October 21, 2020

Paul F.M. Zahl: On Grace and “Last Signal To The Carpathia”

UPDATE: This is the mother load of Zahl sermons and forums. Great stuff here. I’ve been listening all day.

I’ve discovered Paul F. M. Zahl, and I’m beside myself with enthusiasim for his writing on grace and the church. The only problem is that there’s not much of it, and that is truly a loss. Zahl is an Episcopal minister who has served as dean of a theological school as well as pastor. He’s a marvel of humor, grace, hope and balance. A delight to read and listen to. Here’s Zahl speaking recently about his knock-out book Grace In Practice.

I found this talk by Zahl given at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. It is a talk given in the light of the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop, and it is a talk given by a traditionalist seeking to plead with a Robinson-approving majority to find a way to accommodate traditionalists. It’s quite interesting given what has now unfolded with the formation of GAFCON, ACNA and the radicalization of TEC at their recent gathering.

Be sure and add to this talk the excellent interview Ryan Cordle just posted with AMiA missionary bishop Doc Loomis. Zahl and other traditionalists who stayed with the ECUSA are the subject of several of his comments.

The majority of this talk is a reasoned traditionalist analysis of the issue of homosexuality. Zahl, who is the most gracious of Christians, makes it plain where many of us are on this issue: the reasoning used by the other side passes the bounds of integrity and conscience. No matter how much we must repent of our homophobia and exclusion- and I am all for that- we cannot give up our convictions about the Gospel. Zahl makes that very plain.

At any rate, that seems dishonest to me. So I shall begin this brief keynote address summing up the actual reasons why traditional Episcopalians are opposed to the consecration of Gene Robinson and are also opposed to the blessing in the church of same-sex unions. I won’t harp on this, but feel the reasons need to be acknowledged, publicly, and theologically. It is not fair to call people on the traditional side “homophobic”. Of course homophobia is possible, but it is also a terrible slur in the contemporary context. It is like the word “anti-semitic”. It halts all discourse. Full stop. And it destroys people and careers. Homophobia and anti-semitism are real things. But as words, they are used overmuch today to tar and dismiss voices that may in fact be sincere and liberal.

So what is the big deal? Why do people like me stand against the Gene Robinson consecration and the blessing of same-sex unions? Why do we feel these two things are destructive of life in the Christian church? I note in passing that our struggle against them so far has been unsuccessful, failed, and demoralizing for the zeal and good conscience of our ministries.

Why is the issue so important?

First, we believe the gay position as we hear it undermines the anthropology of the Gospel. It undermines the teaching concerning the inherent sinfulness of the creature before the Creator. It wants to exempt a particular category of persons, gay men and women, from Original Sin on the basis that they are “created” a certain way, therefore how can it be wrong? For reasons beyond our human understanding we are all created sinners: distorted, inverted, libidinal and narcissistic. Our baggage is psycho-genetic, not the sum of our deeds. The gay argument confuses creation with redemption – as in the old 1970’s poster “God don’t make no junk”. That was a half truth then, and it is a half truth now. The core, universal, and seemingly impenetrable claim of the gay lobby is this: If I came into the world this way, then how can it be wrong? That claim is in opposition to the classic Christian doctrine, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, of the human being as being intrinsically and inherently fallen in all cases. The claim is Arminian explicity and Pelagian implicitly.

If the anthropology is flawed, then inevitably the soteriology is flawed. If “God don’ t make no junk”, then what need is there for a Savior? Why did Christ have to die on the Cross, if the need of the human race were not rooted in our paralysis and inability to help ourselves? The result of an overly high anthropology is an overly low soteriology.

The result of an overly low soteriology is a weak Christology. If Christ is not a Savior in the full and plain sense of the word, then He did not have to be God. The whole encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees in Mark, Chapter Two, when he made a connection between his divine authority and the forgiveness of sins, ceases to mean anything. High anthropology means low soteriology means inadequate Christology.

Finally, the Trinitarian implications of the weak Christology implicit in the gay lobby’ s argument – become now the Episcopal Church’s argument – are devastating. The Son who is no Saviour becomes automatically subordinate to the Father. We are quickly into Arianism and what we today call unitarianism. Now most theological liberals I know in ECUSA insist that they are Trinitarian Christians. And I believe them. But I wonder whether they have realized the implications for the whole of theology of the overly high anthropology of the arguments we have been hearing from the gay lobby and their friends. Please, think through the implications of a weakened profile of Original Sin.

The second “theological” argument traditionalists want to use is the hermeneutical one. I myself think this is second in importance to the theological “domino effect” I have just tried to spell out. The hermeneutical objection to the Robinson consecration is very important, but it is not decisive in quite the same way the argument from anthropology is. Nevertheless, we believe the plain and unexceptioned meaning of the Bible is against the practice of homosexuality in all cases. We cannot get around this. And I am grateful when folk on the other side acknowledge and do not try to weasel out of the “fact on the ground” of the Biblical voice against their idea. Yes, I realize there are wholly inclusive implications to Jesus’ and Paul’ s Gospel, but they stop at the Rubicon of homosexual practice.

The third “theological” argument – and I put the word “theological” in quotes to make the point that these arguments, unlike my first one, are more ecclesiological than theological in the pure sense – relates to tradition. We believe, and especially the many Anglo-Catholics among us, that such a break with catholic and universal Christian tradition that the Robinson consecration constituted is a mighty and awesome thing. To do any thing so completely in discontinuity with what everyone has said everywhere and in every time is simply so ambitious. It feels Promethean to me.

And finally, related to the argument from tradition, there is the ecumenical argument. It is alarming to have split ourselves off from the Roman Catholic Church and almost all the Orthodox Patriarchates, not to mention the large numerical majority of our Anglican co-religionists overseas, especially in the Global South.

Conceptually, neither the ecumenical argument nor the argument from tradition is binding for most theologians, and certainly not for most Protestant ones. That is why I emphasized the first piece of this – the move from low anthropology to final unitarianism. But the ecumenical argument does involve people’s lives, and respect for (millions of) others’. It surely has got to be weighed in and not just portrayed as a sort of primitive reaction to American unilateralism. I think of Janet Jackson’ s Tuesday apology this week to 99 million Super Bowl viewers: “if I have offended anyone…” Both her action and her apology smack of opportunism, and make me sick. Is our church guilty of Janet-Jackson thinking?

Now I began by saying that we need to look at the arguments concerning the issue, at least the losing ones – the ones from “my” side – so we don’t just skip over them in our rush to ecclesiological or structural arguments. I would like to conclude this part of our debate concerning “Anglican comprehensiveness” with a plea, from the position of weakness, to you, and by extension to the Episcopal Church as a whole, and to its bishops in particular.

My plea has a formal side and it has a material side.

The formal side, and I intentionally use philosophical language here in order to be as clear as possible, is a plea for Alternative Episcopal Oversight. Traditional people in the Episcopal Church, in order to feel able to stand and be secure, require a concrete gesture of generosity on behalf of the bishops. This would be to let us sign up with ECUSA bishops, and some overseas Anglican bishops, with whom we feel safe. Most of us, because of the titanic nature of the issues involved in the Gene Robinson consecration, no longer feel we can serve with zeal and in good conscience within the structures of ECUSA. We need the freedom to sign up with bishops and structures – and I do not mean the AMiA, although many of us feel we are being pushed out in that direction – we need the freedom or space to sign up with ECUSA and other overseas Anglican bishops with whose commitments we feel safe. We no longer feel safe in ECUSA.

I should add that my own bishop, Henry Parsley, voted against Robinson’s consecration and has been respectful of the traditional position.

What the ECUSA bishops need to allow us to do is have Alternative Episcopal Oversight on our terms, not on their terms. They need to cede control, for a season and a space, to us, the losers. The concession has got to come from the victors, the ECUSA bishops who have won this most impressive victory at Minneapolis, and not from the losers: us, in other words. I use the language of power here because our Christian faith teaches us that the stronger has always got to give up power to the weaker. That is Grace. God did it. Philippians, Chapter Two enshrines this principle theologically. “…Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” (vss. 6-7).

The stronger, I repeat, the stronger, the victor, has to give up control and power to the weaker, the loser, in order for reconciliation, in the Christian sense of the word, to take place. So the formal side of my plea is for ECUSA to allow Alternative Episcopal Oversight without control or condition. My plea is for the bishops to lay aside their fears and trust us to God. I predict that if the bishops were to see their way to conceding this to us, the defensiveness and anger of people on my side would go down by half if not by three-quarters. In fact, if I understand people right, the day we are allowed to “call our own shots” in the area of AEO will be the day we come back to our original loyalty. I predict that. I predict it because it happens that way in love. Which brings me to the material side of my plea.

We are talking about Grace, or love, here. In relationships with people you love, you often do what they want to do simply because they want to do it. If my wife has an interest that I regard as dumb – let’ s just imagine! – I still need to make it, at least somehow, my interest. Not because of the interest itself – not at all – but because of my love for her. The ECUSA bishops need to give us what we so obviously, urgently, and desperately need, out of love. Not because of anything else. It has been astonishing to me, after almost 30 years ordained service in the Episcopal Church, that almost none of my old friends who are now Episcopal bishops or leaders on the ascendant side have reached out, personally. Ian Douglas is a significant exception.

The material principle behind the formal concept of Alternative Episcopal Oversight is, simply put, love.

There are so many illustrations in life of the principle of love from the stronger to the weaker. Lincoln’ s choice of “Dixie” as the song to be played by the White House band on the night that word arrived of Lee’ s surrender at Appomattox; the amazing overture of the Catholic President of the Republic of Ireland, John Bruton, to the Protestant Orangemen at Drumcree in the historic stand-off at Portadown in 1999; the simple miracles of reconciliation that happen every day in marriages and families and friendships throughout the world of our common life. Do you remember that line in John Ford’s 1939 legendary masterpiece, Stagecoach, when the whisky drummer beseeches the bickering passengers on the coach, just before the Indian attack as it turns out, to “have a little Christian charity”? The point is extremely important.

With the formal side of my plea granted, rooted and rooted only in the material principle of Christian love from the stronger to the weaker, the whole situation we are in would turn around. With its not being granted, I think I might safely predict that almost every traditionalist Episcopal minister and priest in the United States will no longer feel able to serve in ECUSA. There is a dire reality we are looking at. It is also a promising new future out there if the church can heed this plea.

Thank you very much.

Here is a reply to Zahl’s talk from the other side of the aisle. Here is an interview with Zahl from about the same time.

If you have Zahl resources you can link, please do so.


  1. Here is some of his work as listed by The Gospel Coalition:


  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    To all readers:

    The name “Carpathia” in the title is a reference to the ship that picked up the survivors of the Titanic, Not Repeat Not a a reference to the Left Behind character.

    • I had no idea what Carpathia was. I was going to have to Google it, though I must be one of the last ten people on the planet using a search engine called Clusty. I like the way Clusty puts the hits in categories and I like the way you can click to see the pages in new windows, thereby always coming back to the list by closing the window you opened. My husband HATES that I use Clusty and can’t wait until it goes away. (He has “control” issues! ) You can see Clusty at http://clusty.com/ if you are curious.

      I think Rev. Haller’s response to Zahl was a good one. I understand Zahl’s point about not wanting to be “forced” to be a part of the “winning” side when you disagree so vehemently with that side. But the ECUSA obviously went through some process to decide what it was going to officially allow or not and accepting openly gay and lesbian clergy and laity won the day. Haller makes the point that “closeted” gays and lesbians had been there right along. I just started writing a bit about what Andrew Marin says in his wonderful book Love Is An Orientation but I know I will get us way off-topic so I deleted it all. Instead, I will end with this quotation by Wayne Teasdale who was a monk, author, teacher: “”We can only judge others if we fulfill two conditions: that we know the other’s heart totally, and that we love them unconditionally. Only God can possibly meet these two conditions, therefore only God can judge. Despite this truth people continue to play God, and pass on harsh and unfair judgments.”

      I do not mean to say that anyone that thinks homosexuality is wrong passes harsh judgments on gays and lesbians. But Marin does find that this is often the case and that often professing Christians have driven gays and lesbians away from wanting to know more about Jesus by their attitudes and behaviors toward the gay and lesbian community.

  3. HUG: And I was waiting of that first LB comment. Booooooo. Party pooper.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      IMonk, you just KNOW that to Christians, the first thing they’d associate the name “Carpathia” with is Left Behind. If you want to troll for LB comments, just delete my posts.

      • Headless:

        RCs and Orthodox wouldn’t automatically associate the reference with Left Behind; that isn’t our thing.

        To tell you the truth, the first thing that sprang to my mind when I saw “Carpathia” was Dracula.

        • Me too. I’d much rather read Dracula than the LB nonsense.

        • St. Vladimir the Impaler, protector of our faith against the Turk, have mercy on us.


          • I knew a Romanian fellow student back in college who unabashedly saw St. Vlad as a national hero for the reasons you just mentioned. To Orthodox Romanians he is seen as a savior of the country from the “still” hated Turks.

      • “IMonk, you just KNOW that to Christians, the first thing they’d associate the name “Carpathia” with is Left Behind.”

        Am I the ONLY Christian left in the US who hasn’t read any of the LB books?

        • Don’t even think of claiming that distinction for yourself. There are lots of us. I have as much desire to read that crap as I do Danielle Steele.

        • I haven’t read any of them either. But I did read a parody of them called “Right Behind” that pretty well lined up with all the chat I did hear about LB, except that it was a parody.

          • I am a Christian and I have not read any of the Left Behind books. I am so old that the only thing the word Carpathia brought to mind was the ship that received the last signals from the Titanic.

            Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

        • Dixie Dawg says

          Ross. Nope there is at least one more none LB reader living at my address. One thing for sure. LB stuff sure became that brothers cash cow.

      • Personally, I think Dracula. Didn’t he live in the Carpathian Mountains?

        • Oops. That’s been said already. I’m still getting used to the threaded comments :-).

  4. Paul Zahl’s sermon Four Not Three referenced above explains the “encounters” I have had with the Lord over the years. His book Grace in Practice is one of those encounters. The book has helped me enormously in dealing with the ongoing combat within church and the surrounding society.

  5. In the Cordle interview he mentions wanting to start communes (“intentional communities”). Does anybody know what this is about?

    I don’t expect that there is much left to say on the gay issue. I see the schism as positive, and wish it could be extended internationally, so that liberal and conservative Anglicans wouldn’t have to compromise their consciences by respecting that which is unworthy of respect (whether homosexuality or homophobia). I do wish the divorce could have been handled better, however, with a more equitable division of assets.

    • That’s Doc Loomis, not Paul Zahl.

    • +Doc Loomis does not mean (necessarily) starting communes or even monastic communities. What he means is that churches are not program-driven, or even Sunday morning-driven (attractional), but that they are growing to be more organic. This is getting back to the NT model of church as a community that prays and shares a table. The future of church planting for Loomis is more lay initiated than what we have traditionally held.

      There is a ton of literature on this topic, most of which has been dismissed as “emergent.”

  6. Wow, what a talk by Zahl. I’m so glad you’ve gotten to know him and his writings. I remember being blown away when I first read Grace In Practice. I do wonder about one issue however in relation to Zahl’s talk. He argues for charity to be extended to the losing side by allowing them to have Alternative Episcopal Oversight. I wonder if the traditionalists had won and the pro-gay side had asked for this same charity, if it would be granted? I seriously doubt it. On this issue I land on the traditionalist side myself, but arguing from this angle opens up the risk of the same “charity” being extended to every and all heterodoxies if not outright heresies.

  7. The response said that Zahn’s position falls like dominos because “…all sexuality is morally neutral, and sexual acts fall within or outside the bounds of morality and sinfulness not on the basis of the sex of the participants, but on the same bases of fidelity, exclusivity and charity…”.

    And this conviciton… was determined how?

    • I agree, Steve.

      The whole issue comes down to interpretation of the Bible. I personally have several times prayerfully read and studied the Bible with respect to this topic, and I have not been swayed. I remain on the conservative side of this debate.

      Of course, I have done the same on several occasions with regard to infant vs. “adult” baptism, and have never been swayed either.

      Not saying I am correct on either account, but I have searched the Word and prayed for the Spirit to lead me. That is all I can use to justify my interpretation.

      And I don’t think we will know the final answer on this until the return of Christ, when it will become far too obvious. And far too late for some people, although I don’t claim to know whom.

  8. Christopher Albee says

    I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the substance and tone of Rev. Haller’s response to Rev. Zahl’s entreaty, but to state, “Since Dean Zahl’s whole argument is based on his misunderstanding of this matter…” is most uncharitable. In scholarly debate, there is no greater insult than, “You fail to understand the issue.” It is a purposeful and blatant slap in the face. It’s also a cheap way to avoid addressing Zahl’s first objection squarely, i.e. a flawed anthropology leads to a flawed soteriology, which eventually leads to a weak Christology.

    The grace that Rev. Zahl is attempting to convey is both courageous and exemplary.

    • I had a different take. I thought Haller’s response, while strongly worded, wasn’t demeaning to Zahn or to conservatives. He thought Zahn’s initial premise was mistaken, and he pointed out why. In the end, Haller said that, despite the problems he had with Zahn’s arguments, he understood the intent of what Zahn was saying. That, to me, is charitable–seeing to the heart of what someone is trying to say when you disagree with them.

      I really liked what Zahn had to say regarding how the stronger should relate to the weaker. I think everyone can learn from that…no matter what our positions on any topic, you name it. I can personally say it’d be extremely difficult for me to extend that sort of charity to someone I disagree with, especially if I feel some level of hurt inflicted by them.

  9. iMonk

    I am a simple thinker, certainly not on par with many of the theologically minded posters here. I do not understand what Rev Zahl means when he says that the gay position undermines the anthropology of the Bible, which is his premise for the subsequent arguments against same sex relationships. Did not God create humankind in God’s image and call it good?

    I thought I wanted to post some thoughts on Original Sin, but am now very confused and need to spend more time thinking about free will, disobedience, hubris, stupidity, gullibility and whether God created mankind to be sinful and why would He do that? This is not where I expected to land and it hurts my head to think about it.

    Enlightenment appreciated.

  10. Juanita: The Bible teaches that our sexuality is fallen. The gay hermeneutic says that God creates some people gay. That is not fallen.

    • Are you objecting to the idea that homosexuality is sometimes inborn (and thus “created by God”)? But we do not always agree that inborn traits are good (e.g., congenital blindness). This is just a subset of the Problem of Evil. The disagreement here should be over whether (innate) homosexuality is more like left-handedness, or more like the overproduction of testosterone (resulting in fits of rage). And of course, how to decide.

      • Congenital blindness may not be good, but it is not considered to be “fallen” or “sinful”.

        Sexual preference is inborn; as is left-handedness and a multitude of hormonal disturbances in both genders. Science has found genetic differences and developmental differences in people with these various maladies.

        An overproduction of testosterone which can result in rage does not excuse the damage that is done when that rage is given unrestrained expression and hurts people. I guess in my background, that abundance of testosterone might be called “an occasion of sin”.

    • Again, pardon my apparent ignorance. When God says to be fruitful and multiply, when God says that it is not good for man to be alone, when God creates male and female, that means that our sexuality is fallen? God did not say that it is all good except for being sexual. But I will admit that you know far more about what the Bible teaches than I do.

      This brings me back, then, to the question of what the Original Sin is, and did God create that as well. That puzzles me deeply, why God who loves and creates in God’s own image, would also create sin… unless that too is in the nature of the divine? Only I think that this is heretical in some way.

      I should add that I am not nor have ever been an evangelical, so I may be speaking a different dialect.

  11. Rob Burke says

    iMonk: THANK YOU!
    Your recommendations of Grace in Practice and Dr. Rosenbladt’s (Where in the church is the gospel?) have been very liberating. Add to this Galatians for the last month. My only response is pure joy and thanksgiving for Christ’s work 2000 years ago.

  12. iMonk,

    Like Juanita, I do not understand what Rev Zahl means when he says that the gay position undermines the anthropology of the Bible, which is his premise for the subsequent arguments against same sex relationships.

    I don’t see how your explanation can be complete — or perhaps I just don’t understand your explanation. You say, “The Bible teaches that our sexuality is fallen. The gay hermeneutic says that God creates some people gay. That is not fallen.” But surely God creates some people heterosexual — and is *that* not fallen? If *all* our sexuality is fallen, how can there be a difference between hetero- and homo-sexuality? Both are equally fallen, as Zahl himeslef says: “human being …being intrinsically and inherently fallen in all cases.”

    Thanks for any further explanation.

  13. I’m in the TEC and I’ve struggled with this issue. First, I’m not convinced the science has concluded that homosexuality is genetic and my life’s experiences have led me to the conclusion that it is a more complicated issue and probably a mix of “nature and nurture.” However, assuming that gay people are as they are because God made them that way, what are the implications of this? If God has made us with our faults “hardwired” does that mean we do not act sinfully since we are only following the programming that God gave us?

    I have concluded that my own ambivilence on the issue is the product of my love of my gay brothers and sisters in Christ and my failed attempts to reconcile that with the tradition of the Church and certain passages in the scriptures. The discussion itself is fraught with hypocrissy. We would all do well to mind the logs in our own eye before worrying about the splinter in our brother’s or sistser’s eye.