Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In defense of Fr. Wells

(this follows comments to a previous thread)

Theological debate can be as emotionally engaging as political debate, if not more so. The recent thread about the gifts of the Holy Spirit took on a subject that I have thought about very little over the last several years, but one about which my mind has been made up for a long time. That subject was the gifts mentioned in I Corinthians chapters 12-14, and the discussion centered to a surprising degree on one gift, tongues. The strongest opinions with which I was in disagreement came from Brian G. and Fr. Laurence Wells.

With all due respect for my fellow blogger and fellow priest, Fr. Matthew Kirby, I cannot see in the comments of Fr. Laurence Wells some evidence of "objective mortal sin." I believe my somewhat advanced age and decades of experience entitle me to lay my opinion before the readers as exactly that, simply my opinion. But, mine is an educated opinion. I welcome "robust if polite" debate; and when it comes to debate about Scripture I am on my native ground, and am accustomed to being the winner. Bible wrestling among gentlemen is a wholesome sport , and should end like the fight in The Quiet Man, when afterward John Wayne and Victor McLaughlin walk home singing together as the best of friends, and sit down to dinner and beer (even though the ladies may find this impossible to understand ).

I do not know what the Charismatic movement among Anglicans has been like in Australia, but as a self-confessed current tongue-speaking alumnus of the Charismatic movement American style, I know without being told exactly why Fr. Wells has spoken in disparaging terms about the movement. Whereas I disagree openly and strongly with any Cessationist view, and whereas "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all," I know why Fr. Wells has expressed his views colorfully (in keeping with his personality of honesty to a fault). It is not "objective mortal sin." Indeed, when I met Fr. Wells one thing was obvious above all: The observable fact of charity engraven on his very features, the kind no one could acquire by pretence or theatrics.

He is free to write and correct my assumption; but it would surprise me a great deal. Here is a priest who was pastor to a congregation for decades, and who has been forced to clean up problems created by the most radioactive kind of Charismatics: Those who promised miracles and healing as if they could manufacture them; those who divided churches by demanding that everybody must have the same gifts, or implied that those who cannot speak in tongues are somehow deficient in faith; those who proclaimed boldly that anyone who is yet sick or disabled lacks faith.

Yes, I believe there has been much good that has come from the Charismatic outpouring, and I ascribe to God the great evangelistic explosion that it produced, as well as the awakening to faith it created among many nominal Christians including myself back in 1973.

But, honesty compels me to say that there was also a great deal of foolishness, heresy and pride exhibited by the kind of individual St. Paul describes in the words, "intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind..." (Col. 2:18). It is no mark of sanctity or spirituality that one has any gift, even the gift to work miracles. Otherwise the Lord would have said in vain: "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. " (Matt. 7:22,23) Even a gift to work miracles is no evidence of sanctity, any more than it was evidence of true virtue that Balaam's donkey could speak. And, indeed, even a man who may have the power to heal by God's grace, is an ass when he exercises his jawbone to condemn as faithless, a disabled or sick believer who has not been healed in body. God's power and gifts are not at our command.

With all due respect for Fr. Kirby, I believe that the frankness of Fr. Wells was no sign of "objective mortal sin," but the seeming fierceness of a pastor who loves intensely.


Jamie+ said...

Fr Hart,

Thank you for the words in both defense of Fr Wells and in reminding us of the importance and emotional energy in theological debate. Anytime we debate what we believe to be true – we should debate with conviction.

The charge of an "objective mortal sin", is a serious charge to make – yet one that we as priest are called to make from time to time. How can people repent if they are not told of what they need to repent. However, Saint Matthew also teaches us to first go privately to the individual. Perhaps is best to remember this is a public forum – and decorum was broken.

Debate in public is one thing – throwing the charge of “mortal sin” is quite another.

Fr Jamie Danford

Alice C. Linsley said...

Why should ladies find this gentlemanly debate "hard to understand"? Dorothy Sayers cerainly understood how to engage in it (though she preferred sherry to beer)!

Fr. Robert Hart said...


I stand corrected.

I guess it is really the other thing, the John Wayne and Victor McLaughlin thing, that the ladies don't appreciate.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

It would help clarify my origianl intentions if people interpreted my comment while noting the distinction there made between objective and subjective sin, and then recalled the categories of moral theology. An act/statement that is objectively heretical, blasphemous or otherwise mortally sinful is only an actual mortal sin in the subject (the person commiting the act) if they perform the act deliberately while knowing its objective nature, or, being unsure of its seriously sinful nature, perform the act with flagrant disregard for and carelessness regarding its possible sinfulness. I do believe that it is possible for exegetical and theological errors to be so manifestly dangerous and distorted that they are, objectively, intrinsically sinful to propose or expound, and not just erroneous in their nature. I do not believe it is possible for me or anyone else on earth to know under most circumstances whether objective mortal sin corresponds to actual mortal sin in the subject. I implied my ignorance of this in the previous discussion, though quite possibly in an insufficient and unintentionally "back-handed" manner.

So, it may be that this whole aspect of my response, with its mixture of strong censures and attempted fine distinctions, was unnecessary, especially in this forum, and served only to distract, confuse and offend unjustly. If this is the case, I apologise unreservedly.