There’s nothing like Lent for reflecting on the sins of other people; I thought I’d start at the top — with the bishops of my own church. As the Episcopal church along with the other mainline Protestant denominations diminishes, we don’t have to look far to see bishops and leaders who are largely failing in their core assignments: to tend to the health and promote the growth of the congregations in their area. Yet even as we have fewer and fewer effective and successful leaders, we have no shortage of political, ‘prophetic’ bishops. When they can, they meet with world leaders and jet off to exotic locales to bring peace and fight for justice. When they can’t do that, they sign statements of concern, issue reports and otherwise tug on the skirts of an indifferent public seeking attention for their political views.
In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960’s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions. The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort. I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform. Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.
Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes. It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King. Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.
But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause. The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea. This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter. Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both. A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.
I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics. I’m urging them to shut up. More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.
The jeremiad continues as Mead addresses the following four theses:
- Nobody cares what you think while your tiny church is falling apart.
- American Episcopal bishops have so spectacularly screwed up their relations with Africa that they are in no position to lecture secular leaders on international politics.
- In the contemporary world the job of the clergy isn’t to provide political leadership. It is to help laypeople grow into better, wiser political leaders.
- The Blue Social Model isn’t the Kingdom of God.
Read it all.