I found a video of an interview with Dr. Kendall Harmon of the blog titusonenine on the blog site of Dr. Dunlap, “Catholic in the Third Millennium.” I don’t know the source, but I appreciate Dr. Dunlap posting it. It is well worth watching. I listened to the interview last night, and, as usual, Kendall was thoughtful and measured in his comments. I certainly appreciated his noting that so much of the commentary in the blogosphere is neither.
Having said that, I wondered at his comments in the interview that "the middle did not hold." He questioned those who used that description after General Convention, and said that in fact he felt that was not true.
Which leads me to wonder how he understands "the middle." What is "the middle" between? It seems to me that there may be several answers.
Some who said “the middle held” were focusing on the how the Episcopal Church had dealt with a moral issue and a particular community. Those who were willing to live (I don't want to say happy) with the results of Convention, including Resolution B033, seemed to have had some sense that the poles were radical pursuit of a justice agenda, the consequence of which would be the fullest possible acceptance of GLBT persons, and of their own understanding of their own lives, within all aspects of the life of the Church; vs. radical pursuit of an agenda of traditionalist morality in personal life, supported and sustained by a literal reading of Scripture on at least some issues, and especially homosexuality. If that seems a narrow description, that’s deliberate. Folks at both poles would say that they have some sense of a call to justice and service to the poor; some sense of the content and intent of the Gospel, and how best to spread it; and of “what Jesus would do,” or at least have them do. However, over the issues relating to homosexual persons in the life of the Church, folks at either pole were prepared to let the other pole go, to allow the Church to lose someone. The middle, then, would be those who felt that there is an appropriate claim both for justice for GLBT persons, and so for their full participation in the life of the Episcopal Church; and that this also needed to be (and could be) articulated in Scriptural and traditional terms, applying critical and faithful reason to both Scripture and tradition, as we have done for generations.
Others, I think, spoke of those who felt the Anglican Communion was meaningful – not so meaningful as to be prescriptive for the Episcopal Church. but too meaningful to simply discard. One could take a page from our historic arguments about the historic episcopate, and suggest that some thought the Communion was of the esse of the Church – indispensable – and some of the bene esse of the Church – valuable, but dispensable. One could say, then, that the middle, the majority, held the position that the Communion was of the pleni esse of the Church: yeah, perhaps the Episcopal Church could live without it, but could not be the same without it. (I realize that the argument is actually related to the argument about the episcopate, but that would be a matter for a separate post.)
I think that these were separate considerations among Deputies (and probably among Bishops, but I wasn’t in that House), but there was an awful lot of overlap. That is, those who would have been in the middle for one perspective, would also have been in the middle for the other.
Now, there are also some commentators who have talked about “the middle” after essentially defining it away. That is, they have refused to see themselves in light of the full spectrum, insisting on seeing themselves as normative despite all evidence to the contrary. They look an awful lot like those in the polar groups in my first perspective above, except that they would not speak of or to those at the other pole. Thus, they would say, “I know that in fact I am in the middle, and those who stray too far are literally off the spectrum.” That is the meaning of the language coming from some voices, especially in Africa, who speak of the Episcopal Church majority as having described “a new religion.” (There are comparable voices at the other extreme, but this is such a clear example as to make the point easily.) By asserting that those with whom they disagree have left the faith, they remove those with whom they disagree from consideration at all.
Not unlike this are those who postulate a “middle” that’s not really related to the issues themselves, not unlike that construct of “Middle America” that crops up in American political speech. It encompasses those who want enough stability for comfort, but also have enough flexibility to accept change at some (inevitably slow and) measured pace. This “middle” would include all those in the pew who might say, “I’ve been an Episcopalian forever; and while I’m unhappy with, maybe even actually against, all of this innovation, I’m going to suffer through as long as I can.” This group would be opposed to radical change in general, but might live with it as long as the frontier is somewhere else – some other Anglican province, some other diocese, some other congregation. The difficulty, of course, is that in fact this is a construct, a postulate. Folks in that "middle" have some issue or another, but are not all concerned about the same issue. It’s part of the dynamic, but can’t be measured by the evidence, or at least by the public rhetoric.
And my fear (and to some extent my hope) is that this last is the referent when Kendall says, “The middle did not hold.” He cannot be speaking of either of the first perspectives. In those perspectives the middle manifestly did hold. I hope he’s not speaking of the third perspective. That would suggest he is prepared to define out of the Body of Christ most Episcopalians (and I don’t think he’s prepared to do that). So, I can only imagine he’s thinking of the last group. That would make sense of his comments about “a trickle, and maybe even a stream” of folks leaving the Episcopal Church. It would make sense in light of the thought that even those on the constructed "middle" have a limit, and that eventually they would not be able to see themselves in the Episcopal Church anymore. There is perhaps - even probably – a perspective that I have missed to which Kendall is speaking; and if so, that would call for further reflection.
But if the “middle” is that constructed middle, moved to accept change only slowly, largely after it’s established “somewhere else,” there is a problem. Because it’s really not concerned either about Christian standards of justice or of personal morality, about whether our continuing relations with other Christians of this Anglican tradition are or are not worthwhile, or, for that matter, any other issue of the faith, it offers no motivation or reflection for Christian action. It may seem worth protecting, even if we only assume it exists, because we don’t really want anyone to have to be unhappy, or even because we fear more defections from our Episcopal congregations than we’ve seen so far. But there’s nothing particularly Christian about holding some constructed “middle” for its own sake. Indeed, if that’s our motivation, we have indeed fallen into slavery to the prevailing culture; for any “prevailing culture” will seek to defend stability against any motivation for change, however just or faithful or Scriptural.
So, Kendall feels “the middle did not hold.” From what I saw, I think it did. But to say that certainly begs the question: when we speak about “ the middle,” what is it the middle between?