I embraced the Anglican current in the Catholic stream of Christianity when I became an Episcopalian as a young adult in the mid-1970s, after having been raised in a free-church evangelical tradition. From the very beginning, endemic conflict has marked my experience as an Episcopalian. I can yearn for no golden age, no peaceful days of yore. There has always been a fight going on.
In looking back over the last four-plus decades, basically my entire adult life, I am struck, even as the details of the controverted issues have evolved, by how easy it has been all along to predict which side of the divide du jour any particular Episcopalian will land on. In the ‘70s, most (not all, but most) of those who were exercised about the replacement of the 1928 Prayer Book were also opposed to the ordination of women. As the years progressed, most (again, not all, but most) of those opposed to the ordination of women were also deeply concerned about the gradual normalization of homosexual relationships (a movement that arguably reached its omega point only this year at the 78th General Convention). And those who remained troubled by the Church’s redefinition of marriage to include partners of the same sex will doubtless join the frontlines in the coming fray over liturgical language, arguing against the abandonment of masculine pronouns for God and loaded words like “Lord,” “Father,” and “Kingdom.” (This is not to say that others will not also oppose such abandonment.)
I have wondered why, even as the subject of the debate shifts, it seems to be pretty much the same people lining up across from one another as the conversation develops. Is there some underlying but unarticulated principle or narrative that is responsible for such consistency? The protagonists themselves will often insist that there is, but, for each side, it’s a different principle, a different narrative. Those who might be styled “conservatives” are likely to claim that what drives them is fidelity to the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s teaching tradition. Those who are covered by the “progressive” label are apt to cite the demands of justice as their galvanizing force. Of course, conservatives will deny any lack of concern for justice, and progressives will generally deny any lack of regard for Scripture or tradition. (Some will not make even a pretense of such a denial, but, in my experience, most do.) In other words, is there an “alpha issue,” an “Ur-polarity,” for which the succession of controversies over the last half-century function to some degree as proxies?
Could it be, in the end, all about Jesus … and who we say Jesus is?
In 2004, Mel Gibson produced a film called The Passion of the Christ. In its day, it was utterly polarizing, and, to the extent that anyone still talks about it, it remains so. Some viewers and commenters found the graphic violence (particularly the scene where Jesus is flogged prior to his crucifixion) inexcusably appalling. Many of the same critics also cited anti-Jewish overtones, particularly in some casting decisions. Others, by contrast, found the viewing experience profoundly moving and spiritually inspiring. Yes, the violence was difficult to watch, but what they saw on the screen was not merely a depiction of various manifestations of human behavior, but a cosmic battle through which was accomplished the redemption of the world.I can claim nothing resembling a scientific or statistically valid survey, only intuitive extrapolations from my small-sample personal data set. But my hypothesis is this: Those who found The Passion of the Christ off-putting are likely to regard the significance of Jesus as lying chiefly in his words and actions prior to his arrest — his ministry of teaching and healing and community-building. They are disturbed that Gibson paid no attention to these aspects of Jesus’ life, surmising that he has thereby overlooked the main thing. Moreover, Episcopalians in this category are going to track toward the “progressive” side of whatever debate is on the agenda. Those who found the film uplifting are likely to locate the importance of Jesus predominantly and precisely in the territory actually covered by the movie — his suffering, death, and resurrection. They will cite the rending of the temple veil and the teardrop falling down from heaven and landing at the foot of the Cross when Jesus breathes his last as hitting the bullseye of who Jesus is and what he’s about. And Episcopalians in this group are, by and large, going to show up on the “conservative” side of the debate stage.
Our new Presiding Bishop talks about Jesus a great deal. He calls Episcopalians to understand themselves as part of a “Jesus Movement.” How utterly refreshing this is! The people in the world around us desperately long for good news, and Jesus is most assuredly good news. I expect Episcopalians will find a degree of unity around this theme. But I don’t expect us to stop fighting. I don’t expect our divisions to magically disappear because we talk about Jesus more.
Why? Because there are still two very different narratives about Jesus in play. The “progressive” Jesus is a teacher, example, and pastor. Disciples of this Jesus hope to “strive for justice and peace” (BCP, 305) until, bit by bit, step by step, God’s reign of justice, peace, and love is fully realized in the human community, till we have ”built Jerusalem,” not only in “England’s green and pleasant land” (pace William Blake), but everywhere. In this paradigm, one doesn’t even need to profess overt Christian faith in order to be effectively a Jesus-follower in the Jesus Movement, as long as one struggles against climate change and against war and human trafficking and whatever else prevents human flourishing.
The “conservative” Jesus is a Savior and Lord. Disciples of this Jesus focus on continuing in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” and proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP pp. 304-305). In so doing, they hope to be heralds to the world of the inbreaking Kingdom of God and be exemplary communities of what that Kingdom actually looks like. But they are under no illusion that any amount of faithful struggle on their part will result in the fruition of God’s reign. Rather, that fruition will be born eschatologically, out of cataclysm and crisis. In the meantime, mission is virtually synonymous with evangelism and disciple-making.
Of course, I have, in large part, posited a false dichotomy. Orthodox theology demands that we acknowledge both the example and the sacrifice of Christ (see Collect for Proper 15). A faithful follower of Jesus acknowledges the demands of justice, and his or her understanding of what is just springs organically from the holistic soil of sacred Scripture transmitted by the Church’s tradition. A faithful follower of Jesus hails him as King of kings and Lord of lords, and that submission is manifested in an ever-growing Christlike character that reveals itself in an outpouring of engagement in the real lives of real people who are made in God’s image and for whom Jesus died. We will not come together in the Jesus Movement until we bend the knee to the whole Jesus, until we are simultaneously repulsed by the brutality of his Passion and drowned in gratitude for the depth of God’s love for our sinful selves.