Thursday, August 03, 2006

Don't Call Them Conservatives

My concern, since the early 90s, has been the rise of a new breed within the Church that does not fit into our former classifications. They are neither High nor Low, conservative nor liberal. A parallel could be made between this new group and the emergence of what is sometimes called the "neo-conservatives" in the political realm. It is a stretch to think of the administration of George Bush as "conservative," in light of the astronomical deficit we currently face and his Wilsonian idealism regarding the exportation of democracy.

This new breed is certainly not "conservative" in the same way that I came to understand that term until recently. There have always been conservatives within the Church, who, even if you disagreed with them, you still respected and read their work, often discovering nuggets of wisdom. Names that come to mind would include Newman, Wesley, Gore, Ramsey, Carey, Mascall, Stott and Lewis.

This new breed, which I first encountered as a seminarian at Nashotah House, can be most quickly identified by their anger and their militant language. It is as if they have declared war on the Episcopal Church, and, as the cliche goes, "all's fair in love and war." The tactics they are willing to use to further their cause are shameful. They sully the reputation of all respectable conservatives within Anglicanism. I have yet to find an appropriate name for this group, although one commonality seems to be that most of them have chosen to align themselves with the Network.

I was recently pointed to an essay that does an excellent job of attempting to identify this new breed, and explains why it is erroneous to consider them as representative of the "conservative" position within Anglicanism. The author is Teresa Mathes of the Diocese of San Diego, wife of Bishop James Mathes:

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Don't Call Them Conservatives
by Teresa Mathes


I was raised by conservatives. In Southern California, where I now live, this is rather like saying you were raised by wolves. But I like to think the people who raised me did a good job: they gave me a strong sense of family and of community obligation; they taught me to respect social institutions. Conservatives, my mother often said, valued what was best in society and tried to preserve it. She abhorred mob tactics, half-truths and secrecy. “If you have to hide it,” she’d say, “You shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

I was also raised Episcopalian. My grandfather helped build the church in which my mother was married, then my cousin, then my sister and I in our turn. I was graduated from Sewanee, a liberal arts college owned by the Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church. I have sung Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral, lunched with a Primate of New Zealand and dined with an Archbishop of Canterbury. By the time I was twenty-eight, I was on a first name basis with Jack Allin and Cecil Woods, and if you don’t know those names, it only proves how pathetically, arcanely Episcopalian I am.

Of course, if you do know those names, you know how un-Anglican all this boasting is. The Episcopal Church in which I was raised was a church of civility, a church that thought before it spoke. Some would say we thought too much and spoke too circumspectly. So I am being very clear here about the position from which I speak. Because what I have to say is that the AAC and the ACN do not represent true conservatives.

Like many Episcopalians, I had scarcely heard of these organizations; then, just over a year ago, my husband was consecrated Bishop of San Diego. Over time, I learned that AAC stood for American Anglican Council, a group of parishes that objected, among other things, to the consecration of Gene Robinson. The Anglican Communion Network (ACN) appeared to be an association of bishops with similar views. These names were used interchangeably with “the conservatives,” so when the groups began to distinguish themselves by their actions, I was astonished to see those actions labeled “conservative.”

For instance, both the AAC and the ACN attack the idea of gay marriage as a violation of orthodoxy, yet they enforce no position on divorce, even among their own clergy. Now, I’m inclined to be merciful when it comes to divorce, having been abandoned by a deadbeat father and raised by a single mother, but if you’re going to take the Scriptural hard line on sex and relationships, you have to face what Jesus said about divorce, which is, “Don’t.” As a social institution, the American family is far more endangered by divorce and its attendant poverty than by monogamous gay couples. Trust me, I was there. Maybe that’s why the only time Jesus mentions sex and relationships is to tell people to keep it together. If the AAC and the Network truly represent conservative values, they would work for better premarital counseling, support of young families in our transient society, and mediation between troubled couples. Maybe they’re working on these things, but there’s nothing on their websites about it.

When it comes to community obligation, the AAC and the Network look good at first. Their websites are heavy with associated parishes, presumably working together for a greater purpose. They hold regional meetings and conferences to advise new members and generally pump up the faithful. Problem is, they’re more clique than community. AAC priests in this diocese routinely avoid diocesan gatherings, even social ones. When we held a series of four receptions in our home, less than a third of the AAC clergy came; at diocesan convention, one was too busy handing out pamphlets to meet my eyes, even after I put my hand on his shoulder to say hello. At this year’s consecration of deacons, only one vested for the service.

As for the Network, the majority of their bishops attend House of Bishops meetings by booking rooms nearby and holding their own meetings; the Network bishop nearest San Diego has not attended the last three meetings of the House. These are men (all men) who were asked at their consecration to “share with your fellow bishops in the government of the Whole Church.” People who neglect their responsibility to govern have nothing to say to me, especially in times of conflict. As my mom used to say, “If you don’t vote, you’ve got no right to complain.”

Which brings me to that business about preserving what is best in society. To many conservatives, Gene Robinson’s election represented a profound challenge to the traditional understanding of moral fitness for ministry, and it did so without even stopping to define what a new understanding might be. To people who consider preservation important, this is a reckless way to proceed. It is throwing out the baby and keeping the bath water in hopes that you’ll find another baby beneath the surface.

So how have these self-described champions of conservatism responded? Sadly, by throwing out even more of our venerable traditions. They have spent the last three years crossing diocesan boundaries to perform Episcopal functions, violating an understanding that dates back before the Fourth Century Council of Nicea, and they have actively worked to siphon church property to such cradles of Anglican tradition as the Diocese of Bolivia.

This is where the AAC and ACN fall farthest short in my view. The Internet now bristles with memos leaked to the press or uncovered during lawsuits that reveal a common theme: threats to “separate,” plans to secure church property, commitments to “realignment” and to “guerrilla warfare.” There is nothing preservationist in this behavior, and it is especially repugnant for its air of secrecy and deceit. The memos are marked “Confidential” and “For Discussion Only;” letters advise parishes to “innovatively move around, beyond or within the canons” and caution against passing information electronically.

The conservatives I know would be ashamed of such behavior. I know I am. I am ashamed that the AAC and the ACN are now synonymous with conservatism and I wish to give genuine conservatives back their name. The conservatives I know are honest, civil people who would scorn secret memos and “innovations” meant to skirt the canons. Let’s face it, that kind of behavior also represents a profound challenge to the traditional understanding of moral fitness for ministry. As Mother would say, “If you have to hide it, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

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J.

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