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

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8 years ago

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…

8 years ago

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).

8 years ago

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… Read more »

8 years ago

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… Read more »

David Shepherd
8 years ago

‘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… Read more »