Saturday, August 26, 2006

Looking Again for an Episcopal/Anglican Middle

Not long ago I wrote this post arguing that in the General Convention “the middle held.” That was in response to an interview with Dr. Kendall Harmon, available on line, in which he argued “the middle did not hold.” In no small part, the interest of my post was to consider what I might mean, or what Kendall might mean, by “the middle,” and what context we were describing in the process.

That got some interesting responses from Kendall’s blog, titusonenine. For the record (and once again), the responses were civil and not rude, and mostly thoughtful. They were also helpful, both in suggesting some other ideas about “the middle,” and about my post specifically.

Many identified me as being more toward the (reappraiser/liberal/progressive) side of the discussion, and I am. They stated, and accurately, that this shapes where I see “the middle.” I don’t argue with that. However, what it tells me first is that I wasn’t as clear in my first post as I could have been about my referents. When I said there that the middle held, I was making an observation about the bishops and deputies and alternates debating Resolution B033 specifically, and the resolutions of the Special Commission in general. I can’t say that more people would have agreed with my statement, but it would have made my presentation more clear.

There were those who felt the specific issue was about the authority of Scripture. Some of those who asserted that on that issue there was no middle ground: one either respected Scripture, demonstrated by accepting as normative the verses of Scripture condemning homosexual behavior; or one did not. One saw the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as unchallengeable revelation (they never used the language of “verbally inspired, literally true, inerrant and infallible,” but they came blessedly close); or one saw them as hardly scripture at all. To “contain all things necessary to salvation” meant to see all things in Scripture as necessary to salvation. Sadly, a few such voices were indeed prepared to define out of the faith all who didn’t agree.

More common were those who didn’t assert infallibility, but still felt those who couldn’t support moratoria on ordaining practicing LGBT persons as bishops and on blessing committed relationships of LGBT persons didn’t acknowledge sufficiently the authority that Scripture did have. Within that context the poles seemed to be defined by the common historic interpretation of the relevant verses by the majority – whether the majority is defined chronologically (what the Church has believed longest) or numerically (what most Christians have believed), definitions that are not identical in standard, but are largely the same in result. They did not deny that (reappraiser/liberal/progressive) could argue from Scripture. However, they did not find compelling those Scriptural arguments, or the history of scholarly criticism of Scripture on which the arguments were based.

Another group wanted to argue a context of standards, theological or institutional or both. That is, they argued from a position of the importance of standards per se, and then questioned whether the actions of General Convention, or of specific Episcopalians in recent history, fell within the necessary standards, whether specifically Anglican or generally Christian. That is, they argued that those events suggested at least (there is no “at best” in this) that the General Convention and/or significant persons or leaders in the Episcopal Church did not adhere to appropriate standards; or at worst (and, yes, in contrast I do think there is an “at worst”) had no defining standards whatsoever. These voices included certain standards of the authority of Scripture, but included other standards as well - communion too open, liturgical exploration too wide, morals too accepting. They did not all seem identical as to how wide or narrow the standards should be. They did all agree that the limits should be hard, fast, and defended; and that actions of the Episcopal Church fell outside.

Finally, some spoke with more sensitivity than I of those folks in “the middle” in my third sense: that constructed middle of folks who had opinions on issues, but were not united or motivated by a particular issue; and were not motivated by the intensity of the opinions they held to change behavior and change institutions. Those who spoke of them agreed (and I agree with them) that they may well be the numerical majority in the Episcopal Church. Some felt more of those folks would eventually find an issue or cluster of issues that would become important enough to change behaviors and institutions. Others felt that most would not, but that a progressive Episcopal Church would fail in evangelism; and that as the folks in the undriven “middle” died off, the Episcopal Church would fade away. Folks of both opinions also agreed that we need definitely and always to be concerned about the spiritual welfare of those folks in that “middle.”

Events have moved us past my initial framework. The “middle” as I saw it in General Convention in Columbus is dispersed, waiting and watching with many of us new events, and especially upcoming meetings of bishops in New York and in Texas. Those who focused on the construct “middle” do have one valid point: we are all interested in how people vote with their feet. I agree with those who feel this will be the most notable context within which to recognize the middle, or at least the poles that attract folks from the middle.

At the same time I’m more hopeful about that “middle” than in my first post, and on both points. That is, I believe that while all of those folks have some issues important to them, and all have opinions on most issues, they are also precisely the community to believe that not only the standards of the Episcopal Church but also the standards of the Gospel are quite wide. I believe that they will stay because they continue to meet Christ in the life and worship of this Church; and that because they continue to meet Christ in the Episcopal Church they will provide a welcoming Christian environment for new souls who come to us. And certainly I agree with those on both ends of our current issues that the care of the souls before us is a primary concern for us, however they or we may be moved.

Changes are coming in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It appears that some - my siblings for whom Christ died - will stay and some will leave. It is important to me to remember that those who leave remain siblings for whom Christ died. We may not agree where “the middle” is, or even whether there can even be a “middle.” They are still Christ’s, and so still somehow members with me of his Body.

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