What Do Shannon Johnston and Joseph Smith Have in Common?
What do Mormon founded Joseph Smith and Bishop Shannon Johnston of the Diocese of Virginia have in Common? Both think the special voices they hear in their heads or the visions they see in the woods are more reliable and truthful than God’s word written. Subjective unverifiable ecstatic experience is the endless spring of “spiritual authority” to which cult leaders and false prophets everywhere and always return
In my pastoral address at this year’s Annual Council, I addressed the ongoing discussions about same-sex relationships and the Church. Of course, this issue has been debated across the Episcopal Church for more than 30 years now, but my remarks did break some new ground for the Diocese of Virginia. It was not particularly news that I reiterated my support for same-sex couples; after all, I had made that clear on several occasions during the nomination and election process when I became bishop coadjutor back in 2007. I am convinced–both theologically and experientially–that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships can be faithful in and to the Christian life. What was news in that pastoral address was the announcement that I would “begin working immediately with those congregations that want to establish the parameters for the generous pastoral response’ that the 2009 General Convention called for with respect to same-gender couples in Episcopal churches.” I continued by saying that “it is my hope that the 2012 General Convention will authorize the formal blessing of same-gender unions for those clergy in places that want to celebrate them. Until then, we might not be able to do all that we would want to do but, in my judgment, it is right to do something and it is time to do what we can.”
This announcement pleasantly surprised some people and at the same time disappointed (even angered) others. Both reactions sprang from the fact that previously I had been moving rather cautiously in these matters. It is my strong sense that we must be quite sensitive to the possibility of even further division within the Church at large and the Diocese at home. Why the change? It isn’t because the realities on the ground have changed that much and it most certainly isn’t because I am less concerned about divisiveness (quite the contrary). I write now to tell you what I can about the most unusual and powerful experience that necessitated (I choose that word carefully and pointedly) my announcement.
I am actually somewhat reluctant to write about this because what happened occurred in private prayer and therefore cannot be fully (or even satisfactorily) articulated. It was only two days before the Annual Council last January. I was keeping my usual routine of prayer, which is largely “quiet” internally–a time of listening to God’s presence. As I prayed for guidance, an absolutely overwhelming sense–sudden and out-of the-blue–said “MOVE … NOW.” That’s all. But at that point I had total clarity as to what this moment was all about. I am not a black-or-white type of person (I actually prefer the shades of grey) and so such certainty is very rare for me. Moreover, I’ve never had this kind of revelation in prayer before and I am quite skeptical about reports of this kind of experience. As I write, this all feels like a gross understatement but I don’t have any more words to describe what happened. In the end, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board for my pastoral address, the result of which I’ve quoted above.
Throughout my spiritual life, I have learned that a primary way in which the Holy Spirit works with me is through the unlikely. This has been true ever since my call to the priesthood when I was in the ninth grade. It has been that way all through my life as a priest, and the rule was surely proven again when I was nominated and elected a bishop for Virginia. Because of this life of experience with “the unlikely” I have come to trust such
times. That MOVE–NOW experience in prayer more than qualifies as one of the strongest I’ve known.
And so “move” I have done. With the Standing Committee’s advice and concurrence, I met on April 28 with a group of 24 clergy who had self-identified as being ready to proceed with the recognition of same-sex relationships in their congregations. At that meeting, I made it clear that we are not talking about “marriage,” which by definition in the Book of Common Prayer is between a man and a woman. Consequently, the Prayer Book’s marriage service may not be used or mimicked by simply editing it. Until the General Convention specifically provides otherwise, there will be no officially authorized liturgy for general use. Liturgies would be locally produced and approved on a case-by-case basis. Also, I set three criteria to be met to my satisfaction before I would give permission for this local option: (1) A statement of where the congregation is with this issue. What preparation has been done? What program of teaching was followed? (2) Has this been discussed with the vestry or vestry committee? What is their position? (3) A substantial exposition of the theology of recognizing same-sex relationships.
This must include exegesis of the relevant passages from Scripture, not neglecting those which are cited as speaking negatively about same-sex couples. If any of this seems to be over the top, I reply by saying a change of this magnitude requires extraordinary considerations. Three such applications have been received and I am now reviewing them. I plan to hold additional meetings for those who wish to consider this process. I will also hold meetings for those clergy whose discernment has led them to conclude that blessing same-sex relationships cannot be part of their ministry, strongly assuring them that their position and witness will
continue to be wholly respected. I am neither so naive nor so prideful as to overlook the fact that others have also prayed and received answers different from my own. This is precisely why we need one another during
these challenging times.
I ask you to pray faithfully. As I have been so affectingly reminded, prayer is powerful. Pray for your own ongoing discernment and pray for the life, witness and ministry of our diocese. May God bless us all as we seek to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So he hears a voice in his head saying “Move Now” and he: 1. knows the voice is God’s voice. 2. Knows that this means God wants him to bless same sex unions. 3. Uses the “voice” experience to lend spiritual credibility to his decisions that cannot be defended biblically. After-all who can question Bishop Johnston’s experience?
This is how you subvert biblically illiterate people.
Persuade them that you’re a “prophet”.
Give them words from God.
This is why the Apostle John warns: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”(1 John 4:1)...but if people do not know scripture well enough or trust it’s veracity they cannot and will not “test the spirits.” They’ll be swept up and carried along by even the vaguest appearance of wisdom and spirituality.
You would think that orthodox Christian leaders would know better. But Bishop Shannon Johnston is one of the men with whom Justin Welby believes orthodox Anglican leaders ought to “reconcile” and join in “common mission”, proclaiming the “gospel” together.
But that’s impossible. This man is not a Christian brother. He’s not a Christian leader. He does not serve Jesus. He doesn’t proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the New Testament. He is a bishop by virtue of institutional title alone…but he is no true bishop.
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