Justice: The Episcopal Church riding a one-trick pony into the ground?

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

There is an old expression from the days when entertainment starved small town Americans waited for the traveling circus to show up, only to be left flat by the disappointing show: one-tent, one-clown, and a one-trick pony. The one-trick pony was a let down, even for farm kids who spent their afternoons watching summer storms roll through from the porch. Reading reports of the testimony from the General Convention it seems to me that, although we may shrink our structures, we have already shrunk our vision. We have become the ecclesiological expression of the one-trick pony. Our pony is “justice,” and we are in grave danger of riding that horse into the ground.

Our church was once characterized by evangelical and reformed theology, ecumenical dialogue through the Lambeth Quadrilateral, ancient catholic practice, and engagement with the world as a natural outgrowth of the first three. It now appears the pressures of our decline and the narrowness of our seminaries* training have left our laity and clergy unable to argue from the Holy Scriptures informed by the tradition, only from feelings and opinions. The words reported from last night’s “Special Legislative Committee on Marriage” are filled with, “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.”

We seem to be unable to view issues through any lens but the lens of social justice – to the point of public shame. Last night a cathedral dean equated the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite language to the flying of the Confederate flag over Charleston.

Here is a money quote from The Living Church’s coverage, “‘How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?’ asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. ‘Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.’”

The dean from Buffalo actually equated the language of the prayer book marriage rite (lifted directly from another “hate document,” the bible) used in a church in which 3/4 of our diocese’ have same-sex commitment ceremonies to the racially motivated murder of nine faithful Christians assembled in their church to study the scriptures? That is patently irresponsible, thoroughly insensitive, and wholly unexplainable to my African American friends.

But I cannot really blame Reverend Mebane. To quote a well-worn expression, “When your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.” When we read the scriptures only through the lens of justice, everything begins to look like a justice issue.  We seem to have reduced ourselves to this one-trick pony. And, dogonnit, we are going to ride that thing until it folds under our weight.

Luckily, and as usual, it is the bishops who ride to our rescue. Bishop McConnell of Pittsburgh pointed out, “A substantial range of voices was excluded in this task force…” Such as the voices of traditionalists, and those of both our ecumenical partners and the other Anglicans in our world-wide communion.

We are fond of quoting our African brethren’s proverbs in our meetings, so let me suggest one: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If we keep riding our justice hobby horse fast and alone, it will do what horses ridden for too long do: collapse.

We have same sex blessings. That horse is out of the barn. Now, for the love, can we throw a saddle on something else for a bit? The actual mission of the church: the evangelism of the 2/3 of the world who are outside of the faith and the discipleship of the 1/3 inside it, would be a good place to start.


*Biblical languages, systematic theology, historic exegesis are all absent on the Courses of Study I have seen.


30 thoughts on “Justice: The Episcopal Church riding a one-trick pony into the ground?

  1. The thing that I have noticed is that liberal churches are long on justice and short on gospel preaching, whereas the conservative churches are the opposite. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a balance?

  2. Matt,

    Virginia Theological Seminary, which I am currently attending, requires study of a biblical language. Our “intro” NT and OT courses required no less than 7 exegeses combined from me last year. I am taking two systematics courses at a minimum next year… All at the largest seminary in TEC. Just needed to push back at the snark a touch here. As we say out west, facts is facts…

    • Thanks for setting the record straight. That is great! That was not the case at the seminaries that I was looking at while doing Anglican formation. I took the opportunity of your comment to go the VTS website and your CoS appears similar to “industry standards.” To push back on your pushback, though, the language requirement appears to be 1 semester rather than the 4 semesters of Greek and the two semesters of Hebrew that are standard at evangelical seminaries. I also saw a 79 credit hour Mdiv as compared with the usual 94 hour Mdiv.

      Btw, I do NOT think that our seminaries lack academic rigor as much as I think we have different priorities: Church history, liturgics and community organizing for example.

  3. A semi=serious, semi-nonrhetorical, partially unsnarky question and statement based on the following quote: ‘ … laity and clergy [are] unable to argue from the Holy Scriptures informed by the tradition, only from feelings and opinions. The words reported from last night’s “Special Legislative Committee on Marriage” are filled with, “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.” ‘ Do Episcopal (and other dying mainline) seminaries no longer require or even offer a course in hermeneutics? If they do, how do the address what I would call the plain words of Scripture and the many once-acceptable, useful hermeneutics of the past? My response to your assertion that none can any longer argue from Scripture is that arguments from Scripture require honest readings of Scripture and acceptance of certain assumptions and truths that would threaten the current therapeutic hermeneutics. There are very few tricks that a hermeneutically starved pony can do (to flay a metaphor to the ground).

    • Hi John, I appreciate you taking the time to beat my dead horse. 🙂

      It is a good question. Our nine seminaries have differing requirements. I have never seen a course in hermeneutics. They have exegesis assignments, but, lacking courses on hermeneutics, a consistent method cannot be expected. The hermeneutic that I see most frequently is the hermeneutic of culture. The problem is that Episcopalians read the texts very differently. Richard Beck has a helpful explanation of the phenomenon. He describes two ways of reading scripture: through a justice lens and through a holiness lens. The hard thing in these conversations is that those who read through a justice lens view all texts through that lens. Those of us who read through a holiness lens see all texts through those lens. So, “plain words” read very differently to both groups. Both groups have a hard time understanding where the other group is coming from…and even whether or not the other group is actually Christian. It makes conversation difficult.

      I do think that if we are going to claim to take “the tradition” seriously we have to read through the lens of the historic church and the church catholic, rather than merely through the lens of culture. Reading only through the lens of culture gives one a church that one partnered gay priest remarked recently, “I wonder about a church that seems indistinguishable from my culture.” On the other hand, they worry about a church that never moves…and how, with historic readings we can justify any changes on any issue (slavery for example). So, in fairness, as the loyal minority opposition, I used a simplistic analogy to a complex issue.

  4. The High Churchman (one who has a “high” view of the Universal Church) says: “The Church teaches ….”
    The Low Churchman (The Evangelical and/or Reformed churchman) says: “Holy Scripture teaches ….”
    The Broad Churchman says: “Well, I feel …..”

    It seems that the vast majority of our moral reasoning today in TEC is based on feelings rather than on Natural Law and/or Revealed Law. The arrogance that accompanies the attitude “We know better than 2000 years of Church teaching and over 1000 years of Jewish moral teaching prior to that” seems unbounded to me.

    • A fine comment, Phil!

      As a classical Anglican my inclination is to think, “The scriptures teach with clarity, and the church in unbroken witness has affirmed…”

      My sense of fair play and wants to think that it is an unintentional hubris born of a desire to connect with the culture – the same sort that guides the modern evangelical megachurch – A I Cor 9:19esque, “become all things to all so that I might win more.” The hard part is that many of those folk profess to being universalists or non-particularists, leaving me fuzzy as to what they are trying to “win” folk to with what speakers last night called our “evangelistic opportunity.”

      • Satan’s best weapon against the Church is Her own success. As the Church successfully evangelizes society, she becomes co-terminus with society. Those who were ridiculed for being “crazy” and “holier than thou” are embraced as righteous leaders.

        The leaders of the Church then get addicted to the praise of society and stop being prophets into society, but chaplains to society. As society fragments, the chaplaincy also fragments. TEC (and many of the Mainline Protestants) has become the chaplain to the politically progressive society. I cannot think of a single plank on the Democratic Platform that is not enthusiastically endorsed by TEC’s leadership. Bigger Gov’t? Check. Abortion? Check? Gay Marriage? Double-Check. I have actually had several TEC clergy say that voting for the GOP is a sin and you can’t be politically conservative and a Christian.

        Likewise, there are churches that are politically linked with Conservative Republicans and enthusiastically endorse the GOP’s platform. I’ve had some SBC members tell me that voting for the Democrats is a sin and you can’t be politically progressive and a Christian.

        We have become a nation and a Church of what C. S. Lewis called “Christianity and…” where our Christianity is simply another argument in favor of our real desires in the political sphere.

        • Amen. Or as they said on Blazing Saddles, “Harrumph.” I think your Lewis quote was from the same section I used two weeks ago for a sermon on Mark’s parables of the seeds.

          “were we to visit a fully Christian society…we would come away with a curious impression…Each of us should like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing. That is what one would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have each departed from that plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his modification of the original plan is the plan itself. You will find this again and again with anything that is really Christian: everyone is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why…people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity.”

    • Good thoughts, from both Phil and Fr. Matt. “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.” are the very core of progressive theology, and a danger to the Church. I feel we need to leave the Prayer Book alone. I think it’s fine the way it is. I want it to stay the same. I believe it works. (See what I did there, Matt?) Seriously, how many times can we kick scripture, tradition, and reason before the stool collapses and Hooker and Cranmer wind up in a pile on the floor? Matt, I hate conflict within the Church, but to me, there’s an arrogance in changing the language of the Prayer Book that I used to only sense amongst far right Evangelical conservatives, a “we’ve got it right and no one else does, and to heck with the first 2000 years of Church tradition. We’re smarter, more intellectual, and more educated than they were” attitude. Heart-breaking.

      • And I’ll add…It is possible to be forward-thinking and pliable in terms of the greater culture without throwing out tradition, Scripture, and reason…

        • That brings up the question of how do we know what is Tradition (the living faith of the dead) and what is traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) (per Pelikan). Some things are easy – The Creeds are Tradition. The Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension are all Tradition. Vestments (whether to use them or which vestments/colors to use) are traditionalism. I like vestments and I love worship in beauty, but they are not part of the Deposit of the Faith. I’m pretty sure that Paul didn’t celebrate Holy Eucharist in Chasuable and Mitre.

          When we change the Moral Teaching of the Church, are we changing part of the Tradition (and, thus, slipping into heresy) or are we changing part of what expresses that Tradition? Begin something of a High Church Evangelical (with Charismatic sympathies), I would say that Holy Scripture, interpreted through the lens of the unbroken Tradition of the Church and the voice of the whole Church should be our guide.

      • Hi Lee. I see exactly the same thing! I call it “progressive fundamentalism.” It is exactly like conservative fundamentalism: angry, narrow, intolerant of dissent…arrogantly dismissive of those who are not in lockstep. It plays by the exact same script but the issues are flipped.

        I too find it heartbreaking. I thought I had left that for something inclusive that valued ancient wisdom. It is a fish slap across the face that I keep being re-surprised by.

  5. Hello again,
    I actually have taken a course in hermeneutics proper (at a Baptist Bible College, even). It is completely different from exegesis in that you are learning to question why you are exegeting the way you are. I agree with you the TEC is beating the justice issue to the ground….but they are doing so by only defining the term in terms of “social justice.” The broad definition of justice is justice for all in all. That would then have to include justice to the Scriptures and tradition that we claim are two legs of the three legged stool.

    Getting back to the hermeneutics class….even at the BBC, I was fortunate to have a prof with a true PhD who very forcefully made the point that, if you can not “step into the third person” and identify your own biases, you are doing violence to the text. I think that this is what is happening here. It is also one reason why; sadly, in my church, General Convention is a non-event…just a bunch of Episcopal junkies getting their once-every-three-year fix and not doing a whole lot for the church at large.

    • Here’s to a clear understanding of the place of hermeneutics in (before) exegesis. Hard to be a good exegete if you can’t wrestle with in the ins, outs and whys to your approach to a text. And who knows? You might even discover a working hermeneutic. Law and Gospel is one such.

      • Hi John,

        You are absolutely right about discovering a working hermeneutic. I was able to find one that lets me be “progressive” and “conservative” about issues at the same time. It isn’t perfect, of course, but it allows this recovering fundamentalist space and time to listen to what God is saying without having to know all the answers. I would not have come to that place without the training in hermeneutics…..(and to think that I almost did not take the course because it was one of the “electives” available in my final year!)


          • Like Matt, I’d like to see you summarize that too, Drew. I self-conscious about beating the hermeneutics drum, but I think it’s a real issue for TEC (for one issue, and because, truth to tell, it’s a huge reason I abandoned TEC for a somewhat more conservative region of the Great Tradition). The biggest part of honest exegesis is knowing what are our filters and being able to ask ourselves, Is this passage coming through a plain, sensible, untortured hermeneutic that would not have been too outlandish for the writer of the text? Or are we imposing a hermeneutic so bound to our own culture (a “feminist reading,” for instance) that we end up with eisegesis so comfortable to our own ears but in no way what God is saying while allowing us to provide all the “answers” (to paraphrase you a bit)?

            • hello,

              Oh wow..summarize a hermeneutic that has taken nearly thirty years to figure out..OK, I will try.
              1. doctrine (dogma) is never established by one verse or passage. It must be coherent to the entire scope of the written revelation. We can be sure of God’s love not just because of John 3:16; but because from the creation story to the eternal state, God’s love is demonstrated by H/H/I (His/Her/It’s) words and actions.
              1a. context is everything! the context will tell you whether to be literal in your reading or if there is some other approach.
              1b. By context I mean studies not only of Scripture, but of culture, as well. the actions of the “Angry,” OT God are more understandable when it is remembered that H/H/I was dealing with a patriarchal, war-like, and generally illiterate world. a place and time in history where the idea of an all-powerful God who loves and cares for the individual was radical and counter-cultural.
              2. There is a definite Law/Grace barrier between Malachi and Matthew. the prescriptive norms and forms of the OT are no longer binding on a NT follower of God. Christ and Paul make that abundantly clear (in multiple places 😉).
              3. any interpretation will be biased. serious prayer and meditation are necessary to understand those biases, but H/H/I has promised wisdom to those who ask for it.

              That is all that I have time for this morning. I hope it gives you some understanding of what I mean. God’s Best to you!

  6. This is a most welcome dialogue, Matt. Thank you all for your courage in addressing these vitally important issues and for sharing your gracious and thoughtful responses. I pray that you will continue in your efforts on behalf of TEC in the power of the Holy Spirit, and pray God’s blessings upon you all in the process.

  7. So I had to take some time to sleep on this in the hopes that doing so would help me to offer some helpful and redemptive thoughts. Please forgive me if sleep failed to achieve that for me. I should start with a few disclaimers. I am gay. I was confirmed Episcopaian by the bishop in Matt’s backyard with his hands on my shoulders in support of my faith and my church family surrounding me. I was raised in the evangelical/renewalist quadrants of the church (if you read Phyllis Tickle that will make more sense), but have spent much of my adult and clerical life in the social justice/liturgical quadrants. I now belong to a church that most closely identified as with its evangelical/re realist backgrounds but has strong and vibrant and intentional influences from all four quadrants. My church is neither affirming nor non affirming in stance. Our pastors argue that scripture isn’t as plain on this issue as we would all love to say it is when we are arguing for our position. They then propose a “third way” by placing the the LBGTQ discussion firmly in the camp of other disputable matters such as divorce and remarriage, women in leadership, etc. if the something is a disputable matter we leave it between that person and the Lord and err on the side of full inclusion. By the way…full inclusion is inclusion without reservation, or asterisks, or any other special clauses. Consequently, there are people in my church who do not believe same sex rationships are congruent with biblical teaching. Yet they take communion with and receive communion from gay brothers and sisters in the Lord. The same is true in reverse. No need for us to settle this issue here. It’s more important that we set about being the church and spreading the Gospel. Even though Matt and I often do not see these issues through the same lenses or land on the same conclusions I often feel like he and I are closer on these issues that my more liberal (and often straight) mainline friends who seem to be eager to champion my cause. The greatest thing the Episcopal church gave me was the skill of Anglican dialectic thinking. So I find it odd that the communion I love seems to struggle so much to practice this style of thinking, discourse, and praxis when it comes to these conversations. Since it was a gift given me, my intention in these comments is to offer that gift back. So now that I’ve already said things I’m sure will spark controversy and comment let me say what I came to say. Im sure my attempt will be wanting at best, but here goes…

    1. I understand the committee on marriage has been in the works for a while. However, I am extremely unnerved by an increased motivation to change the prayer book or anything else related to doctrine being legitimized by the SCOTUS rulings. We are the people of the BOOK not the bench. We don’t take our cues from judges or politicians. If we change the prayer book or not let it be bc of conviction reasoned from scripture.

    2. Let’s remember to keep the prayer book in its proper place in our hearts. It is a document created to aid the church in common worship. It is not a divine or holy thing and we should not give it so much importance in our hearts that we think revising or not revising it is the hill to die on. As a gay man who plans on standing in front of my church someday and praying vows from the prayer book i do not need the council on marriage to do its thing for me to feel better about the language i pray. I trust my clergy to be able to make adjustments where necessary for the service to make sense and I don’t think he or she will commit a sacrilege to do so.

    3. I do not think it is “arrogance” for my LBGTQ brothers and sisters who do want adjusted language to advocate for themselves on this issue. We are talking about a people who have been beaten up by the church for years. Many are wounded and angry for sure. That can produce charged emotions but, in this case, I don’t think the general motivation is arrogance. That suggestion from one commenter reveals more of a lack of empathy than a nuanced understanding of the issue at hand.

    4. That said, all too often those who were once on the underside of power become the new oppressors once they have been liberated. My LBGTQ brothers and sisters need to be careful of this tendency and avoid temptations to create a new privileged class that Lords over our conservative brethren. Remember, that scripture calls us to lay down freedom when exercising it becomes a stumbling block to others. Just because you can do a thing does not mean doing so is loving, wise, or best for the body. Be careful.

    5. I have noticed this trend in which straight allies seem to argue to take things further and faster than I as a member of the LBGTQ community need or desire. I’m not sure what this is all about. But it’s a phenomenon we need to pay attention to and talk about.

    • Rob is a close and valued friend. He is a wise and generous man. He has a strong knowledge of the Bible, preaches with excellence. He is experienced and gifted in ministry. He is also out and gay. HIs perspective that I commend to those who read this blog. His thinking transcends the current (and fading) categories of right and left, and he defies the stereotypes both hold of the “other side.” His take, although he never wants to be an example of anything other than his own thoughts, is exhibit A in thoughtful millennial Christianity: having clear convictions, yet maintaining room in his heart and church for those who are not in the same place he is.

  8. Pingback: Episcopal Bigotry: Prayer Book's Marriage Rite Compared to Confederate Flag | My Blog

  9. Pingback: Episcopal Bigotry: Prayer Book's Marriage Rite Compared to Confederate Flag | Christian Blog

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