Humanity’s Utter Depravity

Despite the protestations of my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, I am very comfortable calling Anglicanism a Protestant denomination.  It may not have been true in 1549, but by the time Thomas Cranmer published the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he had spent entirely too much time with Martin Bucer, and the Protestant Reformation of Continental Europe had made its way across the English Channel.  Thankfully, however, Cranmer’s affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, his coming of age under the rule of Henry VIII’s strongly Roman Catholic thumb, and the tumultuous nature of the monarchy in 1550s England from Protestant Edward to Roman Catholic Mary to Settlement-minded Elizabeth, kept the worst of the Continental influences, like Calvin and Zwingli, from taking Anglicanism beyond being Protestant and becoming fully Reformed.

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My language in the previous paragraph betrays the fact that I am grateful for our avoidance of some of the excesses of Continental Protestantism, I do realize that there are times that Anglicans find their theology lacking some fullness because of it.  One such example came to mind to me this morning as I considered the second half of Peter’s Confession which we will hear read on Sunday.  Last week, Peter declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, just seconds after that declaration, Peter’s mind has already been drawn away from things heavenly and become focused on human things.  There might not be a better example of humanity’s utter depravity, a topic Episcopalians avoid like the plague, than Peter’s immediate about face in this moment.

As faithful Christians, we strive to follow the will of God.  We engage in prayer, we read the Bible, we interact with other disciples, all in the hopes of discerning God’s will for ourselves and for the world God has created.  Like Peter, we have moments when we nestle into the bosom of God, and there we find revelation.  The mind of God is slowing revealed to us, again and again, as we return to the Father.  Again, like Peter, it seems we almost immediately slip away again.  We get prideful about how our own work brought us to deeper understanding.  We get nervous that God might call us to do something we don’t want to do.  We get envious of those who seem to hear God more clearly.  No matter how it happens, it seems that the utter depravity of humankind is distinctly highlighted the closer we get to the heart of God.

It seems to me that we should name this condition.  It is in ignoring it or being afraid of it, that we give our proclivity toward sin its power.  Instead of avoiding the reality of our sinfulness, what Calvin called our “total depravity,” we should see it, name it, and welcome God’s help in moving beyond it.  While Episcopalians ever get comfortable with our total depravity?  I doubt it.  Reformed Christians, we are not.  However, the more we do come to terms with our sinfulness, the more we are able to lean into God’s grace by taking up our cross, laying down our depraved lives, and following Jesus.

Paul’s Commandments

Last week, in dealing with Paul’s call to “not be conformed” to the ways of this world, I wrote a post that invited us to think less about the “thou shalt nots” and more about the “thou shalts.” That post received some good traction on Facebook because it resonated with people’s unfortunate experiences with the modern day Church of Paul.  In doing some reading on the history of the Church of England last night, I learned that this really isn’t all that new.  In describing the rising tide of Puritanism during the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), Moorman noted that the draw to the Puritan way of thinking was natural after the rapid changes of the first half of the 16th century.

There is no doubt that, to a large number of people the Puritan way of life held out great attractions.  In a period of considerable confusion, Calvinism provided a clear-cut and authoritative system both of thought and of governance which gave a sense of security.  To many people the attitude of the government seemed deplorably vague and ambiguous.  It seemed to be ‘halting between two opinions,’ unable which to accept and what policy to follow.  After a generation of rapid changes, people felt lost and insecure. (A History of the Church in England, 3rd ed.)

I tend to think that this was the cause of the mega-church movement in the latter part of the 20th century as well.  Following the 2nd World War, the Baby Boom, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights movement, Americans were in need of some stability and so they sought out churches that were Reformed and Calvinist, eager to know precisely what the rules were.  This lead, in my opinion, to the rise of Pauliantiy as the national religion of the United States.  Rather than focusing on the Red Letters in their pew Bibles, members of these churches focused on the morality codes that Paul had tried to impose on the fledgling churches in Asia Minor.  They refused to let women preach and got strict about human sexuality.

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As I’ve grown out of that tradition, I’ve been grumpy about Paul for the last 10 years or so, forgetting that it really wasn’t Paul I was mad at, but a particular interpretation of Paul.  In fact, Paul wasn’t just about “thou shalt nots.”  This week’s lesson from Romans 12 is full of “thou shalt” moral teaching that sounds an awful lot like what Jesus was concerned about during his time on earth: Love one another, show honor, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, contribute to the needs of others, show hospitality, bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, live peaceably with all, and overcome evil with good.

This is, of course, not any easy religion to practice.  Loving and serving and caring and blessing is a whole lot harder than judging and cursing and bitching and moaning.  We can barely pull it off for ourselves, let alone those we love, and “God forbid” our enemies.  But alas, the claim of Christ on our lives is a call to loving service for the whole world, even a rapidly changing world that we would like, more than anything, to pull under control.  So to make amends for my decade long discomfort with Paul, I’m taking on a new mantra for life and taking it directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.