A FRIEND, the religion writer Terry Mattingly, told me that he recently spoke to a group of conservative clergy, asking them to take seriously the question of communion, and when he finished was told that he was as clear, as blunt, and almost as depressing as David Mills. Terry said thank you.
Like the editors of New Directions in their circles, I have been criticized by conservative Episcopalians for being too negative, but I don't think the charge quite fair because it is made on incomplete data, which is to say on the data the critic is most likely to notice, because it is the data to which he most objects. (I am by temperament much like your Geoffrey Kirk, caring deeply about the Church's life but viewing its affairs with a mixture of amazement and amusement.)
A political mind
I don't know how true this is in England, but here most conservatives both have deeply political minds and believe in the survival of the Episcopal Church more or less as it now exists, only without the more outspoken liberals. This requires them to believe that political action is now partly, and will someday finally, be successful - even if it isn't now and is not likely to be then.
I gave one example in last October's letter, but to give another here, our conservatives tend to value future possibilities more than the facts of the present, and therefore to find political successes when the facts indicate otherwise. They were thrilled, for example, that the conservative candidate for presiding bishop received about 45% of the vote, when the far more important - and burdensome - fact is that a man committed to moral and doctrinal innovation was elected.
And one has to add that their candidate was not particularly orthodox, nor the vote for him the product of a large orthodox movement among the bishops. He had voted for the canon effectively outlawing opposition to women's ordination, which placed him, theologically as well as politically, with the liberals, and though opposed to homosexuality he had refused to join any group resisting its approval. Many who voted for him were not committed to conservatism but were opposed to having too notorious a liberal as presiding bishop. So the number of bishops who voted for him was a far less hopeful sign than conservatives tried to make it.
It takes hours and hours of talk to get this sort of conservative to see what is actually there in front of him. (The ones that will see, that is.) They can defend their optimism with the sort of arguments one can only disprove by careful and time-consuming analysis, which is by necessity primarily critical and negative. Only then can one speak to them hopefully - that is, after one has destroyed the primarily political optimism that they think hope.
On the Titanic some people at first refused to believe the unsinkable ship was sinking. The men who tried to convince them that it was sinking were completely critical (of the Titanic) but also completely hopeful (of the lifeboats). The optimistic passengers' only hope was in being brought to believe their utterly negative view of the ship's future.
What I keep trying to explain, as I wrote in "A Hope for Collapsing Churches," which Reform published in England, is that Christian hope is found by facing the realities and living through them as faithfully as one can. Only then might one see how God can transform human error and rebellion and failure.
If anything, I am more hopeful than our conservatives because I think that political action will not reform the Episcopal Church. I see the continuing breakdown as allowing the radical rebuilding necessary to meet the challenges of a post-Christian culture, which is only possible after the present structures have been broken, freeing the sound pieces to combine in new ways.
The abortion problem
Last Thursday I joined tens of thousands in Washington, D.C. marching against the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, that effectively allowed a child to be aborted at any point before birth and for any reason. About 35 million children have been aborted since, with incalculably corrosive effects on our society.
Surprisingly, after 25 years of legal abortion, the majority of Americans still oppose it. One recent poll found that 61% believed abortion should not be allowed after fetal brainwaves are detected, and 58% believed it should not be allowed after the fetal heartbeat has begun. The baby's brainwaves can be detected as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, and his heartbeat usually begins between the 18th and 21st day of his life.
Yet one can be only cautiously hopeful, because people tend to accept abortion when they feel they need it themselves. Self-identified Evangelicals have abortions at the same rate as the general population and Roman Catholics at a slightly higher rate. The belief in sexual freedom, and therefore the need for abortion when the exercise of such freedom brings unwanted children, has soaked through American culture, and this common commitment to sex without consequences will make it much harder to outlaw abortion.
But still there is movement. About twelve years ago, a young woman in Dallas, engaged to be married, became pregnant. Both her and her fiancée's parents urged them to abort the child, to "begin their marriage right." She refused, and had the baby.
Just a few years ago, the fundamentalist church to which she belonged rented office space next door to an abortion facility. (It was not a clinic, as such places are usually called, because it was not a place of healing.) Her daughter, now eight, befriended one of the clerks at the facility, and asked her to come to church with her. The woman came - "How can you refuse an eight year old?" she said later - was converted and baptized, repented of her work, and became a thoughtful and articulate defender of the unborn.
Last Thursday, as we marched nearby, she spoke against abortion before a Senate committee. Her words carried unusual weight, because she was the "Roe" of Roe vs. Wade.
So one does have great hope, because God sent His only begotten Son that we should not perish but have everlasting life, and we can see Him working. Some of us have the calling, necessarily critical, of helping people see what is really happening so that they see His work more clearly - and are not discouraged by political plans that do not bring what they promise.
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 of America.
to Home Page of This Issue Return
to Trushare Opening Page
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Opening Page