That’s the way they do it

As I write, worried Episcopalians are holding meetings, mostly secret, and mostly called by people who want to “do something,” but it is not always clear what they want to do or why they want to do it.

Most of the plans for resistance I have seen are pragmatic rather than theological. One wants to form a society to give parishes a seal of approval, but their theological basis is simply the Lambeth Quadrilateral, which most of our wildest radicals could sign.

As far as I can tell, many people who want to do something want to avoid drawing the theological lines too clearly, because drawing the lines clearly would a) force them to explain why they accept the ordination of women and split the resistance into factions, or b) make it more difficult to justify staying in the Episcopal Church at all. One hates to be critical of people who are trying their best, but if our problems are spiritual and theological, no pragmatic answer is likely to work, for long anyway.

Why dioceses move left As nothing much has happened in the last month, I will try to explain why even traditional or conservative dioceses tend to move left, using as an example the process of choosing candidates for bishop. You do not elect your bishops, but I think you will find the process familiar.

Dioceses tend to move left because conservatives tend to be “moderated” and liberals don’t. (I know “conservative” and “liberal” are not very good names, but I can’t think of better ones.) The process begins with the fact that traditional people still tend to believe in fairness and diversity and “balance” search committees between themselves and liberals.

They themselves will usually avoid strong and articulate conservatives, in the hope that a gentler voice will be able to manipulate the committee. “He doesn’t understand committees” or “He’ll drive the liberals into a corner,” they will say of a convinced Evangelical or Catholic. Thus the conservatives chosen are rarely as forcefully conservative as the liberals are forcefully liberal.

So conservatives begin at a disadvantage, but they make it worse. As time goes by, the conservatives on the search committee, having lived with the liberal members for months, will naturally grow to like them and will try to erase the theological barriers between them, usually by an appeal to the liberals’ personal piety. They will announce that “John really loves the Lord,” even if John is an open Arian, who does not in fact believe the Lord to be the Lord.

They will parade their new-found understanding of liberals and liberalism, and their discovery that “what unites us is much deeper than what divides us” and that “we don’t have to agree to be in communion.” They will beam at the smallest compliment from the other side and tell everyone how “the most liberal member of the committee really came to see why I believe . . .,” and how in their meetings old and deep divisions were “healed.” They will pity, if not patronize, anyone who tries to point out that the liberals are still liberals.

Thus moderated Thus “moderated,” they will join with the liberals in selecting men who are “centrist” or “moderate” in style and instinct, if not in personal conviction. These are men who, though “strong believers,” are “healers” or “reconcilers,” men who will “be a pastor to everyone” and “won’t polarize the diocese,” who “will be sensitive to the concerns of the whole diocese” and “will articulate our common vision.”

The conservative members will be happy, even openly grateful, that the liberals did not press more strongly for liberals, or will brag about how they fought off a strong effort to add some notorious liberal to the slate, whose name, one suspects, the liberals put forward as a bluff in order to get someone slightly less liberal added as a compromise. This is an old trick but it still works.

When the slate is announced, the conservatives in the diocese will convince themselves that “it’s a fine, fine slate,” and in fact “it’s somewhat surprising, given the committee.” “We could have done a lot worse,” they will say, forgetting the hopes they had when the committee was formed.

They will tend to evaluate the candidates by their personalities, not by what they have done in public, and thus find all sorts of reasons to portray even the most timid as a bold defender of historic orthodoxy – because, for example, he preaches well, even if he has never been heard to say boo to a Diocesan Convention.

The candidates will speak, most of them sincerely, in evangelical language and will happily share their personal relationship with the Lord. What they will not do, even if pressed, or unless pressed very hard, is move from that language or relationship to a “rigid” stand on various issues now dividing the Church.

If they do take a decisive stand, it will be with a great deal of visible pain and an effort to “reach out” to e.g., “my gay brothers and sisters.” In other words, no matter how sound themselves, they will bow at least in their attitude and rhetoric to the pieties of the left.

For what it’s worth, I would say that to avoid speaking the truth clearly when it should be spoken is a form of lying. It is to lie by indirection and that is morally corrupting in itself. This is one reason politics turns good men into weak men, because it rewards them for weakness, and makes weakness seem “pastoral” or “compassionate” or “prudent” or “the only way to get a hearing.” And as only one out of four or five candidates is elected, the process corrupts several people for the price of one. (I apply a simple question to these situations: would St Paul have said that? The answer is usually no.)

After the election Then after the election they will commit themselves to supporting the new bishop and tell each other over and over how conservative he really is and how much “being in this diocese will change him.”

Being so “moderate,” the new bishop will disappoint rather than offend them, and not cause any direct conflict. When he fails to speak out, they will excuse him by saying “Well, that’s just not his style” or “He’s waiting until he’s more established in the diocese.”

But having bowed to the pieties of the left, he is unlikely to stop bowing and may well keep bowing ever deeper, till in extreme cases he starts slithering across the floor. In fact, if I am right the men likely to be chosen in the first place are those who have gone through a process of theological gelding and are already testosterone-deficient.

David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal school for Ministry and the editor of The Evangelical Catholic. Collapsing Churches: A Sociological Analysis, his reflections on the future of the mainline Churches in the United States, has recently been published in this country by Reform.