional sexuality canon at the 1997 General Convention; and they have initiated a confessing movement within the Episcopal Church. Most realists, however, believe that there will be a breakup of the Episcopal Church unless “deliverance rises from another place” (Esther 4:14). That other place does not seem to be Canterbury.[1] Would it not be ironic if, in a reversal of the Colenso affair, the provinces stood up and brought discipline to the mother Church and her American stepchild?

[1] As he celebrated the centenary of one of the most radical diocese in the United States (Los Angeles), Archbishop Carey seemed to concur with the Righter trial majority when he said of the sexuality debate: “There will always be questions that have to be left hanging while we wait for fuller answers. What we must not do is walk away from one another.”

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