Once more dear friends…

A surprising number of Episcopalians have rallied to the challenge posed by critics of our recently completed General Convention, particularly New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

The most eminent of these authors is former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. He writes of Douthat:

Eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes. As I read it, his argument, shared by many, is that the church is essentially translating liberal views of sexuality into the language and forms of the faith. If the Bible speaks out against homosexuality, then a church that moves to embrace homosexuals must be acting not according to theological thinking but to political factors. Put another way, the Episcopal Church has taken the course it has taken on sexuality because it is politically fashionable to do so, not because there is a theological reason to open its arms wider.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores a long tradition of evolving theological understanding and changing scriptural interpretation. Only the most unapologetic biblical fundamentalists, for instance, take every biblical injunction literally. If we all took all scripture at the same level of authority, then we would be more open to slavery, to the subjugation of women, to wider use of stoning. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against divorce in the strongest of terms. Yet we have — often gradually — chosen to read and interpret the Bible in light not of tradition but of reason and history.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese mounts the most intellectually ambitious argument:

We have been a denomination of privilege, but we are working on that. The Roman Catholic Church has held its numbers only because of immigration, and in that way they are much more open than we are. Today, 1-in-3 Americans was raised Roman Catholic, yet only 1-in-4 describes themselves as Catholic. Hmmm, because the church is too liberal or not filled with people practicing faithfully? Doubt it. You can read about it here.

What liberal and progressive Christians believe in response to those liberation movements from the 1960s on is that the movements were right, and our church should change in response to that revelation. In those places where we are working on being a better church, respecting the dignity of all people (see The Book of Common Prayer), those that have left because of those battles, as the great Bobby Castle used to say (and probably still does), “are the ones that should go.” He did not mean that in a nice way.

If our increased thoughtfulness in understanding the human condition causes us to be open minded in a way that offends your prejudices, yes, the Episcopal Church might not be for you. I hope I’m being clear, I believe our decline is a sloughing off of the baggage of establishment and American Empire and not quickly enough embracing an expansive view of humanity within our Eucharistic communities. We became irrelevant to all but the most faithful and those far too in love with Jesus to leave the church despite its hypocrisy. But don’t worry, we’re on that now.

Bishop Dean Wolfe of Kansas offers a passionate almost point-by-point rebuttal of a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece about the convention:

There certainly are fair criticisms to be made of our beloved Church. We do not do enough to help the poor or feed the hungry. We have not done enough to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world desperate to hear it. We do spend too much time addressing internal difficulties and not nearly enough time offering the world the transformational love of God.

That being said, ours is a Church with a record of being a reliable moral voice in society. We were at the forefront of advocating for labor laws that restricted the number of hours children could work. We were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, seeking to ensure that all God’s children would be treated equally. And more recently, we have been at the forefront of the movement to respect the dignity of every human being in the authorization of trial rites for same-sex blessings.

It is not political correctness that brings us to these positions but a desire to follow the loving, merciful and inclusive imperatives of Christ.

And Derek Penwell of Dmergent attempts to turn the tables:

What makes me unutterably weary is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

If, for example, one holds that LGBTQ people should be embraced and welcomed as full participants into the life and ministry of the church, the popular assumption among some is that one makes such moves in spite of rather than because of one’s reading of scripture. I have been asked on more than one occasion why I don’t “just quit pretending to be be a Christian,” since I “obviously don’t believe the Bible.”

Apart from the general incivility of such dismissiveness, claiming that Christians who don’t read the bible in a “literal” or “common sense” way are cynically attempting to circumvent taking scripture seriously is captive to its own set of prejudices, which are most often transparent to the speaker. That form of biblical interpretation (viz., “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”) is question-begging in its most basic sense.

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  1. Sorry, Jim. Douthat’s column was spot-on. Over the last several decades, the Episcopal Church has shown a cowardly unwillingness to say no to liberals about anything(remember the shrieking hysteria over Resolution B033 which Frank Griswold pushed through in 2006?). Until that changes, Episcopalians will continue to be thought of by everybody who can read as nothing more than house chaplains to the secular left. Man up and deal with it.

  2. Carole May

    After what I saw going on in the Roman Catholic church, I’m proud to be an Episcopalian.

  3. Sorry, Christopher, my brother. Douthat’s column was not spot-on. I am assuming — please correct me if I am mistaken — that your conscience does not allow you to remain an active member of The Episcopal Church. I respect that. But then why do you not just become active in a church that gives your conscience more peace? Man up and deal with it.

    Or perhaps you have already done that. Fine. Why then don’t you just go in peace? I don’t post comments on Roman Catholic or Southern Baptist web sites, or even on Virtue Online.

    There seems to be a widespread notion that if a church is numerically losing numbers, it must be doing something seriously wrong. Well, that may be the case. Or perhaps not. My impression is that the prosperity gospel churches are still doing pretty well. On the other hand, this past Sunday we heard about what happens when people are faithful to the good news of the Kingdom of God. It led John the Baptist to Herod’s dungeon. It led Jesus to a Roman cross.

    Christianity had a remarkable explosion in membership after it was legalized and favored by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. How did that work out for us? Yeah, we’re just beginning to figure that out.

  4. Jean Lall

    These are wonderful responses and wonderful statements about what we are about. Critics like Douthat seem to believe that Episcopalians lack a serious commitment to the core doctrines of the faith. They imagine that we just casually cast about for reasons to go along with whatever contemporary “liberal” culture is leaning towards. They suppose that since we have come to different conclusions than the ones set forth by the Roman Catholic hierarchy or other conservative authorities, we must not have arrived at them by way of serious theological study, prayer and reflection. In reality a tremendous amount of theological work lies behind the decisions made by GC — and behind so many of our individual decisions and commitments.

    I sometimes suspect that this mistaken idea of Episcopalians as not serious — or not ‘orthodox’ — in our beliefs arises because we tend not to bang on about the doctrines in public. We gather on Sundays, hear the word, praise the Lord in song, recite the Creed and receive the Eucharist, and then we go out and try to live what we have learned and share what we have been given. A lot of that doesn’t require exhorting people about the dogmatic underpinnings of the faith. I am told that St. Francis instructed his followers to “preach the Gospel continually; use words when necessary”. Quite a few Episcopalians I know live by that precept.

  5. IT

    Douthat, a Conservative Roman Catholic, should be taken exactly the same way as Republican pundits who presume to tell Pres. Obama how to run his campaign (or VV, for that matter.) He has no interest in the wellbeing of the Episcopal Church, and let’s not forget he threw a few digs in against the RC sisters to boot. (I mean, the man thinks that the Vatican crack down on the nuns will INCREASE women in orders. Srsly!)

    The FACTS tell us that organized religion overall, and particularly Christianity (given that is the dominant faith expression in the US), show declining numbers. Indeed, trends suggest that the conservatives have poisoned the well for everyone.

    **Every mainline denomination is shrinking

    **Even conservative evangelicals are concerned.

    **The Roman Catholic faith is hemorrhaging “cradle Catholics” and kept afloat by immigrants. (a not insubstantial fraction of former RC are going Episcopal, which I’m sure outweighs those going the other way)

    **The most rapidly growing religious group in the country is “none”. and a lot of those are disaffected young Christians turned off by anti-science, anti-gay policies of pay-pray-obey conservatives.

    (Links to the data behind these statements are over at Friends of Jake.)

    Meanwhile, what is palpable is that Episcopalians are energized by GC, you have great press from this– after all, if Douthat is taking potshots, you must be doing something right!

    It is really , really refreshing to see liberal Christians stepping up and finally challenging the conservative meme that God is a conservative republican. Rick Santorum said liberal Christians weren’t even Christian. Glad to see you have strapped on your sandals to challenge him, and Douthat, and other disaffected conservatives. You should hand out Winnie Varghese’s column in the bulletin, and step out with that flag.

    –Susan Forsburg

  6. tgflux

    ChristopherJ, my gut reaction to your screed is not unlike this

    those that have left because of those battles, as the great Bobby Castle used to say (and probably still does), “are the ones that should go.” He did not mean that in a nice way.

    Still&all, because you (like our frequent respondent NicoleP) push my buttons, it probably means you have *something*—some small light of truth—I need to hear. And for that, I thank you, as my brother in Christ. God bless.

    JC Fisher

  7. Michael Russell

    As long as they spell our name right…. People whereas those screeds and instantly believe them would most likely never want to be Episcopalians anyway. Those who read them and wonder at the hyperbole and bile might well come looking for us to,discover our particular path of Chrisitian faithfulness.

    One wag wrote that we had journeyed from being the Republican party at prayer, to the Democratic party at prayer, to Occupy at prayer. That is actually not such a bad journey, though we might more accurately suggest we seek first to raise up the bottom 1% because of the Matthew 25:31ff imperative.

    Our decline represents a journey from being a church that held the reins of social, political and economic prominence (read the “Social Sources of Denominationalism”) to a church that doesn’t. What we have lost are the people who were Episcopalian because of our influence, those who came to church because you were not a respectable citizen unless you did, and, most recently, those who were in the church because we were a more personally convenient form of Presbyterianism or Roman Catholicism.

    We moved our tent, social conventions changed, and so we lost membership. We didn’t do things in secret, but in huge public assemblies of Deputies and Bishops. We said that we cared about those who were the victims of all the “isms” and that our faith called us to address especially the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” We are criticized by those who frame the faith nearly wholly as pulling people from “the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”, but truly they are both worthy of renunciation.

    But we have carved out a way, not lost one. People who are not spiritually fed by this way should leave us. And over time the Gamliel principle will assert itself, “If we are of God we will flourish.” God knows, we will find out, but trying to walk two paths, or three at once became impossible so we chose the Matthew 25:31ff path.

  8. Lois Keen

    Piggybacking on Michael Russell’s comment, once again I recall the rector of the congregation where I worshipped on Sundays during seminary preaching one Sunday that he could see TEC beginning to be pushed away from its privileged position at the center of things, out onto the margins. This was in the 1990’s. He thought this just might be God’s doing and that it behooved us to reflect on just what God wants from us in a marginalized position.

    It still behooves us to do that reflection: If we are indeed being pushed to the margins for a purpose, what might that purpose be?

  9. Michael Russell

    My first line should read, “People who read those screeds” don’t ya love auto correct and early morning writing!


    I don’t think we were pushed out, I think we chose a path. In conjunction with the general diminishment of denominational importance, especially in the social and political sphere, we lost people were able to go where the spirit led them or to the golf course.

    So yes, we are responsible for choosing a progressive course that has fought to include people and fought for a wider understanding of the connection of faithfulness and community well being.

    We are battered by the loudest voices which equate prosperity with God’s blessing (an very Hebrew Scripture notion)and have decided that helping the broken enables dysfunction and dependency rather than self-reliance.

    When you equate prosperity with God’s blessing and personal disaster and disability with sin it makes a perfect blinder from noting that wealth is often accumulated by cheating, stealing, gaming the markets and writing laws that allow you to pollute the environment and exploit people. Since prosperity is the outcome, it must be God blessed.

    Gone are all the parts of scripture like the passage from 2 Corinthians on 5 Pentecost that suggested “those with much should not have too much and those with little should not have two little.” Gone too is any sense of connection between the new elites of Conservative Christianity and the masses of the “unwashed” who are in their view likely to be suffering from being “unsaved”. Without an understanding that the well being of the rich is intimately connected to the well being of the poorest we head towards social meltdown. It is not the liberals and progressives who are breaking the social contract, it is the nouveaux elites.

  10. Lois Keen

    Thanks, Michael. That’s the kind of reflection I was looking for. I didn’t want to be a priest. I had a choice. God would not force me to get ordained. When I gave up fighting against the idea, everything fell into place. In the same way, TEC had and still has the free will to make a choice. I pray we will continue to choose the path of inclusion. There was a cost to me in getting ordained. There is always a cost, just as there is a cost to TEC in having chosen the path you describe: “..a progressive course that has fought to include people and fought for a wider understanding of the connection of faithfulness and community well being.” (I’m going to retain that line for future use, attributed, of course!) The cost of being “battered by the loudest voices” is small enough when that for which we have chosen is nothing less than to live the Good News of Jesus Christ, choosing for the unwashed, the suffering, the poorest. Again, thank you, Michael.

  11. dweir

    Douglas John Hall, a Canadian theologian now retired from McGill, has urged mainline Protestants to work on intentional disestablishment and to recover our identity as disciple communities. This requires more, not less, theology, theology that makes no claim to universality but is conciuously contextual. I am convinced that the Episcopal Church has made its more controversial decisions on the basis of good theology, but I thnk we need more of it and we need to be more assertive about it. Being what Hall calls a church theologian is not something to be ashamed of.

    Daniel Weir (added by ~ed.)

  12. Michael LaBelle

    I remember going to a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park NY shortly after the whole controversy regarding the Gene Robinson ordination. Bishop Frank Griswold happened to be in attendance. I had a chance to talk with him briefly toward the end, and I told him that I thought the Episcopal Church’s stance on homosexuality was “prophetic”. He looked at me squarely in the eyes and said “I feel the exactly same way”. I am not gay, but I am thankful there is a place in Christendom where homosexuals are “officially” fully welcome. The conservative elements of the wider Church for too long have had the microphone (and the Church keys) in this country. So much so that I regularly feel the need to say, when talking about about my spiritual identity to new friends, “I am a Christian, but…” . I then add that I am not a close minded, bigoted reactionary or some thing like that. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to makes excuses for my allegiance. The Episcopal Church continues to help me toward this dream.

  13. Chris H.

    Actually I think the “connectedness between faithfulness and community wellbeing” needs to be made better. I think the secular humanists and atheists did such a good job of proving that faith wasn’t necessary for being a person who helped the poor, loved justice, etc. that many of the younger generation just don’t see why they should bother with church. They can join/help so many other progressive or charitable organizations without having to spend their Sundays listening to sermons. If TEC could articulate that, it might help them get the younger generations involved.

    Chris Harwood

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