Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Conscience of a Conservative

by Christopher L. Webber

[Editor's Note: This essay was accepted for submission on October 6. Biographical information about the author is available here, where we published his earlier essay.]

Traditional Anglican Catholicism is hardly a “liberal” system. We shape our pattern of worship by a centuries old Prayer Book and, when questioned about our faith, we refer the questioner to fourth- and fifth-century creeds. How then have I, who bristles at the word “Protestant,” come to be identified with those called “liberals” in the current Anglican imbroglio?

I think I have found some answers in a recent essay (October 5) by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Brooks makes a distinction between “creedal” and “temperamental” conservatism and notes that the conservatism articulated by Edmund Burke, the 18th-century father of modern conservatism, was not an ideology or creed, but rather “a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.”

But conservatism in America, Brooks writes, has become creedal. Worse yet, in recent years, “conservative ideologies have been magnified” while “the temperamental conservatism of Burke has been abandoned.” Thus the present administration has attempted to create an instant democracy in the Middle East although Burke had cautioned that “pleasing commencements” often have “lamentable conclusions.”

More significant for Anglicans is the Burkean analysis of society as an organism within which “custom, tradition and habit” are the prime movers. The traditional catholic understanding of the church is exactly that: an organism in which custom and tradition are to be valued rather than rapid change and doctrinal statements. “Temperamental conservatives,” Brooks writes, “are suspicious of the idea of settling issues on the basis of abstract truth.”

This makes very good sense to me. Those who style themselves “traditionalists” in the Anglican Communion would seem to be not temperamental conservatives but Creedalists who seek to define the church by new creedal statements that are raised up above the old. Suddenly also new “instruments of unity” have appeared although no province of the Anglican Communion has either officially adopted them nor empowered the Lambeth Conference, not a legislative body, to create them.

Brooks suggests that many Americans care more about order and prudence than “transformational leadership.” Amen to that! So do many Episcopalians. Hard cases, it has often been noted, make bad law. So, too, the issue of sexuality is not as likely to be resolved by radical changes in the structure of Anglicanism as by a patient listening process such as the last Lambeth Conference called for and the Episcopal House of Bishops has repeatedly requested.

As a “temperamental conservative,” I am offended by the suggestion that I am some sort of “liberal,” wildly trashing the Anglican tradition and intent on blazing new paths to the future. My appeal is, and has always been, for order and prudence and that “comprehension for the sake of truth” that Richard Hooker in the 16th century suggested was the essence of the Anglican way.

Author's Postscript: Readers may also wish to consult J. Robert Wright's essay on the proposed Anglican covenant in the latest issue of The Anglican. He says he thinks a covenant is a good idea but the questions he raises about the proposed one raise some fundamental issues that need to be pondered. Wright's essay is in the April 2007 edition of The Anglican, Vol. 36, No. 2.

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