By Tom Smith
I recently read Wesley Hill’s essay on why he contributes to the Covenant blog and remains an Episcopalian. He takes the position that the search for a pure Church is misguided and bound for frustration. This was often articulated by every partisan’s favorite Church father, Augustine. There are also scriptural passages and forms that make this case as well: Matthew 13:30 and the tares and wheat; David not killing Saul when the opportunity arose; Jeremiah not fleeing the imminent destruction of Jerusalem; and especially Jesus choosing Judas. The last might be thought of as the antitype, or final form, of how God is willing to interact with his people (and perhaps thereby the assumed pattern that his people ought to take with each other).
My assumption is that Hill is right. Israel and the Church are a mixed company of the faithful and unfaithful (the Psalter is another example from nearly front to back). Wiser people than I have acknowledged this; and the scriptural evidence appears to be significant. Hill notes that at times some argue against the idea of a mixed company with such passages as 1 Corinthians 5:13, “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” However, we might recall that this was Corinth, a deeply flawed church with which Paul continued to endure. If Paul held Corinth to the type of standards that have caused divisions in the West in the past few hundred years, he would not have concerned himself with one person. But crucially, he does not. The injunction is directed not at the church, but at an individual.
My question is this: why do we continue to divide in hopes of looking for something pure? It seems to be clear that we should not do this. But we continue to find ample reason not only to do it but to so entrench ourselves that we cannot possibly walk it back. Henry Newman’s move to Roman Catholicism is a classic Anglican example (recently followed up by former Church of England bishop Michael Nazir-Ali). I would contest the idea that the Roman Church is more pristine than any other orthodox ecclesial body. The sporadic medieval antics and current moral failings of various clergy ought to speak loudly enough. This is not to disparage Rome. Most certainly no American Episcopalian has any standing to do that! It is rather to say that Eden will not be found at Saint Peter’s. More specifically it is to observe that the magisterium and papal hierarchy are no certain refuge from the human tendency toward a bit of anarchy. The same holds true for conservative Episcopalians seeking a supposed refuge in the ACNA.
There is no Garden in Rome or in the ACNA or in anywhere. But that seems to be possibly why we keep fighting and dividing: we go looking for one. We do something in church that is natural in every other area of life. We try to find the best schools for our kids. We aim to live in the nicest neighborhoods we can afford. In our own small ways, we are always working against forces that appear to be chaotic. We move toward maximum stability and order.
And so here we, especially clergy, are presented with the harsh reality of our calling: Stay in the chaotic room. When we read the Scriptures, we are often perplexed at the amount of chaos depicted, which the Israelites routinely inhabit. Exile, wanderings, slavery, war, confusion, and fear are the landscape in which Israel lives. But perhaps these are not simply historical narratives describing what happened. Perhaps they are describing what is. The people of God are called to live in an unruly world. There is no Garden to be found.
However, the human relationship with chaos is interesting. Many times, we do not aim toward finding a new sense of order emerging out of the mess. Rather, we move backward trying to reach something we remember as being stable. We can see this in the things that adults enjoy. Often enough they are merely expensive versions of the things we enjoyed as children. (The theme of what to hold onto and how to move forward is beautifully treated in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.) Likewise, we believe that a particular moment of the Church has had Edenic glimmerings and so, even when we move forward, we are trying to hold onto something in the past. Of course, this is a necessary exercise or else there is no continuity between what came before and what is. However, it is a mistake to believe that a full-stop to what is coming will preserve what came before. Nothing that survives exists without change.
There are often very justified reasons for fighting: What if the unknown is a corrupted and heretical place? Must not someone fight for the truth of the gospel?
Those are not bad questions. On the other hand, Jesus told Peter to put his sword away and healed the servant’s ear. If there was ever a time to fight for the Church, that was it.
My point: I love the Episcopal Church and I’m staying in the Episcopal Church. There’s simply nowhere else to go (not also considering that I made a promise at my ordination). There’s a bit of stoic resignation in that and Realpolitik. Ideology is important, but the 20th century should have taught us that if someone marches out charged solely with ideology then there will be bodies in the wake. There is no Garden out there — not till “the man comes around” anyway (as Johnny Cash might say). That does not mean that I will inevitably lead a compromised life. It simply means that the tares grow with the wheat. It is what happens. Also, while I do not want tares in the field, I am best concerned with making sure I and my people be found among the wheat than that I assume the role of eschatological judge. As a priest, I function best when I simply put my head down and do work.
Sampson died with the Philistines and was counted a hero of the faith. Such reasoning can work for traditionalists toward progressives and vice-versa. For who is Sampson? He is certainly not the one who is always most theologically accurate, as important as that is! Rather, he is the one who willingly dies among those he disagrees with. And so, I can enjoy what I have: my wanderings with the people of God ever longing for but never reaching the promised land.
The Rev. Dr. Tom Smith is vicar of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Prosper, TX. On September 9, 2021, he defended his thesis on the use of the Old Testament during the American Civil War at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.