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Civil Discourse in the Blogosphere

Civil Discourse in the Blogosphere

by James Mathes

A few weeks ago, my fellow bishop, the Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little, issued a pastoral letter to his Diocese of Northern Indiana regarding Resolution A048, which authorized a provisional liturgy for same-sex blessings. As a theological conservative, Bishop Little voted against this resolution. Not surprisingly, in his pastoral letter to his diocese, he stated that he would not allow its use in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He then went on to describe, however, how he would permit clergy of the diocese to use the provisions of this trial liturgy in adjacent dioceses. Indeed, he had already conferred with the bishops of those dioceses and received their consent for the protocol.

As so often happens in today’s church, the blogosphere picked up the pastoral letter. As one who uses Episcopal Café as tool for staying up to date, it was actually on this site that I first spotted Bishop Little’s letter. When I read the article with its copious excerpts from the pastoral, I was humbled by my colleague’s effort to be true to his theological convictions and create space for his clergy to be true to theirs.

As I scanned the comments, I was stunned by the strong reaction to Bishop Little’s letter. People expressed anger, said he was cruel, implied that the bishop was a bigot, and were mocking and sarcastic. The most critical and acerbic comments were posted in the first twenty-four hours. Indeed, it appears to be a general blog characteristic that most comments are registered within a day after the posting.

I am keenly aware that the question of same-sex blessings is a nexus of heartfelt emotions, strong beliefs and for some, questions of identity and personal hurt. I recognize that some of the strongest comments offered are from deep in a person’s soul. I do not quibble with someone disagreeing with Bishop Little’s letter or his actions. People feel their emotions, sometimes with great power. We need to take a look, however, at how we speak to and about each other.

As followers of Jesus, we have a most challenging vocation. We are to be those who love our enemies and strive for justice and peace. His own mother sang in expectation of him, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” (Luke 1:52) and yet this Jesus says to those who follow him, “do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Today, we inhabit a church of diverse views. When we look at issues such as homosexuality and same-sex blessings, some see it as a clear justice issue and others as a clear issue of biblical injunction. With the exception of the undecided, an ever shrinking percentage, everyone sees the matter in black or white.

And in this, the church mimics the society at large. We see this most clearly in the present electoral campaign, which is similarly divided with few undecided. And the tone of the political discourse makes my concerns about the comments on Episcopal Café seem downright picky! Yet, the church is not called to simply do better than the community in which it ministers, but to strive through love for that more excellent way. Herein lies both the danger and the opportunity. The danger is that we will not heed this call and simply become like the culture we inhabit rather than transforming the culture through Christ. And similarly the opportunity is that we might actually be able to do that work of transformation.

It begins with a commitment to discourse, especially with those with whom we differ. It continues with great care with the words that we use and the judgments that we make about others. Our common conversation about things of importance should be imbued with prayer. It requires more questions of inquiry than assertions of our own position—positions we should hold gently.

In all of this, the blogosphere is presently problematic. Read, react, respond is the norm. I wonder what would happen if we read, meditated and pondered, asked only questions of inquiry for a few days, and only then positively expressed our place in the conversation. Blogging could quickly take on the character of discourse and transformation.

And here is my dream: that our larger society would take note of how Episcopalians discuss the hard questions—how we speak with care and listen in deep, searching ways. As they observe us, they would see who we are as the body of Christ and how we treat each one another. As they see us, they will want to know more about the one whom we follow. I yearn for that kind of church: quintessentially Anglican and truly inclusive.

The Rt. Rev James Mathes is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Deigo.

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Bill Dilworth

Well, that considerably better than the F some commenters seemed to assign him...

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Lionel Deimel

Bill,

What Bishop Little did was better than prohibiting the use of the new rite by his clergy or disciplining them for using it. What he did was worse than allowing the use of the rite in Northern Indiana with appropriate preparation.

Bishop Little earns a C+.

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Bill Dilworth

Lionel, how is determining things to be either virtuous/non-virtuous pair anything other than a weak, latinate version of judging things good/evil?

How is Bishop Little's authorizing diocesan clergy to perform the rite in other dioceses not better than a determination to discipline them for doing so?

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Lionel Deimel

This dialogue between Eric and Bill seems largely to assume that actions are either good or evil. To think thus is not only wrong but very un-Anglican.

The reality is that what was passed by the General Convention was a compromise, though not one discussed much as such. An unconstrained permission to use the new rite likely would not have passed. Allowing reactionary bishops to prevent use of the rite was a politically necessary step toward the day when such morally compromised restrictions could be removed.

I consider not allowing the perfect to prevent the good to be virtuous. I would have judged it virtuous had Bishop Little banned use of the rite because of a belief that it would have harmed the diocese by causing dissension that would have distracted from more pressing priorities. I do not consider it virtuous that Bishop Little seems only interested in preserving his personal sense of righteousness.

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Bill Dilworth

"In our legal system"

Now who's using legality to argue morals? 😉

" Certainly, in the discussions I had with folks at GC..."

I had no idea that you were at GC, Eric. Were you a deputy?

"...there was ample dissent about the conscience clause. My sense is that it was perceived, at best, as a necessary evil."

My comments haven't been based on the conscience clause, but on this operative clause: "Resolved, That the 77th General Convention authorize for provisional use "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" from "Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing" beginning the First Sunday of Advent 2012, under the direction and subject to the permission of the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority..." The resolution does not authorize the rite for use throughout the Episcopal Church absolutely, but only where, when, and under those circumstances the local bishop allows it. It was a foregone conclusion that some bishops would not approve the use of the rite. If not allowing the rite's use were truly immoral, GC would have had no business allowing it no matter what the payoff was - you can't do good by enabling evil. GC's explicitly making the decision to give or withhold permission the responsibility of the diocesans alone, without any preconditions, means it gave approval for some bishops to forbid the rite, which further means that GC shares in whatever culpability attaches to those bishops.

I don't think that Bishop Little's actions were immoral, so I don't think there's anything for GC to share. But someone who does think it was immoral should hold GC accountable for enabling him.

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