Saturday, January 28, 2012

Episcopal Church Slogan Indulges Dismissive Parody

Recently on Facebook I came across a poster that says: "The Episcopal Church: Resisting Fundamentalism Since 1784 (Like Jesus resisting the Pharisees since the First Century!)"

Calling this "a dreadful poster" that is "utterly appalling" and which makes him embarrassed to be an Episcopalian, J. Michael Povey notes at least two historical inaccuracies:

First: We have not resisted fundamentalism since 1784. Fundamentalism as a major factor in American Protestantism did not emerge until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Second: The assertion that Jesus ”resisted the Pharisees” is a rather simplistic interpretation of scripture. What we see in the gospels is that Jesus had disagreements with some of the Pharisees.

"We are to be pitied," Povey continues, "if the best we can say about fundamentalists is that we resist them." And he rightly notes that a cheap shot like this poster's slogan "feels good, but it does nothing to build up (edify) the people of God."

In my neck of the Episcopal woods, this sort of thing often crops up in the form of Baptist bashing. Perhaps it's partly because Episcopalians in Mississippi are vastly outnumbered by Baptists and we sometimes feel defensive about being different and in the minority. I also know many Episcopalians who were raised in the Southern Baptist Church who had dreadful experiences, some of which can only be described as spiritually abusive. Then again, some of the reasons for Baptist bashing may come from the hubris of actually believing that we are more enlightened than they are, and so from the heights of our intellectual and moral superiority we feel entitled to dish out dismissive judgment. There are, of course, many reasons to disagree with the Southern Baptists and other Christians. And there are all kinds of reasons to be grateful for discovering the riches of the Anglican tradition in this small part of the Anglican world we call The Episcopal Church. But it reflects poorly on who we are and what we actually stand for as Episcopalians when the best we can do is bash other Christians with whom we disagree.

Fr. Tony Clavier has also noted the historical inaccuracies in the slogan "Resisting Fundamentalism since 1784." And he also points to an irony at its heart:

A particular church which seeks to describe itself as existing over against some other form of Christian expression narrows itself, in fact becomes as reactionary as the body from which it distances itself. The slogan is sectarian.

Fr. Tony then offers some fine thoughts on "conversion to" vs. "conversion against," what Anglicanism at its best offers, and how we might engage in a more positive and faithful form of evangelism:

One understands that many converts to Anglicanism in America enter our red doors to escape forms of Protestantism in which they have felt oppressed and constrained. Fair enough. Similarly many converting from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism are driven by similar motives. Again, fair enough. Yet one hopes and prays that their conversion is conversion to rather than conversion against. One also hopes that their aversion to elements in their former church homes isn’t a means of avoiding disciplines which are merely Christian in the odd belief that Anglican churches are places where one may believe anything or nothing, or worse still places where their secular political and social beliefs are embraced unquestioningly. Our Liturgy, our Creeds, our submission to Holy Scripture as God’s revelation demand a positive and yes a submission of mind and heart and lifestyle. When we perhaps clumsily proclaim that Anglicans have no theology of their own, we say something important but not something vague. We embrace the faith of the Church with a capital C. When we state that human language cannot fathom the mind of God we don’t mean that God has failed to reveal in Jesus all we need to know and believe for our salvation. If God has not so revealed himself he is not a God to worship and adore.
Anglicanism offers and presents at its best the way of salvation which takes seriously not merely selected proving texts from the Bible, nor a religion which panders to local political opinions and parties, but fundamentally -there’s that word – foundationally or basically a vision which takes seriously the Church, the ministry, the sacraments and a treasury of spirituality, personal and communal through which cultures, races, nations may apprehend and embrace the Gospel of Jesus the Lord. It seeks not merely to offer a way of death or after death, but a way of life which embraces the whole person in their context. Anglicanism at its best is not dismissive but admissive, neither belittling intelligence nor confounding what we sometimes patronizingly term a simple faith.
If we are to recover our patrimony we must tell our story without indulging in dismissive parody. We have no title to superiority, called as we are to servanthood, compassion and mercy, to be reconcilers in a divided nation and world rather than contributors to division and arrogance. Can we not rather advertise ourself as “The Episcopal Church, Telling the Story of Jesus since 1784″?

In our Baptismal Covenant, we have promised to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" and to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." This poster's slogan breaks both of those promises. And so J. Michael Povey and Fr. Tony are right: in telling our story and affirming what is good about The Episcopal Church, we can do better than indulge dismissive parody of other Christians.


Anonymous said...

In fact, the pervasive, condescending attitude of superiority that characterizes the Episcopal Church, from its Presiding Bishop downward, is one reason this ex-Episcopalian is now a Roman Catholic.

Bill Befort said...

The poster must be a parody; nobody's that dumb. "Resisting the Spirit since 1784" is too obviously the intended reading.

Not that it isn't accurate. The fundamentalists they were resisting in 1784 would have been the Wesleyans, i.e. Methodists, preaching to the working classes without a license.

Bryan Owen said...

Dear Anonymous, please note my request: "If you choose to comment anonymously, please provide a pen name for the sake of disambiguation."

Bill, I'm in no position to ascertain whether or not the person(s) who put this poster together are "that dumb." But I have encountered this air of superiority among quite intelligent Episcopalians many times before. And I've seen this poster receive approving comments and "thumbs up" on Facebook. All of that saddens me, but it doesn't surprise me.

C. Wingate said...

Bill, that attitude has been around for a long time. You should have seen the comments on Fr. Jake's blog back before he shut it down for a while: "poisonous" was frequently enough a mild description of them. And as I said in my contribution to the fray, "worshipping the Lord with a slight air of superiority" has been a longstanding vice of ours.

Something which I didn't remark on, though, is that this sort of bitter condescension (or resentment, when acted out from below) is really insinuated itself everywhere in the culture. One of the things I find unpleasant on Facebook is the very many of my "friends" who feel the urge to make the same sort of comments on politics or even other fields, writing with the implication that of course opposing viewpoints are motivated entirely by venality, power lust, cupidity or stupidity. "Respect thine opponent" has completely gone by the wayside, and our church has been infected in the same way. There was a time when our airs of superiority were a charming foible, but these days they have become a besetting sin.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, C. Wingate. Well stated! And thanks also for your recent blog postings. I've shared them with several clergy colleagues who have found them very helpful and insightful.