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; first in a series
I will take the word conservatives in the question posed to mean theological traditionalists, which strikes me as a useful handle. Theological conservatism should be distinguished from various forms of cultural and political conservatism, not least in the contemporary American context; orthodox Christian doctrine, to employ an additional term, does not map perfectly onto any particular party or platform in the secular world, and may depart significantly from the lexicon of our fleeting moment in history. Moreover, theological conservatism admits of degrees and shades, as well as schools. Distinguish, for instance, the traditionally Catholic and evangelical streams within Anglicanism, and their varieties, converging and diverging in one and another time and place.
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).
In this sense, “conservative” Episcopalians, like theological traditionalists elsewhere, begin with the catholic and apostolic shape and substance of the faith as itself divinely initiated and established. All other business of the Church — her structures and order, her moral teaching, her missiological and evangelistic endeavors — radiates from this divine center and refers back to it: the God of Israel, who covenanted with the Jews to a universal end; whose aims and interests were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of the Father and incarnated Word, in whose flesh “Israel” is formed as the reconciled body of Jew and Gentile “in one Spirit” (Eph. 2); and through whose unity the world will come to believe (John 17).
Accordingly, the answer to the question of whether there may still be room for conservatives in the Episcopal Church will depend, in the first instance, on whether Episcopalians will be permitted at least, encouraged at best, to speak and teach along the foregoing lines, and to order the common life of their parishes and dioceses in a congruent fashion. Can we bear witness to the body to which we were called in hope — “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6) — holding ourselves accountable to its history and terms, across the vicissitudes of churches and generations, so as to make the one gospel of Christ our principal passion and mission, in cooperation and collaboration with all Christians?
As long as the answer to that question is yes, there will be room for conservatives in the Episcopal Church.
Image by Seemann at morgueFile
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!
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.