Great Western heresy -- that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God?

By Rev. Peg Chemberlin

July 12, 2009

This week the Episcopal Church in America is having their national convention. The presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori opened with an address that is causing a great deal of conversation. She said, “the great Western heresy – is that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention.”

Now her statement is being interpreted by the backlash as if she were saying that we will be saved by the Church or by our social advocacy.  I don’t see that there. I see her saying that God is in the center, that God is the deliverer of salvation (as well as reconciliation, redemption and re-creation) and that we cannot do anything except to choose, or not, to open our heart to God’s saving grace in our lives. 

What the speech does is raise issue with some of the emphasis that we have seen in, what we have come to call, a more ‘evangelistic’ approach. So let us wade into the discussion and let’s start with the question so often asked by this personal approach. “Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” 

If this question intends to encourage folks to make a very personal, deeply centered decision to trust in the Love of God, then, this is a good question to be asked and answered. If this question means, that the relationship is a personal one only and has nothing to do with the world and society than I must agree with the presiding bishop it represents a heresy.  For those of us who are Christians, we have too often been invited to stand at the foot of the cross to see how much Jesus loves us, but we are far too rarely asked to look around and see who else is standing there, realizing we are in this together. We have far too often been led to ignore the other crosses on the hill.  If we ignore the crosses of the world we are ignoring the ones God loves. We are far too rarely asked to note the others who are choosing to embrace that God’s love is for everyone, even those who aren’t standing at the foot of the cross.

I understand the bishop to be saying that:

if we think, we Christians, that we are in this alone,

if we think we can ignore the demand of God’s love that we also love others,

if we think that love can just be between me and God,

if we think that what we have is a personal religion that as nothing to do with how we treat each other in the world,

if we think that God’s love doesn’t extend to our community ethics,

if we think that love is some internal personal emotion and not an ethical direction signal for all of our interactions, including government, 

Then that is heretical thinking.