Neither Left Nor Right

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.

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thanks AKMA. I found that first rate thinking as eloquently written as anything I’ve read. I’ve not written before but I am a regular reader of yours and hope that this blog has a wide audience. The Rev. Jeff Bullock

  2. Your criticisms are fair all around. Most of what I read these days reflects the separation of two sides preparing for battle. This is reflected in arguments which were never intended to persuade, since the two sides never talk to each other. Allow me to add a few random comments.

    My frustration with liberals is that they seem to be much better at describing what they do not believe than in what they do. They are at a fundamental disadvanage here: evangelicals are highly practiced at witnessing to their beliefs. The average liberal couldn’t put theirs on paper if you gave them a month to do it. Combine that with the liberal distaste for evangelism, and you can tell who is more likely to win this thing.

    My frustration with conservatives is their increasing unwillingness to reconcile modern scientific insight with biblical faith. We are still debating evolution in many parts of the country, and a shocking proportion of high school students are not exposed to a fundamental pillar of modern biology because teachers and school boards simply don’t want one more fight with a highly organized minority. Personally, I see the issue of homosexuality as much closer to that of Galileo and Copernican cosmology, or to evolution, than to civil rights. Then again, if I were gay and had been denied a job or medical coverage, I might see it differently.

    How do we decide which insights come from the Holy Spirit, and which will eventually be discarded? How about rational discourse? Oh, I forgot — that would mean that we would actually have to talk to each other. That’s the sort of thinking that gets me branded as a hopeless idealist.

    Yes, we need time. It took a couple of decades for me to turn around on this issue, and I would expect society to take much longer, especially since we have been avoiding it so strenuously. Discussions of sexuality seem to touch all of us very deeply, at levels that are immune to reasoned argument. That is, perhaps, why we avoid them. It is so much easier to slap a bumper sticker on the car and complain about THEM.

  3. The walk between the neo-Montanists and the neo-Donatists; what a joy. You’re right on. I do wish that the church would figure out some appropriate, well-articulated stand to take rather than letting the Extreme Spokespeople whirl us around the poles. The deeper hermeneutical issue aside, the current problem is technically a canon problem: we have a bishop living in a relationship sanctioned neither by the canons nor the liturgy. Let’s lock the doors next General Assembly and not let them out until they’ve fixed it one way or the other…

  4. I think you guys will continue to drift until you make up with the pope and do a little ring kissing. It’s a hierarchical necessity.

  5. Indeed, we of the “Left” need to state our position in a much more articulate manner than we have. (Admittedly, I find it amusing that, by virtue of living in the Diocese of Dallas, little-old moderate, broad church me is branded a screaming liberal 🙂

    …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 if we can’t offer a “coherent theological identity” that includes justice and inclusiveness, then we either 1) aren’t trying hard enough, or 2) have become irrelevant.

  6. “God alone knows, everyone else is just trying to know.” Our initial problem is that we think we are correct when we can’t honestly know if we are 100% correct. The issue of homosexuality and any other theological topic would better “resolved” if we only listened to each other instead of beating on each other. Both sides would be better to “love their neighbor” instead of loving their beliefs. -Jeremy Colliver

  7. But again, this is an asymmetrical equation. For gay people, this is NOT about “beliefs”; it’s about our lives and how free we are to live them. It’s something we deal with every single day.

    For others, it’s “theory,” good for an hour’s discussion and then it’s on to something else.

    Not exactly the same thing, is it?

    FYI, the cranky right-winger and self-avowed homophobe, John Derbyshire, has finally come to the conclusion we’ve been trying in vain to get across to the world lo these many, many years: homosexuality is inborn.

    If that helps at all.

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