The last several weeks have been – well – disheartening if you are paying much attention to what is going on in the World Anglican Communion and their Lambeth Conference. As a liberal evangelical my sympathies lie with the liberals who are working more fully to include gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy in the life and ministry of the church. But as a Christian moderate I’m not eager for either side to “win” if it means that the other side “loses.” But therein lies the rub! The language of unity and popular calls for us all “to come together” seem naive. What can we do when our differences are real and irreconcilable?
As Barack Obama wrapped up his trip overseas to visit Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe the pundits on the networks and in the big city papers took some time to critique his speeches and actions. Some of the heaviest criticism came from confirmed political pragmatists who took issue with his speech.
They criticized not so much his policies or recommendations for action but rather his failure to acknowledge the harsh realities and differences that characterize our world. Sen. Obama’s rhetoric of tearing down walls and bringing people together was the standard stump speech material that he has been delivering for months, but the grandiosity of his Berlin setting and the history of American politicians speaking in Berlin seemed to call for something more. In Berlin President Kennedy famously called himself a Berliner (or Berlinner/Jelly Donut) but did so in a show of solidarity with the freedom loving citizens of a divided city who struggled against communist and totalitarian isolation – he took sides. President Reagan, eschewing any pastry references, talked about tearing down walls, but had a concrete (literally) example to which he could point – he took a side. Sen. Obama’s call for unity and the transcending of differences seemed to lack similar gravitas.
David Brooks of the Lehrer News Hour on PBS characterized his speech thusly: There was nothing anybody could disagree with in that speech. It was all just, “Let’s all come together.” If you compare that speech to John Kennedy’s speech in Berlin, to Ronald Reagan’s speech in Berlin, where they actually gave policies, they made arguments for positions with which it was possible to disagree, Obama did none of that. He punted on all the tough policies, with one exception, which was Afghanistan, where he had a very good paragraph. Other than that, it was just – it was like a Disneyfied version of foreign policy. Honestly, I will probably vote for Sen. Obama in November, so it is not my intent to criticize him or his speech. Rather, I think his speech is instructive because it points out just how hard it is to be robustly moderate without being naive or “Disneyfied.”
The Anglican Church is having such a tough time at its Lambeth Conference in large part because it is facing real rather than superficial differences. “Let’s all come together in the name of Christ,” will not work in this instance because the conservatives and the liberals (those against ordaining gays and lesbians and those in favor of ordaining gays and lesbians) disagree about the central message of Christianity. For the liberals Christianity means inclusion. For the conservatives the Gospel is about purity and freedom from sin. In this instance “to come together” would mean betraying the central message of Christ for both sides.
When Republicans and Democrats fight about how best to achieve security they share a common goal of a safe and secure nation and disagree about means to the same end. In these instances bipartisan rhetoric about “crossing aisles” and “working across party divides” may be helpful and the notion of “coming together” is not farfetched. But when the disagreements are not merely about means but about ends, when we fight about the basic identity of our nations and churches then rhetorical calls for unity miss the central point.
In all honesty, I’m not sure the World Anglican Communion is salvageable. Of course the ruptures in the church are complex and include issues of race, language, colonialism, and economics as well as the more hotly debated issues of sex and sexuality, but at the end of the day the issues of sex and sexuality represent a fundamental difference that probably cannot be overcome because “coming together” would represent not only compromise but a wholesale rejection of what is most precious to both sides. So what can moderates do? I have some ideas, but admittedly the pertain less to what the Anglicans might do to salvage their church and more to what we as moderates might learn from the situation.
Step 1: Reject Disneyfication. I’m thankful that David Brooks popularized this term for it well represents an alluring strategy that must be shunned. As much as Disney Land, Disney World, and Euro Disney try, they cannot be everything to everyone. There is no ideological boat big enough and inclusive enough to hold everyone. Moderates, perhaps most especially in churches, are in constant danger of believing in the fantasy of a church or theology that will make everyone happy. This isn’t moderation. It’s mealy-mouthed-middle-seeking that grasps at the least common denominator and calls it success. Radical Moderation acknowledges the reality of difference, even within the church, and does not try to hide it. Radical Moderation commits to living and struggling with difference, and to worshiping with those who think and pray differently even as the differences remain.
Step 2: Acknowledge Difference. We sometimes disagree and not all disagreements are about taste. Some are deep, so deep as to be irreconcilable. The present differences among the Anglicans may be irreconcilable and a split may be in their future. No one wants this, just like no one ever wants a divorce. Sometimes, however, a split is the best thing for everyone involved. We can be sad about it when it happens, but let us not pretend that all splits or all divorces are bad in all occasions.
Step 3: But Strive To Maximize Tolerance. What is the best thing that we can do? We can practice a form of radical moderation that eschews the comfortable social solution of gathering and worshiping only with those like ourselves. We can strive to maximize our tolerance for difference, knowing that this will mean that we are constantly working against our social and psychological grain. Perhaps most importantly, this will mean coming to terms with the necessity of having permanently imperfect churches. By “imperfect” I mean churches that are never finished, never easy, and in which there is a constant need for active empathy because there are always differences.
Just today (August 4, 2008) I learned that the Archbishop of Canterbury is recommending a moratorium on the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops in order to heal the wounds among Anglican churches and prevent further schism. I hope he is right. I hope they find a way to heal themselves and maximize tolerance. But in this case it seems that the differences are so great that a moratorium may only postpone the inevitable.
Listen to an interview with New Hampshire’s Bishop, Gene Robinson on Here and Now.