Monday, February 22, 2010

Walter Russell Mead: Episcopal Bishops Should "Shut Up"

Just in time for Lent, Walter Russell Mead offers a blistering (and no doubt controversial) look at the current state of the Episcopal Church in a blog posting entitled "Sunday Jeremiad: Petty Prophets of the Blue Beast." Here's how he begins:

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:

  1. Nobody cares what you think while your tiny church is falling apart.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The Blue Social Model isn’t the Kingdom of God.

Read it all.


Bill Carroll said...

If one follows the lectionary, one can say everything about politics that needs to be said.

Clearly there are some clergy who get up on a soapbox.

This gentleman, however, seems to have no respect for the teaching office of the bishop or the role of the bishop in showing "compassion to the poor and strangers," and defending "those who have no helper." (BCP, p. 538)

There are plenty of churches that lack the apostolic succession and which ignore the social witness of the prophetic tradition, which is far to the left of what passes for a "left" in this country. Perhaps he should try one of those.

Kelso said...

I've often asked my fellow disgusted Episcopalians why it is we have yet to produce one bishop the equal to the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen of happy memory.

What are our bishops famous for? Why, denying the Virgin Birth, worrying about empty water bottles in landfills, and of course, changing the most beautiful prayer book in Christendom to a hodgepodge of 1960s campfire hug-fests.

What was Archbishop Sheen famous for? Bringing souls to Our Lord.

Anonymous said...

RE: "This gentleman, however, seems to have no respect for the teaching office of the bishop or the role of the bishop in showing "compassion to the poor and strangers," and defending "those who have no helper." (BCP, p. 538)"


No, I'd say that he seems to have no respect for merely the vast majority of TEC bishops.


Jendi said...

Both left-wing and right-wing clergy in America seem equally prone to unreflectively endorsing the political orthodoxy of their choice. To ridicule only one side is disingenuous.

On the issue of gay clergy, it's true that we need more diplomatic and intercultural sensitivity all around. However, American bishops can and should speak out against genocidal anti-gay legislation such as the bill pending in Uganda. Preventing human rights abuses is the church's business, whether you approve of homosexuality or not.

Did Jesus draw a line between politics and theology? Or did he judge theology by its effects on the poor and downtrodden? Mead's sweeping generalization that bishops should stay out of the former, in order to do the latter, comes from as privileged a position as any country-club Episcopalian's.

Bryan Owen said...

I've read that Walter Russell Mead is himself a liberal.

It's also interesting to note that Mead's father is an Episcopal priest: the Rev. Loren Mead, who, among his many accomplishments, founded the Alban Institute and has written numerous books, including The Once and Future Church and Financial Meltdown in the Mainline?

BillyD said...

I wonder how many Episcopalians are like me: I think my bishop's doing a great job, but find that my response to most of the rest of them is much, much cooler. It's like those surveys of Congress, where people report that they think everyone in Congress is a crook except their rep.