“The Conservative voice has left the church.” This is the statement so often repeated throughout the coverage of the 76th General Convention of The Episcopal Church.
As the argument goes, since 2003, virtually all of the conservatives have left and all that remains are a bunch of crazy liberals and a few loan voices crying out in the wilderness. If this were even remotely true, it wouldn’t be so laughable.
Somewhere between 7 and 10% of Episcopalians left the church in the last six years. That includes the attempted mass exodus of several dioceses. Let me now rerun the phrase: The conservative voice has left the church. Let’s do the math. 10 + X = 100%. So the conservative voice was only 10% of the church? Another phrase that was tossed around: “most of the conservatives have left.” Most implies the majority, so again using the upper maximum 10%, then as of 2002, conservatives accounted for 19% of the church. In other words, simple arithamatic discredits this argument wholesale.
So why have so few journalists done the math? And why is “most of the conservatives have left” a convenient excuse?
The inherent trouble has nothing to do with a ‘conservative voice’ or numbers of conservatives in our midst. It is with our understanding of who “owns” the church. In The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle calls this the greatest argument in any reformation era: the question of authority. But in our American, brutish and thuggish understanding of authority, the more appropriate word is ownership. This is the phrasing the ‘conservative voice’ of The Living Church uses when it bemoans the departure of “the orthodox”. Othodoxy (literally, ‘right belief’) has at its core, not only an implied certainty, but a strict sense of ownership, as in “we hold the right belief and therefore must lead the unorthodox”. When one claims that they posses ‘right belief,’ it inherently implies that differing theologies are wrong, and by small extension, heretical. This is the very volley lobbed at The Episcopal Church with regularity over those 6 years. It should read in the news as “small splinter group believes The Episcopal Church is run by a vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.”
Believe me, conservatives haven’t left the church. A few political ideologues have for sure. But walk into a rural or suburban Episcopal church and take a random sampling, asking these questions:
- If money were no object, what would you want done to your church?
- If your church burned to the ground, and you had millions of dollars to work with, what would you do?
You would no doubt get a wide variety of answers, especially in college towns and in areas of dramatic change. But for most Christians, and especially Episcopalians, I think the responses would look a lot like this:
1. If money were no object, what would you want done to your church?
- “Redo the roof.”
- “Fix the windows”
- “Install that elevator we’ve been putting off.”
- “Go crazy: get all new carpeting, restain the pews, and buy some brand new linens!”
- “Buy new choir robes; we’ve had these for 10 years!”
2. If your church burned to the ground, and you had millions of dollars to work with, what would you do?
- “Rebuild it.”
- “Make a facility that meets our current needs.”
- “Tear down the Parish Hall, that’s what needs to be redone!”
Of course I’ve prejudiced the responses. I also know that the second question would get people to think outside the box, especially in terms of using the money to invest in mission, not a new church building. But what I don’t expect from either question is a truly radical (or liberal) response: let’s build something new. All of these responses represent the ‘conservative voice’ in the church, because even when the freedom to change for the better is given, the choice is to live with, fix, or replace.
If I were given unlimited funds, I would salvage a few beautiful things from this church, tear it down, and start anew, not only shaping it to our present needs, but trying to anticipate the needs of the future. This includes a worship space that allows for a liturgical team that is disabled, a facility that is flexible and can accommodate significant changes in attendance, and allows us to express the theology we profess. That’s a pretty liberal voice.
Go ahead and ask the people at your church this Sunday those two questions. I am utterly confident that the ‘conservative voice’ is alive and well. I dare you to prove me wrong!
NOTES and LINKS:
I have long-argued that we have over-simplified our understanding of liberalism and conservatism, especially since the 1990s, when sexual ethics became not only the center, but the exclusive province of the political debate. The church has similarly fallen prey to this misunderstanding of these classic terms.
One of the most misunderstood notions of the church’s role in the liberal/conservative debate is to occupy “the middle”. This is often interpreted narrowly to mean abstaining from debate or by not taking a stand for an issue that is perceived as liberal or conservative. This position, is, in its practical application, conservative. For instance in voting, the threshold requires 51% of quorum to vote YES. So not casting a ballot, leaving the room after quorum is established, or voting to abstain all count as voting NO. This applies the conservative ideology of maintaining the status quo. For more thoughts on the moderate position, visit here.
Lastly, I have written many wonkish blog posts about this subject on my other (political) blog. If you want to read extensively my understanding of political affiliations, visit this sequence here and here.