The Episcopal Church: “Conservative? Or “Liberal”?
A question often raised, in relation to last month’s article on the relation of Church and state and religion and politics, is whether the Episcopal Church is a “conservative” or “liberal” Church.
Perhaps referring to the concern as a question is a misnomer, since it is rarely raised as a question. More often the concern is expressed with the Church being branded as being either “too liberal” or “too conservative” in excited accusatory verbiage.
To wit: “the Episcopal Church is much too conservative; it’s not keeping up with the times.”
On the other hand “the Episcopal Church is far too ‘trendy’, always reflecting the most current fads within the culture.”
In spite, of these accusations, the question remains and it is a good question. Are we as a Church a “liberal” or a “conservative” Church?
The answer is that we are both. The Episcopal Church always has been a conservative institution, organization, and ecclesiastical entity as well a liberating force, mediating institution and advocate for change and progress within the wider culture.
In offering the answer of “both” to the question of whether the Church is liberal or conservative, it would be well to begin by defining the terms.
What do we mean by “conservative” and “liberal”? In common parlance conservative Churches tend to be thought of as those Churches that are fundamental, literalistic and resistant to change. Liberal Churches, on the other hand, are generally thought of as being those Churches which engage not only religious concepts and ideas but also issues, problems, and ideas within the culture.
Given these general religious designations, the Episcopal Church is generally termed a “liberal Church” along with such Churches as the Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran, the ‘mainline” denominations.
At another level, “conservative” and “liberal” can mean a variety of things to a variety of people. We use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in philosophy, politics, government and religion itself.
But what do the terms mean?
“Conservative” means to preserve and resist or oppose change as in being prudent and/or safe. We talk about the “conservation” of natural resources in an attempt to recognize that such resources are limited and finite.
The term “liberal” refers to an attitude of giving freely, being generous, tolerant of other views. It is generally descriptive of democratic or republican forms of government versus monarchies and aristocracies. In common usage, “liberal” often means progressive and can mean in its extreme forms being radical or “leftist”.
In answering in the affirmative to both “liberal” and “conservative” as defining the Episcopal Church, we note that the nature of religion is itself conservative. Liturgy, ritual and prayer attempt to conserve and make present an image of God Who is unchanging, constant and faithful to and with us. This changeless quality is caught up in the Hebrew word hesed which refers to a steadfast love born of covenant promises.
Part of our understanding of the Church is as an institution that conserves stories, attitudes, values through a deep and ongoing memory of God’s revelation. The conservation of such stories, attitudes, values and revelation is what we mean by the term “tradition”.
Church worship is in this sense a conservative act wherein we rehearse salvation history (the reading of Holy Scripture) and recall God’s actions with humanity in the sacraments (anamnesis which is the opposite of amnesia).
We further note this conservative nature of the Church and religion itself in recognizing that we are called to preserve and conserve those values that are life-giving and persist and endure over time, in the face of radical cultural changes and, at times, what is experienced as an ethical vacuum within our society.
Said differently, as a conservative institution mediating values, the Church is constant and consistent in its understanding of God, human beings and the created order.
God is dynamic
Having noted this conservative nature of religion and the Church, we also recognize the “liberality” of virtue and love that the Church professes as an institution and gift of God. While we know that God is constant, for example, we also know that God, whom we worship, is not static but dynamic, drawing us into change and revelation of the new and unexpected.
As one theologian has said, “God indeed is a surprise” and surprises us continually with the outpouring of Spirit and new revelations and insights into the nature of the cosmos itself.
Several contemporary theologians note that God does not push us from the past but rather draws us into the future, to participate in some way in the divine plan of salvation through cooperation with God in acts that we call ministry.
Further, we note that the Church is called to be “liberal” as it identifies itself with the needy, the poor and the oppressed as a mediating institution in challenging any and all forms of corporate oppression or injustice. In this sense, the Church is called to be liberal in its giving of love grounded in and built upon justice. It is further called to be tolerant of other views in its attempt to be inclusive and caring.
At root in this understanding is the connection of the word “liberation” and the need for the Church to preach a gospel which liberates all persons from fear, injustice, oppression and degradation. This aspect of the Church guards against the Church becoming purely an institution that only remembers and relives the past and fails to anticipate a future by living responsibly in the present.
We vary a lot
We as Episcopalians and as Christians are both “conservative” and “liberal.” Our politics and philosophies vary a good deal. Within the Episcopal Church there are radicals and reactionaries. Such diversity is to be celebrated: we recognize the need for diversity and inclusion as Episcopalians and as members of the larger and diverse Anglican Communion.
What sometimes troubles us, however, is that in saying that we are all things to all people, we cease to be anything specific. Ecclesial generalizations can blur ethical distinctions.
How can we be both conservative and liberal? The question leads us to that which we will be celebrating and exploring in this year of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral centennial. As we explore our identity as Episcopalians within the larger Christian family, we will find new ways of talking about the conservative and liberal use of scripture, the tradition, the creeds and the episcopate.
Perhaps in exploring our identity as Episcopalians we will realize a greater clarity and precision in the way that we use the words ‘liberal” and ‘conservative” and also a greater tolerance of persons with differing points of view.
In saying that we are both “conservative” and “liberal’, we also recall our Diocesan Convention theme, “Blessings of the past and promises of the future.” Both phrases or images are mutually dependent. The promises of the future are dependent on remembering who we are in our blessings of the past. Our blessings of the past call us to the promises of the future in the ongoing epiphany of Jesus the Christ.