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.