Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Looking Hard at the Progressive Platform

The Consultation is a consortium of thirteen unofficial (that is, not created or funded by General Convention, Executive Council, or 815) advocacy groups within the Episcopal Church. They go into overdrive every three years as General Convention approaches, making common strategic cause for the advancement of positions widely known as “progressive.”

A few days ago, The Consultation released its platform for 2009. You can find the whole thing here. Some of those with whom I habitually consort cybernetically, folks who for the most part would not be identified by themselves or others as “progressives,” have been exchanging ideas about what our “platform” might be … if we indeed had a platform, to say nothing of a clear idea of how we understand “we.”

In due course—very shortly, I suspect—we may share some bullet points of our own. In the meantime, and by way of contextualizing what follows, some of The Consultation’s platform planks deserve to be—what’s the word for it these days?—fisked.

1. Continue the Reformation of the Church.
• Equip all the baptized for their ministry in the world and for their share in the governance and mission of the Church at every level of its life.
• Remove all canonical obstacles to exercising the full baptismal ministry in the whole life of the Church.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the Church isn’t perpetually in need of reformation, and it seems plausible enough that every baptized Christian ought to be exercising the gifts for ministry that are conferred in the paschal sacraments. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. What do they mean by “share in the governance” and “every level of its life” and “full baptismal ministry”? Should the nine-year olds whose birthdays I blessed a couple of Sundays ago be allowed seat and voice on the vestry? Should a dyslexic be elected clerk? Obviously not. Discernment is called for in determining which of “the baptized” are appropriately invited to serve in which ministries. Of course, one person’s “discernment” is another person’s “discrimination,” and therein lies the bone of contention buried in The Consultation’s platform.

Conform the canons to the baptismal theology of the Book of Common Prayer.

The organizations represented in The Consultation apparently see something implicit in the 1979 Prayer Book rite of baptism that they understand as validating and energizing their commitment to “progressive” causes, something that is both intrinsically good and uniquely distinctive; it’s something we have in TEC that other Anglican provinces and other non-Anglican churches lack. Moreover, they discern an incongruity between this ostensible “baptismal theology” and the present canons of TEC. Completely apart from the merits of these claims, one might plausibly ask, When it comes to the foundational sign of Christian identity, is uniqueness necessarily such a good thing? Is this not the one area in which we should most proactively eschew distinctiveness and embrace commonality with other churches? We are, after all, talking about the sacrament by which one becomes a Christian, not merely an Episcopalian. To claim uniqueness for our “baptismal theology” turns us into a cult, not a church. Beyond that, it smacks of the worst sort of triumphalism. Perhaps, in our “non-progressive” bullet points, we should affirm that the baptismal theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is neither more nor less than that of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of the creeds, and not in any particular conflict with canon law.

2. Maintain the historic principle of the autonomy of Provinces in the Anglican Communion.

• Reaffirm that our covenant is given by God in baptism.
• Celebrate the unique character of the polity of the Episcopal Church.
• Express our solidarity with the Anglican Church of Canada in their rejection of any Anglican Covenant.

Well, there you have it: An overt swipe at the developing Anglican Covenant, which General Convention will almost certainly have the opportunity to act on, though there is considerable doubt that it will do so. Again, no one I know argues for the abrogation of provincial autonomy. But the events of the last five years in Anglicanland have raised legitimate and pressing questions as to its nature. We can pretty much blame this on the internet, I think. The world is exponentially smaller than it was twenty years ago, and the shrinkage continues apace. What Anglican leaders do and say in Harare and Perth has an immediate impact on the lives of Anglicans in Vancouver and Brasilia. And vice versa. So where are the appropriate limits on autonomy? It has been suggested—helpfully so, in my opinion—that communion is the fundamental limit on autonomy. The Consultation apparently doesn’t see it that way.

As for the “unique character and polity of the Episcopal Church,” this is admittedly much less problematic than having a unique baptismal theology. But the subtext here is directed toward other Anglican provinces in general—and, it must be said, the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular—who, The Consultation perceives, chronically don’t “get” they way things are done in the Episcopal Church; specifically, the democratic synodal processes that involve laity on an equal footing with priests and bishops. In reality, the rest of the Communion “gets” TEC just fine; they just think we’ve royally fouled our own next … upwind of theirs. And can we get beyond our smugness about being democratic? I’ve got no particular quarrel with democracy, but in church governance, throwing dice is proven to work just as well as taking votes. And the Holy Spirit probably thinks it's a little less stressful that way.

3. Invest in economic justice and eliminate poverty.

I’ll spare you the bullet points on this one. In brief, they advocate U.S. government participation in the MDGs to the tune of 0.7% of the federal budget (somebody want to do the math on that?), fully socialized healthcare, and an end to immigration enforcement raids. So…the Episcopal Church doing all this is going to eliminate poverty? How nice. Who knew the answer was so simple?

4. Repent and make reparation for slavery.

The Episcopal Church does indeed have some dirty laundry in this area. Many church buildings still in use were built by slave labor, and some of the endowment funds of dioceses and parishes in older sections of the country can be traced to wealth originally accumulated by means of “involuntary servitude.” Some form of accounting for this history is probably not out of order. But the principal energy behind calls for reparations rests on the premise that there are identifiable people in this country today—more than 150 years after slavery was abolished—who have been demonstrably and measurably harmed by the practice. This is by no means a self-evident starting point. There are those who want to make such a case, but it is extremely tenuous, particularly when balanced against the human and material resources that would be diverted away from other mission priorities in order to make this possible.

5. Dismantle racism and oppression.

Again, I don’t know anyone who’s going to argue in favor of racism, so this one appears to be a slam dunk. But it’s not. The bullet points call for mandatory “anti-racism training” at the seminary and diocesan levels. The notion that one can be “trained” to oppose racism is inherently preposterous. It smacks of Soviet-era “re-education camps.” Moreover, the working definition of racism in such settings defies common sense. Rather than willful (or even negligent) discrimination on the basis of race, rather than active (or even passive) discrimination on the basis of race—i.e. the sorts of practices that the civil rights movement in the ‘60s struggled against—anti-racism “trainers” now define racism as “the exercise of unearned white privilege.” That’s simply a recipe for the perpetuation of identity politics and a culture of victimization. The second bullet point calls for “inclusive representation at all levels of Church leadership”? So what are we talking about? Quotas? Reserved spots on General Convention committees for designated minorities? The mind boggles at trying to reconcile this with the vision of Christian identity articulated in Ephesians 4, among other places. St Paul (or the pseudo-Pauline author) would weep over this platform plank.

6. End the culture of violence.

This one is a very broad brush. Let’s see, who are the officially sanctioned victim groups here? We’ve got women, children, “sexual and gender minorities,” victims of human trafficking, and the “Palestinian people.” Conspicuous by their absence? Israelis, targets of suicide bombers, and (last, and in this case very much least) children in utero, the single most-vulnerable class of human beings in the world.

7. Build a culture of peace.

Who can argue with that? I certainly would not. But what about this bullet point: “Add peace, justice, and nonviolence studies to the curricula of all Episcopal schools, colleges, and seminaries.” Presumably, this would include the parochial school in Louisiana where I used to teach, the diocesan-owned high school my children attended there, undergrads at the University of the South (those same children’s alma mater), and all the seminaries. The seminaries, I can assure you, are already stretched to the max trying to satisfy all their various constituencies during the three years they have a student. This is where the good truly become the enemy of the necessary. Such a mandate would send seminary deans speeding toward the medicine cabinet by way of the liquor cabinet.

8. Embrace the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments.

• Affirm that all orders of ministry are open to all the Baptized who are otherwise qualified.
• Urge clergy to refuse to function as civil magistrates in marriage and to re-affirm their authority to bless all faithful relationships.

I actually haven’t got a problem with the first bullet point, interpreted literally just as it stands. I bet my friends at The Consultation, however, would have a different spin on “otherwise qualified” than I would! And I actually haven’t got a problem in principle with the first part of the second bullet point. As long ago as 1980, I supported a resolution in the convention of the Diocese of Oregon that called for clergy to disengage from being agents of the state. (It was successfully tabled by the local “Marryin’ Sam” rector.) Of course, what’s at stake here for The Consultation is permission to bless same-sex unions (or “marriages”, as the case may be), which, ipso facto, betrays a callous disregard for the rest of the Anglican Communion. In fact, any resolution to this effect would be in violation of TEC’s own constitution, the preamble of which makes Anglican identity the governing rubric for everything that follows.

9. Save the earth from environmental catastrophe.

Here we have mandatory energy audits and conservation measures in “all Episcopal Church facilities and programs.” It isn’t clear whether this means only those facilities and programs under the direct control of General Convention, or extends to every last diocesan summer camp chapel and latrine. They also want us to only buy electric power from renewable sources. Nice idea. I’ve tried to do the same. There isn’t always a choice, however. Then there’s more stuff about the EPA Superfund and the Kyoto Accords, as if the secular world gives a gnat’s posterior what the Episcopal Church thinks about such things. (We are the quintessential roaring mouse.)

10. Urge renewed attention to domestic HIV/AIDS.

This is pretty much a no-brainer. I’m tired, so I’ll only deal with their last bullet point on this one: “Support bills requiring states to provide Medicaid coverage to all persons who are HIV-positive.” Do they really mean “all”? What about those who are already adequately insured? If there are indeed states that discriminate against indigent patients because they have HIV, paying at a different level than they would for one who has, say, diabetes, then I could support this call. But if they’re simply trying to use HIV/AIDS as a wedge on behalf of their earlier-stated goal of single-payer healthcare, then this is a Trojan (I’m sorry, the pun is not intended) horse.

Stay tuned for some “non-progressive” platform planks.


Unknown said...

Dan thank you for your always-insightful missives. I appreciate your passion and wit!

Malcolm+ said...

I must say that this passionate objection to single payer health insurance strikes me as more than a trifle bizarre - all the more so since (unlike Adam Smith's invisible hand) it serves to distribute health care resources voth more fairly and more efficiently.

Dr.D said...

I did not notice a single word in there about winning souls for Christ, or does TEC no longer do that sort of thing at all? It all seemed entirely focused on this present world, very materialistic, just like the communists, and completely divorced from the world of faith and the life to come. Not a word about God, not a word about Jesus, not a word about prayer, just the problems of this life. Wow--how sad!

Dale Matson said...

Fr. Dan,
I heartily agree with your observations and Dr. D's comments as well. Nice job of Fisking.

Anonymous said...

RE: " . . . it serves to distribute health care resources voth more fairly and more efficiently."

Well, no. It merely lowers the standard of health care -- one level which is significantly lower than current standards, so that the government, ie, taxpayers can "afford" to pay for that lower standard.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Dan, I must say, I'm disappointed. "Looking hard"???? You've just carped and sniped, is all. There's nothing of substance here. Pity. I was really looking forward to something with some meat on it. I am very much looking forward to a "Conservative / Orthodox" Platform. The folks on the Far Right have always been so clear, which is why folk like me pushed so hard, 6 years ago, for a clear, concise Progressive / Liberal Platform. It will be interesting to see where y'all draw the lines in the ecclesiastical sand. Thanks, Dan.

Dale Matson said...

"Well, Dan, I must say, I'm disappointed. "Looking hard"???? You've just carped and sniped, is all. There's nothing of substance here. Pity. I was really looking forward to something with some meat on it."
Well, Elizabeth, I must say I'm disappointed with your response to Fr. Dan. I was really looking forward to something with some meat on it.
"The folks on the Far Right have always been so clear" If you think Fr. Dan is far right imagine who he left behind in the DSJ. We're even more clear since we only view things in Black and White. This is not a hindrance since we only watch "Leave it to Beaver" and "Howdy Doody". We're so unenlightened and old fashioned that we just can't seem to let go of the old doctrines. Pity.

Malcolm+ said...

Interesting response from Anonymous - and entirely without substantiation.

Health care in all the industrialized countries of the world save one is af a consistently high standard. Granted, it is not the same high standard available to the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent in the US, but it is a higher standard than that available to the average American with comprehensive health insurance - and far superior to the patronizing dependence on chance and charitable which is all that is available to a scandalous proportion of the poor, the working poor and increasingly the middle class in the US.

Comparing any of these civilized countries with the United States, ~ 40 percent of the people are far better off with universal single payer health care while fewer than 1 percent are (arguably) worse off.

Dr.D said...

Malcolm's response regarding health care is typical for those pushing the socialist agenda, and to use his phrase, - and entirely without substantiation.

There is not a country in the world with socialized medicine that does not have rationing of medical services, waiting times for critical services, and declining health care. For many who were able, access to the US has been the escape because they knew that they could still get service here if they could pay for it.

Single payer plans simply encourage extensive over utilization of services. The services are viewed as "free" so every one should expect hospitalization for a cold, etc. We see this already with the jammed conditions in our hospital emergency rooms that have become the routine treatment centers for the poor. Because they are required to treat all comers (essentially a single payer situation), they are swamped with everyone off the streets. It will only get much, much worse when we go to national socialized medicine.

Anonymous said...

"Health care in all the industrialized countries of the world save one is af a consistently high standard."

Um, no it's not.

"40 percent of the people are far better off with universal single payer health care while fewer than 1 percent are (arguably) worse off."

Um -- no they're not.

RE: "Interesting response from Anonymous - and entirely without substantiation."

Well then, we're almost even. Your responses weren't interesting -- but they were also "entirely without substantiation" as well.

We're just two people -- one socialist and one free-market -- trading assertions that naturally contradict one another.


Anonymous said...

-Pride goes before the fall.
-Dante's lowest level of hell was for the prideful.
-Let's all remember that the opposite of pride is humility. Let's all try to be better at listening to and having respect for those who think differently than we do.
Humility, forgiveness, love is what Jesus taught. Polarization of those who worship in TEC is not good for the church. Let us pray that those representing the people of TEC at this summer's convention will accept their responsibility to represent ALL of the people of TEC, those who agree with them and those who do not.

Anonymous said...

Dante's lowest level of Inferno was not for the prideful, but the betrayers, with Judas and Brutus receiving special mention.

Malcolm+ said...

Though I'm sure the phrase "socialist" was intended as a mindless put down, I'll happily accept the label - though social democrat would be more accurate.

And let us remember that the correct label for the philosophical underpinnings of unfettered free market economics is liberalism.

All that said, the United States also rations access to healthcare. In the United States it is rationaed on the basis of wealth rather than pressing need.

Triage based on need is morally defensible.

Triage based on wealth and privilege is not.

Anonymous said...

RE: "Though I'm sure the phrase "socialist" was intended as a mindless put down . . . "

Not at all. It merely labels the philosophy to which certain people adhere concerning the mode of government and State power which they desire. Nothing mindless about it, and certainly not a "put down".

RE: "Triage based on wealth and privilege is not."

Well -- so socialists say. Of course . . . socialism is about investing the State with the power to decree the triage, rather than the individual.

But . . . we both repeat ourselves.

Malcolm+ said...

But it is not the state administering the triage. It is the doctor.

And social democratic would still be a far more appropriate label. The irony is that I suspect you wouldn't care to be labelled a Liberal - which is the correct philosophical description for the ideology which advocates the unfettered free market.

Anonymous said...

Odd ... from a Church that is failing by every measure of participation.

Odd from a Church that cannot keep up its minimal contributions to its own ministries.

How pretentious.


TLF+ said...

Good points, Susan.

All this from a church that is riven by conflict and can't even find common language to unite its members, according to its own State of the Church report for the upcoming General Convention. And they are going to tell others how to live?