Monday, August 07, 2006

Episcopal and Anglican Issues: Searching for the Middle

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?


Dan Dunlap said...

Very thoughtfully written, Marshall. Thanks. This will take me some time to digest. But I'm certainly grateful to you for expressing it.

Take care,

Marshall Scott said...

Well, Hopeful, you may be right. As I said, there well may be other understandings of the spectrum. I was responding, as I think Kendall Harmon was, to what happened at General Convention; and I have some faith that in fact the makeup of deputations to General Convention does in fact reflect those who elected them, and those who elected the electors, and so on. But that has also long been a matter of discussion: how much does General Convention really reflect the Episcopalians in the pews.

Marie said...

Ah Marshall, here's my question. Do we want the "middle", whatever it is, to hold? Or is it just a copout? I like your penultimate paragraph. That sums it up for me.

Chip Johnson+, SF, CoJ said...


A good article, although I tend to agree with Kendall in that the middle. has lost part due to the extreme polarization of the opposing views of thought, and due to the 'voting by walking' that has taken place over the past thirty years.

I also (as a cradle Episcopalian who was in ordained ministry in the Church of God for over twenty years, returned to ECUSA, and now Anglican) take exception to the notion that GC delegations accurately represent their local constituencies.

e both know that one of the more 'politicized' operations in the Church is the selection of Diocesan and General delegations. If you are 'in', and walk the bishop's line, you get the vote and keep the seat until you die (or vote the wrong way).
The bottom line is that the people in the pews generally do not have a clue to the polity of the general or diocesan Church, as long as they have their accustomed services, unhindered, they are happy.

Our fault, because we, as clergy, hae not allowed them to be more active in the local congregation. We make the decisions and pass the actions on down the line, the people attend, pay their pledge, and, ultimately, are buried in their parish. And, so long as they have a burial spot or a nook in the columbarium, they are content.

Kyrie eleison!

Marshall Scott said...

Chip, that is an interesting reflection: that perhaps because of the polarization the "middle" has lost ground. That's a little different than my reflection, but I fear it is all too true.

And I would also agree that, in our (small "r") republican polity all too often the folks in the pew say little about who goes to diocesan convention, and that's where a problem begins. Now, we could reflect on those in my fourth "middle" who so often attend but won't stay for the parish meeting. They are in that constructed middle, but are not moved by a unifying issue - lots of personal concerns, but not shared.

Now, this also challenges a piece of our Episcopal ecclesiology: that the Spirit can and does move in these processes because the Spirit calls to each of us, and as we're open to hear we respond. In the discussion that belief is more visible in the breach than in the observance; that is, those who don't like what happened in any meeting want to say "it's all political," as if that therefore excludes the action of the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Marshall’s piece is an elegant reflection that deserves deep attention. I wonder if there’s a simpler – and less pejorative – way to describe his “constructed middle”: folks who believe the Holy Spirit may be speaking a new word to us regarding homosexuality but aren’t yet convinced and are listening hard for that new word; folks who would favor the consecration of a particular gay bishop but advocate deferring such action so as not to cause other believers to stumble; folks who adamantly reject and denounce homophobic attitudes and behavior. Marshall sees these folks as “moved to accept change only slowly, largely after it’s established ‘somewhere else,’” but at least some of these folks aren’t simply willing to accept change, but willing to be changed. Many of these folks are “conservative” in the best sense of the word: they trust that the sense of the faithful through the centuries, informed by scripture, should be conserved until a new and faithful reading of scripture warrants a different tradition. What I sensed as an observer at General Convention is that folks in this category are coming to feel that they’re being told now, “You must make a choice.” In my view, this “middle” has narrowed – whether it has held or not is something I don’t feel qualified to judge: some in this “middle” are making (reluctant) choices; others are trying hard to be “turnbuckles” (whose model might be William Reed Huntington) but finding the tension increasingly hard to bear; many are quiet because they have come to believe they have nothing constructive or edifying to say, and hope God might be heard in the silence.

Anonymous said...

It's obvious that Father Scott works by the word!