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Once more dear friends…

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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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

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.


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.)

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.

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.

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