A FRIEND, RESPONDING to last month’s “Letter,” wrote that to elect the next presiding bishop, our bishops “could use the system for episcopal elections once developed by a friend of mine. The finalists are locked in a room with a revolver, and required to play Russian Roulette. Depending on who the candidates are, the committee loads six.” He was referring to a six shooter.
While some of us view the election with detachment, the establishment conservatives are scurrying around to try to save the system, which means pretending that they face only personal or institutional problems, not doctrinal and spiritual division. They strike me as religious equivalents of George Bush and John Major, men who instinctively flinch away from principles, and therefore are likely to come to the same end.
Most readers of New Directions may find this hard to understand, given Forward in Faith’s theological clarity, but Episcopal conservatives, taken as a whole, are not a particularly theological group.
A besetting illusion That the system’s problems are personal or institutional is a besetting illusion of the conservative (as opposed to orthodox) mind, I think because it lets one believe that one’s opponents are merely misguided, or overwhelmed by the job, or even incompetent, but not apostates in rebellion against God whose teaching may be leading souls to Hell.
Take as an example the recent proposal by an Evangelical bishop to appoint an interim presiding bishop because the Episcopal Church is in no condition to choose a leader. The proposal has as much chance of being accepted as, say, Geoffrey Kirk has of being appointed the next Archbishop of Canterbury, but the bishop’s conservative peers have latched onto it with relief.
This proposal is simply a way of buying time, in the hope that somehow things will change. Conservatives have taken to asserting that liberalism is about to sink if only we hold out a bit longer, which may be true, but they forget that they are standing on the deck and will go down too.
In his proposal the bishop declared that all four candidates were “fine men” who had done wonderful work in their dioceses, but that we do not know what “vision” they have for the Episcopal Church. As two signed Bp Spong’s Koinonia Statement rejecting the biblical teaching on homosexuality, and another wants to refuse Synod members the ability to act on their convictions about the priesthood, I would have thought we have a very good idea what their “vision” is. And that it is one we cannot accept.
The bishop seems to believe that liberals may have some “vision” transcending their doctrinal commitments that an orthodox believer may endorse and support. In other words, he assumes that the one thing that cannot be questioned is the continuation of the Episcopal Church in its present form, so that people of traditional conviction can only try to manipulate the system in the hope that someday it may be healed.
That it can only be healed, if ever it will be, by people willing to break with it on principle, is not a possibility they will entertain. They do not see what seems obvious to me, that they ought not to ask the liberals “How can I continue to stand here?” but to say to them “Here I stand, and I cannot move. Now we can talk.”
Surprising news In rather surprising news, the retiring Bishop of Delaware told his diocese that he could no longer support “abortion rights” because “I am troubled by a society which will not be responsible for its sexuality. Increasingly, we are using abortion as a means of birth control. That is intolerable.”
Bp Cabell Tennis has supported “abortion rights” but now believes that “We are asserting so-called rights to deny life to the ultimately vulnerable. I can no longer stand apart from the unborn and the unwanted. Something about the connection between abortion and rights of the unborn did not fit me.”
He had, you may remember, gained a sort of fame last year by writing the decision of the “Righter trial.” In it he claimed that the Episcopal Church has no doctrine forbidding the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, based on a very strained, not to say peculiar, reading of Scripture and its relation to Christian doctrine.
His conversion is good news, certainly, and a contrast to the Presiding Bishop’s very public support for President Clinton’s veto of a ban on partial birth abortions (the abortions in which the baby’s legs and chest are delivered, then his head punctured, his brains sucked out, his skull collapsed, and his body completely delivered, though now dead). This procedure the Presiding Bishop believes an important freedom to be preserved. I suppose even a death-loving culture needs its chaplains.
However, as far as one can tell, Bp Tennis’ new position is not the result of any coherent theology. I applaud his instinctive defense of unborn children, but must say that instincts and feelings are not enough without theology – not enough either to convince others, or to resist a politically-powerful movement, or even to hold oneself to the truth when one is tempted to abandon it.
However, when the self-consciously “biblical” avoid theology, and replace it with politics, we cannot fairly expect better of the self-consciously progressive.
Finding God’s will I always feel, in speaking with both conservative and liberal Episcopalians, that they think theology a personal taste or calling. But the orthodox believer tries to think rigorously because he knows that thus is God’s will to be found (though he knows also that he will find some of God’s instructions very, very uncongenial.)
We males who believe in male headship in the family and Church also believe that we must love our wives “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for it” (Ephesians 5.25). Though it is unpopular to say, this teaching requires more of the man than of the woman. The meaner-spirited feminists can howl that it is only a religious excuse for oppressing women, but the man who believes St Paul sees even his headship as a call to have nails driven through his hands and feet.
We would not suffer this (to the extent we fallen men do), did we not have a theology that demands it. Left to our feelings and instincts, many of us would be as the feminists describe. And as a theological conviction derived from Scripture liberates and reforms men, so would it liberate and reform the Episcopal Church – if only conservatives would assert it.
David Mills is the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America, and the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.