With the expectation that no one really wants to hear these observations firmly in place, and with full respect to those spokespeople who defy the gross generalizations I make hereinafter, with great sympathy for those whose feelings are quick from long-term irritation at the hands of an unsympathetic church, I nonetheless make bold to poke the eyes of the Episcopalians with whom I agree and those with whom I disagree.
First, I’ll note that the ECUSA has tended to respond somewhat equivocally and defensively to the Windsor Report and the Primates’ Meeting. ECUSA (rightly, but awkwardly) points out that it observed correct process in reaching its recent decisions, but that’s not quite the point that concerns the Primates and our neighbors in the Communion. The leaders of ECUSA keep repeating formulaic assurances that “the Lord is making a new thing,” or that “the Spirit is leading us into new truths” — but not arguing the case for why people ought to share the discernment that these are newly-recognized truths or that the Lord is behind these new things.
And on another side, I see repeated assertions that the sexuality debate is not like all those other hitherto-unquestioned topics on which the church changed its mind markedly: not like barring Gentiles from fellowship, or usury, or slavery, or the Wife’s Sister’s Act, or (for some) the all-male priesthood. Now, without pre-judging the question of whether any or all of these constitute legitimate analogies to current deliberations about sexuality, it strikes me that the more pertinent question is how we would know whether these constitute legitimate analogies. After all, when these past controversies were troubling the church, the various parties to the debate invoked the imminent doom of the faith, the moral corruption of the people of God, and the stifling of the preaching of the true Gospel as the consequences of the impending change; were all those who cautioned against these changes quite deluded about their significance? If so, should we rule out their testimony about sexuality, too (since if they were wrong about the Wife’s Sister’s Act, we can’t be very sure that they may not be wrong about sexuality)? When we’re in the midst of a conflict, those with whom we disagree about heated issues tend always to look wronger and less intelligent than our heroes, and our arguments always tend to look natural, plain, and obvious. That we’re having an argument about the issue should itself provide a reason for thinking that “self-evidence” and “plainness” aren’t the most pertinent categories for resolving this mess; at least it would be if the Left were more actively involved in offering reasoned argument.
And to return to my criticism of the Left, the Right is onto something when it submits that ECUSA has been retreating from a willingness to stand for any particular thing. I hold no brief for coercion or oppression, and it should be obvious that I’m no darling of the American Anglican Council, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, or any of the various displacement groups — but over the past few decades, the Episcopal Church has in the aggregate drifted away from holding to a coherent theological identity, toward a notional inclusiveness that (sadly) evaporates when subjected to close examination.
And one more time, to fault the Right (actually, all concerned): doesn’t it seem odd that when one properly-constituted body of church leaders votes in a way we disapprove of, they’re heretical pretenders — and when a different body votes in a way we commend, they’re angels of sound judgment? (And vice versa, of course, for ECUSA — where General Convention stands in for the heroes, and the Primates Meeting for the villains.) How much does this reflect faith in the church’s discernment processes, and how much is it a reflection of parochial ardor for one’s own conclusions?
I should have figured this all out ages ago. In the meantime, mark me down with Gamaliel, give it some time, and give us enough time to look at these days with retrospect.