Saturday, December 16, 2006

Episcopalians Are Reaching Point of Revolt - New York Times
It’s a huge amount of mess,” said the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, who is aligned with the conservatives. “As these two sides fight, a lot of people in the middle of the Episcopal Church are exhausted and trying to hide, and you can’t. When you’re in a family and the two sides are fighting, it affects everybody.

”It's more of the usual--now 8 churches occupying prima real estate in the Diocese of Virginia are pulling out because of the current dispute over the ordination of active homosexuals. And there will be mega-litigation. And women will be the big losers in this one. Most Americans by the end of the 20th century had no objections to women's ordination. But the Episcopal Church insisted on packaging women's ordination together with together with gay ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions and a whole host of other revisionary doctrines and practices that were part of what, for convenience and in the spirit of bitter irony, might be called The Liberation Agenda, in which there is something for everyone to hate.

Now that the sexuality issue has become a cause to rally the troops, and various ultra-conservative third world bishops have taken up the cause, people who had no objection to women's ordination are getting on board with the opposition. People who had no objection to women's ordination will join this consortium. Most gays in the Episcopal Church will also lose out because of the split too. When it happens, neither of the churches that survive the fission will be viable.

On the one side there will be a church that's been religiously gutted, a generic liberal Protestant denomination led by politically correct atheists catering to a religiously indifferent clientele for whom the church is no more than a community center or civic organization. Like all such churches, it will continue its genteel decline--in this case pushed onto the fast track by legal expenses, loss of revenue and bad publicity. On the other side the malcontents' rainbow coalition will form a church too conservative for most of its members' tastes which, like all rainbow coalitions unified only by opposition, will fall apart once it is no longer in opposition.

Why did this happen? Every liberal, mainline denomination as been dealing with sexuality issues for decades and isn't experiencing this meltdown. What's the difference? I think it's deep in the structure and fundamental theology of the Anglican Church--to the extent that it has a theology. The Anglican Church at its root and in its gut is Catholic in the most important sense--not in virtue of costume or liturgy, but in its hierarchal structure and in roles assigned to clergy and laity. There is no tradition of the priesthood of all believers. There is a bright line between clergy and laity, and no recognition of lay intellectual leadership or participation. Because of the historical structure of the Anglican Church, clergy are set up as intellectual leaders and moral teachers, called to instruct the laity in matters of faith and morals, and to set them straight. For the past 40 years liberal clergy in this capacity they have pushed the Liberation Agenda, pigheadedly pursuing it, in the unshakable conviction that they have got it right and are called to correct the laity. Listen to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church:

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in an e-mail response to a request for an interview [with the NYTimes] that such splits reflect a polarized society, as well as the “anxiety” and “discomfort” that many people feel when they are asked to live with diversity.“The quick fix embraced in drawing lines or in departing is not going to be an ultimate solution for our discomfort,” she said.

The bishop doesn't get it. Like other liberal clergy, she understands dissent as an expression of "anxiety" and "discomfort" rather than principled disagreement--a matter to be sorted out by sympathy, pastoral care and therapy. She, and they, do not understand that even apart from substantive disagreement this patronizing treatment by itself is enough to infuriate dissenters. And because she, and they, are convinced that their opponents are either naive or perverse, that she and they have a divine mission to correct them and that their agenda will inevitably triumph, they will pursue their iron-fist-in-velvet-glove program until the Episcopal Church is screwed into the ground.

I've been reading Barbara Tuchman on The March of Folly--an account of folly on the grand scale, from the Trojan Horse to the War in Vietnam. Everyone makes mistakes, but folly on this grand scale only occurs when smart people who are actors on the world stage, who should know better, who have all relevant information, good advice, and the power set policy, pigheadedly march to destruction, dragging the people and institutions in their charge to destruction. Right now I'm reading about how the Renaissance Popes precipitated the Reformation--by setting up as Italian princelings, bankrolling their retainers and illegitimate children, playing politics and waging war. Julius simply didn't get the idea that it was, minimally, unseemly for a priest to lead the troops into battle and his Borgia predecessor, Alexander, just didn't understand that staging orgies at the Vatican for his pleasure and the entertainment of his children Lucrezia and Cesere was, at best, offensive. None of them seemed to get the idea that religion had anything to do with what they were doing. They were magnates, and that was the way big men behaved.

The Episcopal Church, for all its endowment, is a marginal institution--hardly comparable to the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation. It's the same story though: clergy don't get the idea that they were supposed to be doing is religion. Those who're politically active are convinced that they're prophets, charged with setting the rest of us straight. They don't believe the stuff and, when it gets down to brass tacks, they don't believe that Christianity is of any real importance. Their goal is to promote the Liberation Agenda. They believe that their position as clergy of the Episcopal Church puts them in the position to push it and that is that they are going to do. What a miserable sad, bad business.


Lindsay Beyerstein said...

You're not crediting the liberal camp with a substantial intellectual position, h.e.

There is a deep theological issue at stake for Anglican/Episcopalians. As you point out, hierarchy and the distinctions between laity and clergy essential parts of church doctrine. Therefore, disputes over who may, or may not be ordained as a member of the clergy cut right to the heart of Anglicanism.

I don't care whether the liberal Powers That Be are couching their rhetoric in therapeutic terms. There is a deep matter of Christian principle here.

The real question is whether all are equal in the sight of God--and, if so, how good Anglicans can allow their co-religionists to exclude fellow Anglicans for no good reason.

If there is a God, and God cares a lot about the structure of human churches, then it would matter a lot to God whether certain believers were arbitrarily prevented from serving Him according to their Divine calling.

I believe on philosophical, as opposed to theological, grounds that sexual orientation is irrelevant to moral standing. I'm not better or worse because I'm an open heterosexual. It just doesn't matter. I believe on empirical grounds that a homosexual way of life is every bit as compatible with human flourishing as a heterosexual way of life.

Presumably Anglican God also knows that it's wrong to discriminate against gay people, especially in something as important as the selection of clergy.

H. E. said...

I agree that the liberal camp has a substantial intellectual position, and one with which I happen to agree, viz. that sexual orientation (and IMHO sexual practice) is irrelevant to moral standing. I just claim however that it isn't the Church's business to take any stand on controversial moral issues or to teach ethics. First, priests (who represent the Church) aren't competent--ethics is strictly a philosophical enterprise, the business of academics in the field, and most priests aren't philosophically qualified. Secondly, lay people, with good reason, aren't going to pay any attention to them anyway. They aren't, as they imagine, the intellectual leaders of their parishes: they are no smarter or more educated than their parishioners. Their job is to maintain the facilities, organize services and do the magic act like good trained monkeys.

If there is a God and he/she/it cares about churches, he/she/it cares that they survive materially so that people have access to the buildings and can participate in services. Being omniscient, he/she/it knows that lay people pay no attention to the moral views of clergy and being omnibenevolent, endowing us with intelligence and free will, holds that lay people should think these matters out for themselves.

So, I'm stuck now writing my logic exam which our departmental secretary demands by 7 am tomorrow. And I have to produce a paper by the Jan 1 deadline for the next Pacific SCP meeting by Jan 1. I'm thinking of writing on my claim that the church should get out of the ethics business.

Ceteris paribus, we want as many respectable social institutions as possible to affirm that sexual orientation, and sexual practice, are morally irrelevant. It is certainly wrong to discriminate against gay people and all other things being equal we want to see to it that colleges don't do it when they hire for faculty positions, that supermarkets don't do it when they hire checkers, and that no one does it. But ceteris are rarely paribus and if the costs of doing the "right" thing outweigh the benefits, well then we shouldn't do the "right" thing. I'm just a utilitarian.

Seriously, I think one issue here is that clergy imagine they have much more power and credibility than they in fact have. They think that they can influence public attitudes, or at least the attitudes of their congregations. But as a matter of empirical fact that's false.