On Space in the Church

If you haven’t seen the piece on space for theological conservatives in the Episcopal Church by Christopher Wells yet, do go and read it.

Christopher’s work is always worth reading, even when I don’t agree with it, but in this case I certainly do. I note that this work is part of a series and I look forward to see how he develops it. What strikes me at this point is that his definition for “conservative” may actually be a bit too big…

He writes:

With that said, let me propose what I take to be a useful hermeneutic for “conservative” self-reflection and -identification, in the form of a thesis: Conservative Episcopalians will, or should, be those who define and approach all things ecclesial in a steadfastly theological way, by asking first about God’s character, his person and promises, his history and the record of his actions, so that all else is tied to, interpreted in light of, and otherwise subjected in obedience to him.

Some non-self-nominated conservatives may wish to do this, too! And arguably such an approach is simply and straightforwardly Christian. Ruled out, however, is an approach that starts with or subsists in human wisdom and experience, which requires a fundamental retelling or reworking of classic Christian doctrine in light of what may have happened to us lately — since, say, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the 1970s, or what have you. Conservatives may be more or less gothically Anglo-Catholic, buoyantly evangelical, or determinedly progressive with respect to various liturgical, catechetical, or social commitments. But we take a revealed body of texts as normative, across time and space — sacred Scripture, and the creeds as its summary — and we order “all things” with respect to this trust, in Christ. That is, we accept God’s ordering of the world in this way: God, who “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

Yes, starting with the character and identity of God revealed in the Scriptures, history, and pre-eminently in the person of Jesus Christ is basic Christianity as far as I’m concerned. I can easily find myself in his definition.

But is it too broad? I know he’s walking a tightrope because one of his commitments is holding Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in the same group. But are their theological commitments what hold this disparate group together? In my experience, the reason why the “conservative” elements of these two church parties barely tolerate each other hang together is precisely because they are united on a moral/social platform that closely mirrors the platform of the conservative political party. I look forward to what he says next…

9 Replies to “On Space in the Church”

  1. I’m with you; that definition seems simply to be “basic Christianity,” to me, too. But then, I’ve found the church itself to be so awful that I can’t imagine why anybody would belong to – why anybody would bother with it at all, for that matter – it if they didn’t believe in what it teaches.

    I do think people tend to mix their own particular social/political/personal beliefs and leanings in with religion and call it “conservative” or “progressive” or whatever, accordingly. Maybe because the church has been the default arbiter of “morality” for such a long time….?

  2. Well, I suspect that they are both united in their contempt for Spongian/Jesus-Seminar-style anti-creedal heresy. But apparently nobody is united by that.

  3. I think there’s in interesting contrast to be made between TEC and the RC church. The conservative RC hierarchy has been afraid for years to give an inch on non-doctrinal matters for fear that doing so would embolden and empower those who are looking for heterodox doctrinal changes. So, we see lots of concern on the conservative side that the Pope is washing the feet of women, not because it’s wrong or unorthodox in itself, but because it’ll embolden those who seek women’s ordination or some such. Pope Francis seems to recognize that bending to serve, that offering pastoral care and concern to all, does not weaken core doctrines of the RC church, but instead exhibits their strength.

    Within TEC, (to this outsider) it seems we see the liberal establishment unwilling to rein in the most heterodox of basic, creedal, doctrines being promulgated or preached within TEC, primarily, it seems to me, because of the concern that doing so would embolden and empower those conservatives who are looking to block more theologically well-grounded changes like women’s ordination.

  4. Ted, you’re right that TEC’s liberal establishment is fearful of reining things in. What they can’t seem to fit their heads around are people like my wife and friends—women clergy and gay clergy (and laity too, of course) who defend the traditional creeds and reject sacramental “innovations” like Communion without Baptism…

  5. I also found myself scratching my head. I agree with Chris on the basis for Christian thought, but I don’t agree with him on the hot button issues. His definition of conservative applies to many of us who defend traditional Christian Orthodoxy as we see it, creed, scripture, etc., but disagree with where many conservatives end up on social issues. I’ve often wondered where all these supposed Spong/Borg revisionists are, because I don’t seem to run into them in the Episcopal Church, especially among younger folk who seem to be more Radical/Generous orthodox.

  6. David Simmons–
    I assure you that these revisionists exist. They do tend to be older, though. There’s a genuine generation gap simply illustrated. I was once horrified to hear an extended sermon denying the Virgin Birth from a relatively senior priest of the female sex. And then there was the time that Elaine Pagels showed up at Adult Forum with the Gospel of Judas…

    To all:
    I also can understand how Dr. Wells might see the positions of liberals on social issues coming from a different kerygma, shall we say, than the one he uses. I don’t think I’ve read a General Convention debate in either House in which anyone articulated the reasoning I use to discern about homosexuality. Or other perspectives that may come from the kerygma that Dr. Wells recognizes here. What I have heard draws very much from the liberal kerygma Dr. Wells defines.

    Are there are other settings in the Church where people of multiple persuasions can deeply and articulately debate these issues?

    So I’m with Derek: this is an overly broad definition

  7. Remember the difference between Anglicans and Lutherans regarding the episcopate: Lutherans believe that bishops are not necessary but are desirable; Anglicans believe that they are necessary but not desirable…

  8. David, In general I agree with you and share your experience, particularly about younger parishioners and clergy. However, when I start to relax, I inevitably have a discussion with an older clergy colleague at some event that leaves me scratching my head… and honestly wondering how some folks can justify the way they’ve spent their lives.

    All that is so say, in response to you and to Derek, that perhaps Christopher defined “conservative” so broadly because he feels that these basic affirmations of the faith are precisely *not* universally acknowledged, or even broadly acknowledged enough to make them something other than “conservative.”

    Now, keep in mind that I’ve seen more than one young priest or parishioner asked by older members or other clergy why they didn’t become Roman Catholic or Missouri Synod Lutheran because they believed the Creeds and basic Christianity. I also know of clergy colleagues who have been admonished for praying in Jesus’ name by other clergy in their diocese because all the “Jesus talk” makes people uncomfortable. A great deal seems to depend upon location and generation.

    At the same time, I have been very encouraged to encounter folks who tend toward the more “progressive” end of the spectrum who explain their positions precisely from appeals to what I would consider fundamental orthodoxy. I don’t always agree, but I am thankful that I can say their numbers seem to be increasing… may they continue to!

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