Thoughts on the Thursday Question

Jim Naughton has been wondering out loud about something I’ve been pondering for a while. Since he brought it up, I’ll extend my thoughts on it a bit…

He suggests that one of the best reasons for TEC to turn down the Communique is the opportunity that such a move might make for evangelism. I don’t think he goes this far–but I will: perhaps turning down the Communique would give TEC an opportunity to evangelize the socially liberal/progressive for whom the “traditional”–read “socially conservative”–moral message with which the Gospel of Jesus is normally associated is a stumbling block. To put it another way, has the Good News of Jesus’ reconciling work through the cross and empty tomb been entrapped by a culturally binding morality which prevents it from being heard?

I don’t say this lightly. After all, I’m more on the socially conservative side myself. I’m not posing this as a rhetorical question that seeks to persuade but as an open question for discussion.

If–IF–this is the case, then perhaps TEC does have a calling separate from the Anglican Communion. As far as I’m concerned, we have a clear picture of what we don’t want–Europe. A continent where, according to all the reports I’ve seen, the Gospel is more often than not regarded as irrelevant for modern humanity. What is to say that will not characterize the US in fifty years?

One of the key issues that gives me pause, though, is this: I can’t think of a single denomination where the majority both embraces a liberal social vision and proclaims orthodox, Nicene, creedally grounded Christianity.

Is that because it hasn’t been done…or because it can’t?

25 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Thursday Question

  1. Lee

    Your penultimate paragraph is what worries me: for some reason revisionist theology seems to go hand in hand with social liberalism.

    On the other hand, younger people who aren’t as invested in the debates of the baby boomer generation may find a way to make it work. Being tolerant of gay folks, for instance, is less and less a “progressive” thing among younger people and more often simply a matter of course, whatever their politics (or theology) may otherwise be.

    My other worry is that I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy for a church to be uniformly conservative or liberal; maybe that’s because I don’t feel like I fit neatly into either category myself.

  2. bls

    I think we are the only ones who can possibly evangelize the group you’re talking about; they’re certainly not going to be interested in what so much of American – and worldwide? – Christianity has become. And I think that’s our duty also.

    I’m not worried very much anymore about the “church of liberals” thing. I’m not really a liberal (although I am, in some ways); I’ll be a theological conservative in the new Church, in fact. I’m looking forward to it.

    Now that you mention it, I think I’m the person you’re talking about: I “proclaim orthodox, Nicene, creedally grounded Christianity” – and I’m surely not a conservative overall.

    What have we got to lose? It’s got to be better than what’s happening now. I’ll go back if I have to – if somebody finally speaks up about Nigeria, that is – but the idea of doing something really new is very appealing right now.

  3. bls

    (Anyway, I can think of loads of very liberal bloggers etc. – far moreso than I am – who are completely traditional in their theology. Don’t you think?

    I really don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. Anyway, “conservative” and “liberal” are in flux, too; things aren’t what they were 30 years ago, or even 10. As I said, the young clergy I know are perfectly traditional in their faith but also very open.

    What have we got to lose?)

  4. Lutheran Zephyr

    Social liberalism + nicene, orthodox Christianity – it hasn’t been done on a denominational, national scale (yet), but it is being done every day in many congregations of the Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, Catholic Church, etc. etc..

    With dramatically decreasing denominational loyalty among folks in the pews, is the international inter-communion status or the national policies of an ecclesial bureaucracy significantly relevant to the evangelism efforts of local congregations? What impact, really, does all of this business with Primates have on most people in the pews?

    Assuming that evangelism happens most concretely and effectively at the local level, I’m not sure that any hierarchical policy shift will have any real impact on evangelism. I’m convinced that most Christians pay little (if any!) attention to the national policies and politics of their denominations. Most folks are simply looking for a church where they feel comfortable. And neither am I convinced that most priests would take a national policy shift and instantly or effectively implement it in their parish.

    Perhaps a denominational leadership with a theologically nicene/orthodox and socially liberal perspective can foster some fresh approaches in the parish, but such trickle-down efforts would seem to me to take a generation to really generate any significant change (if, even, every bishop sought to implement it). The church is a slow-moving beast. Primates and bishops can say what they want, but the real action is taking place in pews and parishes around the country.

  5. Caelius

    There is a church like that. It’s called the Anglican Province of Southern Africa.

  6. The Anglican Scotist

    Remember that social liberalism is very much a relative late-comer to Western civ, centuries after the Greek metaphysics of the Creeds had been discredited in intellectual circles, pace Roman Catholic efforts to preserve Thomas in amber.

    Leftists pushed to give a philosophical foundation to their theology have no Greek tradition at all to draw on–but they have made do with what seemed alive: Marxism, Existentialism, Phenomenology, Process thought, varieties of Postmodernism.

    Here is the kicker: the Creeds cannot be translated into any of those idioms without catastrophic loss of content. So of course left leaning theology is always playing catch-up to traditionalists!

    Go ahead and try to revitalize Greek essentialism in the contemporary climate of philsophy and see where it gets you. It could be done, sure, but until it is done, you won’t get a leftist theology consistent with the Creeds.

    Or you might, if you are content to tacitly drop metaphysical Realism and go with some form of know-nothingism, a la Oden or Hans Frei. But again, that is really just another, more devious way of rejecting the Creeds by trying to translate them into an incompatible idiom.

  7. Annie

    I feel as though I am out of gourd for contributing here, but I will dare to:

    “To put it another way, has the Good News of Jesus’ reconciling work through the cross and empty tomb been entrapped by a culturally binding morality which prevents it from being heard?”

    I think this is ultimately significant. In my own simple understanding of scripture, I understand the message time and again to be that God loves us, that God does not desire the death of a sinner and wills all to come to him. It is frustrating to me to read this same message repeatedly in scripture, as I read in Galatians the other night, and I see that the message is so clear! It is through faith in him. I still cannot fathom the Conservative argument. What is it? God either loves sinners or God does not and we are all sinners. We come to him through faith and through the grace of God we are saved. Any other message is a lie.

  8. David

    Derek the Ænglican asked if it is possible “to have a denomination where the majority both embraces a liberal social vision and proclaims orthodox, Nicene, creedally grounded Christianity.”

    Yes it is possible! And as Lutheran Zephyr intimated, it is being done at the parish level. But we have to remember that it is possible only when the two elements are allowed to interact and learn from each other. Both are necessary; however I believe that recent protestant history indicates that the two sides ultimately refuse to talk with each other. Each “side,” to use a well used metaphor, finally picks up their ball and refuses to play until the other plays by their rules.

    Why not state up front that these are the rules:

    1. The Christain faith is expressed (largely, but not exclusively) in the creeds.

    2. A liberal social vision is an authentic manifestation of the Christian faith.

    3. Conflicts over biblical interpretation and authority are examined in light of rules 1 and 2.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    Lots of good stuff here so far…

    In order to keep some of the lines of discussion straight, I’ll tease out three threads that I see at work.

    1. Liberal vision/creedal theology work at the local level; why worry about anything else?

    2. Creedal theology is rooted in philosophical systems antithetical to liberal thought.

    3. Why does morality have to be connected to the Good News at all?

    Yes, these are over-simplifications, but bear with me. I’d like to address #3 first.

    Annie, you wrote: “God loves us, that God does not desire the death of a sinner and wills all to come to him” I absolutely agree! What I don’t want to loose sight of, though, is that God calls us to love one another as he has loved us–that is our most perfect response to his love and acceptance. That means living in certain ways, ways that proclaim and enable love. That’s where growth into virtue comes in because a growth in virtue is a growth in love. But what does virtue look like? What are the behaviors that virtue inhabits and, in correspondence, what behaviors lead to vice and therefore growth away from love and from God’s will for all people. One way to proceed from this point is the traditional list of thou shalt and thou shalt nots. When used properly I’d say these can be aids to our spiritual development but more often than not they become rules for judging others and and tools of intimidation. That’s obviously not where we want to go. Nevertheless, I’d still argue that our response to God’s love in Christ involves concrete behaviors in the world–else this is all just an intellectual or emotional game which we play for our own benefit and amusement.

  10. Annie

    The question is: how do we grow in virtue? What does scripture say? Is it something that we do ourselves?

    It’s a lot to address in comments! We twist it when we misapply it to judge and intimidate people. By no means is that loving, nor is that what we are told to do. That’s more like what the Pharisees were doing–straining at gnats. The focus on sexual sin is skewed, as well. I think people naturally like to see how their neighbors are failing, but would rather not suffer a self-examination. To get back to essentials, I think we should list what it takes to be Christlike. Sadly, I think that people either don’t actually study the scriptures or they’ve read them the wrong way for the wrong reasons. The best model I have yet seen is St. Benedict’s Rule. (Thank you very much!)

    I think that Christ is quite the liberal! All that love, love, love stuff! It isn’t about sin. It is about living in Him.

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    Annie, I agree, we should focus on what makes us more Christ-like.

    “It isn’t about sin.”

    Well, it depends on what “it” is…

    Sin is real; evil is real–especially when they are cloaked in pious garments. This reality both the Scriptures and history make abundantly clear.

    And this, Scotist and others, is what I think truly separates a liberal anthropology from a classic creedal Christian one. Liberal anthropology tends to suggest that what ails the world is ignorance. If we just teach the children right, we could put an end to all the suffering… A Christian anthropology rejects this as the ultimate answer.

  12. Lee

    I’m intrigued by the question of liberal vs. Christian anthropology. I think one can make a case for something like “liberalism” based on a more or less Christian (indeed, Augustinian) anthropology. It goes something like this: our finitude, sin, and ignorance mean that we “see through a glass darkly” and that our motives are often suspect and we should therefore beware of imposing our certainties on other people. We’re all radically dependent on God’s grace and none of us is per se fitted to lord it over others.

    This is a very compressed precis of Christopher Insole’s The Politics of Human Frailty, which is more a defense of political liberalism, but I think it might apply here as well. Of course, this is a different kind of liberalism from the kind you’re gesturing at, Derek (“If we just teach the children right, we could put an end to all the suffering…”)

  13. Derek the Ænglican


    I’d agree that it is *possible* and would sketch it along similar terms as you but am still pessimistic about the human capacity for goodness. I won’t go complete “bondage of the will” on you, but would suggest that what *should* make a modern philosophical liberalism look askance at a Christian anthropological construction is the supernaturalism involved. That is, it is through the grace and through the Spirit that we are healed towards the image of God planted in us. Not education, not self-help, not even good discipline, but the moving of a set of beings beyond human ken. Classical enlightenment liberalism proceeds from rationalism as far as I can tell; a hefty dose of the supernatural would seem to skew some of the basis of such a view.

  14. Annie


    “Liberal anthropology tends to suggest that what ails the world is ignorance.”

    I wouldn’t put it that way. I rather see it as open-minded exploration of faith (and everything). I have far more admiration for that than for the current trend to anti-intellectualism among a large portion of those who would claim the corner on the traditional side.

    In defense:
    It is the liberal/progressives that have worked on spirituality, on transcendental meditation, consulting Buddhists on improving meditation techniques, on developing centering prayer practices (Anglican prayer beads based on the use of beads even predating Christianity, in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions) and reintroducing the study of contemplative practices of the mystics buried since the reformation in the protestant tradition. While by the same token they are willing to examine the psychology and the science behind it, to question the source, to subject the subjective to laboratory analysis. They test tradition rather than simply reject it. It’s the liberal faction that produces people like ++KJS who is prepared to refer to Christ as mother, citing the ancient mystics, against the protests of those who would rather cling to traditions that are less than a couple of hundred years old and call it tradition. I see that they just have a longer leg on the stool for reason than for tradition (which ought to be examined) and scripture (which need not be accepted out of hand). I see them as being all over the board, capable of slicing scripture apart to examine it with spiritless efforts such as the Jesus Seminar while at the same time holding more to the traditional form of liturgy in our own TEC than many of their counterparts who have gone on to such things as the Charismatic movement. Nobody is sitting still, not even those who think (or wish to claim) they are.

    “That is, it is through the grace and through the Spirit that we are healed towards the image of God planted in us. Not education, not self-help, not even good discipline, but the moving of a set of beings beyond human ken.”

    I don’t get this from the liberal side. It is extremely difficult to make quantitative statements about such a diverse group. I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive and, forgive me for not being able to step too far away from the debacle in the Anglican Communion as evidence, it appears that it is those who claim the high moral ground of both tradition and scripture that seem to be requiring somebody else to do the self-help, the good discpline rather than accept the “radical love of Jesus Christ.” And apply it selectively, to boot. It appears tradition is more akin to deciding the will of God for others. Perhaps it is truer of the “Opiate of the Masses” form of faith–and it is high time we recognized it–and it is time we got back to Christ and what faith really is, what grace is and our hope in him.

    Ironically, the more I explore, the more often I feel as though somebody has dug up a significant tidbit of knowledge, that indeed at times the liberals appear to have rediscovered something that was lost rather than inventing something new. Perhaps in their approach we can admire their questioning as they rediscover the why that has been lost as Christians merely mimicked their forebears.

    I beg your pardon, on another note, I feel it is unfair to use the term “Christian” to designate only traditional or conservative Christians–all who follow Christ are Christian. And, in my opinion, a sin to deny the work of God in another even by the labels we choose to use for them. ;) Sheesh! Claiming the high ground! (Conservative being defined as Evangelical)

    It is all very devisive, isn’t it? On evil: people are not evil, people are wicked. Raise up a child in the way he should go and he shall not depart from it. ;) Which reminds me, you know that I do not dismiss sin but that I define sin through the Law of Love (the Great Commandment and the Second) and every thought and action is subject to it. We all fail and we all fall short of the glory of God.

    Uhmmm . . . what was the question?

  15. bls

    I agree with Annie. You can’t peg “liberals” with one descriptor; there are all kinds of people who are at this point “not conservative.” Me, for instance – and I don’t think I could even give a name for my outlook; on some things I take a very liberal position – on others, I’ve quite conservative.

    But I’m eager to bring the church into a new era – and also happy to bring along its ancient traditions. The unexamined past is not worth saving until it is examined for what it’s saying to us today, however. And that, it seems to me, is what the liberal eye is for – to remind everybody that things could be different than they are.

    I think the era of the Jesus Seminar is drawing to a close, actually; religion without religion is something that benefits nobody, as far as I can see. Only a few have that sort of interest anymore.

    We do need to re-interpret, though, going forward; I think there’s no question about that. And for that, we need the liberal ethos.

  16. Joe

    This is an important discussion…but perhaps it started in the wrong place?

    Certainly it is, with all due respect to modern political paradigms and western philosophical moorings, possible (and perhaps probable)that the Gospel transcends “liberal” and “conservative” labels..but why are we taling about this like it is a marketing issue?

    The problem with Europe wasn’t the marketing (although the was lacking), but rather that the Church had/has become so much a part of the “institutions,” that it forgot where its true loyalties lie.

    We must pursure the truth of the Gospel with integrity and and open heart…my guess is that such a pursuit will indeed include fidelity to the “faith once delivered” and also a dawning realization that this good news is for a much wider audience than we are comfortable with.

    Authenticity must be our marketing approach…our evangelism plan…and people will be drawn to the Church from all sides.

    What drove people away in Europe and what is driving them away here is a lack of authenticity. People see the Church seeking its own advancement and protection at the expense of the Kingdom.

    Who the hell wants to be part of that?

    Grace and Peace,

  17. Derek the Ænglican

    Joe, I think we’re fussing with the same question from different angles. I think the core issue *is* authenticity but I would also add integrity as part and parcel of it (and I don’t at all think you’re denying that…). Thus, the key questions are:

    1. Are we forming communities and ourselves in ways that authentically embody the Gospel?
    2. Is there integrity between how we speak about God and others and what we actually do for God and others?
    3. Is there integrity between our embodiment of the Gospel and the world-view/framework from which it comes?

    My concern is that there not be a breakdown in point 3. We have to have integrity but so does our belief system… (All the while realizing that our belief system is not a static entity but an on-going relationship, not a system built on static texts and traditions but a dynamic relationship with a living God to whom the texts and traditions point.)

    Marketing may sound crass and non-spiritual–and I am reminded of Augustine’s discussion of Rhetoric in On Christian Teaching. He reminds us that rhetoric is morally neutral and can be used to motivate people either to good or evil thoughts or deeds (drawing on Cicero’s discussion of the same). Where he eventually comes down is this: hey, if the wicked are using it to spread lies, we should be using it to spread the truth. I see marketing the same way. Yes, it’s part of good evangelism as long as it in no way compromises the message.

  18. bls

    Even Paul worked at marketing; “all things to all men,” etc.

    Why is it considered terrible to worry about, and attempt to speak to, a segment of the population that might be interested in hearing the Gospel from us? I don’t get it why this should be any sort of problem; that’s what Paul and the others spent their whole lives doing.

  19. Annie

    Yeah. I was thinking of saying that we used to call it evangelism. ;)

    a dynamic relationship with a living God to whom the texts and traditions point.

    This is the part that is misplaced altogether too often. I love it that you, a scholar, understand it. For some reason, I think it is a rare commodity in our faith these days.

  20. Joe

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against marketing…Lord knows our Church could do a lot better job of reaching out in creative ways.

    What I am concerned about is the idea of looking for an audience and tailoring our message (not just our methods of communication) to that group.

    That is the cart before the horse.

    St. Paul, and St. Patrick, and heck…even Bono know how to tailor the Gospel to particular audiences…but they also seem clear about what that message is going in.

    Are we really there? Seems to me like we have spent a long time in our Church living out the type of “diversity” of theological opinion that mostly means “I don’t believe what you believe, but as long as we keep to our own cliques, we won’t really bother each other.”

    Well now, we can’t avoid each other like that. The current debate, the necessity of greater cooperation among parishes in the face of declining numbers, and even the danged internet have brought us face to face.

    Whatever happens out of all of this, hopefully it will force us to offer a more coherent witness. Then we can get down to the business of marketing it.

    Grace and Peace,

  21. bls

    Who’s “we,” Joe? I really don’t know what’s going on with you and/or your own church community, but what you are saying bears very little resemblance to what I see around me. And since when did any church have a membership that all agreed on everything? How did Paul and St. Patrick get to where they were? Did they spend years and decades having meetings and discussing things till they got the go-ahead from some higher-up who knew better? I don’t think so.

    To be honest, I’m really getting a little sick of being told “we” don’t come up to snuff for one reason or another, in the opinion of one group or person or another. And I’m getting tired of being told that my motives are something they aren’t. Did you ever stop to consider that I’ve been thinking about this ever since I came into the church? That I don’t have to “go out and look for an audience,” because the audience lives in my neighborhood and I care about them?

    And further, did you ever consider that people who don’t know what you might consider to be “enough” might be the very ones who can speak to others?

  22. Joe

    You misunderstand me bls. That is probably my fault.

    I am not looking for a Church that agrees on everything, and I certainly do not have a pre-set notion of what is “enough” for someone to “know” to do the work of the Church. In fact, it often seems to me that the most important work is usually done by those whose faith lives well outside of their head.

    But is it safe to say that “we” (and by we I mean the Episcopal Church) are going through something of an identity crisis? That does not make us unworthy of anything…in fact it can be a healthy thing…if we seek to resolve it in a healthy way.

    Our identity has always, in the past, been rooted in our comprehensiveness. Now however, many have abandoned that approach and are looking for a niche.

    I am just concerned that we might look at a group of people…any group…and seek to create an identity that reflects the message and values of that group at the expense of our own witness.

    Does that realy make me some sort of intolerant jerk?

    I relish the oppertunity to dialouge with liberals, or conservatives, or whatever…and I fully expect to find new ways of understanding God’s truth in those conversations…but I wul be concenred if we are expecting any one of them to define our identity.

    Grace and Peace,

  23. bls

    No, of course you’re not an intolerant jerk. I’m sorry for being testy.

    I just honestly don’t understand what the purpose of “waiting till we’re together” before we start thinking about evangelism. We’re never going to be together. We’re always going to be in an identity crisis; that’s’ the nature of the beast. Our church was formed in compromise between extremes, and has moved back and forth between them ever since.

    I am not picking some random “target audience” when I talk about this. I am not trying to define the church in any one particular way, and I am not looking for a niche. I’m simply interested in trying to find ways to talk with people who’ve left the church. I know a lot of those people, and I think we have a lot to offer; I don’t think anybody else can speak to them.

    I don’t see the point in waiting – I don’t know what we’re waiting for, anyway – and I still don’t know who “we” is. The powers-that-be don’t do this kind of work; the parishes and their members do. There is no point in waiting for anything to resolve, or in worrying about what’s going to happen. What’s needed is for us to put our ideas together for ways to reach a group of people that seem out of reach at the moment.

    Maybe we won’t succeed. But we definitely won’t, if we don’t try.

  24. bls

    I’d like to add that it’s not at all unusual for a group with a collective identity crisis – or a bunch of severe individual ones – to go ahead and do the work they’re supposed to be doing. It happens in A.A. all the time; the blind do lead the blind, and the crazy the crazy.

    A.A. is an organization full of individuals many of whom are certifiable when they arrive – yet somehow it manages to make converts and help save lives anyway. What’s the church’s problem that it can’t make a move until it works out its issues?

  25. Joe

    You make good points bls. There is something to be said for being honest about our problems, and even our brokeness when it comes to evangelism.

    Too often, Christians have tried to hide or discard their wounded.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I belive that we have something to share with people that transcends our common brokeness. Good news about our Creator and his hope for us and our world.

    But we are, right now, diminishing the impact of that good news by tuffing it into some sectarian paradigm that can’t possibly be big enough to contain it.

    The polarization of our Church, and our country, and our world is IMHO the single biggest threat to God’s Kingdom. Don’t we run the risk of contibuting to that if we allow ourselves to in some way be defined by our relationship to any one group? Not that this is what you (or Derek) are suggeting, but it has already happened to some degree to Churches like the UCC.

    If we seperate from the Communion and allow ourselves to settle on one particular ideological approach, then we will have lost the single source of identity that has defined us all of these years, and that it our comprehensiveness.

    I truly belive that in order for us to remain relevant…to liberals, conservative….HUMANS…we have to continue to be a place were people are commited to two things.

    First, to seeking God in Christ…wherever that leads…and second, to each other, despite…no…becasue of our differnces.

    If people feel that they have to go, then fine…good luck and God Bless…but I truly belive that our best hope for finding God’s truth is to seek it with Evangelicals, and Catholics, and Charismatics, and liberals, and conservatives, and Africans, and Canadians…and that we will run the risk of falling farther from that dream if we focus too much on any one of these groups or ideologies.

    Maybe people are right. Maybe the dream of a comprehensive, reformed, catholic, Anglicanism is dead. A eutopian experiment broken on the hard ground of the real world.

    But I am a Christian, and so I have hope.

    Grace and Peace,

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