January 18, 2007

IRD, Ex-Episcopalians, and Mainline Orthodoxy

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:11 pm

And then, without a word of explanation, he began blogging again…

Mark Tooley of the IRD, the arch-conservative organization working to create schism in mainline denominations, has another piece in the American Spectator, this time criticizing a statement by over a thousand clergy calling for an increase in the minimum wage. Tooley quickly goes to one of the stock criticisms of mainline protestantism:

But note the tone of utter moral certainty from the prelates. The various Episcopal and Lutheran bishops, presbyters, and Methodist functionaries who signed on, along with an ecumenical smattering of others, would never and probably could never proclaim with such certitude any traditional articles of their own faith such as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ […]

It’s funny how often I’ve seen this meme get thrown around, that mainline protestant denominations have somehow abandoned orthodox belief. Via Father Jake, here is another very recent example from two conservative ex-Episcopalians, now-Nigerian Anglicans, causing schism in Virginia:

The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. Some leaders expressly deny the central articles of the faith — saying that traditional theism is “dead,” the incarnation is “nonsense,” the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, the understanding of the cross is “a barbarous idea,” the Bible is “pure propaganda” and so on. Others simply say the creed as poetry or with their fingers crossed.

To which the Rev. Penelope Duckworth replies:

However, in more than 20 years of ministry, I know of no Episcopalians who would say the incarnation is “nonsense,” the resurrection “a fiction,” or the Bible “pure propaganda.”

Similarly, having sat in Lutheran pews my whole life, I don’t know any Lutheran that would say such things. There may actually be some, but if I’ve met them they haven’t confessed such beliefs to me. I certainly have never heard a Lutheran pastor, nor clergy from other mainline churches I’ve visited, say anything along these lines from the pulpit, or even in private. In the ELCA we recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed every Sunday, and none of us cross our fingers.

So where does this come from? Well, there is retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who pretty much rejects orthodox Christian theology. (Of course, Rev. Duckworth is still correct, since not even Bp. Spong would say the Bible is “pure propaganda”.) What’s interesting is that some of the wording used by the Virginia Episcopalians echoes some of the wording of Spong’s 12 “theses“: “theism is dead”, salvation through the cross “a barbarian idea”, etc.

So that’s it. The Nigerian Anglican Church in America, or whatever they call themselves, is a response to a single retired Episcopalian Bishop. Never mind that Spong does not represent anyone but himself, and that the ECUSA sticks with a traditional Christian orthodoxy, much less the rest of the mainline. Apparently we are all Spongians now.

Small wonder that IRD and the ex-Episcopalians trot out the same line. It turns out there are some close ties between the Virginia churches, the IRD, and of course, Fox News.

But the real story here, despite the conservatives’ protestations to the contrary, are political and social, not theological. I didn’t quote Mark Tooley in full above. He goes on to say:

…would never and probably could never proclaim with such certitude any traditional articles of their own faith such as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, not to mention moral teachings about homosexuality or abortion. On these issues, they would likely boast of their “diversity” of opinion.

There it is — abortion and gay rights, along with increasing the minimum wage. The idea that one could be both theologically orthodox and socially and politically liberal is anathema to the conservatives. It is a very dangerous idea, since it opens the way for a faithful understanding of Christianity to not only allow, but demand, social justice and a compassionate society. And the conservatives certainly can’t allow that to happen.


  1. Wonderful post. Thank you. Please keep writing.

    Comment by Becky — January 18, 2007 @ 8:32 pm

  2. ePiscoSours suggests a new corollary to Godwin’s Law – anyone who brings up Bp. Spong or Bp. Pike has automatically lost their credibility in an argument.

    Comment by Ann — January 19, 2007 @ 7:33 am

  3. I think a better example of an interesting Episcopalian writer who challenges conservative orthodoxy, rather than Spong, would be Marcus Borg, who also (as far as I know) does not believe in the virgin birth. During Advent, I had a conversation with the now-former pastor the UCC church I attend. I said that I wasn’t a big fan of Christmas, in part because I didn’t believe that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke were literally true. The pastor responded by pointing out that most scholars don’t believe it either. She talked about seminary trained pastors who undergo a crisis of faith right around their second semester or so, after they come to learn that a lot of their prior views about the Bible turned out not to be true. This is apparently a well known phenomenon in seminaries. The problem is that a lot of pastors keep this scholarly knowledge to themselves. But it is a problem for those of us who are religious liberals who don’t take the Bible to be literally true, because we think there are fewer of us than there are. My guess is that the pews (and the pulpits) are full of people who don’t take the Bible literally but who are drawn to Christian traditions anyway. What I like about Borg is that he explains clearly how this is possible.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — January 19, 2007 @ 9:05 am

  4. It seems to me that far many people prefer to work in binary. The answer is yes or no. There is no maybe. People are conservative or liberal. Moderates are really just one or the other, but lack the courage to admit which one they are. There can be no third option (let alone a fifth or fourth one) because that would make reality far more complex and more difficult to grasp. So when you find a peg that doesn’t fit into the round hole, you pound it into the square hole, regardless of whether it actually has four sides or eight.

    It seems to me that the critics of Mainline Protestantism are falling into this kind of thinking. This makes sense, as these critics also seem to make no distinction between theology and politics. Instead, they see the two fields as a single thing, fused all together. They already know that there are theologically orthodox people who are politically conservative (themselves). They’ve also doubtlessly met people who are theologically unorthodox and polticially liberal. The prerequesite two states of being have been defined. Your suggested combination of theological orthodoxy and political liberalism would be a third state. Their binary thinking fights that idea very hard.

    Comment by Jarred — January 19, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  5. This is not for “moderate”
    Christians.Liberals and Muslims get a pass in the Media, but Conseratives don’t. The world is do for a major upheavel. Blogs like this may be around to create dialogue, but it is as usual only one sided.

    This rabbi may be wrong but……

    A rabbi s warning to U.S. Christians
    Posted: January 13, 2007
    1:00 a.m. Eastern
    By Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    I am certainly not a Churchill. I am not even a Revel. I am having enough trouble just trying to be a Lapin. But I am issuing a very serious warning about deep consequences, just as they did. It is a warning about the earliest stages of what could become a cataract of disasters if not resisted now.

    During the 1930s, Winston Churchill desperately tried to persuade the English people and their government to see that Hitler meant to end their way of life. The British ignored Churchill, which gave Hitler nearly 10 years to build up his military forces. It wasn’t until Hitler actually drew blood that the British realized they had a war on their hands. It turned out to be a far longer and more destructive war than it needed to be had Churchill’s early warning been heeded.

    In 1983, a brave French writer, Jean-Francois Revel, wrote a book called “How Democracies Perish.” In this remarkable volume, he described how communism’s aim is world conquest. For decades he had been trying to warn of communism’s very real threat. Yet in January 1982, a high State Department official said: “We Americans are not solving problems, we are the problem.” (Some things never change.) A good portion of the planet fell to communism, which brought misery and death to millions because we failed to recognize in time that others meant to harm us.

    Heaven knows there was enough warning during the 1980s of the intention of part of the Islamic world to take yet another crack at world domination. Yet instead of seeing each deadly assault on our interests around the world as a test of our resolve, we ignored it. We failed the test and lost 3,000 Americans in two unforgettable hours.

    I am not going to argue that what is happening now is on the same scale as the examples I cite above, but a serious war is being waged against a group of Americans. I am certain that if we lose this war, the consequences for American civilization will be dire.

    Phase one of this war I describe is a propaganda blitzkrieg that is eerily reminiscent of how effectively the Goebbels propaganda machine softened up the German people for what was to come.

    There is no better term than propaganda blitzkrieg to describe what has been unleashed against Christian conservatives recently.

    Consider the long list of anti-Christian books that have been published in recent months.

    Here are just a few samples of more than 30 similar titles, all from mainstream publishers:
    “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America”

    “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us”

    “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason”

    “Piety & Politics: The Right-wing Assault on Religious Freedom”

    “Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism”

    “Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America”

    “Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right”

    What is truly alarming is that there are more of these books for sale at your local large book store warning against the perils of fervent Christianity than those warning against the perils of fervent Islam. Does anyone seriously think America is more seriously jeopardized by Christian conservatives than by Islamic zealots? I fear that many Americans believe just that in the same way that many pre-World War II Westerners considered Churchill a bigger threat than Hitler.
    Some may say that today’s proliferation of anti-Christian print propaganda is nothing to become worried about. To them I ask two questions:
    First, would you be so sanguine if the target of this loathsome library were Jewish? Just try changing the titles in some of the books I mention above to reflect anti-Semitism instead of rampant anti-Christianism and you’ll see what I mean.
    Second, major movements that changed the way Americans felt and acted came about through books, often only one book. Think of Rachel Carson’s 1962 error-filled “Silent Spring” that resulted in the pointless banning of the insecticide DDT and many unnecessary deaths. Other books that caused upheavals in our nation were Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” many of Ayn Rand’s books and of course “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
    No, I would advise you not to underestimate the power of books to alter the behavior of the American public, and I fear for an America influenced to detest Christianity by this hate-filled catalog.
    It is not just books but popular entertainment also that beams the most lurid anti-Christian propaganda into the hearts and minds of viewers. One need only think of who the real targets of the recent hit movie “Borat” are. The brilliant Jewish moviemaker Sacha Baron Cohen, as his title character, using borderline dishonest wiles, lures some innocent but unsophisticated country folk, obviously Christians, to join him in his outrageously anti-Semitic antics. Cohen then triumphantly claims to have exposed anti-Semitism. In fact, he has revealed nothing other than the latent anti-Christianism of America’s social, economic and academic secular elites.
    Even the recent PBS documentary, “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence,” managed to do more attacking Christianity than defending Judaism.
    Richard Dawkins, an Oxford University professor, is one of the generals in the anti-Christian army of the secular left. American academia treats him with reverence and hangs on his every word when he insists that “religious myths ought not to be tolerated.”
    For those with a slightly more tolerant outlook, he asks, “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free impose their beliefs on their children?” He suggests that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents’ religious beliefs. Needless to say, he means Christian beliefs, of course. Muslim beliefs add to England’s charmingly diverse cultural landscape.
    The war is against those who regard the Bible to be God’s revelation to humanity and the Ten Commandments to be His set of rules for all time. Phase one in this war is to make Christianity, well, sort of socially unacceptable. Something only foolish, poor and ugly people could turn to.
    We have seen how a carefully constructed campaign pretty much made it socially unacceptable to drink and drive. For years, there had been stringent laws against drunk driving. They achieved little. In the end, the practice was all but eliminated by groups allied with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and their effective ways of changing the way Americans thought about it.
    We have seen how a carefully constructed campaign has pretty much made it socially unacceptable to smoke. In the face of a relentless campaign (dare one call it propaganda?), Americans became docile and forfeited the right to make their own decisions. Nobody was willing to stand up to the no-smoking tyrants. Nobody even asked whether health was sufficient grounds for freedom to be reduced. Now, entire cities and even states have banned smoking, not only in public places but even in privately owned restaurants.
    Tyranny comes when citizens are seduced into trading freedom for the promise of safety and security.
    Considerably more intellectual energy is being pumped into the propaganda campaign against Christianity than was ever delivered to the anti-smoking or anti-drunk-driving campaigns. Fervent zealots of secularism are flinging themselves into this anti-Christian war with enormous fanaticism.
    If they succeed, Christianity will be driven underground, and its benign influence on the character of America will be lost. In its place we shall see a sinister secularism that menaces Bible believers of all faiths. Once the voice of the Bible has been silenced, the war on Western Civilization can begin and we shall see a long night of barbarism descend on the West.
    Without a vibrant and vital Christianity, America is doomed, and without America, the West is doomed.
    Which is why I, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, devoted to Jewish survival, the Torah and Israel am so terrified of American Christianity caving in.
    Many of us Jews are ready to stand with you. But you must lead. You must replace your timidity with nerve and your diffidence with daring and determination. You are under attack. Now is the time to resist it.

    Comment by Reformed Catholic — January 20, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

  6. One problem in the Episcopal Church may be defining how far over “orthodoxy” goes. Some people would require almost nothing, some would require the Apostles’ Creed, others the Nicene Creed, and some would require the 39 Articles. I think people care more about homosexuality, anyway; it makes for better headlines.

    Jarred: As someone who doesn’t seem to fit into any hole, I completely agree with your response.

    Reformed Catholic: The article you posted does exactly what Jarred was (rightfully) complaining about, e.g. putting people into two mutually exclusive “Christian conservative” and “secular liberal” boxes. The fact that somebody is opposed to the Religious Right does not make them opposed to Christianity in general. Furthermore, based on what little I know about Richard Dawkins, he’s hostile to all religion, not just Christianity; the comment about how he’d be fine with Islam seems to be completely unfounded based on what I’ve read about him. The article was right, however, about the power of the media to change culture for better or for worse.

    Comment by Alex — January 20, 2007 @ 6:50 pm

  7. Reformed Catholic –

    You misunderstand my goals with this blog. It’s not to promote dialogue, it’s to advocate my point of view. This is a private forum that I use for whatever the heck I feel like using it for, and make no apologies for that. I’m not a journalist, I’m not getting paid for this (in fact I have to pay my hosting service every month) so this blog reflects my views with no pretense of being unbiased. I let people like yourself comment with opposing views because I think it makes for a better blog and enriches what I get from blogging, but that doesn’t make me obligated to air all sides of an issue.

    As for your article (in the future, please just provide links, not the entire text), this rabbi claims there is an attack on “Christianity”. Not so. There is an attack on conservative Christianity, that this blog is enthusiastically a part of, and for good reason. Conservative Christians have been promoting bad theology and bad politics. This doesn’t make them any less Christian, but it does mean that Christians from the center and the left feel bound by our conscience and our faith to protest.

    Comment by Bob — January 21, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  8. It’s interesting that you mention Bishop Spong. For all the bile from the conservative wing of the church regarding him and their implicit charge that somehow his books override the official doctrine of the Episcopal Church which has always been found in the Book of Common Prayer, it’s interesting that they never ever brought him to ecclesastical court on charges of heresy. Yet, they did bring a mainstream, retired bishop up on charges for ordaining a priest in a same sex relationship. (Stanton vs. Righter)

    Shows where their priorties lie.

    Comment by dantoujours — January 26, 2007 @ 12:58 pm

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