CWOB Posts: A Post-Mortem

My presentation for the Society of Catholic Priests on Communion without Baptism (CWOB) went up on the Episcopal Cafe last week. Due to its length, it was broken up into three parts:

The goal was to provoke thought about the issue and I think we did. Jim tells me that as of today, the pieces have a received a total of 5,800 page views. (How many of those were unique I don’t know,  but it’s still a lot of pondering…)

I think we reached a record on number of comments as well. Over the course of the series we had 138 comments. Editorial conflation of some edits drops the true number to 134.

What’s significant is that of these 134 comments, there were only 25 total commenters. Of these 25, 8 were responsible for 74% of the comments (100).  Within these, there were some clear “identities”.

  • 28 were from a couple who chooses to play the role of “village atheist” on the site
  • 34 were supporting the piece and were advocating for the traditional order of things (16 of these were my own comments)
  • 24 were defending the communing of the unbaptized from the “liberal establishment”
  • 14 were from a fellow contributor who seems to agree more with the traditional position but who was playing the role of “gadfly”

So—the comments display sustained argument within a small group with set convictions. While there was much discussion, I think there was little true give-and-take. I’m not about to change my position and neither were my interlocutors. On the whole, then, we may well have produced more heat than light in the comments.

A few thoughts on what I did see in the comments…

  1. Lack of Engagement. I didn’t see much engagement with the issues I was raising in the main body of the text. In particular, I think my main contribution to the debate was the notion of purpose, that “Discipleship, communal transformation into the Mind of Christ and love of God, is the fundamental pattern in the sacramental economy.” That’s not to say there was no engagement—Sara Miles and Donald Schell did address this topic albeit insufficiently to my mind. Far and away, though the conversation continually  returned to the notion of “inclusion”. Note this and note it well. What I take from this finding is that the center of the discussion about CWOB is not around sacramental theology. This is fundamentally not a debate about theology. If we continue to argue it as if it were a theological debate, we will go unheard and the majority of the church can and will be persuaded that CWOB is a good idea.
  2. The Proper Place of Inclusion.  I believe that most of the people arguing for CWOB believe that they are doing so for the right reasons, and I think that this movement is driven far more by identity issues than theology issues.  The Episcopal Church is branding itself as the welcoming church, the inclusive church. As this concept filters through the body, practices that appear to be unwelcoming or uninclusive are viewed by more and more as anti-Episcopal. I think that most people in our pews want to be nice and make people feel welcome. Too, they want to believe that their parish is the kind of place that makes people feel welcome and included (whether unbaptized people ever show up or not). One of the brief one-off comments encapsulates this view perfectly: “Perhaps giving communion to the unbaptized is the community welcoming the stranger?” This is the view that has and is taking root. Now—we don’t want to argue against inclusion for two reasons: 1) it really is part of the full Gospel message—that’s what the movement of grace to the gentiles is all about; 2) no argument is going to be won from a rhetorical perspective by being “anti-inclusion” or “anti-welcoming.” It’s just not going to fly (especially since it’s not what we really mean either). So—the discussion needs to be re-framed somehow. If, in a discussion around the topic of CWOB, you find yourself being portrayed as the “anti-” side in an argument for or against inclusion or welcoming, you got to take a step back and re-frame the debate. How—well, that’s the question, isn’t it? My current strategy is to move from Communion to Baptism. We are very inclusive when it comes to Baptism. We do want to welcome and include people at the altar and the way that we do that is by not only welcoming them to the altar but welcoming them to the font (first). Additional re-framing thoughts are welcome.
  3. What You Call It Matters. I noticed a new tack I hadn’t seen before in the comments: referring to Communion Before Baptism. I find this term very unhelpful because it elides away a major problem. One of the central problems of CWOB is that it does not take place within a communal sacramental framework that leads through Baptism to Discipleship. The use of “before” instead of “without” implies that Baptism will follow. And I simply don’t believe that the implication is true. I would be somewhat less concerned if I believed that follow-through were occurring and that those who communed out of ignorance or through misguided hospitality were directed from there to Baptism and discipleship—but that follow-through is fundamentally not on the radar for most places doing CWOB. And this may be one of the big differences between a place like St Gregory of Nyssa and other parishes. My sense is that St Gregory’s does do a better job at follow-through and, as a result, Donald Schell can point to people like Sara Miles who did come to discipleship through this process. But St Gregory’s is not the norm for places that offer CWOB.

Those are my thoughts—what are yours?

46 Replies to “CWOB Posts: A Post-Mortem”

  1. Derek,

    I’m mostly just staying away from any conversation that Gary and Murdoch get involved in. It’s always the same dead end debate, regardless of the presenting issue. I thought your pieces were very helpful and very sorry to have missed them in New Haven. At the end of the day, we’re going to need more thoughtful conversations in other venues, to move this forward.

    We’re bringing Donald Schell and Ruth Meyers to Southern Ohio in October, to be part of a panel with Bishop Breidenthal on the topic. With their consent, I hope to make their presentations available.

  2. I actually had more to say, but you’re right – it was clear that there was not going to be much movement on either side (and my repetitiveness had begun to bore even me!).

    I was startled to find that at least one person thinks of CWOB as a sort of mute exhortation against congregational complacency! The use of the Eucharist as admonishment had never occurred to me.

    I also wonder why conversion by means of the Eucharist seems to be viewed as the sole marker of God’s “wild mercy” (I think that was the phrase). Any parish that hosts an A.A. meeting would know that this is far from true; perhaps it’s time to encourage people to go to Open A.A. meetings – or to job training groups or soup kitchens – and see for themselves other ways in which God works in people’s lives. Perhaps, in fact, it’s time to wonder why the church can’t seem to accomplish as much in this area as A.A. does – and work on that problem instead.

    The last thing I was thinking was that the Biblical witness surely supports the contention that God prefers to discuss matters with people, and let them know what’s going on; God likes people to understand what he’s asking of them. He doesn’t go the mute, “we shouldn’t explain too much,” you’re-on-your-own route, ever. He doesn’t give people sacraments in passing, and then move on to the next person, hoping they’ll be converted, perhaps, maybe, at some point.

    God takes some time to talk things over with people. He tells Abraham exactly what he’s going to do about Sodom and Gomorrah – and allows Abraham to question him right back. He speaks with Samuel, and with Jeremiah, and with Jonah, telling them what he wants them to do – and allows questions and protestations in response. Gabriel talks with Mary at the Annunciation, gives her some opportunity to ask questions, and waits for her consent. Phillip explains things to the Ethiopian Eunuch, allows him to ask questions, and then baptizes him. Christ speaks to Paul at his conversion, tells him what the problems are, and what to do next. Then Paul is baptized.

    This is the clear and to me unmistakable pattern; God does not allow us to wander around on the fringes wondering what things mean, or try to “facilitate” conversion. God speaks plainly and allows questions and discussion. The lack of plain speaking is what I most object to; there’s no way to do this, either, with CWOB. And I think this leads inexorably, too, to the problem I pointed out early on; that people are being asked to give assent to things we haven’t bothered to say anything about. There’s no way to avoid this problem, either; the priest who wrote the “instructed Eucharist” didn’t think it was strange to have people respond “Amen.”

    I used to be of two minds about this issue, as I think you know – but am firmly against the practice now, just because of this one simple issue. So change can in fact occur.

    I loved Savi’s analogy to having an operation; very on-point, I thought, and just the right sort of illustration of the problem.

  3. (One more thing: I can say for sure that people who’ve had conversion experiences can get pretty evangelical about them. A.A.’s Bill Wilson had one of these – white light shining in his face, and a sustained feeling of ecstasy – and for a long time thought everybody who came to A.A. had to have the very same experience. Perhaps he thought that the program itself wouldn’t make an impression unless it were accompanied by this I’ve-been-completely-blown-away sort of personal episode.

    And, of course, the experience spoke directly to Wilson’s addictive personality anyway! He loved the feeling of being “blown away” and wanted to focus on it and relive it. But even in A.A., most “conversions” are of William James’ educational variety, and occur over time.

    Just a data point….)

  4. I was thinking at the end, when we got to “before baptism”, of the remarks from the previous round concerning incorporation. I have had a lot of contact (mostly through fantasy fandom) with people who are quite willing to partake of Christian communion intending not only to abjure Christian incorporation but to interpret it as an act of their own religion– decontextualizing it, as it were. I have to think of this as a kind of profanation, to be frank. Communion before baptism would imply to me someone like a catechumen, for they are the only ones who are truly before baptism; one could just as well term it “communion against baptism” when it is partaken by someone who actively does not intend to convert.

    I’m still convinced that the fundamental problem is a deliberate obfuscation of terms. After all the sparring with Gary he came as close as he could to conceding that his “unconditional” didn’t mean anything, and I couldn’t get anyone else to step up to providing some meaning for “hospitality”. I’m tempted to side with the StandFirmites and say that what “inclusion” really means is that nobody ever has to feel bad about what they are doing, as long as they are upper-middle class liberals. There’s a decided irony in that if the church were really welcoming to the lower classes and other races, it might well be transformed theologically into something with a great antipathy towards the programs of the hierarchy. They are to be transformed, not us.

    I was heartened to see Ann engage me on the issue of being more proactively welcoming, and disappointed (but not surprised) to see nobody engaging me much on the actuality of what is off-putting.

  5. I could see where we were heading from the first post, and so bowed out of any comment. There is at least one regular commentator there who gets under my skin at a gallup and so I just decided that getting into it one more time wasn’t going to be worth the strain on my blood vessels.
    I see very little reason to try and discuss anything with the “Cool kids” (left or right) at this point.
    Dose that make me part of the problem?

  6. One thing that came to mind when I read the article and the responses was something I’d read a week ago, in the comments on Slacktivist. It was from one or two atheist posters who mentioned going to Episcopalian services where the priest called people up for open communion. Instead of making them feel more included, it made them uncomfortable. It came across as a huge presumption, that they could participate in a ritual they don’t believe in.

    It seems like the symbology is also an issue. A lot of the “pro” commenters compared it to the open meals Jesus shared during his ministry. But the Eucharist is modeled after the Last Supper, a Passover seder: an intimate meal with Jesus and his closest friends. Also, I’m coming at this as a former Catholic, but the theology surrounding the Eucharist suggests to me something much deeper than inclusion, closer to unity with Christ. It’s the Body of Christ sharing the Body of Christ. Now, I’m fully in favor of inclusion–I have no problem with TEC’s moral stances. My concern is that making communion totally open, we risk losing the intimacy of the Eucharist and stripping it of its meaning.

  7. Thanks, C.—fixed it.

    Sometimes it just seems like a waste to engage certain folks. My fear, though, is that if you don’t, other readers might believe that their points have merit.

  8. I thought that your posts were excellent, as did everyone else I know over at Covenant.

    If I may propose that your problem – your frustration – is the same as those which many of the rest of us have: trying to hold theologically serious conversation within the Episcopal Church (USA) is simply impossible. “Radical openness” is not a theology, but a flight from intellectual rigor, just as it is a flight from genuine political engagement and genuine moral commitment. It is, in other words, an “anything goes” system. How does one have real theological debate within such a system when the system itself eschews any and all standards (that is, aside from what might fit on a bumper sticker, e.g., “Radical hospitality” or whatever). Where there are no rules of discourse there is no discourse. Language operates only within the framework of rules (like everything else within nature, one might add).

    The reason why arguments about same-sex blessings don’t go anywhere is precisely because there are no agreed upon theological norms. Canon law is enforced in a helter skelter fashion; one can break canon law as long as one’s bishop turns a blind eye. It is the same with liturgical rubrics, no less than liturgical theology, biblical theology, moral theology, etc., nevermind anything resembling “tradition”! Those things that once were understood as guides to the faith no longer matter. And of course that makes it easy for those who don’t want to care. But this doesn’t make us a thoughtful church so much as one that is thoughtless – and thoughtless precisely because there is no will to commit, to proclaim, or submit to something as simple as canon law itself.

    The coming years will be increasingly difficult for many of us, whether left, right, or centrist. If one is theologically serious, one will not have a place at the husk of what is now called the Episcopal Church (USA). One cannot serve two masters. Anti-theological and anti-intellectual “openness” and cannot dwell together with theological seriousness and historically informed commitment.

    How many of us will be cast out into the wilderness of the American religious landscape?

  9. I made a couple of attempts in the direction of your first remark in the course of the discussion, and I was more or less brushed off in one case and refused to have my personal reluctance picked over in another. This is one of the many things that leads me to the conclusion that avoidance of a confrontation with the realities of individual participation is crucial to the program.

    “Inclusion” has become a tyrannous principle and the enemy of actual theology.

  10. My struggle right now is trying to understand this from the point of view of an outsider, and those comments on Slacktivist really opened my eyes. An objection I often see from atheists about more liberal religion–even the hardly unorthodox idea that the Bible doesn’t have to be taken 100% at face value–is that it gives the impression that we don’t really believe anything. At least fundamentalism, they would say, is consistent.

    Which is sad for me, because I am liberal, I am inclusive in my theology, and I do have a flexible interpretation of the Bible. But then, I’d still like to think I’ve made an effort to ground my beliefs and methods in tradition, reason, and prayer–possibly more than others. If the Church truly wants to present an inclusive gospel, it needs to do so with clarity and consistency, and not just on a whim.

  11. I would like to thank you for your theological rigor in the communion and baptism discussion. It’s something that’s bugged me for a long time- why would people go up for communion when they can’t make the commitment to live and die in the Lord? Baptism is the incorporation into a mystical body which walked up to a hill and was crucified- that body and blood ain’t just grape juice and wheat.

    I think the national church has gotten distracted by, as you rightly put it, the ‘inclusive’ image. Are we really inclusive? Are the poor people who don’t quite pay enough into the church to support the priest’s lifestyle an afterthought? I think the play “Major Barbara” cuts to the heart- why criticize anything of the polite, upper middle class liberal lifestyle when it’s the one that supports the church? A key part to that liberal lifestyle is the ability to “take what you like, leave what you don’t” when it comes to religion. However, Christianity is not a ‘take what you like, leave what you don’t’ religion. You can’t say that both Paul and Peter were right as far as the Gentiles were concerned- one was right, one was incredibly wrong.

    One thing that has held the church together has been its reliance on common spiritual discipline. As we head to being a ‘cafeteria’ Episcopal Church, will we lose that? Or will the hierarchy, sensing that it’s losing power in some areas, lash out to secure more power in other areas?

  12. Derek,

    I thought that the entire essay was well-formulated and I appreciated your tireless efforts in the combox.

    But I think that Mr Wingate and “guyer” have done an excellent job at explaining why it almost doesn’t matter at all. I entirely agree with Mr Wingate’s definition of inclusion, and what “guyer” says about serious theology versus what you can put on a bumper sticker resonates with my experiences as layman in ECUSA over the last twenty or so years.

    What to do? I guess we keep trying, but I hold out little hope.

  13. Inclusion as a conversation-stopper has no place in theological discussion. Inclusion as a concept has to be balanced within a recognition of the communal goal of edification of the whole Body and the individual goal of discipleship.

    And you’re right that inclusion-as-conversation-stopper operates in a fairly narrow range.

    What do we do? Perhaps we need to come up with a better bumper sticker… :-) My dad always told me that it was pointless to apply logic in an illogical situation; the same is true here—a rational theological discourse will have little effect on what is primarily an emotional appeal. The answer is a well thought-out counter-appeal.

  14. Actually, I don’t agree with the pessimism expressed above. It’s very obvious (to me, at least) that liberals (for lack of a better term) are split on this issue; if this weren’t true we wouldn’t be seeing much opposition at all from that side. (Keep in mind that for all the shouting, there were really only two or three people arguing the CWOB side over there, other than Donald Schell and Sara Miles – and I think they were most pro forma arguments anyway.)

    But we are seeing liberal opposition. In fact, this past round of discussions seemed to bring out even more opposition than I’ve seen previously; there were voices I’d never heard before speaking rationally and calmly – and nobody much countered them. The opposition was focused only on what people could perceive as “conservative” positions.

    All this points to a clear way to argue the issue: you counter liberal arguments with other, better liberal arguments. I think they do exist. And I don’t see any reason why they can’t be liberal theological arguments, either.

  15. “Liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology.”
    That’s fantastic. I just might have to steal it.

  16. ““Radical openness” is not a theology, but a flight from intellectual rigor, just as it is a flight from genuine political engagement and genuine moral commitment.”

    Well put, But I’m afraid that it’s a point that just glides right on by in to many circles in TEC.

  17. Thanks, MAG—feel free!

    bls—I think we need both. Yes, we do need to put the theology out there in ways that liberals can and will listen to it. But we still need a better emotional counter as well.

  18. Derek,

    Thanks for this series. Well done, as usual. I appreciate your continued engagement on this issue. I am one of those who beleive this is a much more fundamental theological issue than how we sort out sexual discipline and faithfulness.

    In Part II, you wrote, “many of the current Episcopalians I know were raised something more rigid. Either they were Roman Catholic or were a more extreme form of Protestant. As a result, one of the reasons that they have come to the Episcopal Church is because it is perceived to be a more inclusive and less exclusive church than the one they left.” I think this is a key observation. I have wondered if much of the division in TEC – and not just on this issue – might be due in large part to two different reasons people have joined the Episcopal Church over the last generation or two. Some, as you mention, joined because they were looking for a more “liberal” expression of Christianity which is how a substantial portion of Episcopalians have come to understand themselves. Others joined because they were looking for a more “catholic” expression of Christianity. The latter are folk described in the little classic, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (written while the author, Bob Webber, was a member of the congregation I now serve). We can argue over which of these two reasons for becoming Episcopalian more fully expresses the Anglican patrimony, but that they certainly reflect a host of assumptions about what it means to be episcopalian and shape how those coming from either direction come at many issues. Failure to recognize this is one reason we seem to continually talk pass each other.



  19. Like bls, I do not share the pessimism expressed in some of the comments here.

    Nor do I think inclusion a concept without merit if it is properly framed not as our including one another in any old community which seems so amorphous, but as the receiving of Christ including us, that is incorporating us, into his own life through Baptism out of which a life of response to grace, that is discipleship, emerges for each person in the community, Christ’s Body, of which baptized member is a part.

    Inclusion and accompanying CWOB as framed by some liberals actually smacks of a very noblesse oblige mentality–we include you people, and we do so by watering it down (pun intended), so come on forward to the Altar-Table, but don’t get baptized, we don’t want to deal with you as baptized–because baptized we really do have to deal with you, we might be changed by your showing us something about God’s grace we really don’t want to deal with.

    I could say the same for some conservatives…who really do have a program for lgbt persons filtered through heterosuperiority conflated with the Gospel that never pauses long enough to see what grace might be doing in our own lives in response to Jesus Christ.

    In both cases, dealing with us as persons and wrestling with the fact that not just lgbt persons, but straight persons will be changed in light of God’s grace in Christ through baptism in community as fellow members of Christ’s Body. And the changes may not be those that fit a neat program that reaffirms superiority inherent in both positions I describe above.

  20. Well, what’s a liberal theological argument? Or for that matter, what’s a conservative theological argument? It’s not hard to characterize Derek’s thesis here as conservative; indeed, pretty much any theological position ratifying a tradition of the church can be successfully characterized as “conservative”. The dynamic at work at the moment is that holding definite positions is exclusionary and divisive; of course enforcing this (which is the political trend) is as exclusionary of people who do care about theology, but it’s hard to state that in a way that makes the charge stick.

  21. Matt, that’s an interesting point. I note my own history of coming from a very mainline Presbyterian congregation (now ironically cast as conservative due to mainline leftward drift) and being pulled into Anglicanism at a (then) fairly liberal church school. I’m pretty sure at least one of my old chaplains would differ with me strongly on at least one presenting issue but it’s rather his fault for exposing me to systematic theology and thus equipping me to critique his theses.

  22. The dynamic at work at the moment is that holding definite positions is exclusionary and divisive; of course enforcing this (which is the political trend) is as exclusionary of people who do care about theology, but it’s hard to state that in a way that makes the charge stick.

    Not true. Liberals hold all sorts of definite positions: they believe, strongly, that “God is Love” and in “Faith, Hope, and Love, these three – but the greatest of these is Love”; they believe that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”; they believe that God has a “preferential option for the poor”; they believe in Christ as Healer; they believe that Christ’s way is that of peace; they believe that “In Christ there is no Greek nor Jew; no slave nor free; no male nor female”; they believe in “respecting the dignity of every human being”; they believe in the Summary of the Law; they believe, along with Quakers, that “there is that of God in every person”; they believe that “the Spirit blows where it will.”

    That’s only for a start – and doesn’t include all sorts of other beliefs not necessarily theological but possibly related: liberals are against the exploitation of the poor and helpless and for justice – especially for those it would be easy to forget about; they are against environmental degradation; they are against discrimination against others and for equal rights.

    There’s more to theology than just Creedal statements (which is what I have a feeling you’re thinking about). I know liberals who think there should be more stuff in the Creeds about Jesus’ life and ministry, actually; I kind of think so myself, matter of fact. (Derek tells me no, but I’m not convinced yet.)

  23. bls, the first difficulty in your list of liberal theological tenets is precisely that it cannot accurately be said that the conservatives dispute them. The difficulty is in the implementation, and therefore also in the interpretation. To take the larger view: Paul on the one hand is quite expansive, in talking about his intent to win souls for Christ and to Christ. But particularly in the letter that is the subject of the greatest dispute, 1 Corinthians, what we also see a a lot of attention paid to getting those won souls to live in community. The implication in that letter is that, absent a lot of instruction, they cannot. Non-conservatives need a coherent answer to the arch-traditionalist principle that it is Paul’s own interpretation and implementation of his statement on males and females which should be followed. If you say, “well really his interpretation just doesn’t hold up”, you need something better than a hermeneutic of personal distaste (and Gary’s principle of proximity definitely doesn’t cut the mustard).

    The principle that is working in CWOB, however, is that the political realization of the social content of liberalism should drive all the other theological considerations. When our theology only consists of social statements, then it appears we are vulnerable to lacking answers on anything else. It’s not that liberal theology is more than creedal statements, but that one can apparently construct arguments within such a theology that are not only indifferent, but are hostile to the very notion of creed.

  24. C. Wingate, I was responding to your statement, often repeated in fact, that liberal Episcopalians don’t believe anything (phrased in this case that “holding definite positions is exclusionary and divisive”). I countered this by pointing out that liberals most certainly do hold definite positions, and listed some of them. It’s not a comprehensive list – just one I could easily make up in a few minutes. And many of the things I’ve said on this thread follow from some of the points on that list.

    For instance, I think it’s wrong to invite people to actively participate in something that they may not believe in or want to give assent to (yet); that follows from “respecting the dignity of all people.” I think it’s wrong to demur about explanation and preparation for the same reason – and also because the God of the Bible plainly cares enough about human beings to speak openly and allow questions and objections. (I really think it’s wrong to be mute about this! While I’m sure it’s not meant that way, the idea of “inducing conversion” seems like nothing so much as a racket – not unlike Elmer Gantryish “tent revival” meetings that attempt to get people to join based on ecstatic experience. As I said, I don’t think this is really the intent – I do think CWOB is being advanced with good intentions – but ecstatic conversion experience has now been advanced as an argument in favor. I would have been totally turned off by this as an outsider to the church 8 years ago.)

    In other words, I’m not interested in arguing from what Paul says about the Eucharist; that’s the whole point. Or, perhaps, what Paul says can be a data point in the argument against – one of what I think is starting to become an overwhelming number of data points against. Liberals may not respect Paul some do – but I think they will listen to Jesus, who plainly said “Do this in remembrance of me.” (In any case, Jesus himself was baptized first, before he did anything else!) Point to Jesus, then, and not to Paul.

    I’d also like to point out that it’s not so terrible to be an “outsider”! It’s a perfectly respectable – and BTW very educational – place to be, at times. Another liberal position, often, is that the church itself ought to be an outsider – “speaking to the culture from the edges.” There is, IOW, nothing necessarily awful about being an “outsider”; and as Derek says, the invitation to join the community is always there. We are very inclusive about Baptism.

    I don’t believe, anyway, that Gary is a member of our church! And if he’s not, his beliefs are his own affair and that of the church he does belong to. We’re talking about Episcopal doctrine and practice here, after all.

  25. FWIW, and as another data point: When I came back to the church a few years ago – I had been baptized as an infant but hadn’t darkened church doors for more than 30 years, since I was about 11 years old – I did not receive Communion for over 2 years, precisely because I didn’t believe in it. And I spoke with the priest about it first.

    Once again: I’m not saying that we should police the altar rail. I’m saying: it’s wrong to offer participation in a religious rite – and instruct them to say “Amen”! – to people who may not in fact assent to what’s being said and done. And that’s what the open invitation has ended up in doing, in my own lived experience.

  26. (Internet’s finally back up from the snow!)

    One of the ways that I’d parse the difference between liberal and conservative theology is like this:

    As we’ve discussed in the past, there are two basic positions. Either you believe in an infallible church or you don’t. If you do believe in an infallible church, there’s really nothing to talk about—you just try and live out those infallible teachings the best you can.

    If you don’t believe in an infallible church—and I’ve read too much history, theology, and Scripture to believe that the church is infallible—then the pronouncements of the church are open to review and discussion with an eye to making the church and the souls within it match up to God’s revelations as best we can. A conservative within a fallible church will say that the church has most everything right and that the least amount of change is the best. A liberal would say that the church still has a ways to go and that quite a bit more should be open to review and correction than a conservative. (I see myself as a moderate here.)

    Along a similar spectrum, conservatives are more likely to say that our sources of authority—Scripture and tradition—are most authoritative in terms of their results. What Scripture and the Church say ought to go. Liberals are more likely to say that what our sources of authority offer are authoritative based on their processes. The way that the Scriptures and Church have made decisions about problems in the past inform how we handle problems now and in the future. They hold prior results more lightly than conservatives would as circumstances have changed.

    I see this as the key difference between how conservatives and (responsible theological) liberals treat Paul: conservatives tend to hold to his pronouncements; liberals tend to (or perhaps, should) model how he got to his pronouncements.

    Thus, my pieces at the Cafe a while back on same-sex unions I used Pauline logic to make a point that is at odds with the Pauline pronouncement. Here’s the first part, here’s the second part. Is this contradictory? A bit—but I think it makes sense knowing Paul. That is, Paul favored a living interpretive process that has at its heart the Risen Jesus over legal fiats. He displays this time and again in his arguments in Romans and Galatians against a legalistic Christianity. Don’t we then miss the point of Paul if all we do is calcify his findings into new legalisms rather than applying his process of Christ-centered reasoning?

    Again, I see myself as a moderate here. I believe that the grand majority of what the church teaches is in accord with the will and purpose of God—but there are some places where the Gospel call requires us to make changes. They shouldn’t be done breathlessly and heedlessly, but carefully and logically. And CWOB is not one of them.

  27. That’s a really interesting take on Paul, Derek – about pronouncements vs. process, I mean. I’ve never heard it said that way before, and it seems right to me. That “Paul favored a living interpretive process that has at its heart the Risen Jesus over legal fiats” is a great point, and one that does in fact speak to liberals (even though many are annoyed, on general principles, with Paul!).

    I also wanted to say this: liberals can and definitely do respond to theological argument and discussion. In fact, the point you just made about Paul would be music to many ears, I think. Paul is very misunderstood in some circles, I think – and it might be a good time to address that as well.

  28. It’s the same with regard to Aquinas for RC’s or Hooker for us as well re: natural law. Is it pronouncement or process… Engaging with Paul’s pronouncements as process it seems to me is something he would have expected in his own context as a former Pharisee. He does come off as bossy though from time to time.

  29. Well, the most liberal argument within our church tends in practice to amount to the assertion that there is no Episcopal doctrine and that Episcopal practice can be whatever we want to make it. One shouldn’t take this sort of position too seriously if only because it tends to be used tactically rather than adopted out of some deep principle, but it has a way of prevailing at any given time. The most telling phrase in Derek’s response is “responsible theological”: whatever we personally may do (and may fall on the spectrum), it is a simple fact that there is a substantial force of theologically irresponsible liberals in the church. And they are far too much in control.

    I look at someone like Tobias Haller who is quite liberal and who strikes me as a thoughtful person. He and I have a lot of disagreements (which I do not press with him in most cases because it’s self-gratifyingly confrontational to contest every last point) but we can have discourse and even points of agreement. And nothing we agree upon has any traction in the church except within narrow factional lines. I look at GC and see the latest set of commemorations added to the kalendar, and it’s not just me or conservatives but a wide range of people who have issues with them. And I think there is no chance whatsoever that any of the problem “saints” will not make the final cut. I was astonished to see the House of Bishops formally reaffirm the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, because taking so definite a creedal stand was so out of character for our governing bodies.

  30. Liberals hold all sorts of definite positions…

    Those are definite positions, and they are theological, but I assert that their use is limited in terms of church order. Of course, that may make no difference to some people, but I would find it difficult to reconcile that conception of the church with what I understand as the traditional one. And perhaps what we’re seeing is a split into these two conceptions of the church: the religion of Jesus, as opposed to the religion about Jesus, to greatly simply things.

  31. Keep in mind: I made up a list in about 5 minutes off the top of my head! It’s not meant to be comprehensive, let alone systematic!

    But your comment is interesting anyway. I did say I wasn’t interested in arguing from Paul – mainly because lots of liberals have issues with Paul and it seems self-defeating to introduce him – but maybe that’s the wrong approach. Perhaps the better approach is to show that Paul is not the bad guy he’s often taken for – that’s doable and profitable, too, I think – and that “religion about Jesus” has its place also. I think that’s what Derek is saying – and actually many liberals already know this anyway.

    Again, though: I really do advocate a theological approach to this discussion. It might help introduce something more meaty for Episcopalians; I think people are hungry for something like this, to be honest. I’ve seen it happen in Bible studies and other sorts of educational programs; people are interested in theology – they might not put it exactly that way, but they are – and would respond, given the right approach.

    I think, actually, that one impassioned person could step into a “theologically irresponsible” (I would rather call it “spiritually adrift” – something that happens to conservatives, too, BTW!) situation and change it entirely.

  32. (And let’s really keep in mind, too, that what happens on internet chat boards is maybe not necessarily reflective of the situation as a whole?)

  33. The “of” and “about” positions may be conceptual categories in use, but they are historically traceable only to the 17th century Deists. I can’t conceive that anyone in the Early Church would have used them and there is no evidence that anyone did. They are purely a result of Enlightenment critiques of religion and operate only in a realm unfettered from historical fact.

    It’s often alleged/assumed that there was an early movement that followed the faith “of” Jesus, but that it was perverted by a later faith “about” movement that suppressed the former. Unfortunately, our texts don’t show that; the earliest surviving Christian writings—those of Paul—show a mingling of the two and even the writings in our canon that seem critical of Paul (James and Revelation) in no way counter with a “religion of” argument.

  34. I am at a rather liberal parish and I don’t see this split of “of” and “about” among the folks who join us in the adult series I’ve co-teach occasionally. On the contrary, folks have lively and thoughtful things to add–and Paul rather than being the villian has been presented as a friend and brother with whom we engage as we seek to understand and follow Jesus, whom we cannot separate in his Person and work among us and in us. I’m a big fan of Paul, so I think making broad generalizations rather than saying “some liberals” or “some conservatives” won’t do. Paul gives us pronouncements arrived at by processes, processes of thinking that take his training and reorient their starting point to and through the Risen Christ. We must engage similarly, asking such things as what fruits show themselves, not in extraordinary ways, but in the same domesticity with which we take for granted for ourselves as fellow Anglicans. Meaning glory looks rather ordinary.

  35. You’re right, Christopher. I’ve just come from an anti-Paul discussion on another board, but probably that was over-weighted, too, with the “impassioned”!

    I will say, instead, “some liberals have issues with Paul,” and leave it at that. I know quite a number, though, who don’t at all, including myself! (If I’m a liberal, that is – sometimes I think I am and sometimes not. Conservatives seem to think I am, though – mainly because I take a certain position on a certain issue, and for no other reason!) I like the guy, and ever moreso since I recently attended some Bible study classes about the letters….

  36. Derek,

    I didn’t mean to suggest that this split had any sort of historical pedigree; indeed, I’d have thought that it was even later than you’d suggest.

    That said, it is espoused by some who are writing today, if only on the internet. And some of these are clergy. But I don’t suggest that anyone here is against theological debate. I find these comboxes very refreshing, as opposed to what I hear elsewhere on the ‘net, and in the diocese and at synod, and in my own parish.

    What does seem to be lacking generally is an attempt to agree on first principles, and, more importantly, acknowledgement that theological argument is much less meaningful when there is no such agreement.

    But again, this isn’t directed against you or your commenters.

  37. Presumably the religion “of” Jesus was Judaism. (Though that doesn’t usually seem to be what people mean when they contrast “the religion of Jesus” and “the religion about Jesus”. Instead they seem to think the religion of Jesus was some form of liberal Protestantism, perhaps Unitarianism.)

  38. Well, another fun fact to consider is that Paul is arguably more “inclusive” than Jesus!

    Jesus, after all, said that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple,” and “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” This is far more severe than merely prescribing baptism – which is available to anyone – before communion. Paul, in fact, called himself the Apostle to the Gentiles, to graft a whole new people into the tree of the faith.

    I always find it fascinating that those passages are almost never quoted by anybody, ever, to justify anything, actually! ;)

  39. bls,
    I’ve wondered if that statement from Jesus is prescriptive or descriptive…

    Arguing from “Jesus” is always a complicated exercise because it means pointing a a synthesis of who and what Jesus is rather than a clear objective standard. Rarely is that synthesis made explicit and without explicitness it’s quite easy to drop some key elements of Jesus by the wayside.

    For instance, you can’t have a biblical Jesus without a Jesus who cleanses the Temple. You can’t have a biblical Jesus who isn’t an apocalyptic Jesus. You can’t have a biblical Jesus who doesn’t push that righteous action isn’t enough, righteous intention is the more difficult and better goal.

    The reason the “historical Jesus” gets invoked by quite a lot of folks is because it offers a better option for a pick-‘n’-choose Jesus; you simply label the parts you don’t like to be non-historical…

  40. Maybe we can next address communion with baptism and the way 99.9999 percent of us (and I am definitely including myself here) do not give a second thought as to whether we truly “discern the body” and “are in love and charity” with our neighbors. I am hardly advocating for quarterly communions or High Masses with no communicants, but our forebears took receiving the sacrament more seriously and I suspect it was far more meaningful to them.

  41. I think there are good Gospel reasons for inclusion – my favorite being, “I have other sheep you don’t know;” or perhaps “don’t know yet.” That said, I wonder how many of us have come from traditions in which we were convicted of our sins (and it can, I assure you, happen in “liberal” or “mainline” traditions), and so are moved by a perception of grace. From the Psalter:

    I sought the LORD, and he answered me
    and delivered me out of all my terror.


    I was brought very low and he helped me.

    (And yes, I know it’s a bit of prooftexting. It’s meant only to be illustrative; and, anyway, it’s a historically recognized position.)

    More than a few of us, I think, come to the position that “God has accepted me, wretched as I am; and therefore I need to be prepared for God to accept anybody.” (Now, we all have “favorite” sins – making distinctions between those that we can ignore and those that we can’t forgive; and you can tell what an individual’s favorites are by what he or she does or doesn’t condemn, does or doesn’t accept.) This is not, I think, an argument driven by political fashion. It is profoundly theological, applying logic to our own experience of God. Perhaps it isn’t as well reflected as it could be; but too often the reflection dissolves once again into “sin favoritism.”

    So, while I believe for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t change the norm, I have to take seriously the wrestling with how and not whether to reach out to all.

    My second thought is that we ask a lot of our folks when we say, “Worship with us, experience with us, and you’ll come to appreciate what we believe,” instead of being confessional or magisterial. I have supplied in many places over the years, and I’m clear on just how many places aren’t even making an effort at adult Christian education – even as I recall a church growth book in the ’80’s that said adult and not children’s Christian education was one of the marks of growing churches.

    This is one of my concerns about worship books. (Forgive me if I’ve said something like this here before.) I want folks to have the Prayer Book to discover in it all the other stuff that we don’t use Sunday morning, as much for its educational value as for anything else. One of these days I might leave chaplaincy and find myself leading regularly in one congregation (hey, even chaplains retire!). I find myself thinking that I will say frequently, “While we worship, listen carefully. Pay close attention to the text. We’ve lived with it and selected it carefully, reflecting Scripture and the faith of the Church. See what the Holy Spirit highlights for you; and if that raises questions, well and good. We’ll start there.”

  42. John Bassett, I think, makes a good point above about the removal of the exhortation to the congregation from Rite II. That is:

    “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling”

    (I didn’t realize at first that it was still part of Rite I, actually! I know I’ve heard it said, someplace, but can’t quite remember the context; perhaps they use it at St. Thomas?)

    “In love and charity with your neighbors” is a pretty tall order – and surely where we all fall short, constantly, as John notes. I’ve always thought that this, in itself, was the genius of Holy Communion – and have always suspected it’s why Christ instituted the Eucharist: it brings us together as nothing else can. If we want to receive Communion – we have to go to church and sit down together. Otherwise – and especially in this age – we could just stay home and listen to the webcast.

    Communion gathers people together into community – and the exhortation makes it clear that just sitting there is not enough. And “in love and charity with your neighbors” takes on even deeper meaning when you consider the definition of “neighbor” that Christ leaves us in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    It’s too bad we don’t hear it anymore, I agree….

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