There was a mock-up of an advertisement going around Facebook the other day, purported to be part of a new campaign for the Episcopal Church in the US (I’ll keep stipulating its national orientation, even though it legally renounced that in favour of ‘The Episcopal Church’, for convenience’s sake; here in Scotland, the US version is not The Episcopal Church). The ad depicts an ordained woman, a gay couple with cute multiracial children, and a young man with a martini glass, each captioned ‘I’m Episcopalian’/‘We’re Episcopalians’. Beneath the photos are three lines of type: ‘The Episcopal Church / Resisting Fundamentalism Since 1784 / Like Jesus resisting the Pharisees since the First Century!’ Evidently this poster went down well with a umber of my Episcopal friends; I saw it under a number of people’s status updates. I was deeply troubled by it, though, and (rather than leave a comment under one person’s post) I thought I’d explain how profoundly wrong-headed I think the poster is over here on my own turf.
First: I fully support the ordination/consecration of women to all orders of ministry. I fully support the incorporation of gay couples in the sacramental life of marriage (not yet realised, but still pushing). And if hot young men want to drink martinis, I suppose I support that too, though I don’t care much about it.
If all the poster did was to make the point that Episcopalians ordain women, are mostly OK with gay relationships (though not yet to the point of marriage), and don’t forbid martinis, I would be unimpressed. These are not the reason someone should go to the Episcopal Church; plenty of other denominations can say the same. Still, if you already know that you want to go to a church and you have been burnt by a Christian body that limits women’s participation in ordained leadership, that rejects same-sex relationships, or bans martinis, it would be useful to know that the Episcopal Church doesn’t fall into the above categories — though it would be more honest if the poster did so in a way that conveyed varying degrees of dissatisfaction within the Episcopal Church relative to those three characteristics.
But the poster then goes on to assert that the Episcopal Church has been resisting fundamentalism since 1784. I’m not sure how to construe that as a truthful claim; what eighteenth-century ‘fundamentalists’ were the colonial Episcopalians resisting? I’m not aware that there was a fundamentalist movement at all until the controversies of the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. The poster can’t truthfully mean that Episcopalians have been resisting ‘conservative theology’ since then, because from the eighteenth century till today there have been conservative Episcopalians as well as liberal Episcopalians. Moreover, the various Christian bodies that do not ordain women, or discountenance same-sex relationships, or forbid consumption of alcohol, are not in any sane way subsumed under the heading ‘Fundamentalism’. It’s hard to see this tagline as something other than a historically ungrounded cheap shot directed indiscriminately at conservative Christians, some of whom are indeed… Episcopalians.
The closing line submits that the Episcopal Church, like Jesus, resists Pharisees. That one just leaps out and grabs me by the throat for its misbegotten bigotry. Jesus certainly quarrelled with first-century Pharisees, as did Sadducees, Essenes, ordinary nonpartisan Jews, and Pharisees themselves. But the claim that Jesus resisted them conveys the sense that those wicked Pharisees were trying to ram something down people’s throats, and Jesus led a liberation movement against them. That is a possible, popular, interpretation of the New Testament — I think reads selectively and reflects an unsatisfactory appreciation for what Pharisaism was and where it stood in first-century culture — but it’s very far from being a self-evident historical datum. And when it’s conjoined in a comparison of Jesus with the Episcopal Church in a battle against fundamentalism, it can hardly escape the implication that both the Episcopal Church and Jesus stand over against Judaism (the ongoing currents of which draw in great part on Pharisaic traditions) in mocking derision.
To sum up, the poster strikes me as ‘lite’ on a very charitable reading, and perniciously false and spiritually toxic if it be taken at all seriously. A promotional campaign that advances ideological appeals as more signifcant than truth cannot be healthy for anyone involved. What the poster says to me is: ‘The [US] Episcopal Church: ignorant, smug, self-congratulatory, and condescending’. Since I know well that a great many Episcopalians are none of the above, the poster offended me as a misrepresentation of the Episcopal Church at its best, and as a misleading signal to onlookers who might think that the ad truly represents the Episcopal Church [USA].