Making Room for Conservatives
  • Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cæli enarrant

By Christopher Wells

Revision of remarks on the question “Does the Episcopal Church Still Have Room for Conservatives?” made at Virginia Theological Seminary, February 2012; second in a series

I ended the first part by suggesting that there will be room for conservatives in the Episcopal Church to the extent that we are permitted, at least, to teach along traditional lines, and to order our parishes and dioceses accordingly. Is this indeed possible? And will it remain so? For how long? I do not know, and the decision will not finally be made by the relatively powerless minority party in a divided and still-polarized church. I pledge to work with others toward the perpetuation of conservative witness, “speaking the truth in love” with all members of our church, and our siblings elsewhere, by God’s grace (Eph. 4:15).

The very question — Is there still room for conservatives? — implies that there may not be, and so we necessarily enter a realm of adjudicating likely or already realized difficulties and their implications. One thinks analogously of the much-discussed “red lines” of contemporary parlance in Middle Eastern politics. Surely Christians, washed in the blood of the Lamb, can draw more interesting lines than these. I write with hope, in faith: Lord, help me.

Conservatives naturally pray, with many Episcopalians, that the classic marks of our church’s ecumenical commitments — our catholic and evangelical grammar and lexicon, extending from the liturgy to our bonds of faith and order shared with all Anglicans the world over — will be preserved, renewed, and deepened, and that the Anglican family will be blessed, and be a blessing, as a result. If and as these commitments, and their formal and habitual practice and preservation, are relativized, weakened, or renounced, conservative Episcopalians (will) need a place — precisely room — in the church for the conscientious perpetuation of these commitments. Most Episcopalians today would likely object to the formal removal of classic trinitarian language from our liturgies, or the erasing of baptism as the normative prerequisite to Holy Communion, and rightly so. Conservatives and others have to date lodged considerable protest against the substituting of alternative names for “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in the church’s principal liturgies, and we applauded the last General Convention’s declining of a resolution that would encourage “communion of the unbaptized.” That these practices are tolerated by bishops anywhere presents a striking challenge to our longstanding ideal of common prayer (even with the Church of all ages) and the law of belief to which it is bound. That our constitutionally authorized prayer book has not been revised to incorporate them is also a significant point to be borne in mind and maintained with zeal.

And what about more longstanding matters of contemporary controversy, not only within the Episcopal Church but in the larger Anglican Communion and ecumenically: wrangling, and consequent renunciations and separations, over prayer book revision and liturgical reform more generally, women’s ordination, and homosexuality, incorporating questions about male-female complementarity, procreation, contraception, and divorce? Is there still room for conservative conviction — of various sorts — here, even at home in the Episcopal Church? There is, but just barely in many places, and not at all in others. We need more room if conservatives in the church are to flourish.

Parishes may indeed still be found, not only in “conservative” dioceses, that preserve the 1928 prayer book or do not embrace the priestly ministrations of women, and bishops in their wisdom have allowed them to remain, for no doubt multiple reasons: in the hope and expectation that they will eventually disappear; because these parishes sometimes enjoy considerable wealth, the fruits of which the diocese cannot do without; because picking fights with traditionalist parishes is a waste of time and energy, depleting the vitality of the diocese while risking more widespread anomie and decline; and because these parishes sometimes incubate Christian disciples of a courageous, generous, energetic sort, keen to teach and pass on the faith to their children and to others, to pursue or underwrite ordained ministry and seminary education, and to undertake and invest in various and sundry works of mercy, labors of mission, and evangelism. Can it be an aspect of episcopal ministry to cut down trees long since fertilized, pruned, and now overloaded with fruit (see Luke 13:6-9)?

There is a lesson here that we Episcopalians perhaps are learning to apply to our principal issue du jour, in a penitential bid for licit Christian diversity, without which the ideal of comprehension will be lost. A virtue of the 2012 General Convention’s provisional authorization of liturgical resources for the blessing of same-sex relationships was its principled protection of minorities who cannot support them. And it did so with a fascinating flourish, in clauses culled verbatim from the “Statement on Conscience” accepted by the House of Bishops in 1977 to protect traditionalist views on women’s ordination: that, in order to “honor the theological diversity of this church in regard to matters of human sexuality, … no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support for the 77th General Convention’s action with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships” (res. A049). Of course, after penance comes amendment of life, which in this case would mean a concerted commitment to leaving, and otherwise making, room for conservatives going forward: not as a fading remnant, destined to disappear, but in order to aid their propagation and perpetuation, for the good of the whole.

Can the Episcopal Church preserve this sort of diversity in the long run? If so, it will not be by accident but by deliberate choice of the majority party, to extend a different kind of “generous pastoral response to meet the needs” of conservative members, individuals and parishes as well as dioceses (A049).

Letter to the Editor

Is the Quadrilateral Alive?

Christopher Wells makes some interesting points in his first column on “Making Room for Conservatives” [TLC, April 14], but by and large he describes what would be an ideal situation in the Episcopal Church for conservatives, though the actual situation is far from ideal. Conservatives are welcome as long as they are willing to sit down, shut up, and keep the checks coming. If, however, they make so bold as to dissent from the liberal agenda, they have all manner of pressure brought to bear on them.

One who doubts this state of affairs need only look at the how the presiding bishop has handled (yea, verily, mishandled) the real Diocese of South Carolina. It was done in a way that was brutal and egregiously un-Christian.

The second column [April 28] refers to “clauses culled verbatim from the ‘Statement on Conscience’ accepted by the House of Bishops in 1977 to protect traditionalist views on women’s ordination.’” That may be true, but many of us on the conservative side remember what happened to those “guarantees of protection” a few years later. The revisionist wing of General Convention decided that it was time to move women’s ordination from the “optional” column to the “mandatory” column. That happened — and there were harsh penalties for those who dissented. Can anyone familiar with the last 30 to 40 years really believe that these “guarantees of protection” for those who affirm traditional marriage are worth anything?

The third column [May 12] speaks in an informed and laudatory manner of the work of the House of Bishops in regard to the Chicago Quadrilateral in 1886, whose adoption “stands as the landmark proof of this commitment, framed by a series of solemn declarations that still sing with an evangelical and catholic clarity.” Beautifully written indeed! But the reality is this: how many current members of the House of Bishops really want to affirm and continue the work of the Chicago Quadrilateral? I agree with Dr. Wells that the best way by far to affirm and continue the Chicago Quadrilateral is to affirm and stand strong for the Anglican Covenant. But will it happen? Don’t hold your breath!

Robert Stanley
Chattanooga, Tennessee

Christopher Wells responds
Thanks to Dr. Stanley for his stimulating and searching questions, which I understand. I share much of his sadness about the way things have gone. The difficulties for conservative witness within the Episcopal Church are real, which fact more or less occasioned the series in the first place; as I noted, the word still in the question posed to me by Dean Markham of VTS rather suggested that the answer may be no: No, there is no longer room for conservatives.

In fact, however, as I tried to indicate, conservatives remain in TEC in many places on their own terms, in self-described “conservative” parishes, and especially in the more conservative dioceses, which rightly and otherwise duly maintain local cultures in keeping with their reception of the faith. This being so, I was keen to think about how this place might be protected and expanded by the initiative of the majority party — thus, making room for conservatives. But there’s also an ecclesiological principle here that I would urge Dr. Stanley to seize and defend himself, namely, that local churches within our church — that is, dioceses — remain to date the most basic “units” of the Church, even within our small “Episcopal” corner thereof, and we lose sight of this, on all sides our current disputes, to our peril. To be sure, a more sustainedly cohesive view of provincial unity, thence global unity, also bears a catholic plausibility that we would do well to consider; but it ought not cut against the proper place of episcopal authority and leadership.

Ironically, by repeating the oft-heard claim that conservatives are welcome in TEC only so long as they sit down and shut up, Dr. Stanley is playing into the hands of those ecclesiological revisionists that would impose a top-down hierarchy without remainder, capable of propagating a single theological and moral and liturgical “culture” within the Episcopal Church.

With these important structural — ecclesiological and theological — questions hanging in the air, and alas pending in the courts, all members of our church would do well to remember and retrieve constructive alternatives: alternatives rooted in our history and our aspirations as a part of the body of the universal Church, and conveniently codified in our canons.


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