aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Showing one's hole cards

Most discussions of ecclesiology are like rounds of betting in a game of stud poker. We're all assessing the value of the cards that are showing, as if those are what really matter. Official statements of doctrine and practice, historic attitudes, etc., are the basis of our discussion.

But what really determines the hand's value are the card(s) that are hidden. Theologically, one's hole cards are the special convictions that each of us have that we don't drag out and examine before just anybody. They may bolster our public pronouncements, they may be at variance with them; but they are what really determines how deeply we back the hand we've got.

In The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams explores what made Queen Elizabeth I tick, religiously.
Under all her diplomacy she felt an injustice in the Catholic opposition. "Your chief pastor pronounced sentence against me while I was in my mother's womb," she said to the Roman priests. It was that unborn child she all her life defended and justified, and there obscurely she believed in God.

Williams here is onto something profound. If the Reformation was all about economics, why did so many German princes risk everything to protect it? Could it be that they actually, you know, believed? The same could be said of some of the Catholic priests hiding in priest holes in the North of England.

The party that loses the disputation, the colloquy, may be abashed at one's unsuccessful defense of one's ecclesiastical position; however, that does not convert that person to the other side. One's hole cards -- what one really believes at the core of one's soul -- will keep one backing one's hand, even if seemingly outclassed all around the board.

So, I've been doing a little soul searching -- not just playing with counters, or valuing the other players' show cards. Suppose The UMC finally, irreversibly apostasizes? (It could happen.) Or suppose we have a serious proposal for organic unity on the table between our Church and another Church, which has some serious differences of doctrine or practice? (That, too, could happen; officially, everybody hopes that it will.) What is my bottom line? What hole cards am I protecting, betting on, using to define myself with?

Herewith, my own, personal bottom line on all matters ecclesiastical.
1. I believe in the reality of my own relationship with Christ. I could never transfer my membership to another body, nor assent to any union with another body, which required me to say that I haven't really known Christ all these long years, or that I wasn't really saved.

That's probably not much of a stumbling block. Even most Churches which define The UMC as being ecclesiologically deficient would probably not go so far as to say that my hope will disappoint me. After Vatican II, even the RCC shrugged and said, Yeah, well, they're Christians, too (though lacking in certain things).

2. The corollary to that, though, is a bigger deal. I could never transfer my membership to another body, nor assent to any union with another body, which required me to deny my baptism, or to do it over. That's a real stumbling block, which immediately rules out ever being received into, say, a Southern Baptist church -- or even most Eastern Orthodox Churches. The one group says I didn't do it right to begin with, and the other says I didn't have the right person, rightly connected do it, so that deficiency's gotta be corrected. I simply and utterly deny any deficiency at all: God can't do it wrong, whatever my parents or my pastor or I might have had to do with it.

Confirmation isn't as big a deal. We do Reaffirmations all the time -- in effect, redoing Confirmation of one's original Baptism. Groups with scruples about apostolic succession or something, who have strong opinions about making sure that everybody is connected the right way up, might get a green light from me, if that were the only deal-breaker on the table.

3. My Orders, however, is another matter. Here's where all that betting and checking about apostolic succession and so on really matter. I am inclined to defend my ordination; joining with another body which required me to say that my ordination was of no effect, or of no effect without some spiritual jiggery-pokery on someone else's part to make it real, would trouble me. What would that say about all those whom I have led to Christ, baptized, confirmed, offered for at the Table?

Denying my Orders would be less about my standing before God than about theirs, and charity forbids that I mislead them. If my commitment to my Orders is a thing that can be lightly bargained away, then my offering to the Church and the faithful therein must not be worth much to me. Discussions about reunion with Anglicans and Roman Catholics keep coming up against this problem.

Other people have other hole cards, I'm sure. But these are mine, and they are not open for negotiation or argument (discussion is another matter). I offer them here because I think that so long as we confine ourselves to a back-and-forth on our show cards, we're not really getting anywhere. The cards that matter we keep hidden, sometimes even from ourselves.

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