LETTER FROM AMERICA

Stand up or be Put Down

Standing up for Jesus.

About half way through the main course at the annual banquet of the Church Army, the people at my table leapt to their feet and began singing. The pianist had started playing Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus and, with some liturgical sense, they stood up.

The Church Army 'stands up for Jesus' in an extraordinary way, their officers working for little pay among the poorest of the poor. The director showed one picture of an enormous muscle-bound man covered with tattoos, who had been nicknamed 'The Professor' because he was the only one in his motorcycle gang who could read. He had been living in a tent in the woods, and the Church Army not only found him a house but led him to the Lord, and he is now leading a Bible study for street people. (A well disciplined one, I am sure.)

About fifteen years ago some of Army's members decided that it needed reviving, and went about reviving it, an event that is still described in some circles as a 'right wing takeover'. As often happens, they seem to have 'taken over' simply by working hard and doing what had to be done, whatever it was.

Our liberals tend to describe every revival as a 'takeover' (a case of projection, surely, given their great and unceasing efforts to control the political structures of the Church). They have trouble believing that people actually like traditional Christianity, and often think up elaborate schemes of conservative machinations to explain conservative successes. I have heard the second dean of my seminary (which receives in donations more than any of the other, and older, seminaries) described in terms that would flatter Machiavelli or Professor Moriarty, but that make anyone who knows him laugh.

That the former dean might be a good man who speaks the truth, and that people might respond by giving money to his school, is a possibility our liberals do not want to face. Or, alternatively, they do not want to think that they have had more success in the Church's political structures than in the hearts of its members. If you believe that you are bringing in a new age of enlightenment, it is a bit disheartening to find that so many people do not want it.

The Briarwood Consultation

I have not yet reported on December's Briarwood Consultation, which created yet another organization, the American Anglican Congress. They are meeting again in June, but very few people have yet signed up. I am surprised, because conservatives usually leap to support any group that promises to resist without pressing the matter too far.

I was not invited, though one of the original members had requested that I be, and without being overly egotistical, I do not think that a good sign. It suggests the leaders do not want questions raised about the theological or practical worth of remaining in the Episcopal Church, such as I have often tried to raise in these circles.

Just after the meeting, they had talked about the need 'to disassociate themselves from heretical actions and bishops, and to provide episcopal support to orthodox parishes in hostile dioceses'. But they do not talk about these anymore. Instead they have reassured everyone that 'they are not schismatic'. This shows, I think, what they instinctively hold most dear.

"If we are to avoid schism, and we must . . .", the chairman of their steering committee declared in a public discussion with one of the women who has worked hardest to make acceptance of women's ordination mandatory. Others declare that we must stop fighting about divisive issues and change the subject or serve the Gospel, as if the Gospel did not create a fellowship which has clear requirements for membership and requires that some who violate them be shunned if not expelled.

I am not really surprised by this. A friend who travels in the Briarwood circle (what I call 'corporatist conservatives') told me that if the Episcopal Church were to approve homosexuality at the General Convention in 1998, very few of his friends would leave or in any institutional way separate themselves from the Church.

These are people who, just two or three years ago, said that they could never accept such a change in the Church's moral teaching, who have said for years that they could accept women's ordination because the Bible was not clear about it, but that it was clear about homosexuality. Now that the Church might actually approve of homosexuality, my friend said, they are saying that a change in the Church's liturgies is the innovation they will not accept. They argue that a change in moral teaching is not a 'church dividing issue' (they are not clear why), but a radical change in liturgy is an intolerable change in our doctrine of God.

This contradicts what they have taught even about sexuality, and still teach about any number of other questions: that these are revealed teachings a Christian is not allowed to deny. In their vague idea of tolerable heresy, they have introduced an extra-biblical criterion and used it to marginalize portions of Scripture which have become costly to defend. This is not logical, this is not theological, and therefore cannot work for long.

The explanation

I think the explanation for this is that desperate times require desperate measures, and if you do not want to take desperate measures, you must convince yourself that the times are not desperate. Nevertheless, more and more Episcopalians are haunted by the question whether, to 'Stand up for Jesus', they must stand outside the Episcopal Church.

I am coming to believe that this is a question most conservative Episcopalians will not, perhaps will never, face. Yet if they do not face it, if they make an idol of the Episcopal Church, their resistance and witness within it will never be effective, and will not last. They may find themselves not only compromised but corrupted.

David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod. His reflections on the future of the mainline churches Collapsing Churches: A Sociological Analysis, is published in England by Reform, and available from their Sheffield office. David Millis's e-mail address is DPMills@aol.com.

Readers who seek further details of events in America from a traditionalist standpoint can find it in The Christian Challenge, a monthly periodical, subscription office 1215 Independence Avenue SE, Washington D.C. 20003 USA, Fax: 202/543-8704

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