In the wake of the mind-of-the-house resolutions passed of late by the House of Bishops, I participated in a comment thread on the blog Daily Episcopalian, tended by Jim Naughton, the communications director for the Diocese of Washington. It has a predictably liberal perspective, quite unapologetically. But I'm convinced that Jim is not totally depraved--not only because I'm not a Calvinist, but because he is a baseball fan, and is therefore not far from the Kingdom of God. When my comments began to draw a number of responses, Jim very kindly invited me to to a "guest piece" of sorts on his blog. It has now been posted there, and by prior agreement, I'm also putting it up here. Hope springs eternal.
In my comments in response to this post on Daily Episcopalian, I suggested that the House of Bishops had just kissed off the only live option for maintaining some semblance of institutional unity among those who have—until recently, at least—identified themselves as Episcopalians. Jim wrote me off-line, saying in effect, “So we’re at an impasse. What do you think will work?”
I am grateful for his kind invitation to offer a “guest editorial” on his fine blog. My initial response was along the lines of “Define ‘work.’” That’s an important question because it’s a step toward articulating a goal, and one element in the current unpleasantness is certainly a disparity of goals. As I organize my own thinking, I have found a particular analytical map to be helpful (not infallible, just helpful). It is predicated on the assumption of an omnipresent tension, a polarity, between the values of truth and unity. It presumes that we all value both truth and unity, but we do so in different ways and to different degrees.
On both ends of the ideological-theological-ethical spectrum are those who tend to let truth trump unity. For Liberals (progressives, re-appraisers), the operative truth is the gospel mandate for full inclusion, radical hospitality, toward “all sorts and conditions” of human beings in the life and ministry of the church. For Conservatives (orthodox, re-asserters), the operative truth is the gospel mandate for personal holiness and righteousness, taking God on God’s terms, and not trying to remake him according to our own specifications. For both groups, the goal is to have their operative truth triumph and become the ruling institutional norm.
In the middle, then, are those whose default mode is to hold their perception of truth with such a degree of humility as allows the equally important gospel value of unity to live and move and have some being. This group straddles the center line, and includes people who are on both sides of the divisive issues. For this group, the goal is to find a way to remain visibly and organically connected with one another, even in the face of radical disagreement about some pretty basic questions. (Full disclosure: I number myself in this category—to the right of center, of course. I do, however, sometimes make common cause with conservatives of the “truth before unity” variety, and hold many of them in high esteem.)
Of course, these categories are not absolute or rigid. They are porous at the borders. Even “Truth Liberals” and “Truth Conservatives” can seriously care about unity. But it’s unity on their terms; they’re not willing to surrender a vigorous prosecution of what they believe to be the demands of truth in order to maintain unity. They want to control the institutional apparatus of the church. They don’t necessarily want to unchurch those who disagree with them, but the losers must be willing to play by the rules of the winners. By the same token, both “Unity Liberals” and “Unity Conservatives” can have a profound respect for truth, and none them would embrace unity at any cost. Everyone has a “line in the sand” somewhere. (For what it may be worth, I believe many Unity Conservatives feel as though the House of Bishops crossed that line with their resolutions.)
So, as Jim has invited me to write about what I think might “work,” the way I’m going to interpret “work” is through the lens of the goal of the “unity” party—that is, What might enable those with disparate points of view to remain under the institutional umbrella of the Episcopal Church in some way? The “Truth Liberal” take-it-or-leave-it offer is, “We don’t bend our polity one millimeter, and we don’t flinch for a nanosecond in the ‘full inclusion’ of our LGBT members, even at the cost of cashing in our membership in the Anglican Communion.” The corresponding “Truth Conservative” position is, “We don’t back off one whit from traditional Christian sexual ethics, and we remain in communion with
Many are no doubt asking, “Why is unity that important, anyway? This marriage is over. You’re kicking a dead horse. Why not just go our separate ways, pursue mission as we believe God has shown it to us, and leave one another alone?” I have three responses—one spiritual, one emotional, and one practical:
Unity is itself a “gospel truth.” The epistle for Lent IV—with its emphasis the ministry of reconciliation that the Church has received from her Lord—was particularly compelling for me this year, coupled, as it was, with the deep reconciliation signified in the parable of the Prodigal Son. God clearly wants all those who call themselves disciples of his Son to be visibly one. Any divisions, any “brand names” (denominations), among Christians, break the heart of God.
And the corollary is this: Any schism is incalculably more difficult to mend than it is to create in the first place. Just as with marriages, trial separations between Christian bodies more often turn into divorce than into reconciliation.
It’s my church too! This is an anguished, feeling-laden cry. As we look schism in the eye, there is not one set of lips—Liberal or Conservative, Truth or Unity—on which it could not plausibly be heard. Let me speak very personally, in the hope that, with some appropriate translation, my experience might be emblematic of others’. I’m clearly on record that I am an Episcopalian, not for its own sake, but as an instrumental means of being an Anglican. At the end of the day, I will choose to remain Anglican even at the cost of remaining Episcopalian. Yet, I love the Episcopal Church with every fiber of my being. The effective moment of my “conversion” was when I sat down in a college music department practice room in 1971 with a piano and a copy of the Hymnal 1940. I thought to myself, “Where have these hymns been all my life? If there’s a church that actually sings them, I need to be in it.” I have lived and served in five different dioceses, in both lay and ordained states. I’m the graduate of an accredited seminary of the Episcopal Church. All three of my now-grown children attended an Episcopal school in Baton Rouge, LA and all three are graduates of Sewanee—The University of the South, very much an Episcopal institution. The 1979 Prayer Book has formed me spiritually for three decades now (and I think it’s the finest of the genre within Anglicanism). I have enthusiastically displayed the Episcopal shield logo on a long succession of Chrysler minivans. I’ve been a deputy to two General Conventions, and read General Ordination exams four times. This is as much my church as it is anyone else’s. I have no desire to leave it. It is my home. Yet, even as a “Unity Conservative,” I have my limits. They are now uncomfortably in plain sight.
Let’s not give God’s money to lawyers. I know some good people who are lawyers, and I realize they do necessary work, but wherever trial lawyers gather, tragedy has already struck. This is not the venue to debate the substance of the “justice issue” of church property. The only point I want to make is that, if there is not an institutional solution to our disputes, there will be endless rounds of court battles lasting decades and costing tens of millions of dollars. That’s not a “should”; it’s just an “is.” It does no good to point fingers or assign blame. It will be a tragedy for which we will have to answer on the Day of the Lord. However one conceives of the Church’s mission—whether it’s the MDGs or open-air evangelistic crusades—it’s mission that will suffer for the sake of billable hours. Everyone, on all sides, will lose the credibility of their Christian witness.
So now what do we do? If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry to have to tell you: I don’t know! I and many others are feeling devastated after the HOB meeting because the Pastoral Council/Primatial Vicar plan was the last best hope. It has the potential to keep even some “Truth Conservatives” on board because it provides a much needed layer of insulation between them and the behavior of official church leaders, all the while maintaining some degree of formal ties (the name “Episcopal,” the Pension Fund, informal relationships, history and heritage, even participation in General Convention and service on CCABs).
All I can think of to do is implore my co-partisans in the “Unity Party”—those on both sides of the divide—to “seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions” (BCP, p. 818). We need to bend. All of us. Beginning with the knee joint. For the sake of unity, we need to be willing to live in a church that irritates us. We’ve got to be willing to swallow some horse pills. My sense is that many “Unity Conservatives” would be willing to say to our LGBT members: “While we cannot condone the blessing of committed relationships other than heterosexual marriage, because anything else falls short of God’s design, neither will we harass, condemn, or judge you. We will let you live in peace, and be available to you with informal pastoral support. And we will remain in an Episcopal Church in which many (most?) believe that God is calling us to something more overt, as a faithful minority, even as we disagree about God’s call.” I, at least, could say that—but no more. Trust me, that much is a horse pill! But unity is important enough for me to swallow it.
What horse pill are “Unity Liberals” willing to swallow? Not being one, I can’t answer that question. But I can suggest that “Unity Conservatives” might welcome something like this: “Just because you don’t support the goal of ‘full inclusion’ doesn’t mean you’re homophobic, and those of you who can’t accept women as priests and bishops are not misogynists. We understand the need for some degree of ‘insulation’ from what church leaders are saying and doing, even while we don’t agree with your perception. We believe conservative dioceses should be able to elect bishops that reflect their values, and have those elections consented to. And while we don’t share many of the views of our Anglican brothers and sisters in the developing world, our unity with them is so precious to us that we are willing to lay aside some of what we consider to be true.”
This would not be an ideal church for either Liberals or Conservatives. It would be annoying. It would be messy. It would be profoundly costly—in a spiritual, not in a financial sense. It would therefore be real. It would mean letting go of our American idolization of democratic and parliamentary processes. The “majority” would need to learn to serve, rather than to rule, and the “minority” would need to be humble enough not to exploit the graciousness of the majority, but to replace mere obduracy with self-differentiated openness. Such a church would have a chance, at least, of making the sort of witness in the world that God expects of us. It might just work.