Thursday, July 16, 2009

Getting Conservatives Out of the Way

I spoke with a clergyperson the other day who seemed pretty pumped about what's taking place at the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. In particular, she was referring to resolution D025 (which is widely perceived - even by some folks on the left - as overturning resolution B033 passed by the 75th General Convention). She said (and I'm quoting nearly verbatim):

"It's amazing the progressive things the Church can do now that the conservatives are out of the way."

This comment disturbs me for several reasons.

First of all, it rightly or wrongly gives credence to the perception that the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church is engaging in realpolitik. We'll be nice about it at first. We'll even say that we want to be in relationship with you. But if you stand in our way, we'll make things increasingly difficult for you. We'll defeat every resolution you propose or amend at Diocesan and General Convention. And if need be, we'll force you out to get what we want. For truth be told, we really don't want you around anyway.

Let me be clear and fair here: the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church is no stranger to this strategic mindset. But they're no longer in power. They're no longer around in sufficient numbers to offer a credible counterbalance to an increasingly liberal legislative majority.

Secondly, this clergyperson's comment suggests a staggering disregard for the very idea of catholicity. Looking at the meaning of the word "catholic," Justo L. Gonzalez in The Apostles' Creed for Today writes:

It is often said that this word [catholic] means "universal," and that therefore it is a way of referring to the presence of the church throughout the world. This is partly true. Indeed, most early Christian writers tend to refer to the "catholic church" as the one that is present throughout the world, in contrast to the various sects, which are small and local. But the word "catholic" actually means "according to the whole," so that what makes the church catholic is not its presence everywhere, but rather the fact that people from everywhere are part of it and contribute to it. Therefore, a variety of experiences and perspectives is not contrary to the catholicity of the church; quite the contrary, it is a necessary sign of it.

Getting conservatives out of the way (much less losing communion with Canterbury and a place in the Anglican Communion) means rejecting a "variety of experiences and perspectives," and thus a narrowing of the scope of our Church's catholicity. It means claiming authority to sift the wheat from the tares, deciding who really belongs in the Church and who does not. Those are odd things to do for folks who allegedly profess to embrace inclusion.

This oddness gets reinforced by Luke Timothy Johnson, who notes in The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters that "the ideal of catholicity also implies inclusiveness." He writes:

A sect may include only males or females, or white or blacks, or rich or poor, or Democrats or Republicans. We know, in fact, that many Christian denominations in American can be defined in just such terms of exclusivity; they are more notable for whom they exclude than for whom they include. But the ideal church should be one that embraces differences within a larger unity.

If the progressives claim they want to be inclusive, yet in the process of making good on that claim they get conservatives out of the way, then their actions give the lie to their professed allegiance to the ideal of inclusion. Getting conservatives out of the way means rejecting a Church that "embraces differences within a larger unity." It means embracing a Church defined in terms of who gets excluded. If that is really what's happening under the cover of "inclusion," then this means we are becoming an increasingly homogeneous, sectarian and monolithic Church, an increasingly like-minded, left-of-center, "progressive" Church. To my mind, that's no better than belonging to an increasingly like-minded, right-of-center, "traditionalist" Church. Either way, we lose catholicity and comprehensiveness.

And finally, there's a third point (or, perhaps more accurately, a concern) related to the disregard for the Episcopal Church's catholicity suggested by this clergyperson's statement. Perhaps we are entering a time in which we who embrace a generous orthodoxy and who have until now inhabited the diverse center of the Episcopal Church may be finding ourselves the new conservatives. Or at least we will be perceived that way by the progressives who have the power. And the perception of reality is often more important - more consequential politically - than the truth.

If progressives feel like they can accomplish amazing things once conservatives are out of the way, how much more can they accomplish if they get rid of centrists, too?


BillyD said...

Didn't you say somewhere that this deacon also espoused a view that all the baptized had a right to all the sacraments? (I hope you put her right on that count.)

This sort of process is never ending, because once started there's always going to be someone who has stronger ideas about what the Church should *really* be like, trying to gain control or consolidate it, once gained. Maybe that's a problem with democratic ecclesiastical polity - at least, when there's a Pope or a Holy Synod in charge, you might have longer periods of stability. Not that even the RCs or EOs are exempt from this sort of politicking.

plsdeacon said...

I have two observations. The first is that some members (particularly the "real believers") seem to treat conservatives as "You don't belong here! We are in INCLUSIVE church and only people we believe to be inclusinve are allowed!" I actually had one email correspondant tell me he wanted me deposed and excommunicated because I did not agree with his view.

The second is that I went from being a somewhat liberal member of TEC because I supported women's ordination to an "arch conservative" because I do not support blessing same sex unions or ordaining people involved in same sex unions. My opinions on these two issues have not changed, but my label has! This seems to be a constant process or redefining the center (for now, it seems on an inexorable march leftward, but that will probably change in 100 years or so - assuming TEC survives).

Phil Snyder

Perpetua said...

Hi Bryan+,
You all are now furthest to the right on the pew per Greg Griffith's insightful metaphor in his essay Crystal Balls.

BillyD said...

The problem with anecdotes like yours, Phil, is that they can be harvested from those who have experienced similar rudeness and intolerance from conservative "true believers" just as easily. Ask any gay person over, say, 45 who grew up in ECUSA, for instance. No one side has a corner on the intolerance market.

And for the record, it's no longer 1974; support for women's ordination hardly makes anyone even "somewhat liberal." Unless, of course, one considers assorted dioceses of ACNA or the whole Province of Rwanda "somewhat liberal."

Joe said...

The moderates will be the new conservatives. You need only look at Susan Russell's blog (Integrity's president) to know that the progressives could care less about "Church", this is about raw politics and the exercise of political power regardless of who may be harmed. The Rev'd (and I use that title with great pain) Russell said of their victories at GC2009: "Successful politics is often the art of the possible
rather than the achievement of perfection." Though she claims it to be a victory for "the Church", she is clearly applauding the LGBT agenda success in the HoB with D025and C056 and knowing full well that victory for the LGBT agenda, their inclusion, has consequences that are harmful for the larger body of Christ and not just their fellow Episcopalians, but across the Anglican Communion. What is so tragic is that she, and they, do not care. And, the hard truth is, to the victor go the spoils, or in this case perhaps, the ruins of a formerly godly and magnificient Anglican church.

May God have mercy.

Joe Roberts (Cotton Country Anglican, Diocese of Western Louisiana)

plsdeacon said...


My point is that my attitudes towards WO haven't really changed since 1982 or so (I don't recall the date I changed my mind on WO). I haven't change my attitudes on the ordination of people sexually active outside of marriage at all. But others' perception of where I stand or the "camp" I'm in has changed from "somewhat liberal" to "arch conservative." That is the point.

As for the hurt taken by our GLBT members at the hands of conservatives, I have two points. First it is wrong to belittle or exclude people no matter if you are conservative or liberal. Second, the conservatives never touted "inclusiveness" as one of their virtues. They don't cry "no outcasts" and then pressure people to leave.

This whole appeal to "Party Spirit" (among both progressives and conservatives) is one more reason I can't see what is happening in TEC as a movement of the Holy Spirit. It strikes me more as a work of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21).

Phil Snyder

BillyD said...

"But others' perception of where I stand or the "camp" I'm in has changed from "somewhat liberal" to "arch conservative." That is the point."

But this is hardly noteworthy. Of course perceptions of positions change as the Church changes its positions (and make no mistake, the Church has always adapted its stances on various issues). In 1920 an Anglican who believed that married couples should be able to use birth control would have been viewed as a dangerous, wild-eyed radical; in that year, the Lambeth Conference issued a very sternly worded statement on the dangers of birth control, and opposed the open or private sale of contraceptives for any reason. By 1930, the Lambeth Conference was willing to admit that under some conditions, birth control might be allowable, and that same birth control touting Anglican would be a little less dangerous. The 1958 Lambeth Conference went on record as saying that the decision of whether to use birth control or not was best left to the conscience of the married couple; that same Anglican would have moved from dangerous radical to embodying the mainstream view of the Anglican Communion.

bls said...

Who's "pressuring people to leave"? I don't remember any pressure like that being applied to anybody.

Conservatives happened to be on the losing end of a few votes; this does not in any way constitute "pressure to leave." Conservatives took themselves "out of the way, for the most part; they've called the Episcopal Church - and gay people - some of the nastiest possible names, and then have left to join Anglican groups.

Sometimes you lose an argument; that's the way it goes. Gay folks have been on that end of the thing forever - and we kept fighting at it, to continue to try to make the changes we thought were right. If you think you're right, then you need to do that, too.

When I was growing up, you couldn't even say the word "gay."

bls said...

(And Joe: where, exactly, are these "ruins of a formerly godly and magnificent Anglican church"? If the Anglican Communion - with the exception of the Episcopal Church, of course - is so godly, then there aren't any "ruins." It still exists, and you can join with the Church of Rwanda at any time, it seems.

If the mere suggestion of some pastoral care for gay couples "has consequences that are harmful for the larger body of Christ," then I'd say it's "the larger body of Christ" that has the problem.)

Bryan Owen said...

The fact that the primary language we're now using to talk about the Church is almost purely political is telling. If we replaced church words with words like "Republicans" and "Democrats," etc., it would rather neatly translate into our national politics. This reduces our understanding of the Church as the Church, as the Body of Christ, to just another political action committee by which I try and enact my agenda via legislation and other means. There's little "wonderful and sacred mystery" to that (BCP, p. 528)!

One person's inclusion is someone else's exclusion. My clergy colleague's telling off-the-cuff remark is a revelation of that current state of affairs and a succinct expose of heart of the ideology of inclusivity: the will to power.

Meanwhile, the institutional Episcopal Church is on life support ...

bls said...

Who's using "purely political" language? If you mean "Conservatives," etc. - well, what other word should we use?

The "wonderful and sacred mystery" has caused untold misery to millions of gay people, for no reason whatsoever. I'm amazed that simple fact is considered to be irrelevant in most of these discussions, and that an imaginary "Communion" is held to be more important.

I think the church needs to collapse utterly, frankly, because it is obviously very sick, given that "one person's inclusion is another person's exclusion." When people get up by themselves and leave because they can't stand to share the place with somebody else - well, who's to blame for that?

bls said...

Really, Fr. Bryan! If "conservatives" - or fill in the blank here, with whatever word you prefer - want to leave, then they're going to leave.

I cannot see how in the world that can get laid at the feet of anybody but "conservatives." Is this the argument about "pressuring people to leave"? It's not a very good one.

People are responsible for their own actions, after all. I thought that was a "conservative" idea, anyway?

Bryan Owen said...

It makes my heart ache to read your comments, bls. While I hear your pain, I cannot imagine a Christian position which can say "the Church needs to collapse utterly." That kind of language comes dangerously close to a repudiation of one's membership in the Body of Christ.

Perpetua said...

Hi bls,

I was very surprised to see you wrote:
"I think the church needs to collapse utterly."

Do you mean you think the Episcopal Church needs to collapse utterly or do you mean the Anglican Communion needs to collapse utterly or do you mean the Holy Church Universal needs to collapse utterly, or ...???

Also you wrote: "When people get up by themselves and leave because they can't stand to share the place with somebody else - well, who's to blame for that?"

Now, in the California Diocese, the Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco has listed as a recommendation for volunteer work, to serve the "Up Your Alley Fair". It used to be the #1 recommendation, but I see now it is listed fifth. Either way, bls, so you know what the "Up Your Alley Fair" is? Whose fault is it if they leave because they don't want to be associated with that?

Anonymous said...

"If progressives feel like they can accomplish amazing things once conservatives are out of the way, how much more can they accomplish if they get rid of centrists, too?"

Bryan, you may soon learn the answer to this question. You may also have the opportunity to learn just how generous your orthodoxy can be when traditional orthodoxy doesn't have your back.

bls said...

It makes my heart ache to read your comments, bls. While I hear your pain, I cannot imagine a Christian position which can say "the Church needs to collapse utterly." That kind of language comes dangerously close to a repudiation of one's membership in the Body of Christ.

Why? The Institutional Church is what I'm talking about; if you read my blog, you'd know I've been saying this for a long time. I've also been saying the faith itself cannot be killed, no matter how often the Institution attempts to destroy and/or control it. In fact, I said the same thing - from pretty much the other side - quite recently on this thread on another blog.

I'll tell you what makes my heart ache: you titled your post using the active tense - getting conservatives out of the way - but what your colleague actually said was "now that conservatives are out of the way" - something that they (conservatives) are doing completely on their own. Nobody has thrown anybody out, or tried to "get rid of" them.

It's just an inaccurate interpretation of what's been said. I don't, in fact, agree with your colleague - but what you're arguing about here is not what she said - or, I think, meant - at all.

bls said...

Perpetua, ever since you scolded me for my "moral choices" a number of years ago - I, a total stranger to you, and in fact somebody you know absolutely nothing in the world about - I don't really bother to read what you write.


Perpetua said...

Quite right, bls, my comment about the Episcopal Services of San Francisco was implicitly "scolding" them about their moral choices as well.

Many people, of course, do link religion and morality. But others like spirituality without any implied moral dimension.

Bryan Owen said...

Knowing my colleague as I do, bls, I'm in a better position to judge what she meant. And on that ground, I stand by everything I've written in this posting, including the title.

I also think that the tone of this conversation is becoming rather hostile, dismissive, and accusatory. That needs to change.