A Kindly Heresy
Louis R. Tarsitano on Niceness
More than twenty years ago, an Episcopal priest, a truly lovely man who had done me no end of kindness, looked at me as if I were insane when I explained to him that I was sticking by the old Book of Common Prayer, no matter what. He offered what was, to his mind, the unanswerable argument for his own position in favor of the new religion, in the form of what he thought was a rhetorical question: “You don’t really believe that the burden of your sins is intolerable?” To his chagrin, I answered, “Yes, I do.”
He was still kind afterwards, but a distance had opened between us that I was never able to find a way to bridge. The older Book delivered a series of hard truths about fallen human nature and its need for redemption. Its replacement, appearing in 1976 and enforced by the Episcopal Church in 1979, dealt more in “wrong choices” that might interfere with our self-fulfillment and “community.”
One could, in fact, chart my friend’s declension from Anglican doctrine by his liturgical history. He had begun as an Anglo-Catholic with the Anglican Missal, a Romanized (read “romantic”) adaptation of the classic Prayer Book. He went on to Rite II, the “modern” rite of the reinvented Prayer Book, and then to various versions of the nearly formless “Rite III.” Then he moved on to “renewal” and “the charismatic movement.” Finally, he retired, having been a much-lauded leader in “liturgical development.” Mostly, now, he collects his pension and takes trips with his wife.
He does, however, occasionally bestir himself to demonstrate what a good sport he is about the matter of “ordaining” women by attending events with the female clergy, which he absolutely opposed in his days as an Anglo-Catholic. The notion of limits within an objectively divine vocation to the ministry, however, eventually proved as harsh to him as the notion of an objectively divine judgment of sin.
What I doubt many of our “nice” conservative friends would ever be able to see, is that the above sketch is as devastating as anything the nastiest polemicist ever wrote about anyone. Yet my friend would be welcome in any gathering of polite, “orthodox” Christians. What everyone would have to ignore is that my friend, however polite and “good” in humanistic terms, is a monster.
He is, for example, an oath breaker. At his ordination he took a series of solemn oaths to maintain and to protect the doctrine, discipline, and worship of his Church, not as he would make them, but as they had been received from Christ and the undivided Church. These he cheerfully broke to take part in the fun of liturgical and theological experimentation. He is also a killer of souls, having taught hundreds of people that the burden of their sins is tolerable, and that niceness and politeness are means of self-salvation. He destroyed parishes with false religion, and he profited professionally from his willingness to do so. And he is still unrepentant. I pray for him daily, and I hope that God will save him.
Hell is full of lovely people—cultured, polite, and urbane—who trusted in themselves. I’m not sure why this is a surprise. When I was a boy, I would attend the 6 a.m. daily service in my parish. There were a few managerial types to be found there, but mostly my fellow communicants were people like scrub ladies and cops, on their way to work or on their way home. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said all that business about little children and the simple entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
The tragedy is that the “nice” people believe themselves to be compassionate and kind, especially when they are chiding those who want to fight battles and name names. They would silence the boy who announces that the emperor has no clothes, with a heart full of human love, wisdom, honor, and kindness for the king who would then be embarrassed, and with respect for the good order that would be endangered by the public admittance that the king was a fool. What they don’t see is that these feelings are not enough. Only submission to God is enough, not because even submission saves, but because it is all that we have to offer in obedience.
“Nice” conservatives would have it that our job is to oppose evil principles and ideas. This is a fine approach, appealing to our basic human decency. The only trouble is, it’s heretical. Our basic human decency is corrupted and perverted by sin, and it is totally untrustworthy. More than that, no evil ideas or principles exist apart from human or angelic persons. The Scriptures teach that there is no substantial evil. There is only the evil will of men and angels, who were created good, in rebellion against God. Evil is always, always personal.
“No ad hominem statements” sounds like a good rule, but it is with particular men and particular angels that the problems always lie. Men commit sins, not ideas or principles. “Whited sepulchres” and “brood of vipers” are ad hominem statements. Did Christ sin? Christ is always kindly to the victims of false teachers, but he is never kindly to the false teachers themselves. He recognizes them for what they are: killers of his human creatures.
The “nice” approach also takes advantage of the willingness of biblical Christians to reach out to brothers and sisters in error, treating that willingness as if it were a statement that particular errors against the Scriptures don’t matter. The irony is that there is nothing so divisive as the typical “nice” Christian’s approach to, say, the ordination of women. If civility to those who hold to this heresy is going to be interpreted as the acceptance of the premise that Holy Order, the Sacraments, and obedience to the Holy Scriptures don’t count, then biblical Christians will have to cease to be civil, or cease to speak to those in error at all.
The ordination of women is, after all, a sex perversion, complete with cross dressing in men’s clothing. If we are going to ignore the Scriptures and the Church’s settled understanding of the Scriptures for nineteen centuries in this area, then perhaps the homosexuals are correct to claim that our opposition to their particular disobedience of the Scriptures is merely aesthetic, rather than motivated by our consistent effort to obey divine revelation.
The mainline Churches are innoculating people against biblical Christianity, not only (or perhaps even mainly) through the idiocy of the blatant liberals, but through the “weak virus” method proposed by “nice” conservatives, where advocates of known heresies can be included in the “biblical” party and those who would speak as did our Lord about the enemies of the Faith are condemned as uncharitable.
I’m afraid that, in the end, my compassion goes primarily to the victims of the cult of niceness and weakened-virus Christianity, rather than to the purveyors. I pray for all, but when I pray for those who poison the well this way, I pray that they will be stopped.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
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“A Kindly Heresy” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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