LATITUDE WITHOUT DEPTH

I'm afraid nothing of interest has happened since I last wrote. Will Rogers once said something like "We're safe! Congress is out of session!". One feels a bit like that about the Episcopal Church in the summer.

Many people are, surprisingly, still very angry that the Church's treasurer embezzled so much money, and some want the Presiding Bishop to resign (he won't). I think some of them have never dared to raise questions about the Presiding Bishop's religion, and are taking the chance to express their opposition (and perhaps expiate their guilt for their silence) to his mismanagement.

In the Episcopal Church, you may flay someone alive for the sins of his staff, but you are not to mention the errors of his doctrine. You may object to his endangering the budget, but not to his endangering souls.

The new latitudinarians

With nothing to report, I might explain a phenomenon of some importance to the future: the growth of what I call "latitudinarian conservatism." This movement, mostly suburban, is composed of the many Charismatics who have had their hearts (but not their minds) strangely warmed , and the many converts the Episcopal Church has attracted from Rome and Evangelicalism.

The Charismatics are mostly priests and laity who had what seem to be real conversions but did not stop to relearn the Christian religion, and changed one sort of experiential theology for another. The converts are a mixture of "Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail" and Roman Catholics, many of whom are divorced and remarried.

The number of converts is one reason the Episcopal Church's decline in membership has not been even more drastic. It has also changed the composition of the Church, to one in which many members are conservative in instinct but are running away from "dogmatism" or "rigidity" or a Church that claims any right to tell them what to do.

Some of the "Canterbury Trailers" are bookish people in love with C. S. Lewis and liturgical worship. They assume the Episcopal Church believes what its Prayer Book says, and are horrified to find that, as a whole, it does not.

But many others come to the Episcopal Church to become more liberal. I once attended a parish composed mostly of such people, and at coffee hour they would almost inevitably explain their conversions by saying "The Episcopal Church doesn't tell you what to think" or "The Episcopal Church is so open" or refer to the horrors of their fundamentalist or Roman upbringing.

Latitudinarian in doctrine

What doctrine these latitudinarian conservatives hold is mostly instinctive or retained from their past, and thus tends to bend with personal or cultural changes. They rarely have any theological system, so that at one moment they speak the language of therapy or community or inclusivity, and the next the language of fundamentalism.

To take an obvious example, they bring out Romans 1 against homosexual people, but five seconds later switch to a therapeutic language of change and growth to justify multiple marriages. (Americans tend to be puritanical about any sexual behaviour they don't engage in.) I have never yet succeeded in convincing one of them that he had contradicted himself, I think because such a person feels good about appealing to the Bible, and feels equally good about appealing to pastoral compassion.

The result is that the theology of the self-consciously "biblical" wing of the Episcopal Church is increasingly an acculturated, mobile conservatism, with no fixed principles or boundaries, and no doctrine of the Church whatsoever. It is culturally selective in what it chooses to conserve and easily blown about by winds of doctrine, or least those that blow in the suburbs.

For example, though they are usually quite hostile to homosexuality, they support "women in ministry," as they put it, have no marital discipline, and tend to treat the Bible as a sort of divinely-inspired self-help manual for those with low self-esteem. Of theology they have little, and of a submission to the mind of the Church they have none.

They are therefore unable effectively to resist the liberalization of the Episcopal Church, especially as most of our liberals _ with the exception of the Bishop of Newark and his allies, who have retained the "prophetic" rhetoric of the past _ have mastered the language of evangelicalism, and speak easily of mission and spirituality and evangelism.

Some will recognize the inconsistency of their position and convert to a more thoroughly biblical view, but they tend to leave the Episcopal Church shortly thereafter. Others will hold fast to the Christian teaching on homosexuality and be driven out.

The rest, I think, may survive a long time, because they can bend a very long way without realizing they are bending. They are able to accept almost any doctrinal innovation, and nearly any moral innovation, while continuing to talk about "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." The problem, of course, is that they mean a relationship with Jesus that does not require faithfulness to the words of his authorized interpreters.

What have they done?

To be fair, I should say that many of these parishes have extraordinary ministries. They run soup kitchens and food banks, pay for missionaries, homes for unwed mothers, and the like, send parishioners around the world to build schools or dig irrigation ditches. They convert people and change their lives. By this measure, they have many traditionalist parishes beat soundly.

But one wonders even here how much of this reflects the suburban habit of volunteering. And also how much bad they do inadvertently: how many marriages would they save, for example, if they held to a stricter standard and expressed the principle of male headship in their worship?

David Mills, the author of this letter is editor of the Episcopal Synod of America's journal The Evangelical Catholic and Director of Publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

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