By George Sumner

  1. “Doctrine,” which means “teaching,” has both more general and more technical senses. The former (general) refers to what a group believes at a particular time. The latter (technical) carries a wider purview (what Christians have believed across time and place) and a more official weight (what requires assent).
  1. Doctrine, in the latter sense, only “develops” over a longer span time, and after a wider recognition by fellow churches. By “develops,” I mean that it changes legitimately so as better to express who Jesus, “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” is (Heb. 13:8). This is worked out classically in John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine.
  1. Until such time, a novelty in doctrine is “unsettled.” A good recent case for this is the presentation by Katherine Sonderegger at the “When Churches in Communion Disagree” consultation hosted by Virginia Theological Seminary in January of 2020.
  1. Given the unique role of the Book of Common Prayer, Anglicans have given liturgy a significant role in discerning doctrine. (Hence the prominence of the BCP in our Constitution and Canons.)
  1. Anglicans have also made room for dissent, so that, for example, there is a gap between what a cleric ought to believe (see the Ordinal) and what he or she could be disciplined for (e.g. the Righter verdict in TEC).
  1. The Episcopal Church, in large part, at present, has on the one hand a more progressive “operative” teaching (doctrine in the first sense) on marriage, and on the other hand a “received” teaching (doctrine in the second sense) in the liturgy of the BCP itself. This gap can be understood as following from Theses 2 and 3.
  1. In light of all of the above, it is not accurate, in an unnuanced way, to say that TEC has “two doctrines of marriage.” Rather, the gap between “operative” and “received” (1, 6) is better understood in relation to the patience required with regard to the “unsettled” (2, 3), the special role of formal liturgy (4), and the room required for the ongoing process of discernment (5).

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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2 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    I suppose one might ask whether TEC asserts that its view of ‘marriage equality’ as expressed at the last GC “requires assent” (1). One answer is the verdict concerning Bishop Love. His appeal to the teaching of the BCP (4) was rejected.

    • Ephraim Radner

      I agree with C R Seitz here: it is not that Bp. Sumner’s wise remarks are purely “theoretical”; rather, it is the case that “the powers that be” of TEC simply do not accept them, as their treatment of Bp. Love (and rationale thereof) demonstrates. On this score, such “powers” have no “patience”, interest in the BCP, or “room”. What does that say about their “doctrinal” integrity on any measure?


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