January 12, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, January 12, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Anglican Church faces looming division over question of homosexuality
The most important religious headline in recent days comes from The Telegraph of London. The headline,
“This is the week the Anglican Church might fall apart.”Show Full Transcript
That’s a stunning headline, but it’s not an overstatement. This is indeed the week that the Anglican Communion might fall apart. The reason for this is a meeting called by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The meeting is of the so-called Primates of the Anglican Communion—that’s the head of the national churches that are related to the Church of England. The Primates will be meeting in Canterbury, the historic seat of the Church of England, which is the historic source of the entire Anglican tradition and the Anglican Communion of churches. The fact that the Primates’ meeting is taking place in Canterbury is itself quite ironic, because even as the town of Canterbury and its historic significance and the historic cathedral there give testimony of the Christian tradition that has shaped the Anglican communion—centuries of Christian tradition and of an original commitment to Orthodox Christianity—the reality is that that Cathedral now represents for so many of the churches represented at this Council what many have abandoned rather than embraced.
The Anglican Communion goes back to the unique history the Church of England, before there was a larger communion. In one sense, the Anglican Communion is the result of the Church of England added to the reality of the British Empire. But going back to the Church of England, its particular theological identity was forged in the British Reformation. It was in so many ways a halfway Reformation, far less of a Reformation that took place in such places as Geneva or in Wittenberg. In so many ways, the Church of England was an historical necessity forged in a kind of theological compromise, but the theological compromise gave birth to a theological accommodationism that now means that many of the churches within the Anglican communion have little if any tie to historic biblical Christianity—at least in terms of the national denominational realities. To understand the current controversy, one has to understand the unique history of the Church of England, a Church that, given its compromises, has basically been divided into three different parties—an Anglo-Catholic wing that has been very closely tied to Roman Catholicism, much less interested in the theological substance of the Reformation and on the other extreme; the Puritan Party now represented by evangelicals in the Church of England, very avidly committed to the kind of Reformation that was undertaken by Calvin in Geneva and by Lutheran Wittenberg; then there is a Broad Church Party that basically represents the mainstream Anglican tradition for many years, a tradition that has called for a comprehensiveness in terms of doctrine, that is a church that could absorb virtually any theological position. That is a recipe for disaster, and disaster is now what is happening. That’s why the headline is so realistic—that is the headline from The Telegraph that stated,
“This is the week the Anglican Church might fall apart.”
Back in the early decades of the 20th century, when theologian Karl Barth wrote his commentary on the Romans, one theological respondent said that his Romerbrief, as it was called was the,
“…bomb that detonated on the playground of the theologians.”
Well, the bomb that his detonated in the playground of the Church of England is the issue of homosexuality. As Charles Moore wrote for The Telegraph,
“This week the Anglican communion may fall apart. The stated reason is disagreement about homosexuality.”
Similarly, the current edition of The Economist of London reports,
“The problem is a row between liberals, mainly North American, who want the church to allow same-sex marriage, and conservatives, who think it must not. Some leaders from each side are not on speaking terms.”
Archbishop Justin Welby is said to,
“…want a looser affiliation, so that both groups can keep relations with Canterbury and continue to call themselves Anglican but not have to deal with each other.”
Well, if homosexuality is the bomb that detonated, the major battle is, and remains, biblical authority and the confessional and doctrinal identity of Anglicanism, not only of the Church of England, but of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and Anglicanism as it is found throughout the world. The main division right now is geographical, it’s between the churches of the North that are predominantly liberal and the churches of the South, the so-called global South—including most importantly Africa—that are quite conservative. Many of the bishops and archbishops of the Anglican churches in Africa no longer consider themselves in communion with liberal churches such as the Episcopal Church in the United States. There is a very real question as to whether or not the meeting will be able to continue through the week. As Kaya Burgess, Religious Affairs correspondent for The Times of London reports,
“African church leaders are expected to walk out of a historic meeting in Canterbury next week, dashing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hopes of holding the Anglican Church together over homosexuality and gay marriage.”
Now the interesting thing about the report in The Times of London is the fact that the Anglican bishops are very, very clear that they are only willing to come to the meeting and to participate in the meeting, most especially to remain in the meeting, only if, and this is to use an exact quote from the Archbishop of Uganda,
“…if godly order were to be restored.”
In a statement released prior to the meeting of the Primates, the Archbishop of Uganda had been very clear that he and his African colleagues would remain in the meeting, and symbolically would remain also in the Anglican Communion, if the more liberal churches—in particular the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada—were to repent of their willingness,
“…to conduct or bless same-sex marriages and to appoint openly gay bishops.”
To state the matter clearly that is not likely to happen. What is likely to happen is that the Anglican Communion, the worldwide communion of all the Anglican churches, is likely to be redefined in terms of its relationships. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is not only the spiritual head of the Church of England, but by extension, the spiritual head of the existing Anglican communion, has stated that it is his intention to try to hold the communion together, but if not, to try to hold the communion together by redefining its terms so that the individual churches relate directly to him rather than to each other. But as the statement from the Archbishop of Uganda makes very clear, that is not likely to be acceptable to evangelicals within the Church of England. Many in the national and international media, looking at this have also missed something that is profoundly important. There are continuing evangelical and faithful churches in terms of the doctrine of the church within the Anglican Communion, not only in African in the global South, but also in the North. One of the biggest stories in terms of recent decades is how many churches have left—for instance, the Episcopal Church USA—and have joined many of the other Anglican groups that are now rather well represented in North America continuing in the historic Anglican faith. A significant number of evangelical church members and some ministers still remain, even in the liberal churches such as the Episcopal Church USA. In so many ways they have seen their churches hijacked at the national level by liberals in terms of theology, morality, and social policy, but who have been steadfastly determined to hold onto the real estate and the pension plans.
Finally on this issue, many American evangelicals, perhaps most, are unaware of the debt that all English-speaking Protestants owe to the Anglican tradition. The reality is that after the King James Bible, the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer is the single most influential theological texts in the English language. Biblically minded Christians will be watching the events in Canterbury with interest and with prayer, and we will also be watching hoping that the authority of Scripture and the historic Christian faith may somehow—even if miraculously—be reaffirmed and re-embraced by the Anglican Communion. In a statement to the press just before the meeting began this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said that if the Anglican Communion were to be dissolved, it would be a failure but not a disaster. That’s the kind of language that in itself is problematic because no one actually knows exactly what he means. But biblically-minded Christians also have to understand that when any church fails to uphold the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the gospel and the faith once for all delivered to the saints, it is not only a failure, it is an unmitigated disaster.
Obama's last State of the Union address opportunity to ponder future direction of country
Here in the United States something both historic and significant will be happening tonight. The Constitution of the United States, in Article 2 Section 3, speaks of the President of the United States and uses these words,
“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
It was the first president of the United States, George Washington, who began the tradition of the President of the United States fulfilling this constitutional responsibility by means of personally appearing before Congress. It was called for many decades the President’s Annual Address to Congress; only during administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was it changed to be called the State of the Union address. The constitutional text we just read is the rootage of that language. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, will at 9 o’clock tonight address a joint session of Congress and other national leaders in his last State of the Union address. This will be President Obama’s seventh State of the Union address. An incoming president, a newly elected president’s first joint address to Congress in his first January as president looks like a State of the Union address, but because the President is new it is not yet called one. So a one-term president delivers one annual address to Congress, and three State of the Union addresses. President Obama will be delivering his last.
Between President George Washington and President Woodrow Wilson, most presidents simply sent a written record or written report as their State of the Union report, fulfilling this constitutional responsibility. But beginning with Woodrow Wilson, all the presidents, with the exception of Herbert Hoover, have decided it was to their advantage and to the betterment of the nation that a State of the Union address be given to a joint session of Congress. Something very interesting happened in the transformation of the State of the Union address and the development of modern media. When modern media came and Americans were able—not only Congress, but all Americans—to listen in to the State of the Union address—or now by television and digital media to watch it—presidents really began to speak over Congress directly to the American people. Perhaps it was President Ronald Reagan who best demonstrated the power of convening Congress but then looking over Congress directly at the American people and speaking to them. It’s clear that every president since Ronald Reagan has attempted to do the very same thing, and in the case of Barack Obama, this is his last State of the Union address, and it is one of his last opportunities in his last full year in office to talk to Americans about what he believes to be his legacy and the meaning of his presidency.
Before turning to Barack Obama’s address, we need to consider the theater of the State of the Union address. We need to understand that not only is it a joint session of Congress, the House of Representatives hosting the Senate in the House Chamber, but also present will be representatives of the Supreme Court of the United States, the third branch of government. Also represented in the room are other members of the president’s cabinet and also members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff representing the American military.
As we watch the theater of the State of the Union address, we need to understand that this is the only annual context in which all three branches of government and the extensions of government, through its agencies and the military, are present in one place at one time. But before we state that we also need to understand that at least some will be missing—some members of Congress, some members of the House, some members of the Senate and also at least one member of the president’s cabinet will not be present. There will be no attention drawn to their absence, but their absence is indicative of the fact that it would not be wise for every single member of Congress and for every member of the president’s cabinet to be in one room if something horrifying and tragic were to happen.
It is important that Christians understand that democracy requires a certain drama and the formality of the State of the Union address is very important, because in this case the head of the government and the head of state is elected and thus, there is something particular about the pageant of democracy that makes the American President’s State of the Union address always an important occasion—regardless of the partisan identification of the president, whether he is a Democrat or Republican. But it is at the same time a political event, and Christians, thinking through a Christian worldview, even as we’re listening to what the President will say, need to understand that the context itself is also laden with meaning. Peter Baker, reporting for the New York Times tells us,
“Mr. Obama plans a thematic message that effectively will be as much a campaign agenda as a governing document. While not on the ballot himself, Mr. Obama hopes to use what may be the largest television audience left in his presidency to frame the debate about who should replace him and where the country should go from here.”
Now as we’re watching the State of the Union address, we’re not only watching the president, we’re watching those watching the president. One of the most interesting issues of political calculation for Democrats and on the other side for Republicans is when to applaud and when to withhold applause, when to stand and applaud and when merely to sit and applaud. This is all a matter of political drama and the drama itself is important. It’s all a matter of political calculation. When a president delivers his final State of the Union address, even as Peter Baker writes about President Obama, it is always an effort to try to frame his own legacy, in one sense to write his own history. That has generally not been very effective, but every incumbent President seems to try to do it, and President Obama, who has been a particularly divisive president in partisan terms, he is a president who is likely to try not only to frame his own legacy, but to make an argument for a continuation of that legacy through the election of a Democratic President in November.
The liberal themes of Mr. Obama’s presidency are going to be very much in evidence. Also, through another part of the drama of the State of the Union address, sitting in the balcony will be President Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, and seated with her will be guests who were chosen for their symbolic importance. The president will make reference to them during his address and television cameras will be directed to them. Amongst the guests chosen by the President and the First Lady this year will be James Obergefell. He was one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage back in June 2015. President Obama, who was for same-sex marriage before he was against it when he ran for president, and then who was for it again when he ran for reelection in 2012, the president who spoke of his own so-called evolution on the issue of gay marriage, will claim inclusivity as a major theme of his legacy, and he will ask Mr. Obergefell to stand in recognition symbolically of that legacy. Also present will be the first woman who graduated from the Ranger program of the United States Army. This comes after Mr. Obama’s Defense Department has ruled that all combat positions in the Armed Forces are to be fully open to women. According to the Washington Post that woman, Major Lisa Jaster of Houston, Texas, left behind a job in the insurance industry, her husband and two young children in order to make a point by entering the Ranger training course, and then being one of three women—the first three women to pass it. Those are just two of the guests President Obama has chosen, and they are indicative of the moral revolution that has taken place in America, not only during his presidency, but at least in some sense, driven by his presidency.
Those who are watching this from a Christian worldview perspective will be watching carefully, understanding that when the president brags about his accomplishments in terms of this being a part of his legacy, he is also making a profound moral statement—not one that will surprise us, but one that means that he not only has made these decisions and pushed these issues, he wants them to be a part of his lasting legacy. And both his admirers and his detractors will understand that that is almost certainly going to be the case. Every time a major event like this rolls around, I want to remind Christian parents, Christian families, of the importance of watching an address like this as a family—parents with children, especially older children and teenagers—talking about what the pageant of democracy means, talking about the history of the State of Union address and what it means to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, what it means to consider the words of the president and the response of Congress on the issues, trying to understand the issues through the lens of a Christian worldview.
In SCOTUS case, teachers claim violation of conscience by mandatory union membership
Finally, yesterday the Supreme Court of United States heard oral arguments in a very important constitutional case. It centers on teachers in California—several teachers who are claiming that their constitutional rights of free speech are violated by the fact that as public teachers they are required to be members of the teachers union and to pay those union dues. Those dues in return are used by their union to force statements to be made that are against their own conscience. One of the plaintiffs in this case is Harlan Elrich, he is a high school teacher in California. He pays about $970 a year to a labor union. He and several of his colleagues are evangelical Christians and they are very offended by the fact that the labor union which they are now legally required to fund makes statements and is involved in training public policy arguments that are directly at odds with their own moral convictions.
One of the important issues behind the Supreme Court case that was heard yesterday is the fact that labor unions, and in particular public sector labor unions—that is labor unions representing government employees—are generally very much on the Left, sometimes on the radical Left, and they have used their vast millions of dollars, hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, that have come from the dues often required of their members in order to push a very liberal agenda. In recent years, the Supreme Court of the United States has been very suspicious of the confiscation of individual money by means of such union fees that are then turned around and used for political agendas that might not represent the persons from whom those fees have been obtained. Yesterday, major media observing the way the oral arguments went in this case indicated that there is every reason to believe that the Supreme Court may well judge that the plaintiffs in this case have the superior constitutional case. If so, this will continue a line of Supreme Court developments over the last 20 years. But there’s something else to be noted here. When we’re talking about public sector labor unions, we’re talking about labor unions that are supposedly representing employees over against the employer. And the employer in this case is the people of the United States for federal employees, and the people of the various states and municipalities for those employees as well. There’s something deeply problematic about that, because as we have said those labor unions, almost to a union, push very, very progressive and liberal causes and are funded in doing so by many of their employees who have no intention of making those political and moral statement. There’s something basically contradictory about that when it comes to the very ethos of democracy, and it also gets down to the fact that this is another case in which Christians, among others, can find themselves coerced and forced in making statements or participating in the making of statements with which they are in profound moral disagreement.
During the early and middle decades of the 20th century, unions—especially private-sector unions—were a very important formative force, and they played a very important role in America’s public life. But in more recent years, those private-sector unions have been in decline, and the only growth has been in public sector unions, and those unions have tended to be aggressively liberal. And therein lies the problem. We’ll have to wait several months to know how the Supreme Court decides this case, but either way it’s going to be important, and it will be important to even those who have never been a member of a labor union.