Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Conservative vs. Liberal: The Same Tire Old Story

Reading yet another story about schism in Episcopal Church (“More U.S. Episcopalians Look Abroad Amid Rift – Overseas Prelates Lead 200 to 250 Congregations,” June 17, 2007), I found myself growing a little bored with the topic. While we all know that divisions do exist and that some congregations have seceded or are planning to, it gets tiresome after a while seeing the same tired old story repeated for the umpteenth time.

There seems to be a generally accepted storyline that runs something like this: Conservatives vs. Liberals. Traditionalists vs. Revisionists. Conservative congregations are growing like crazy, while the mainline Episcopal Church is hemorrhaging members because it is too liberal. The only problem is the storyline is not a fair portrayal of the reality. Yet it has been repeated so often that the myth has become accepted as fact.

The title of the article itself is an example. The term “rift” makes it seem that a congregational exodus of seismic proportions is underway. Yet 200 to 250 congregations is a minute percentage – less than 3% - of the more than 7,000 congregations that make up the Episcopal Church nationwide. Compare this to the more than 1,200 Southern Baptist congregations that left their denomination to form the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship after the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by its ultraconservative wing. This one breakaway group alone represents almost twice the percentage of congregations which have left the Episcopal Church. Similar migrations of liberal and moderate parishioners have occurred from Episcopal congregations that have grown more conservative. But trends like these that don’t fit the popular presumptions seem to fly under the reporting radar. There certainly do seem to be some significant shifts going on in the Church at present, but the realignment runs both directions.

The content of the article also seems to follow the common “wisdom.” The “overseas prelates” mentioned in the article (and their disaffected American congregations) portray themselves as the protectors of traditional Anglican theology and practice against an aggressively anti-orthodox U.S. Episcopal Church. And this is generally reported as fact. Yet they routinely pick and choose the traditions they want to protect, rejecting traditions that do not suit them in favor of some very non-Anglican practices. The current rush of overseas prelates to outsource the Episcopal oversight of American congregations, for example, violates not only traditional Anglican practice, but ancient Christian practice as well. “One Bishop in the city” has been Christian tradition since the undivided Church of the second century. The reason most often given for violating this ancient tradition is to preserve orthodoxy. But this plethora of prelates raises the question of whose interpretation of orthodoxy will be enforced. Some of these foreign Anglican Churches, for example, accept the ordination of women as orthodox practice, while others do not. And the overarching enforcement body that some of them propose looks very much like a “magisterium” (i.e., top-down interpretation of Scripture by the hierarchy of the Church), a concept the Anglican Church has rejected since its inception.

A related and largely unreported phenomenon is the growing number of churches – our own congregation being one of them – who reject the old conservative vs. liberal storyline. These congregations consider themselves neither liberal nor conservative (though their individual members represent a wide spectrum of theological views). Recognizing that human understanding of the mind of Christ is imperfect at best they choose to make the love of Christ, experienced in their common worship of the Living God, the basis of Christian community, rather than agreement on a broad spectrum of doctrinal principles (unity, rather than uniformity). Not that doctrine is unimportant, only that it is secondary to the love of Christ, and that God is more than capable of sorting us out on these issues over the long haul. This emerging concept of Church is not limited to the Episcopal Church, but is springing up across almost all denominational boundaries. And these churches are growing.

I have friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – from across the theological continuum: conservative and liberal and all points in between. They all have a story to tell about transforming love of Christ. They are all working in their own ways to bring about the reign of God. And as a previous seminary professor of mine once said, “I always agree with my friends.” I just think is always better when we try to speak the truth to each other – the whole truth – and to do it with love.

1 comment:

Mandy said...

Good for people to know.

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