Episcopal Seminary Leader Confident Despite Church 'Doom Mongers'

(Photo Credit: Virginia Theological Seminary)The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham gives a sermon at the the start of Virginia Theological Seminary on September 4, 2012.

The head of the largest seminary accredited by the Episcopal Church expressed confidence in the future of the denomination despite critics – including Bishops of widely diverging views within the Church - who see decline.

As the new academic school year kicked off on Tuesday, the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, president and dean of Virginia Theological seminary, delivered a sermon declaring that the school's "talented men and women" and "productive faculty" present a challenge the to the "anti-Episcopal Church crowd."

"For a tradition in trouble we are attracting some extremely talented men and women; we have an extremely productive faculty; great students and strong faculty – this is a good combination," he said.

"[P]erhaps what makes me most crazy, it is the doom mongers who think the Episcopal Church is going to disappear," he said in the sermon posted on the university's website. "It looks like everyone has an interested in taking down the Episcopal Church."

Rev. Markham alluded to visits earlier this year by a pair of bishops from the church that visited the campus a month apart, presenting diverging reasons about why they felt the denomination was in decline.

"[P[erhaps what makes me most crazy, it is the doom mongers who thinks the Episcopal Church is going to disappear. It looks like everyone has an interest in taking down the Episcopal Church," he said.

He first mentioned the visit by retired Bishop Shelby Spong of the Diocese of Newark in New Jersey, who has previously argued against biblical literalism, and has challenged mainstream notions of the virgin birth and Jesus' resurrection. He has also advocated for equal rights for women and supports same-sex marriages.

In August, Spong wrote that a recent visit to congregations with the United Church of Christ gave him the idea that the denomination could help "break the Christian faith out of its dying patterns, no longer believable theological understandings and its medieval worship practices."

Rev. Markham summarized Bishop Spong's views.

"We had Bishop Shelby Spong on the campus, he explained that every faith tradition is in trouble in America, especially with the younger generation," he said. "It is the 'nones' (to use the phrase from Putnam) which is growing most dramatically. We need a faith that jettisons metaphysics; we need to be spiritual rather than religion."

Then Rev. Marhkham spoke of Bishop Mark Lawrence, who leads the Diocese of South Carolina, and recently expressed strong opposition to the Church's stance on sexuality issues.

At the latest Episcopal General Convention in July, Bishop Lawrence, along with other members of his state's delegation, said that resolutions adopted by the Convention with overwhelming majorities amounted to "disconcerting changes to doctrine." The Convention resolved to fully embrace transgender people in the life of the church and approve a temporary rite of blessing for same-sex relationships.

Bishop Lawrence told fellow bishops at the convention that he "could no longer in good conscience continue in the business of the Convention," before departing early.

Rev. Markham said during Bishop Lawrence's visit to the campus "he took the line that the Episcopal Church is in decline because we are insufficiently traditional. If you are going to believe in God, you are going to trust an authority; our authority is Scripture; once you deny that authority, then you are just another freewheeling sect. People are attracted to a tradition that understands what it believes and why it believes."

"For both Bishops, the Episcopal Church is in trouble," he said.

Yet Rev. Markham contrasted those views with the passion he saw in students at the school.

"What was lovely is that both men were at Virginia Theological Seminary. What was lovely was that packed in front of them was an audience of men and women of all ages passionate about the Gospel, and a(sic) overwhelming majority of whom were still sticking with the Episcopal Church brand," he said.

Rev. Markham said the school had placed most of its graduates, was and welcoming "another outstanding class."

He said the "paradox" of the school was that "we trust that God has spoken in Christ and the result is a disclosure of God of deep generosity."

He said the issue was about "authority" and that in the Bible, "Luke explains that Jesus has the authority to speak about the metaphysical for two reasons."

"We are being invited to sense that the men and women who were ultimately martyred for the faith rightly saw in the person of Jesus the very Word of God. And the second is that those who encountered Jesus found wholeness. The disturbed, the confused, the scared, and the hopeless found in their encounter with Jesus peace, clarity, love, and hope."

He added that trusting that God has spoken "does not mean that God has spoken mean stuff."

A reading of the bible "invites us to create a future where the poor has options and justice flourishes, that recognizes that God is continuing to surprise us with the depth of God's generosity and love."

About his own school, he said "the news is good."

"It is good because we have a distinguished Faculty. It is good because we continue to attract strong students. It is good because this is ultimately the work of God and God is making a difference."

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