A Kind of Loving

A DAY or two after submitting the May “Letter,” a friend asked if I would let myself be nominated for one of the regional meetings of the New Commandment Task Force. I said, as you will have guessed, no.

A better way?

The task force, readers may remember from last month’s letter, was founded by a group of conservative and liberal Episcopalians who called themselves “the Seattle 22.” They had, according to their press release, decided that “better ways of dealing with serious disagreements were possible, because Episcopalians have far more in common than what is in dispute.”

My would-be sponsor noted that the task force would consider ways to provide an “amicable divorce” if the two sides could not agree. The group’s press release had not mentioned this at all, and said only that they would create rules for peaceful debate and “craft proposed legislation which will provide a safe place in the church for those of differing theological persuasions.”

As it happened, the Seattle 22 had celebrated communion together at the end of their meeting. I don’t know why the conservative members would want a divorce from people with whom they are in communion. Alternatively, I don’t know why they would want to have communion with people from whom they want a divorce.

It is rather like a man and woman demanding a divorce because they can no longer live together, who then admit that they make love four times a week. If they cannot share a home and a checkbook and eat dinner together and wash each other’s socks, having sex is really a kind of fornication, however legal it might be. On the other hand, if they want the sex, they better toss the socks in the washer.

Anyway, it wasn’t a good start.

The first meeting

The first of the four regional groups met in New Jersey in mid-May. Their statement began in that ghastly, sing-songy, self-regarding prose I think of as nursery school liberalism: “We are members of the Episcopal Church. We are female and male, gay and straight. We are liberals, moderates, and conservatives. . . . We argued, disagreed, laughed, cried, and continued to pray.”

After four days they “discovered” what one could have told them they would discover. That, for example, “in prayer and worship we could experience deep love for each other in Jesus” and yet “there are some matters about which we could not reach agreement.” People who dialogue always discover the first and usually discover the second, both because it is too obvious to be ignored and because it gives the proceedings an air of authenticity, not to mention an excuse for more meetings.

Among the other “discoveries” was the sort of idea that sounds good until you actually think about it, when you realize you’re not sure what it actually means. One of these was “we long for an Episcopal Church which is comprehensive for the sake of truth.”

Right, you think, this must mean that the Church must comprehend whomever it’s supposed to comprehend in order to find the truth. But in that case, you think next, how would we know the truth had not gotten lost among all the ideas comprehended? It is truth that establishes the limits of comprehensiveness, otherwise all you have is something very big.

And then among the “discoveries” was one that was sentimental but wrong. “We all fervently desire that conservatives, evangelicals, anglo-catholics, and liberals alike remain in our church,” the participants declared.

If “liberal” means a generous and flexible mind unwilling to foreclose questions too quickly, all right. One may think a liberal too flexible, but he balances and challenges those who are not flexible enough (and they him), to the good of the Church. But if the word means, as it surely does, the rejection of such established doctrine and morality as one wishes, no, we do not want liberals in the Church at all.

This is not to say we want the people to go away. We want them to repent, if they once knew the faith, and to convert, if they didn’t. We do not want liberals in the Church, because we want all liberals to become believers.

Dissolving the relationship

The group offered a “Proposal for Reconciliation” which called for the usual seminars and training sessions and experts. But it also let parishes, by only a two-thirds vote of their vestries (PCCs), “appeal for assistance in addressing situations of theological and pastoral conflict between the congregation and its diocese.”

If various attempts at reconciliation, aided by the new National Church Reconciliation Team, failed, “a Provincial-level mediation group consisting of appropriately trained professionals, [would] implement an amicable dissolution of the ecclesiastical relationship. Having studied the issues involved, such as property, finances, operating principles, relationships with other ecclesiastical bodies, and possible models of reorganization, the Council of Bishops will serve as advisors to the dissolution process.”

This sounds a better offer than it really is. The study of “the issues involved” will almost certainly result in the diocese demanding the property while wishing the people well if they want to leave it. Which is to say, it will result in an offer no different than any parish would get at this moment, only they would get it after months and months of “process”.

Anyway, the Task Force didn’t have a good start, and it’s not improving.

Tough love

I am, I know, throwing a lot of cold water on this project, but a lot of cold water is needed. The apostles of eternal dialogue do not like to hear the perfectly biblical idea that there are some things one does not dialogue about and some people with whom one does not dialogue as if they were faithful Christians.

If you love the heretics and pray for their salvation, you cannot “dialogue” with them, because you are thereby telling them that they are not heretics and that they do not need to change radically. You are telling them that they are slightly off course (hence the need to talk) when, as you well know, they are sailing in exactly the wrong direction, into the shoals and storms and sharks.

We always hear about “the hard and costly road of dialogue,” but “dialogue” is really the easy way to respond to men in error. It is the way the world approves, and the way the world in the Church approves. It costs little more than a weekend away from home being earnest and “sharing”, which the dialogists love to do anyway.

The effect of “the New Commandment Task Force” is to make “dialogue” the only way to love others as Jesus commanded. Such talk without Christian conviction and firmness in judgement is a very weak and flaccid kind of love, if it is love at all. It is not, if one reads the gospels more closely than the Task Force seem to have done, particularly Dominical.

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.