In another month I will experience General Convention at a distance of 2,000 miles. Convention will nonetheless keep me busy, as I edit daily reports by The Living Church’s reporting team at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

This year’s meeting marks the first time in 24 years — since the 70th General Convention met in Phoenix — that I have not been present for at least half of the schedule. This change is mostly welcome, because Convention has always overwhelmed me. If you know the feeling of fearing that something more important is happening in another building, another room, or even one table over as you dine, you know what I experience through most hours of any General Convention.

I will not miss crowded pathways, Westboro Baptist Church’s cookie-cutter protests, hysterical responses to Westboro Baptist Church’s protests, noisy wine-and-cheese receptions, scorching heat, sore feet, and the never-ending struggle to stave off dehydration.

I will miss other moments, though. My introvert’s soul is refreshed by shared meals with fellow journalists, longtime friends, or people I’ve wanted to meet for years. One of my fondest memories of Convention in 2012 was an extended interview with attorney Michael Rehill, who was every bit the storyteller and principled fighter I expected he would be, especially in light of his persisting questions about Title IV.

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Here’s a sentence I spent most of my life thinking I would never write: I will miss the chance to see Salt Lake City, other than from its utilitarian airport or from an airliner’s small window. My life has intersected with Mormon culture a few times:

  • A close childhood friend converted to Mormon faith for a few decades.
  • I interviewed two filmmakers on their efforts to make mainstream films that are sympathetic to Mormons.
  • I toured the restored temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, in researching a never-fulfilled essay about Masonic influences on Mormon architecture.
  • I talked with two Mormon couples for a chapter that did not make the final cut for my book Tithing: Test Me in This. (The short version: The LDS is not as legalistic about tithing as it once was, but tithing remains a consideration for a “temple recommend,” which assures access to crucial ordinances and sacraments, such as proxy baptism and eternal marriage.)

With all this in mind, I was disappointed to read that the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations “has no plan to recommend beginning formal bilateral dialogue with the LDS Church” (from the commission’s Blue Book report). The commission supports interacting with Jews and Muslims in “dialogue on topics of common interest, including religious matters, shared worship occasions, and participation in local and regional interfaith councils.”

What stops it at the Mormon threshold? Christology is not the sole issue.

I know what factors would be problematic for me, as a cradle Episcopalian who recites the Nicene Creed through an evangelical understanding. I want to know what restrains a commission of the Episcopal Church from commending good-faith discussion with Mormons.

The commission made its decision in response to an enabling resolution (2012-D081), which the 77th General Convention sent along for further discussion. It urged bilaterial talks between the Episcopal Church and the LDS Church. The enabling resolution did not require treating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Christian body, but urged dialogue for “interreligious purposes of friendship, good will, [and] mutual understanding.”

At the heart of my disappointment is a thought that I have weighed since Executive Council and the House of Bishops began holding periodic meetings in Salt Lake City: in practice, the Episcopal Church and LDS have one crucial point of theology in common, and it is called continuing revelation. Experienced observers of General Convention will have heard that phrase, or derivations of it, such as “The Holy Spirit is doing this new thing among us,” “The Holy Spirit is guiding us into new truth,” or “My bishop speaks prophetically about marriage equality.”

The Episcopal Church put it this way in 2005, in its response to the Windsor Report:

Holy Scripture, historical and contemporary understandings of human sexuality, and liturgical developments have been integral to discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit. The consequent testing and discerning of the Holy Spirit has led to fuller understandings of God’s action and grace towards us, including hearing anew older voices from the tradition. (To Set Our Hope on Christ, p. 27, emphasis added)

Continuing revelation is not exclusive to the LDS and the Episcopal Church. The United Church of Christ endorsed it through this marketing slogan: “God is still speaking: Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

But the LDS has the distinction of relying on continuing revelation in making two massive changes in its historic theology: repudiating plural marriage (1890) and opening its voluntary priesthood to all members, regardless of race (1978).

Even if General Convention never authorizes dialogue with Mormons, our churches both affirm continuing revelation, with varying degrees of candor. Theologians in both churches ought to wonder how far that revelation extends and on what basis the Episcopal Church sets any limits on it.

And yes, I know: be careful what you wish for.

The featured image of the Salt Palace Convention Center was uploaded to Flickr by jnshaumeyer. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

I am senior editor of The Living Church. My wife, Monica, and I attend St. Matthew’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.

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12 Responses

  1. Craig Uffman

    Doug, knowing your ready wit, I have to ask you to clarify. You seem to satirize or at least be critical of TEC’s reliance on a doctrine of continuing revelation. Is that correct? If so, are you concernied with its abuse of a doctrine you affirm, or are you denying that doctrine itself? If yes to both, then can you clarify what you understand that doctrine to be, and how you would amend it to bring it into what you consider a sound teaching? I am particularly interested in what the word revelation means to you. I’d love to hear from others oh this, as well.

    Reply
  2. Douglas LeBlanc

    Fr. Craig, I’m glad to see your comment and to respond to your good questions. The connection on continuing revelation began as a mischievous thought, mostly because of our church bodies’ frequent meetings in Salt Lake City. I know those meetings are rooted more in financial stewardship than in theological sympathy.

    In 2012 I noticed the General Convention resolution that I describe in the post. I found that resolution irenic in tone, neither naive nor sardonic about dialogue between the two churches.

    It’s also worth noting that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has urged openness about the welcome and the faith of Mormons. Here is a portion of her sermon during a meeting of Executive Council in late March:

    Every religious tradition has its skeletons and its saints, and sometimes they are the same people. Paul is warning his hearers not to count themselves better than their ancestors, for they all depend on the same rootstock — a root that nourishes the olive tree or the grape vine we cling to as intimate connection to God as Creator of all. That root is why we are here, and it is also why the LDS church is here.

    When General Convention shows up here just over three months from now, many of the volunteers and dispensers of hospitality will be our sisters and brothers from that tradition. Will we recognize their welcome as a product of the same root, or will we assume that they come from a different and unrecognizable species?

    I understand continuing revelation as the notion that what believers have taken as revealed truth can be revised or even reversed by a new revelation, whether it is corporate (General Convention, Mormonism’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) or individual (a diocesan bishop, or Mormonism’s First President).

    I understand revelation as God’s self-disclosure to and through human beings, with the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. I do not understand God’s revealed truth as being open to reversal, although I certainly recognize that humans can confuse our own misreadings of revelation with God’s revelation.

    I recognize that others understand continuing revelation as merely clarifying earlier revelation. But in the cases of plural marriage, opening the Mormon priesthood, and same-sex marriage, it’s readily evident that more than clarification is at work. To move from saying that marriage is designed by God for a man and a woman to saying that marriage exists regardless of the parties’ sexes is more than a slight adjustment.

    For the future, I have to wonder what effect continuing revelation may have on such creedal and demanding doctrines as the Fall, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Final Judgment, all of which attract criticism not only from Episcopalians but from Emergent leaders.

    What began with a wink has become, at least for me, a more serious matter. If we are to live by continuing revelation, will there be some boundaries on it? Why, or why not?

    These are my honest questions. I pose them with a smile but without a smirk.

    Reply
  3. Craig Uffman

    Thanks for your response, Doug. I had hoped others would weigh in, too, but since they did not, I thought I’d share with a slightly different account. This is from Robert Song, who was my viva examiner, along with Hauerwas: For the Church now, the question is not merely an antiquarian enterprise of uncovering the meanings of ancient texts, but rather the properly theological venture of discerning their meaning for us in our world. As Karl Barth declared, Christian theology as such ‘does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’…. We cannot assume that faithfulness consists in the bald repetition of what has been said in the past; to say the same word in a different context is to say a different word. Revelation is properly speaking an event in which the living God speaks, not a deposit which we can regard as safely tied up because we hold to a high view of biblical authority or because we proclaim our faithfulness to the received tradition. We are not in a position to control how God may choose to speak, and our incompetence in this is not eased by efforts to lay down a hermeneutical method in advance, or to parade our agreement with previous generations of church teachers. Rather our responsibility is always one of exercising judgement, learning how we are to think and act now, in the knowledge that our thinking and acting are finally made right not because of the correctness of our judgements, but because we ourselves live under the mercy of God’s judgement.

    Reply
  4. Douglas LeBlanc

    So then, Christians should affirm continuing revelation, lest we stand accused of being merely antiquarian, engaging in bald repetition, wanting to control how God may choose to speak, or inclined to parade our agreement with the ancients? That’s awfully front-loaded language about Christians’ interior lives. I regret none of my questions.

    Reply
  5. Craig Uffman

    Doug, not sure if you think I was challenging your questions, but if you were, please know I was not at all.

    I responded entirely to what seemed to be the suggestion that the doctrine of continuing revelation is not orthodox. It is, and its rejection is deeply problematic, for reasons Song suggests surely, if not necessarily in his words. I’d frame it in terms of pneumatology, instead. The key point is that God continues to address God’s creation, and continues to create, and Jesus addresses us in our time and place and sustains us with the Word. Aquinas and Hooker both explained all this using the metaphor of the Eternal Law. The important point is that the Eternal Law never addresses generally, but always particularly in time and space, and it is always the Word that sustains us in our particularity. Which in practice means that the natural law differed across time and space, even though we always understood it to be from the same source, the Eternal Law, which is Christ himself. In other words, continuing revelation.

    All of this begs the question of what we mean by revelation, and I suspect that, if you find the idea troubling, you mean something different by the word than its technical meaning. I think you are actually reacting to what I would name as an abuse of the doctrine, and not the real doctrine. The abuse is what I witness in the examples to which you point.

    Here’s what I mean by revelation, which is a description of Barth’s theology of revelation by one of our top Barth scholars:

    In the event of revelation, human knowledge is made by grace to conform to its divine object. Thus (the reader will forgive an overused metaphor, but it is good Barthian language), the direction in which the analogy works is always ‘above to below’. That is to say, God’s Self-knowledge does not become analogically related to prior human knowledge of Him in revelation; rather, human knowledge is conformed to His. God’s act is the analogue, ours is the analogate; His the archetype, ours the ectype.

    I think the problem you are trying to address in your critique is better addressed not with a rejection of the doctrine of continuing revelation. but in the way Barth addresses it. Alternatively the way John Howard Yoder addressed it. Quite simply: he reminded Niebuhr that the Holy Spirit can never contradict Jesus. Yoder diagnoses the tendency you describe to our acting as though the Spirit is an alternative to Jesus, and then, in Liberal Protestantism, the Spirit becomes simply another name for secular humanistic ratiocination. So in faux continuing revelation, you get the phenomenon you describe.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
  6. Douglas LeBlanc

    Fr. Craig, the point of my post was not to declare continuing revelation good or bad but to observe that it is an important practice Episcopalians now hold in common with Mormons, the United Church of Christ, and others. In my subsequent comment I admitted to misgivings I have about where continuing revelation might lead.

    I think the difference between us is continuing revelation as it is taught in seminaries and continuing revelation as it is deployed by Episcopalians, some of whom have not studied in those seminaries. Whether that deployment is an abuse of continuing revelation does not especially concern me, because I am describing the actions I observe as a journalist, not the Platonic ideal.

    In the case of Mormons, I think it’s terrific that continuing revelation led to changes in teaching about plural marriage and a broader access to the LDS church’s voluntary priesthood.

    And I do wish the two churches would have engage in discussions about continuing revelation. Those discussions might even lead to a better understanding of the concept among us all.

    I think I’ve said enough in this thread. I’ll now let the post and my existing comments speak for themselves.

    Reply
  7. Zachary Guiliano

    Craig,

    As I think you realize, what you’re describing as “continuing revelation” is incredibly different from a Mormon theology of ongoing revelation or what Doug was getting at. Indeed, it is so different that it is like you’re missing the point of what he was saying, simply to try and say something you want to say about the nature of revelation.

    Reply
  8. Craig Uffman

    I definitely got the point, Zachary. I am not sympathetic, however, to a diagnosis of TEC, so often repeated by conservatives, which perpetuates the idea that revelation somehow stopped 2000 years ago. It is not clear that Doug was making that diagnosis, but it seemed he might have been. My comment responds to an apparent premise in the article, not the contrast made based on the premise. I suggest an alternative diagnosis of the same phenomenon which allows us to make the critique while preserving a high pneumatology.

    I did not comment on the Mormon doctrine at all since I am unqualified to do that.

    Reply
  9. Charlie Clauss

    I understand continuing revelation in a MacIntyerian sense. Hence there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way. The right way is to be so immersed in the Tradition that that your forward steps are faithful to the Tradition while moving it forward.

    The classic story used by Progressives to justify their next steps is the story of Cornelius in Acts 10. Their spin is that Peter has learned something “new” that leads him to reach out to the Gentiles. But clearly this is not the case – Peter has actually learned something old. God’s plan *always* included the Gentiles. Peter’s step forward is actually the faithful next step in light of his tradition.

    Reply
  10. Craig Uffman

    Yes, Charlie, that’s a great example. Let’s be clear, however, that it is an example of how Jesus, the Living God, through the agency of the Spirit, the Eternal Word, continues to judge us. So that’s an example the Eternal Word correcting us. But from a christological perspective, it’s insufficient to say merely that. The Christ eternally judges us but Christ the Creator eternally creates, as well. And that brings into the systematic fallacy of the “revelation stopped 2000 years ago” bulwark against reform. It seems to forget that the Incarnation was not the beginning or the temporal end of the Word. Jesus lives. Creation is not closed, but open. Christ the Creator eternally speaks into the temporal order, not statically. To say that Christ is eternal is to say that Christ’s nature is not subject to change (a can of worms I want to sidestep). And so Christ’s dispositions are consistent across time. Yet creation itself is dynamic, and so the temporal expression of the Word spoken into the temporal order at one point is not of necessity identical to that spoken at another point. The Word that addresses us in time meets us particularly, summoning us to life right where we are, and so the content of that word is whatever is necessary to cause us to conform to the Eternal Self-knowledge. If you think about it, all of this is the foundation of what we mean when we speak of a personal relationship with the Christ. So it is worth defending, even when we see its distortion, as Doug and Zach feel we see in TEC today.

    Reply
  11. Charlie Clauss

    “If you think about it, all of this is the foundation of what we mean when we speak of a personal relationship with the Christ.”

    Sweet talker! You know what ideas are important to me!

    The mention of Creation is interesting: not sure what you mean by “open.” I’d insist that telos of Creation is being restored; God had, and has, plans for Creation, and what he is doing now is “congruent” with what he has done and will do.

    There is a tension in your insistence of “particularity” highlighted by the phrase “conform to the Eternal Self-knowledge.” The relationship of “temporal order at one point” and “Christ’s dispositions are consistent across time” has to be almost be labeled “paradox” (okay, “mystery”). I can see that the ethicist in you wants to highlight (rightfully) “right here, right now” for there is no other “time” for ethics. The “ontologist” in me wants to highlight “eternal.”

    Where I join forces with Zach and Doug is on the point where many (e.g. TEC) have decoupled “now” and “then” to the point where there is no tension because there is no “Eternal Self-knowledge.”

    Reply
  12. Jonathan Mitchican

    At the last diocesan convention here in Philly, a Mormon came as a representative of the local inter-faith group to give us greetings. He was the only speaker all day to quote extensively from Scripture. Make of that what you will.

    Reply

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