Sunday, August 27, 2006

Necessary but not Sufficient (Mark Harris)

Necessary but not Sufficient
The Episcopal Majority is not the answer, but it is a great response

The Rev. Canon Mark Harris

Editor's Note: The Rev. Canon Mark Harris lives in Lewes, Delaware, where he is assistant at St. Peter's Episcopal Church. He is a member of The Episcopal Church's Executive Council and is author of The Challenge of Change: The Anglican Communion in the Post-Modern Era. Mark is a regular columnist for The Witness and maintains a blog of his writings at Preludium. He may be reached by email at

The Church is the answer, but only for some of our friends

Reynolds Price begins his book A Serious Way of Wondering (Scribner, New York, 2003) with this comment: "Though I am not a churchgoer, for more than sixty years I’ve read widely in the life and teachings of Jesus; and since at least the age of nine, I’ve thought of myself as a Christian."

I can understand very well what he means. It has not been my way; my way has been filled with church. But it is the way of many of my friends. The followers of Jesus do not all necessarily find their ways into church life. For some the church as gathering, ecclesia, is unenlightening, preoccupied as it is with determining the order of things – from service language to grounds for inclusion or shunning. For some the church as overt fellowship of mutuality in the Lord, as koinonia, is too much like families of origin or bad intimate relationships. So they stay away, believing as did many of our forbears that the best government is no government at all and the family we came from is not nearly as interesting as the trip we are on.

Reynolds Price’s way is not my way. I am not the better for it. It is just true. I am immersed in the Church, both as organized community and as a community of mutuality. I am informed by the collected odds and ends of theology and spiritual practice that shore up the morphology of the Church. I have a hard time thinking of being a Christian and not thinking of 'church' as home away from home, home away from, let us say, the coming reign of God.

My friends and I are fellow travelers, pilgrims, but where I turn off to go to church, they turn off into the fields of other organized intellectual, spiritual and familial play. We are all, however, loafing wherever we turn, for the pilgrimage still calls us on beyond all the places we call home, be they churches or other edifices of our minds.

The Episcopal Majority is the answer, but only for some of my friends

It is an honor to be gathered together with other folk who live out their Christian faith in the context of The Episcopal Church. It was an honor to be a Deputy to several General Conventions, each with its notable successes and failures, and it is an honor to be part of the gathering called The Episcopal Majority.

Both gatherings tax the minds and hearts of my friends who are Christian but not church-going. Huge amounts of energy are spent on matters of governance and particularly on categories for inclusion and exclusion from membership – that is to say, on matters of discipline and purity. This is distressing to my friends (and, in a cold moment at three in the morning, to me). They see all of this as a distraction from the attraction they feel towards life in the light of Christ, and from the spread of that light.

And who can blame them? Most of the subjects of concern to General Convention and even to The Episcopal Majority are increasingly irrelevant to my friends outside the church. Creeds, covenants, orders of ministry, agreements on common prayers, moral pronouncements, calls to action, all seem marginal to the life of the civic community and the efforts to seek justice and pursue it.

For my non-church-going Christian friends, The Episcopal Church (or any church for that matter) seems inadequate to Micah’s charge, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) And, to be honest, the Church’s life seems an inadequate response to Jesus’ desire to move beyond the purity codes to some new sense of ethical engagement with others. (On this see Simon Mein’s interesting essay, "Whatever Happened to Mark 7:19?" at this site.) Worse, of course, is the church’s blindness to Jesus’ radical sensibility that "the last shall be first and the first last." This sensibility is radical for at least two reasons: the riff-raff gets the first seating, and everyone gets to eat. Tell that to the shunning and the purists! Or – for that matter – to The Episcopal Majority. We are too often concerned about our place at the table to notice that the last get fed, too.

On the shaky grounds that criticism is of value, let me then remind myself and my friends in The Episcopal Majority that the goals of this organization, goals I completely agree with, still fall far short of those to which Micah and Jesus call us, and far short of what our non-church-going Christian friends might hope from us.

The Episcopal Majority is not the answer; it is a response

To remind you, The Episcopal Majority has the following as its current statement of goals:

  • Affirming the orthodoxy of The Episcopal Church in the United States and its adherence to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
  • Affirming the traditional Anglican value of national autonomy and toleration of views involving matters of church discipline
  • Affirming the inclusive nature of The Episcopal Church where people actively work to get along
  • Opposing all attempts at home and abroad to curb or demean this Church, dismember it or evict it from the Anglican Communion
  • Establishing ties with national churches or groups abroad who are sympathetic to The Episcopal Church
Let me stress again that I believe these are incredibly valuable as goals for those of us who are part of The Episcopal Church. I have been talking, preaching and writing about these matters for the last fifteen years and agree wholeheartedly that The Episcopal Church is faithfully living life in koinonia and as ecclesia, and is doing so with the highest regard for and steadfast allegiance to the spirit of Anglicanism and the life of the Anglican Communion. That is what The Episcopal Majority is asserting, and it does so in good company.

In 1993 the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission published a paper, "Belonging Together," in which several principles of engagement across the Communion were proposed. They said the Anglican Communion ought to be

“A humane community in which there was mutual sensitivity, consideration and support, and where sharp intellectual and emotional differences as well as agreements and disagreements about theological, ethical and pastoral [issues] were possible without destroying community.” (p.4)
About mature interdependence they also observed,

“Maturely interdependent Christian communities must sustain an image of the church in which there is an appreciation of the radical importance of difference, not as impediment, but as powerful catalyst…” (p.5)
I believe that the actions and the deliberations of The Episcopal Church have assumed the Anglican Communion is both humane and maturely interdependent, and that our church has tried to act within its own membership in the same way. We cannot flinch from the fact that sometimes we have not acted humanely among ourselves or maturely interdependent with others, but on the whole we have not done badly. The Episcopal Church, particularly through its governance, is as likely as any autonomous church to seem willful. But our intention has been to act on the best authority not as willful, but as faithful.

Much gets said about diocesan and provincial authority. However, the ACC document, "Belonging Together," observes that – beyond those authorities,

“There are three other sources of authority which overlap but are not coterminous: the authority of church leaders by election or appointment to office, the authority inherent in professional competence and, not least, the authority of men and women who by prayer, loving relationships and reflection on daily experience have grown wise in holy living and exercise a profoundly prophetic role in the life of the church.” (p. 26)
The Episcopal Majority, in its goals, is not so much supporting the authority of The Episcopal Church leaders or its competent professionals, but "the authority of men and women who by prayer, loving relationships and reflection on daily experience have grown wise in holy living and exercise a profoundly prophetic role in the life of the church."

It is, in other words, supporting the possibility of the authority of the laity – here meaning the "whole people." The Episcopal Majority is claiming that the authority of The Episcopal Church rests with its whole people, and what wisdom and prophetic judgment they can bring. It is thus suggesting that its goals reflect the desire by this church to be a "church in which there is an appreciation of the radical importance of difference, not as impediment, but as powerful catalyst . . ." and that those differences arise in the whole people and require deliberative democratic processes for working through difficult issues.

Critical Issues

All this is to say that The Episcopal Majority must hold to its goals, but at the same time hear and reflect on the critique that comes from elsewhere. It is this "elsewhere" that concerns me.

The second stated goal is: "Affirming the traditional Anglican value of national autonomy and toleration of views involving matters of church discipline." But beyond the toleration of views (opposing or contrary, I suppose), there is no real acknowledgment there of the need to listen deliberately and with full attention to the voices from other parts of the Communion. I believe, by the way, that we have listened deliberately and fully to the views of others on matters of human sexuality. We have not, in the last analysis, agreed.

But beyond that, I believe The Episcopal Majority needs to be committed, as a positive value, to deliberate and full attention to the many voices in the Communion. This does not mean a commitment, at all costs, to being invited to this or that Anglican Communion function. Rather, it means a commitment to a tolerant interchange of opinions and ideas.

The place to insert something on this commitment would be in the fourth goal, on the Anglican Communion. It would then read as follows: "Opposing all attempts at home and abroad to curb or demean this Church, dismember it or evict it from the Anglican Communion, and to affirming the constant need for mutual critique and encouragement from and with Anglicans elsewhere in the world." [Italics mine]

Micah and Jesus, to name a couple, call us well beyond that to which The Episcopal Majority calls us, and of course The Episcopal Majority does not claim otherwise. The Episcopal Majority calls us to protect and defend The Episcopal Church as a valid orthodox and mildly progressive autonomous and interdependent member of the Anglican Communion that stands by its decisions. That is a big order, big enough for the moment.

Still, God’s prophet Micah, God’s very own presence in the world, Jesus, and "men and women who by prayer, loving relationships and reflection on daily experience have grown wise in holy living and exercise a profoundly prophetic role in the life of the church," call us further.

Let me suggest some examples of that further call.

We need to listen better to some voices from the Global South. For example, Michael Nai-Chiu Poon, Singapore, who is Director, Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, has written an essay which merits considerable attention: Till They Have Homes: Christian Responsibilities in the 21st Century. At the core of his paper is this sentence, "To rebuild homes among peoples whom we have wronged is the practical task of love in present-day churches." Listening to him requires setting aside the prejudice against the particular vehicle in which his articles have appeared, "The Global South" web pages – which themselves reflect only the voices of those Provinces of the "Global South" selected by its steering committee.

Michael Poon is not only an important voice in the Global South. He is an important voice for us in The Episcopal Church. He is profoundly critical of both the liberal and conservative missionary work of Western Christendom, and of their reflections in the Global South. For those of us in The Episcopal Majority, listening to Michael Poon is an important reminder that there are voices in the Global South that call us more to Micah and Jesus and less to the interminable battles within the Communion over matters of church discipline and ethics.

We need to listen more to Christian voices not “within the Church.” Reading Reynolds Price's A Serious Way of Wondering is an example. What can he tell us about our own efforts as The Episcopal Majority to cast the Good News in ways that reflect values of mutuality and tolerance of difference?

We need to listen to voices outside the Christian community that point the way beyond the edges of our boxed-in thinking as Christians.

We need to listen, for example, to people like Michael Krausz, whose book Limits of Rightness (Rowman & Littlefield, New York, 2000) begins a critique of the notion of "right interpretation" which is continued in a new work in progress. Philosophical in nature and sometimes hard to read for us non-professionals, his argument has profound implications for any of us who want to place all our money on "one-on-one" relations between belief statements and the truths to which they are meant to refer. After reading his work, one can never go back to "simply" reciting the Creed or maintaining that there is a real present entity that conforms to the phrase, "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."

Micah and Jesus didn’t have to read Krausz or Price or Poon, and these writers might not actually see themselves as furthering the prophets' radical agendas. However, listening to them breaks down the isolated sort of agendae that The Episcopal Majority or any other organization is sometimes prone to propose.

Better, of course, is to return to hearing the voices of those we have wronged. As Dr. Poon says, "To rebuild homes among peoples whom we have wronged is the practical task of love in present-day churches."

We need to do a lot of listening to and then acting with the peoples of so many places: Palestine and Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, New Orleans, in the hard places in so many cities, in the mountains of Appalachia, and on and on.

But those only represent the homes in the cities and states we have occupied, bombed, crushed, ignored, or otherwise disposed of. There are more. There are the homes of honorable people we have wronged because they are different, strange or threatening. These are the homes of people who are "the last" – the last who shall be first. These are the people for whom restitution begins by giving place.

The Episcopal Majority needs to not be too puffed up. As regards the churches of American Christendom, we are ourselves a minority, both numerically and in position of influence. Louie Crew, amazing friend, says often, "God loves absolutely everybody!" And he is right, of course. But God has a particular predilection for the poor and the poor in spirit. So God may indeed . . .

  • put fellow travelers like Reynolds Price first,
  • put outrageous queer prophets like Walt Whitman first,
  • put lay black women like Verna Dozier first,
  • put folk who feel put out and discounted -- like many members of the Network of Anglican Communion Parishes and Dioceses -- first,
  • put strung-out pundits like Hunter S. Thompon first,
  • put the Dalai Lama first,
  • put Gandhi first,
  • put the Archbishop of Nigeria first,
  • and those of us in The Episcopal Majority last.

  • That is all according to plan: The last shall be first and the first last. But I am not worried. They may get the first seating, but we all will be fed.

    Still, perhaps The Episcopal Majority could put in its last agenda item something like the following, just to cover our bets:

    "Establishing ties with national churches or groups abroad who are sympathetic
    to The Episcopal Church, and with them rediscover a vocation to serve “the
    whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery
    ." [Italics mine.]


    Blogger OakMtHiker said...

    Excellent essay. Thanks for your service, Mark!

    8/31/2006 3:27 PM  
    Blogger Glynn Harper said...

    Your essay is edifying and important. Unfortunately I find parts of it off-putting and I have taken the liberty of commenting on them at length in my blog
    I live and minister in a diocese where there is not much comfort from like-minded Episcopalians and I rejoice that there is now a place to be comforted, consoled, and encouraged.

    9/01/2006 4:03 PM  

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