The Episcopal Church has been fighting the culture wars since before the concept was invented. Now, we are experiencing something new, becoming ammunition, or a battleground for other culture warriors. When Ross Douthat, the Wall Street Journal, et al, try to place the decline of the Episcopal Church in the culture war context, you know we’ve arrived. And of course there’s been a sharp reaction from those of us in the Church. I’ve posted links to many of them already.
The problem, of course, is that the critics are right, at least insofar as numerical decline and the decline of the cultural power of the Episcopal Church point to TEC’s waning influence. The Episcopal Church is not what it was forty or fifty years ago.
So what? What does that mean for the work God has given us to do? How do we reach out to offer hope, and the taste of God’s grace to those who seek it? Rachel Held Evans should give us pause. She writes about the split between progressive and conservative Christianity and the toll it takes on those who don’t quite fit in with either group:
But the reason I struggle to go to church on Sunday mornings is because I generally feel like I have to choose between two non-negotiable “packages.” There are things I really love about evangelicalism and there are things I really love about progressive Protestantism, but because these two groups tend to forge their identities in reaction to one another— by the degree to which they are not like those “other Christians”—Sunday morning can feel an awful lot like an exercise in picking sides. And often, when I find myself actually sitting in the pew, the pastor or priest will at some point in the service, either subtly or overtly, speak of the “other side” as an enemy.
Steve Pankey has this to say:
In the days that followed General Convention, two opinion pieces, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in the New York Times, have attempted to build those walls back up. They have written half-truths sprinkled with inflamatory rhetoric, and, in many ways, Episcopalians of all stripes have taken the bait. We’ve gotten defensive. We’ve honed our snark. We’ve begun to define ourselves around social issues instead of the Gospel.
We are in the process of rebuilding the walls that Jesus has long since torn down.
Let’s not go there. Let’s draw on the hard experience of being together, and not fall back into the old model of anonymous comments and blind rage. Instead, how about we embrace our disagreement, talk openly with one another, listen carefully, and, above all else, love. We did it in real life, let’s keep it up online.
Ya’know, for the sake of the gospel and all.
A. K. M. Adam also weighs in:
Fourth, neither ‘we have to update doctrine’ nor ‘we mustn’t change anything’ bears a demonstrable causal relation to attendance numbers. You can sell people bottled tap water, my friends; you could fill a church with fiery social activists, or you could fill a church with entrenched doctrinaires, but neither proves anything about what the gospel is or should be — any more than the popularity of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted shows that it’s a better film than Moonrise Kingdom. You can’t prove church teaching with attendance numbers, can’t, can’t, can’t. (I will offer a tip: the New Testament, if one still regards that as relevant, offers several lists of characteristics by which to identify the presence and effects of the Spirit. ‘Big attendance numbers’ doesn’t appear on any of those lists.)
And he reminds us all:
On strictly secular grounds, though, I can assure people who laud shallow theology and deprecate reasonable criticism that they’re selling sackcloth as silk, and that’s not a recipe for long-term viability. It’s not a family trade you want to hand down to your children. Cheerleading and finger-wagging help you sort out who’s on your side and who’s not, they make for great pep rallies, but they don’t obviate the need to do something wisely and well.
All this points to one of the important realities of our faith. Christianity was forged in an era dominated by apocalyptic, when many saw the world and human beings a battleground between good and evil. It’s easy for such imagery and language to creep into our discourse at every level. Politicians paint the world in black and white; culture warriors do; and many Christians, left and right, do as well. And there’s plenty of biblical precedent for it (remember the Laodiceans?)
Rachel Held Evans points out that life is much more complicated than simple black and white, that many of us experience the world differently, more nuanced; that we can see truth in the positions of those with whom we disagree. To succumb to the narrative of the culture wars is to succumb to a view of the world that is two-dimensional. To engage the culture wars is to divert one’s energies away from what really matters.
So, if folks want use the Episcopal Church as ammunition in the culture wars, I say let them do it. But I’m not going to play along. I’m going to preach the gospel, love God and my neighbor, share the good news of Jesus Christ, and invite people to know Jesus Christ around the altar of Grace Church. If Douthat or anyone else wants to use me as ammunition, I’m not sure who, or what, the target might be.