By Margaret Will
Covenant published two articles on public figure Tucker Carlson in 2017 and 2019. Both examined his conservative Republican visibility in the left-leaning Episcopal Church. While I enjoy Carlson’s television presence, his age, which is close to mine, draws my attention. We are both part of Generation X, or as I call it, the sandwich generation. Gen X is a slice between the large lingering past and the large looming future. Like Carlson, I went to an Episcopal school (college, not high school). Tucker reminds me of the cocky boys who everyone knew would succeed. His voice is one of a few that remains confident while the rest of us “sit down first and consider whether [we] are able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against [us] with twenty thousand” (Luke 14:31).
The term “cradle Episcopalian” refers to anyone who was introduced to the Episcopal Church (TEC) at a young age, usually by a family member, and who has remained part of the denomination. It reportedly began in the 1970s following a century of Catholic usage. Cradle Episcopalians often do not remember a difficult time learning the liturgy as do some adults who joined the church later in life. The “cradle” designation used to have the same kind of weight as your hometown or gender. The church of your baptism meant something at Episcopal coffee hours and newcomer dinners, if only to inform a new congregation that you knew the hymns and at least one rite of Holy Eucharist. Quite often people found a small world with unexpected connections.
The Reverend Sarah T. Condon indicts cradle Episcopalians in her blog for “mistaking breeding for the saving grace of Jesus Christ.” While grace is the only explanation for any blessing, Cordon doesn’t see much blessing in or from cradle Episcopalians. She is correct that TEC has a history of dysfunction. While dysfunction travels down through church generations, it also attracts those with similar problems. While this can indeed confound the dysfunction, it can also provide a space of solace for those who know those same struggles from the inside. For example, alcoholism continues as a dark church legacy in part because it draws in new members who are fighting or recovering from the same demons. “Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance’” (Luke 5:31).
Today lifelong membership has taken a backseat to political messaging. The Episcopal Church attracts people who love its policies and social mission. Frequently heard sermons include emphasis on racial equity, LGBTQ rights, and ministry to undocumented immigrants. Lay members more than clergy have been known to make their vision political by calling for action, including voting for specific candidates or bills.
The terms “liberal” and “conservative” in TEC operate on at least two scales: political and theological. Political conservatives tend to revere the founding fathers and documents of the United States. They resist rapid or radical change. Theological conservatives bristle at liberal interpretations of Scripture. A painful intersection occurs when passages of Scripture are ignored or imaginatively enhanced in order to support liberal political action. These boundaries are as difficult to navigate as those between helping and enabling an alcoholic. The meanings tend to overlap in some Venn diagram that also intersects with being a cradle Episcopalian.
Cradle Episcopalians are not necessarily conservative, though reluctance to change is frequently a conservative concept. Those who say, “We’ve always done it this way!” have often attached to the old way the very real and present Way who came to mark them as his own. Saint Augustine described a sacrament as “the “outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace.” A cradle Episcopalian perceives the church with its stones and vestments and language as marking not just one emboldened heart following Jesus in discipleship, but many faithful walking a path as long and deeply trod as El Camino de Santiago. TEC shares heritage with Anglicans around the globe, the early Roman Catholic Church from whom we parted, and the devoted grassroots believers who followed Christ before the Church exploded in growth. Cradle Episcopalians are often guilty of a particular pride, the pride of being able to pass on old traditions. All know, but some cradle Episcopalians forget that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt. 19:30).
Students must exceed their teachers if they are to move mountains. The basic lessons do not change. Jesus loves everyone. We also have over 2,000 years of difficult lessons learned on how (and how not) to love one another. Some stories are told in stained glass windows. Some in sacred music. Spreading the gospel after all requires both technique and inspiration. Perhaps the newest members bring spirit. Stones and wind each have their place.
Cradle members often grow silent rather than contest seismic change. If you have been part of TEC your whole life, you may find it harder to leave altogether for another faith community. “Conservative” today is a relative term compared to previous generations. Some parted ways over issues including language and women’s roles in the church. The most recent division over sexuality is still being worked out — not only within the counsels of the church, but also in state lawsuits — but the flow has largely gone in one direction during my lifetime: out.
So why does TEC still have conservatives? Here are two answers: The first is that the cradle is an extremely powerful force within individual members. Being raised and formed in a church that worships in the beauty of holiness cannot be excised or replicated. Sometimes we touch the seal on our foreheads absentmindedly. Good formation leads to well-rooted adults who know that they are literally members of the body of Christ. Both politically and theologically conservative cradle Episcopalians may ignore liberal messaging if they are otherwise included by their congregation and do not feel forced to change their views.
The second answer is that theological conservatives offer the church a powerful gift: depth perception. The oldest Books of Common Prayer had a common liturgy for Communion and yet little commentary on members’ thinking. Some of us insist that our only creeds are in fact the creeds. The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Creed of Saint Athanasius leave a great deal of latitude for everything else one might believe. We remember a church that said, come to services, read the Scriptures, pray, make up your own mind… and if you choose to follow Christ, know that it’s not for hearts which faint at other people’s words. Because Jesus is the Word, and once you have him, nothing can separate you from the love of God (Rom. 8:39). Nothing can separate us when we share a profession of faith. We are divided easily, however, when we expand the requirement of belief beyond the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Love him or hate him; agree with him or not, Tucker Carlson is outspoken when too many conservative Episcopalians, both political and theological, are quiet. In the lessons we can learn from his case, his particular views are less important than the freedom TEC has thus far afforded him to be both himself and a member. Tucker acts as cocky as the boys from private school days, and maybe that’s part of his appeal to people like me. Conservative cradle Episcopalians are counting on the freedom he flaunts. Gen X is not above moving on from TEC. Some of us are holding out for dialogue that is equally open and loving to all who have the courage to participate.
Margaret Will is a longtime member of Grace Church, Alexandria, Virginia, a University of the South graduate (BA/EFM), and a cognitive psychologist (MA). She resides in Ohio.