Too often, conservatives destroy. And when conservatives destroy, it’s usually when they seek to liberate illiberally.

Perhaps you’ve witnessed this. The new leader arrives, eyes filled with passion and head filled with thoughts about the struggles of the surrounding world and how they threaten the institution he’s called to lead. Perhaps it’s a school or a business, or perhaps it’s a church. He introduces much needed change, and, much to his surprise, discovers that his changes are rejected and he himself vilified, burned out, and even cast out.

One of the wild fruits of our online life is a tendency to live in echo chambers in which counterpoints that might calibrate our thoughts are absent. In my own profession, this tendency renders clergy of all persuasions vulnerable to divisive ideologies. Conservative Episcopal clergy, for example, are likely to find themselves immersed in circles which rip the current ecclesial leadership “with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpness of reproof,”[1] cast conservatives typologically as heirs of the Old Testament prophets, “impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the world abounds”[2] to concrete realities such as General Convention or 1990s abstractions like liberal Protestantism, and “propose their own form of [churchmanship] as the only sovereign remedy of all evils, and … adorn it with all the glorious titles that may be.”[3]

And so do new senior ministers arrive, armed with cognitive and practical commitments regarding the malaise of the Church catholic, the wayward ways of the Episcopal Church, and the concepts and practices needed to right the ship. Because “their minds are forestalled and their conceits perverted beforehand,”[4] they are vulnerable to being blind to the grace that greets them as they enter through the big red door.


Perhaps it’s the praise band in the choir loft. Syncopated rhythms resounding in the nave can’t possibly sound the Word of God. Repetitious individualist banalities can’t possibly name the glory of God. Syrupy Manilowish melodies can’t possibly be scored in the symphony of God. And so, primed by the echo chamber’s mantra, “This is unbearable,” the praise band is banished in the name of the Lord.

Or perhaps it’s the church school. That’s where it was for me. Or, perhaps the children’s absence. Popsicle stick crafts are insufficient. Gospel reductionism is a travesty. Generational ignorance of Scripture is devastating. And so, radical surgery on the pale imitation of a proper children’s ministry is performed.

The revolt, however, conquers the revolution. Folks vote with their feet. Those the minister sought to liberate with appeals to timeless absolutes liberate themselves.

It would be nice if such disasters could be avoided by posting ubiquitously Neal Michell’s sage advice that senior ministers move ecclesial furniture no more than one inch per year. But prudence is not the problem. There’s something deeper here.

We Westerners (and especially Americans) tend to forget that we are all fish swimming in a sea of Enlightenment liberalism. No matter our best intentions, we are never free of the water. Precisely because we are bred simultaneously on the biblical and the American canon, most Americans are a bit of a Paine.

Thomas Paine, I mean. Paine and Edmund Burke famously debated the rightness and implications of the French Revolution. The question was not whether we are rightly liberal (in the original sense), but rather whether we ought to be progressively liberal (Paine) or conservatively liberal (Burke). Paine, who represents a constellation of thinkers who pervade the American canon, believed we recognize the good by imagining humankind in our primordial state, a state he presupposed was pre-social. All humans are created equal, he deduced, and justice means returning society to that primordial state in which all are equal.

Paine, in other words, said that the way we recognize the good is by freeing ourselves from history and discovering values which transcend time. Paine justified the violence of the French Revolution, reasoning that such violence is warranted whenever needed to restore humankind to its native state, for only revolution can overcome the strong man who binds us in our state of decadence.

Paine’s legacy, which permeates American culture, is the habit of thought which holds that the disjunction — revealed by reason — between the real and the ideal justifies revolutionary transformation. Progress towards timeless absolutes is an immediate imperative for societies, and such progress inherently entails and authorizes a break with the past in order to conform societies with such absolutes. In the Church, the quest for a timeless “justice” warrants destroying the stained glass. But then the revolt conquers the revolution, and folks, as always, vote with their feet.

For Burke, the nearest signs and tokens of the good are the existing traditions that constitute the people. This is to not to say that whatever exists is inherently good. Rather, to paraphrase Burke’s thought in the grammar of the cross: to say that Christ became flesh is to say that Christ took on the profane, so that good will forever be discovered by us in the profane — and never otherwise — due to human sin and creaturely finitude. No matter how much ideologues may claim otherwise, we don’t have access to our natural origins or a golden era where we can comprehend concretely how such timeless values are embodied. We do, however, have access to the historical people of which we are a part, and we quite reasonably should assume that the good, however imperfectly, is manifested in us. The laws and customs of the people constitute us, and such constitution is the inheritance through which the good is passed from generation to generation.

The best way to liberate, Burke said, is to conserve and evolve. The prudent leader starts not with outrage at deviations from the ideal, but with thanksgiving for that which is worth preserving. The wise build on the existing foundation rather than razing it, building towards what is both good and achievable. For Burke, change is a good thing, for without change a society “might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.”[5] But “the change is to be confined to the peccant part only; to the part which produced the necessary deviation.”[6] Burke’s prescription is aptly summarized in his famous aphorism, “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”[7]

I suspect, if they shared a pub table together, that Richard Hooker would agree with Burke’s counsel on theological grounds. Hooker saw gracious governance as properly in analogy to God’s grace on the cross. Central to Hooker’s ethical reasoning is the concept of “special equity.” Equity has to do with the justice and fairness that mark any enduring unity. “Special” describes those prudential deviations from the general which make the particular whole. Special equity considers the information that general rules exclude so that the good which general rules seek is obtained. [8] Special equity is about correcting our aim at a local level so that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Moving the furniture one inch per year is not simply folk wisdom. It’s special equity. And it’s sound theology. The wise leader, living eucharistically, begins with gratitude for the grace manifested in the local and particular traditions that are the inheritance of every community. “Listening to the Church” is not merely about embracing the Creeds. It’s about listening and receiving and loving the good manifest in the crazy customs of the local parish. The priority is on the particular.

And that may just mean that “This is unbearable” is neither a mandate for banishing the praise band nor permission for radical surgery on the church school. The local church is constituted, not by timeless absolutes nor by the norms of a golden era, but by the traditions and customs which embody the good it has discerned in its unique history — its own history of listening to the Church catholic and responding. Radical surgery risks the loss of the blessings one wishes most religiously to preserve.

That Christ became flesh ought to instruct our reaction to syncopated beats rocking the nave. God speaks to the profane through the profane. Gratitude, not attitude, is the prudent response.


[1] Richard Hooker, The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker: Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, Preface Books I-IV, and V (Two Volumes). Library edition. (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977), Preface.3.6; I.15.15-16. Hereafter, cited as Laws.

[2] Laws, Preface.3.7;I.15.20-21.

[3] Laws, Preface.3.8;I.16.2-4.

[4] Laws, Preface.3.9;I.16.28.

[5] Edmund Burke, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke: Volume Ii: Party, Parliament and the American Crisis, 1766-1774. (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 72.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 206.

[8] Laws.V.9.3;II.44.5-24.

Cartoon: “Praise Band” Copyright 2009 Dennis Fletcher. Accessed August 29, 2014, at Leadership Journal

9 Responses

  1. Andrew Petiprin

    I have found wisdom in your post, Craig; but I am a little confused about the target of your critique. You link both to Woody Anderson’s recent post and to Emily Hylden’s, but I read neither one as advocating the kind of changes that you fear may jeopardize past blessings.

    So who’s the hypothetical bad guy here? A brash young fogey who is determined to make his old parishioners choke on incense? Uh-oh…

  2. Craig Uffman

    No, Andrew, I linked to Woody and Emily’s post because they both touch on the concerns about music and the church school I mention. I in no way imagined my post as a critical response to them. If anything, mine are admiring links to their posts. Those are just two illustrations of a variegated type of concerns that might seduce a priest into an illiberal local violence justified by appeals to an ideology grounded in timeless absolutes.

    Burke and Hooker both teach us about the distinction between theory and practical politics. Your general precepts may tell you that incense is a universally good thing. Both would argue that such precepts do not tell you what special equity requires in your local situation. Both would argue for a patient evolutionary approach that takes great care to preserve the good already present in the community. Moreover, both would see the local customs in a sense as prescriptive: the brash young fogey would be one who ignores the prescriptive weight of the local custom in order to reset the community according to an ideological commitment justified by appeals to timeless absolutes.

  3. Zachary Guiliano

    Oh, good. I was a little worried, actually, that your links would be read as critiques, which didn’t seem like your intention.

    What about resetting the community by appeal to historical absolutes? I’m being deliberately troublesome here, but I think there’s a considerable difference between:

    (A) changing local practice on the basis of some abstract principles (e.g. “relevance,” “accessibility,” or “justice.” Timeless absolutes);

    and (B) changing practice on the basis of a larger tradition that informs local tradition (e.g. conformity with the diocese, the national church, the Western tradition, and so forth).

  4. Craig Uffman

    Excellent question. I think we can learn from Hooker on this question since the authority of historical absolutes was at stake in his debates with the Ramist realists and other colleagues. You will notice my phrase “Listening to the Church” which is my allusion to the duty to listen to the Church transtemporally and translocally before we can make our own confession. What you’ve called historical absolutes I take to be the confessions within history of the Church, dialectically discerned. As such they can never be absolute because of our sin and creaturely finitude; homo peccator non capax verbi Domini, as Barth phrased it (CD.1.1.§6.3.220). This is a theological point, not merely philosophical.

    To put it in Hookerian terms, Christ the Logos is the eternal law whom we encounter in creation, and as a result of that encounter, we create human positive law (customs, traditions, and institutional laws, such as those governing the church). Our faculties are apt, but still see that which is revealed temporally with a mist that clouds our eyes, and so, at best, our positive laws derived from the eternal law are analogous to and approximations of the natural law, but never identical to it. To say they are absolute is therefore problematic. Only Christ the concrete universal is absolute, our only foundation. This is the error, indeed – the idolatry of the 16th century Roman Church, according to Hooker: ““Whether we do now stand bound in the sight of God to yield to traditions urged by the Church of Rome the same obedience and reverence we do to his written law, honoring equally and adoring both as divine; our answer is no” (Laws.I.3.2; I:123.5-18). Hooker explains that it is a category error to assign such humanly discerned approximations of the natural the same status as supernatural revelation.

    That is not to say that confession of the Church catholic lacks authority. To the contrary, we cannot say we have listened to the Church until we receive the Word passed down from generation to generation, and that word generally agreed to by the great councils of the church carries the greatest weight. It is our most common way of recognizing the good. But it is never absolute, because homo peccator non capax verbi Domini.

    To say it is an approximation is not merely to speak of the mists in our eyes that introduce error. It is also to say that the Word is living. Christ elects us by name in each and every moment, which is to say the Word addresses us repeatedly and always in our narrative situatedness, in our particularity. The generalizations we gather in council and in our confessions are never identical to the Word which addresses us in the moment. They are always wholly other than that Word. There is a gap between our generalizations and what the natural law – which is the exalted Lord – demands in the moment, in our narrative situatedness.

    Hooker’s point is that special equity recognizes the distinction between our general precepts which embed our approximations of the natural law and what it demands particularly. Christian ethics seek properly not to conform our actions to our generalizations but to what the natural law demands. The priority is on the particular.

  5. Craig Uffman

    I responded to you regarding the notion of historical absolute, Zack. With regard to the specific case of a minister seeking to do as you say, I’d once again point to Burke’s advice. The distinction here is between “ought-to-be judgments” about our right ends, and the practical commitments we make about our immediate actions. It may be that the “ought-to-be judgment” requires change.

    But we are now talking politics, not theory. We are in the domain of practical wisdom. The minister would need to exercise extreme caution, per Burke, and evolution, not revolution, is the surest way to attain the good desired.

    Which is precisely what Neal Michell advises in his book, btw. Perhaps Neal’s a Burkean?

  6. Zachary Guiliano

    Perhaps historical “absolute” was a poor choice of terminology. I take your point that Christ alone is the true absolute, but I tend to think in practice that things are a bit trickier than that. We’re only ever encountering Christ within the context of Scripture *and* Sacrament, as well as within the framework of communal practice and broader canon law, etc., which makes any strong disjunction rather difficult to uphold as a practicality and I wonder whether it actually evacuates it of meaning, save as a kind of abstract principle to be used for cutting through some putatively arrogant and intransigent traditionalism.

    But I suppose I don’t quite understand how supernatural revelation is working within this scheme, which may be my own problem. But especially this statement cause my brow to rise:

    “Hooker explains that it is a category error to assign such humanly discerned approximations of the natural the same status as supernatural revelation.”

    Perhaps unfairly, I could see this applied to Scripture itself all too easily , even if Hooker wouldn’t do so, thus relegating Scripture to some ambiguous “approximation of the natural.”

    Things for me to chew on, perhaps.

  7. Craig Uffman

    He’s similar to Thomas on authority, as I read Thomas. See Thomas Aquinas, ST, 1.1.8 ob 2 and Joseph Wawrykow, Handbook for Thomas Aquinas 13-15. But Hooker sees “voices of men” in a much broader socially dialectical sense – much more like Hegel than Thomas, in my view. LIke Calvin, he takes quite seriously the duplex cognitio Dei, which he uniquely describes in terms of the eternal law. We encounter Christ the Creator and Governor, therefore, not merely in the categories you mention, but in the glorious works of nature, in ‘common sense’, etc.. He’s not always consistent, but he does not follow Thomas in limiting revelation to Scripture, but rather tends to treat all manners in which we encounter the natural law as revelation, with the distinction between them being their level of probabilistic error. Scripture, in contrast, is not natural but divine law, which renders it perfect in terms of the concern you mention, though always received subjectively and therefore our encounters with it are phenomena subject to interpretative error. Within it is a special category called supernatural law which pertains to the supernatural path to our eternal beatitude that is Jesus the Messiah. That’s supernatural revelation. Furthermore, we encounter in positive law some replication of this supernatural revelation such as the command to baptize and to do Eucharist.

    Hooker, like most of the Reformed tradition, and notably, Barth, would insist upon a strong disjunction on theological grounds. In brief, the concern is to preserve always the alterity of God. Where you and I agree, I think, might be best expressed by Barth, which is (borrowing from a friend) to say that theonomy would be mute without heteronomous structures. I implied such in my phrase about God speaking to the profane through the profane. Those heteronomous structures never cease to be profane even as they communicate the Word imperfectly and necessarily to us.

  8. Charlie Clauss

    I like the on going discussion, but don’t lose sight of what I think is a major point in Craig’s original piece: “This is unbearable.”

    This is the major challenge we face, to stop, wait, listen, pay attention to our inner attitude (and repent of our arrogance and impatience), and wait some more.

    Whether it is music we dislike or children crying in church (list your own pet peeve – bet my list is longer than yours ;-) ), or even significant theological and philosophical issues, we must remember “Be angry and sin not” and “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”

  9. David Shepherd

    ‘To say that Christ became flesh is to say that Christ took on the profane, so that good will forever be discovered by us in the profane’.

    Sorry that this kind of theological précis fails to parse the ‘grammar of the cross’ correctly.

    Yes, we recognize that our created humanity, with all of its physical capabilities and limitations, is both the locus of our vulnerability and the site of our redemption. However, the flesh, as a proximate and necessary occasion of sin, can only be overcome by grace, in order that we may yield our earthly lives in thankfulness to God.

    So, while Christ’s incarnation forever ennobled our frail physical and spiritual humanity, the fact that He did not succumb to it has important implications.

    For good to be discovered in the profane involves suffering, not inch-a-year ease: ‘Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin’ (1 Pet. 4:1)

    Christ’s earthly life was guided by eternal priorities, rather than giving in to the temporal yearnings of our human frailty. Thereby, He demonstrated the importance to our redemption of yielding His earthly life to divine will, even when that cost Him everything: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51) The low-risk imperceptibly slow furniture move is cost avoidance.

    ‘That good will forever be discovered by us in the profane – and never otherwise – due to human sin and creaturely finiteness’ does not recognize the high price of the Incarnation. We need to wrestle with the grim reality of what happens when goodness begins to reveal itself in the midst of profanity.

    The scripture, as ever, clarifies:

    1. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)
    2. ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)
    3. ‘That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; (Phil. 2:15)

    So what if some ‘folks vote with their feet’? Christ-led revolution is never fully suppressed by popular defiance. The movement simply finds acceptance elsewhere. And, eventually, after the discipline of great forbearance, so will true ministers of the gospel: ‘Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.’ (Acts. 13:46)

    Nevertheless, whether Cromwell, or Robespierre, or modern clergy, all leaders must question their own propensity to become the very harm that they seek to eradicate. How often have we seen the idealism of young ‘freedom-fighters’ corrupted to become the hypocrisy of an intolerant ‘benevolent’ dictator?

    Genuine goodness discovered in the profane will always cause suffering and upheaval, whether in my soul or wider society. ‘The wheat and the tares grow together’ until they become fully distinguishable from each other.

    Forget how far we move the furniture. What does matter is our willingness to simply oppose the desire, when cold, to treat the furniture like firewood.


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