LETTER FROM AMERICA
Two Religions on Carmel
AT THE end of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Phoenix nine years ago — we suffer them for ten days every three years — the Episcopal Synod of America noted that “?There are two religions in the Episcopal Church,” one traditionally orthodox and one not. (The ESA was FIF/North America’s predecessor.)
Seeing the point
Many conservative activists replied that this was extreme and hysterical and despairing and unhelpful, and issued the ritual call to renewed activism with the ritual hope that next time — wiser, better organized, and helped by the predicted death of liberalism — they would win. Now, cheeringly, and after three more Conventions of steady defeat, and nine years of finding that liberalism is an amazingly hardy weed, some of them have seen the point.
(I am assuming that those of you interested in our General Convention have now been sated with news about it and don’t want yet more reporting. If you do want yet more, see the articles written by FIF/NA’s reporters and others at www.fifamerica.faithweb.com/articles.)
As always, most of what the Convention did is irrelevant — utterly, hopelessly, tediously irrelevant — did you know that Episcopal churches are now to be “tobacco-free zones”?? — but on the substantive matters it advanced the innovators’ causes without the decisive action that might drive the conservatives to open rebellion.
The Presiding Bishop got what he seems to have wanted in his call for a “Jubilee”?: continued success for his projects combined with a greater desire for (institutional) unity. As the suffragan bishop of New York told the press, in one version of what has become the establishment line, “We are not of one mind, but we are of one heart.”
A deep gulf
One could say much about the Convention, but the new realism among conservatives in the American Anglican Council about the nature of the divisions in the Church may be its most important development. They are neither of one mind nor one heart with the majority. I cannot name them, since they were not speaking for the record, but several of the AAC’s clerical leaders — and, if I read the signs correctly, even some of the bishops — began to say that there were indeed two religions in the Episcopal Church. These are men of integrity and intelligence who had taken their commitments seriously and played the game hard and well, and who saw this reluctantly.
It did take the whole Convention, though. About half-way through, after the laity in the House of Deputies narrowly defeated the creation of rites for homosexual unions (the clergy approved them), the AAC had said that “It seems unmistakably clear from these results that the sentiment in favor of the homosexual agenda in the Episcopal Church is waning.” Here, some of us thought, was the old implausible optimism yet again, ignoring all the evidence that the sentiment was in fact waxing.
The vote, they said, “is yet another indication that the deputies are not prepared to split the Episcopal Church over issues of human sexuality.” Here, we thought, was the usual willingness to ignore actual liberal advances as long as nothing was done to put the advances in writing.
In contrast, the AAC’s closing statement said that “It is sadly evident to us that two strikingly different churches exist under the same roof. Though we are encouraged that we still reside under one roof, we are ever more painfully aware of the depth of the theological gulf that divides us.”
The statement ended with a call to “a wide-scale and comprehensive new effort to share the transforming love and power of God” and the declaration that “as this story is told, Episcopalians, by God’s grace, will be radically transformed.” In past years they would have said “the Episcopal Church” rather than “Episcopalians.” In that one change a deeper change may have been signalled.
How far among the conservatives that realism spreads and what sort of action it leads them to take is another matter, of course.
As usual, some of their activists have fallen to the temptation to believe that all their activities succeeded, and thus all that is needed is more of the same. (Most of them, but not all, work in safely conservative dioceses.)
Their own reporting gives them away, because they write not of the actions of General Convention and its movement over the past decade or so, but of all the activists’ activities: We were well-organized! We testified at hearings! We had lunches for deputies! We ran an ad campaign! We published a newsletter!
All they did was good, of course, but their list is an argument for their more pessimistic critics: if conservatives could do so much and still lose almost all the substantive votes, things are bad indeed. The theological gulf matters. It is this, I think, that the more clear-sighted of the AAC’s leaders have seen.
No institution can survive such radical divisions about its authority and purpose. Ken Livingstone and Norman Tebbit could argue about politics over drinks in a club dedicated to discussing politics, but they could not belong to the same political party, if that party intends to do anything.
Sitting for hours in the press gallery of the House of Bishops, the meetings of committees, the open hearings, and the press conferences made unavoidably clear how decisive is the difference. The Presiding Bishop and his allies talk a lot about the Gospel and spirituality and our life in Christ, but one realizes very quickly that although these are Christian terms they do not proceed from a Christian mind.
It is not only the high level of abstraction — one is never sure what they mean by “?the Gospel,” for example, beyond a general and politically correct benevolence encouraged by a Higher Power who seems to speak with a very uncertain voice — but the consistent lack of any appeal to the text of Scripture and the developed mind of the Church, that gives them away.
They are well outside the “community of discourse” that unites St Paul and St John with Billy Graham and John Paul II. I am not prone to optimism, but I am encouraged that many of those who long sought to speak in both communities have seen that the two are speaking different languages, and that you cannot speak truly of the things of God in the other.
David Mills is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Magazine of Mere Christianity (www.touchstonemag.com) and is working on a book to be titled *The Saints’ Guide to Bad Ideas* (Servant). He reported on General Convention for FIF/NA.
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