Sunday, July 02, 2006

Episcopalians Shaken by Division in Church - New York Times
[T]o the Episcopalians at St. Luke's Parish in Darien, Conn., who gathered with their pastor to grapple with the past week's news about their denomination, it was as if their solid stone church had been struck by an earthquake...the archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, weighed in with a plan of seismic implications to ask all 38 regional churches in the Communion to agree to a covenant that could limit each church's autonomy. Those that do not agree could be given second-tier status in the Communion...The vast majority of the Episcopal Church would be considered the 'off brand,' "

Darien, Connecticut, in case you don't know, is a very posh suburb in the Northeast--the heartland of Episcopaliandom--where no one would dream of belonging to a second-tier Anglican church any more than the would buy a cheap Chinese Louis Vuitton fake from eBay.

At a recent meeting, members of the parish expressed concern that their parish could be demoted to second class status through the efforts of Anglican prelates in, of all places, Africa who, representing the majority of Anglicans, have exerted political muscle to get churches that do not cleave to doctrinal orthodoxy kicked out.

The parishioners at St. Luke's met in a lounge hung with an oil portrait of a rector who served the church from 1863 to 1912. Everyone in the room was white, many white-haired — a group atypical in the context of the global Anglican Communion, in which the typical member is now black, young and living in Africa... David Kelley, whose parents were also St. Luke's members, told the gathering, "All this business of consulting with other churches in the Communion, I'm not aware of the African churches consulting with us."

Of course only a few decades ago the African churches were not merely consulting with "us"--they were being run by "our" missionaries. Until fairly recently the suggestion that the Church in Africa would soon be sending missionaries to us was taken as a joke: who imagined that after sending missionaries to convert them and set them straight about religious matters, they would be campaigning to set us straight?

Still and all, characteristically what vexed the Darien Episcopalians was not the politicking of the African bishops, the covenant proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the views of either liberals or conservatives, but the fact that it had all caused such a fuss.

[T]he Rev. William Sachs, a St. Luke's member who was recently named director of the new Center for Reconciliation and Mission at St. Stephen's Church in Richmond, Va...[said] "What's really going on in the pews of Episcopal churches is they don't necessarily want to align with either side...They want to get on with life. They want this thing resolved."

There is the rub. For the past 40 years, the liberal movers and shakers in mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopal Church have pushed the idea that the chief goal of the Church was promote a socio/political agenda--and to their horror, for the past 30 years, conservative Christians have agreed. The socio-political agendas were, of course different. Liberals aimed to establish an "inclusive" society where "justice, freedom and peace" would flourish, where citizens would take their obligation to be "good stewards" of the environment seriously and where everyone, liberated from the sense of sin, would engage in joyful, guiltless sex within the context of loving, committed relationships. Conservatives hoped to establish a theocracy based on "family values," where individuals inclined to run amok would be controlled by family discipline, cops and the military, and where there would be a lot less sex.

I do not know how pew-sitters in conservative churches view the social agenda of their leaders, but I suspect that Sachs is right in holding that most occupants of Episcopal pews just want to "get on with life." Most people do not belong to churches in order to pursue socio-political agendas. Most people are not interested in social improvement or political action and of those that are, the majority do not regard churches as appropriate organizations in which to pursue their social and political goals: there are lots of secular organizations, from party political organizations to local groups like the Chula Vista Northwest Civic Association, whose goal is to prevent the erection of buildings taller than 3 stories in downtown Chula Vista, that are more focused and more effective in implementing social and political projects.

The real bone of contention is not the moral status of homosexual activity put the purpose of the Church as an institution. People want to get on with life. They want to go to services, sing in the choir, run rummage sales, socialize at coffee hour, go to Bible studies and do all the various religious things they go to church for without being inundated by the fallout from the Church's crusade for gay rights--or any other crusades for "justice, freedom and peace." And why shouldn't they?

16 comments:

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

This is a debate about how the church should structure itself. This isn't analogous to cases in which churches endorse anti-nuclear campaigns, or lobby for divestment of Israeli assets. In those cases, liberal churches imposed themselves as political players in national and international debates.

In this case, the Episcopalians are trying to enforce their moral and theological beliefs within their own church.

If I went to church to sing and socialize, I'd have the same standards as I do for the other places I go to enjoy music and hang out with friends--I don't go to restricted clubs.

H. E. said...

WRONG! Ostensibly this was a debate about internal church matters but the aim of the leadership in the Episcopal Church was to make a "prophetic" statement and position itself on the right side in Culture Wars.

Homosexuality was well on the way to becoming a non-issue in the Episcopal Church in the way that pre-marital sex was (how many virgins would you guess were married in the Episcopal Church last year? Double digits? Single digits? As many as can dance on a pinhead?). There was a larger percentage of gays among Episcopal clergy than in the population. Gays were as welcome in a given parish as they were in the surrounding community from which the congregation was drawn: didn't quite fit in suburban congregations that catered for young families (where unmarried heterosexuals or childless couples didn't have a niche either)--in a number of downtown Anglo-Catholic music shrines they were in the majority, and were not even by a stretch "closeted."

No one cared--until the Church decided to launch yet another crusade for social justice, and drew down the wrath of a minority of social conservatives in the church. Of course now that the church has "called the question" there's no going back.

And if you dispute my reading, construct an alternative scenario where the Episcopal Church simply didn't say anything about sexuality: gays would have kept getting ordained as priests and bishops; gay couples amongst clergy and laity would have increasingly become as open and accepted as straight unmarried couples living together. Within a few years the official position on homosexuality would have become just one of those archaic rules on the books that no one pays any attention to and that most people don't even know about.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Wasn't this whole thing touched off in 2003 when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire?

It's not like some Episcopalians got together and said "Well show the secular world! We'll start a campaign to change the rules against gay bishops in our church."

Instead, one region just went ahead and elected the guy they wanted to be their bishop, who happened to be gay. Then the conservatives asked the higher-ups to make a new rule infringing on regional autonomy.

Yes, there's a larger social debate going on about gay rights, but that doesn't mean that every time an institution grapples with a moral issue that's in the zeitgeist, it's automatically a secular political play by that institution.

If a golf club decides to allow female members, it's not a political play by that golf club. Some people in the golf club may take themselves a little too seriously and claim that their club has a special obligation to set an example for the rest of society and blah, blah, blah. However, in that case, nobody says that the golf club is meddling in politics.

Boofykatz said...

I'm with Ms Beyerstein; it is the African lunocracy who have the overriding socio-political agenda, and I must confess that if I had 'faith' I would find it hard to fault them. I know that you think people select their religion to suit their ethics - broadly speaking - and here we see the consequences of choosing from les plats du jour.

H. E. said...

Wasn't this whole thing touched off in 2003 when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire?

No. Church leaders had been working on a sexuality issues in order to come up with a "teaching" on human sexuality that would represent the Church's position. In 1993 (4 or 5 I forget) they came up with the "Bishop's Study Document on Human Sexuality" which was put before General Convention, did not pass and created a furore including minority reports by left and right wings. I passed this paper around to some of my colleagues and the average grade we gave it was C+ (assuming it came from a sophmore in an GE ethics class for non-majors) and that primarily for spelling and basic literacy. It proclaimed that Freud was a Great Thinker of the same caliber as Galileo and Darwin and that just as the Church had come to terms with heliocentric astronomy and evolution it would have to come to terms with the Truths revealed by Freud.

In the early/mid 90s also they instituted a nationwide program that was supposed to result in grassroots discussions of sexuality in every parish in the country. The church produced elaborate "materials" in three-ring binders for use by parishes and trained "facilitator-trainers" to train cadres of "facilitators" to run these discussions which were supposed to educated the laity so that they could take a survey which, they claimed, would show the "mind of the church" on sexuality issues.

I was trained as a facilitator and participated in the discussion in my parish. The materials were transparently propaganda documents, it was all this "group dynamics" business geared to jolly people along and manipulate them into coming up with the correct views--like those workshops at work on "diversity" and "team-building." It was embarrassing: one of the projects specified in the "materials" was to get a real live homosexual for show and tell to the group (I brought the chair of our theology department). The survey was a joke, full of leading questions. Even so it didn't produce the results promoters wanted so it was quietly packed up and never mentioned again.

I could go on in detail with this history. The bottom line is that this was a long-term large scale well-funded campaign to "use psychology" on the laity in order to get them to agree with what was a done deal, that didn't work as well as planners had hoped. The ordination of Bishop Robinson was a test case aimed at forcing the Church's hand.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

H.e., you're describing a struggle within the Episcopalian church not an attempt by the church leaders to impose their moral beliefs on the secular world.

In your original post, you complained that the liberals who were pushing for gay rights and progressive theological teachings on sexuality in the Episcopal church were comparable to conservatives who think it's their Christian duty to change public school curricula or abortion laws.

Obviously, you disapprove of the tactics that some liberals are using to change opinion within the church.

I'm just saying that this particular struggle isn't an example of a church overreaching its authority and infringing on the public sphere.

Regardless of whether this campaign is constructive for the Episcopalian community, I think it's pretty clear that the methods and tactics you describe are appropriate for intra-church negotiations.

Religions are supposed to address matters of moral concern to their members. A lot of Episcopalians think it's morally important to openly embrace gays, or to take a hard line against openly gay leaders, as the case may be.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

I'm sure you're right that the average Episcopalian doesn't care nearly as much about church doctrine as about the social rituals of church life.

However, that's probably true regarding any matter of ethics or theology, not just issues are parallel to social and political upheavals in the secular world.

There's a big difference between a church embarking on a political campaign directed at the larger society, vs. a church struggling to come to terms with its own doctrines. There are a lot of good reasons why churches probably shouldn't get overly involved in temporal politics, starting with the preferences of the average pew-sitter.

However, people who a) care about Episcopal doctrine, and b) consider the status of gays to be a moral issue (one way or the other), should be hashing this issue out in the church.

H. E. said...

Well, I'm a real radical on this: surprise--I don't believe that it's the business of the church to deal with moral issues. Ethics is a secular, academic enterprise and the place to hash out ethical issues is in philosophy departments, at academic conferences and in the journals. As for the practical matter of working for social change, that's the business of secular social action organizations and political parties.

Why should the Church be hashing out moral issues any more than it should be hashing out cosmological, astronomical or biological issues--which were once thought to be within the Church's area of expertise?

Scott said...

As an atheist, I feel exactly the opposite, that the only important thing a church does is to deal with moral issues. I can think of no more important result than if your belief in the Ten Commendments stops you from stealing from me or killing me.

Yes, the architecture and music created in support of the church can be beautiful, even for non-believers, and I can see that the fellowship might be fulfilling, and I imagine that the most important thing to the individual believer would be the personal connection with a Higher Power and the salvation of your soul—but once the relatively selfish goal of personal salvation is eliminated, nothing beats the importance of how you treat/interact with others.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion. Does anyone involved actually believe that the Episcopalian tradition is based in revelation from God? If it is, then it seems the Church has the right and the obligation to meddle in whatever their God-given tradition would lead them to meddle in. The operating assumption in this group, contrary to that of many Episcopalians, especially in the Church's more conservative quarters, seems to be that God has little or nothing to do with it, though. If that's true, then we might well want to keep the Church out of state and even moral affairs, if we think we can do better without it. Scott seems to think maybe we can't. I'm not convinced we can.

HE thinks morality should be the domain of philosophers and their academic fellows, and apparently thinks they can do it better. Maybe, but their record so far isn't very encouraging to me. The methods that predominate in moral philosophy aren't so different from those used in religion. Moral intuition ultimately rules in most moral philosophy, and there is no good rational basis for it. There is no greater agreement among moral philosophers about the good life and how we should behave than there is among the general population, maybe less. Moral philosophy may eventually stumble toward the truth about morality, and methods to suit that, but for now I'd probably prefer a random group of of people to moral philosophers when it comes to moral leadership.

And I might prefer it in the long run too. My own view, which I've mentioned before, is that the truth about morality may not be as salutary as the the traditions we already have. There's no good evidence for truly objective moral bearings; it all comes down to subjective preferences or beliefs. Our subjective preferences in general weren't designed to promote what we normally think of as moral ends, and they seem not as well suited to it as the feelings and beliefs associated with moral objectivism. The logical result of recognizing the subjectivity of morality is that it becomes more explicitly a part of the barter and power interplay of politics and economics, and we can expect the same level of moral success we have in those areas. For better or worse. We shouldn't forget that the rationality of markets and political processes isn't rational in the fullest sense we might desire. They are powerful mass engines that in addition to their rational side have built-in curbs on and distortions of rationality.

Morality isn't ultimately rational, in any case. If our passions are ultimately irreconcilable in a big way, or the Darwinian conditions of life inescapable, rationality may even be less useful than harmful in the end (by which I also mean The End). Rationality is a tool, not good or bad in itself. More of it isn't necessarily better.

H. E. said...

And, indeed, Scott--that's why the leadership of the Episcopal Church think that the only important thing a church does is deal with moral issues, promote social action and encourage people to behave themselves. While most wouldn't call themselves "athiests" if you ask them to cash out what they mean when they say, in the Creed, "I believe in one God..." many would say something like "I believe that Being is gracious" or "I believe that there is Ultimate Meaning" or some such and repudiate the standard interpretation, "I believe that there exists a unique x such that x is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc."

And many would have similar reductionist interpretations of the other articles of the Creed also. I well remember my Confirmation Class back in the 1960s where we got a purple mimeograph sheet with the priest's interpretation of the class along these lines--in particular I remember he cashed out "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come" as "Not pie in the sky when you die but life in depth and fullness here and now." There are two problems with this interpretation: (1) "life in depth and fullness" is unintelligible bs. and (2) anyone who not only dismisses the possibility of post-mortem survival but ridicules it as "pie in sky" has no business drawing a salary from the Church. No don't get me wrong: I'm ok with disbelieving and ridiculing, and with being an honest atheist--but not with clergy who are dismissive and even contemptuous of religious claims getting paid by the Church and setting the agenda for the Church.

Anyway, morality or personal salvation is a false dichotomy. Why assume that, apart from the peripherals (art, music, fellowship, etc.) the only selfish goal for participating in religious practice is to achieve "salvation"--that religious participation is a cost one pays for something else rather than a good in and of itself? This overlooks the fact that some people simply have a taste for religion as such--not merely the art, which you can enjoy without buying in, as you say--but the whole package holisticly, so to speak, the art, music and myth, the theology as a bunch of puzzles that it's interesting to work on, the history and the sense of belonging to that grand thing, being part of that culture rather than viewing it from outside--being a participant rather than a tourist.

Some people do sports to keep fit. They don't really like doing it but pay the price in order to get good bodies and keep healthy. Other people really, really like playing sports and would play even if there were no health or beauty benefits. Some people simply like religion as such and enjoy doing it. This isn't to say they don't believe in God--that's part of the package--but that they just like the whole thing, including God. Why not? I like doing philosophy--reading, writing, going to conferences, participating in my profession--and I like doing religion in the same way. There are some tastes that some people have with which I can't empathize: lots of people have a taste for entertaining--not merely for going to parties, but for planning, organizing, cooking and making the food look good, being gracious to guests, etc. I find the whole thing stressful and horrible but I recognize that some people like doing it, not for any ulterior reason--to make connections, gain status, pay off social debts, etc.--but just because they like doing it. So why, I wonder, is it so hard for many people to understand that a great many religious people simply like doing religion in the say way--not to achieve "salvation" but just because they like it? That's not a challenge or a rhetorical question--it's something I really wonder about.

Sanpete said...

Hmmm. Somehow my earlier post became anonymous, even though the preview showed "sanpete." Anyway, HE, your attitude about the priest who believes the Unitarian version of Episcopalianism seems to broadly support the view that, by its own lights, the Church should be involved in social morality, to the degree that the spiritual roots of the Church seem to demand it. Though the Gospels don't seem to have been conceived as moral documents, the commandment to love one's neighbor and allied ideas do seem to have moral implications and to include a call for action to promote them at all levels.

Many people don't practice religion because they have a taste for it but because they believe it's true.

Scott said...

Yes, I can understand that people can like religion just because they, well, like religion, and not because of ulterior motives. But what my earlier post was about was responding to an earlier comment about the importance of religion. And once you move from the importance of religion to each of us singly to the importance of religion to each of us combined into humanity, then the individual rewards can't compete.

I remember once being in Grand Central Terminal on a day when a representative of an atheist organization had set up a table. (Other days there were Mormans, or Nuclear Disarmament people, etc.) And he was arguing with some passerby about how terrible religion was. And I said -- even if all religion does is stop this guy from killing you on the spot because he thinks he's going to hell, whether it's true or not -- isn't that a good thing?

I still believe that. Which is why what's important as defined by an outsider looking in can be a lot different than what seems impoprtant to an insider gazing in.

H. E. said...

Scott, sorry to repeat the obvious but overall religion does not improve people's behavior--or rather even if it improves some people it makes others a whole lot worse. It may stop some people from killing other people on the spot but it also induces people to kill other people on the spot. At best it's a wash.

Sanpete qua Anonymous, here is a link to the , I think from 1993: Bishops' Teaching Document on Human Sexuality. Note they aren't appealing primarily to revelation but argue on secular grounds for revising the Church's traditional code of sexual conduct and suggest that Biblical sources are compatible with these results. In particular they argue (1) that there are "discontinuities" between the Church's rules and people's actual behavior hence that the Church should change the rules to accommodate their behavior and (2) that just as the Church had to take into account the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Darwin, it has to deal with the scientific discoveries of Freud.

This is lousy on two counts. First, and most importantly, they're committing the fallacy of "deducing ought from is." If as a matter of fact people don't behave according to the rules, it doesn't follow that the rules ought to be revised. Secondly, mentioning Freud in the same breath as Galileo or Darwin, and the very idea that Freud has made important scientific discoveries, is simply laughable.

Sanpete said...

I agree with your complaints about the two points, but that doesn't mean the Church should stay out of social morality, something that the nonreligious (like Freud) also muck up. The Church need not rely on revelation in deciding all issues in relation to how to best promote God's purposes. Revelation tells them to love their neighbor and the details must be worked out in other ways. They may have done a poor job of that in some respects.

It's interesting how people weigh the overall effects of religion. I think it often says more about the people doing the weighing than about the effects of religion, which are very hard to judge in a general way. I incline to the view that it's better than a wash. People can always find very effective reasons to kill each other, and the history of the last century shows that secular dogmas are every bit as dangerous as religious ones (consider Communism and Nazism (or even other seemingly less harmful systems, like ours--power is as dangerous as bad intent)). On the other hand, religion provides some good things that are pretty hard to replace, that, it appears, don't have equally effective secular counterparts, and that work in addition to secular helps. That may include extra reasons not to break some of the other commandments, besides not killing, that are less likely to also be worsened by religion (religion seldom causes stealing, adultery, and so on). On another tack, the most comprehensive review of research I've seen (in a secular medical journal) finds that religion is good on the whole for mental and physical health. And that, I suspect, also correlates with better behavior. But it's all very tricky to pin down.

Scott said...

Ah, but wasn't it Freud who said that by following his precepts, one could rise from a state of abject despair into one of everyday unhappiness?

And isn't a generalized unhappiness the goal to which we all aspire?

;-)