On Saturday, Ross Douthat's scathing New York Times op-ed declared the fate of Episcopalians like myself: As long as we keep changing, we will die.
At the end of his editorial, Douthat challenges Episcopalians and other liberal Christians to locate their essence, their unchanging identity, something that can keep them steady and, by keeping them steady, prevent their collapse. What would they defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world -- he asks -- that liberal secularism alone does not?
Douthat asks this question with the implication that the identity of denominations like my own has been so watered down by our supposed relativism and inclusiveness that our identity no longer has grounding. And yet, while I cannot officially speak for the Episcopal Church (or any other liberal Protestant denomination), speaking as an Episcopalian, a theologian and a priest, I think there is a clear answer to what we can defend and do offer uncompromisingly to the world, and it comes, traditionally enough, straight from the lips of Jesus:
'"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).
"On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:" I think that makes their caché for Christians pretty clear.
Now, I would wager that most Episcopal clergy, indeed most committed Episcopalians, would agree with me that this is the guiding principle of our faith. The trouble, therefore, has nothing to do with lacking biblical grounding. It has nothing to do with lacking an identity. The trouble comes with putting this theological tenet, this fundamental piece of dogma, into practice. The reason? Within these statements by Jesus are two ambiguities:
1. How do you love well?
2. Who is your neighbor?
This, I believe, is the heart of the growing pains facing not only Episcopalians, or even liberal Protestants, but all of us who hang out together on planet earth. Case in point:
Should homosexuals be allowed to marry? (Fits into question No. 1)
How many resources do we send to Syrian rebels? (Falls under question No. 2)
Should the 1 percent pay higher taxes so as to ease the tax burden on the 99 percent? (See questions No. 1 and 2)
If these two ambiguous points were less ambiguous, theologians and priests like me would be out of our jobs. The problem is that they're not. And they're especially complicated when one admits that people are diverse and need different resources in order to flourish, resources that are often, unfortunately, scarce.
Now, as I see it, organized religion can respond in two ways: They can admit that different people have different needs and therefore become flexible enough to accommodate them (see the Episcopal Church), or they can ask followers to conform themselves to the tenets of a faith that they develop in response to these ambiguities but in isolation from lived experience. One model requires flexibility on the part of the faith and one model requires flexibility on the part of people.
It would seem, according to Douthat, that the latter ideology works better when it comes to attracting followers and raising money because it sets clear expectations and boundaries, and that image appeals to newcomers like a man in a tailored suit attracts on a first date: Because it's confident and it's clear. If you act this way, then you can expect this reward. If you sin this way, then you can expect this recompense.
And that contrast can make denominations like my own feel like the Post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church that the character Sister Robert Anne sings about in the comedy "Nunsense": "But then the rules began to change and many lost their way. What was always black and white was turning shades of grey."
And yet, as I've said above, I don't think that turning a shade of grey is the issue. I think that the Episcopal Church, for all its changes over the past decades, is still rooted in a tradition of loving God and loving neighbor that is enacted in our communities through worship and mission. And that makes me proud to be a member of this tradition, whatever its population.
Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Ideally, I would like to see the Episcopal Church state its theological grounding in The Great Commandments like a commercial organization advertises its slogan: always and everywhere. It needs to be on its website, in its General Convention resolutions, on its church bulletins and in its priests' sermons. And it needs to be stated with the kind of confidence that have become the hallmark of some of our other Christian companions, because right now, too many leaders of our denomination -- and other liberal Protestant denominations -- are so scared by their church finances and dwindling congregations and editorials like Douthat's that alienating their base becomes more of a concern than believing that, with God's help, they can become stronger than they already are.
Because like I said, confidence appeals.
In the coming years, I would like to see the Episcopal Church continue to develop a biblically grounded faith that does not ignore the realities of human experience. I would like it continue to think about contemporary issues, but I would also like them to continually reiterate why their stances and actions are biblically grounded in the love of God and neighbor Jesus demands of us.
I believe that kind of theology and action in the world is needed. I believe it's attractive. And I believe it will keep the Church alive in the world, both inside and outside of its buildings.