Monday, April 24, 2006

Yesterday’s Liberal & Today’s Conservative

A short essay to cause reflection and study

It is generally true to claim that the mainline churches in the West – Europe and North America – are defining the worship, doctrine and discipline of the Christianity in a more liberal, tolerant, and expansive way as the decades come and go. So much so, that, say, the liberal position of the 1950s is the conservative position of 2006, and the conservative position of the 1950s is the extremist or fundamentalist position of 2006. Anyone who is 60 or more and has been involved in church membership can supply examples of many kinds after a short search in memory.

Again, generally speaking, this move across the spectrum towards more tolerant demands of faith and morals, worship and piety, has occurred as the West has adopted a variety of attitudes and practices, which have profoundly changed culture and society in a secularist direction. Let us recall that 1960 was the year that artificial birth control through the “pill” became safe and widely available and this made possible the new sexuality; that during the 1960s there began the tremendous push for rights – civil rights and human rights – which still continues with the result that the right language has become the moral language of the West; and that beginning in the 1960s more and more people went into therapy and society adopted therapeutic definitions of the meaning and purpose of life.

In order to retain their members and to appear relevant, the mainline churches moved with the times and began to talk about “family values” (instead of biblical norms); marriage in terms of self-fulfillment (rather than for pro-creation and sharing); salvation and redemption in therapeutic and counseling terms (instead of biblical and moral terms); multi-ethnic and multi-racial churches; the duty of the Church to open up all ministries and vocations to women because of their rights (instead of following Scripture); the Liturgy and Bible in accessible, simple and relevant language (instead of received, traditional language); personal holiness and piety to be more worldly-wise and expressed in social-economic terms; mission and evangelization to be less directed to individuals and more to social and cultural change – justice and peace issues, and especially to those who are the “excluded” and “outcasts” of modern society (e.g., “gay” men, lesbian women and bi-sexual persons).

Inevitably, the way that these churches read and interpreted the Bible, along with the way they received their original confessions of faith and standards of worship and discipline, and used hymnody also gradually changed, in order to justify or at least make possible the adoption of major changes in doctrine and practice. And this happened within a context of massive cultural and social change and so was less obvious than it otherwise would have been.

Many members walked away from the main-line churches into more conservative denominations, where at least some of the norms, standards and disciplines were recovered and retained and seen as important. But others just drifted away from regular worship and church membership. This is easily illustrated from the history of the ECUSA – its membership was at its very highest in the mid-1960s and by 1980 had dropped massively. Further, in the 1970s there began what we call the Continuing Anglican Church (now in a variety of jurisdictions).

What appears to have happened is that, as each change or innovation has come along, been debated (and often resisted for a while) and then adopted, the conservatives have eventually accepted it and said, “thus far but no further.” Obviously from this point that which the conservative (or “orthodox” or “traditionalist”) stands for is modified, often (for the long term) significantly. Then the next change is proposed, the next innovation is debated. There is resistance and then again it is adopted. Once more the conservative decides to accept the change but again says, “thus far and no further” as he also is told by well-meaning friends that “schism is the worst form of heresy” to persuade him to stay here he is and make the best of the changed situation (for after all, it is said, it provides new opportunities). So the conservative (or “orthodox”) of 2006, earnestly working for The American Anglican Council and The Anglican Communion Network, will be worshipping using the innovatory 1979 prayer book of varied services and doctrine, addressing God as “You”, using a Bible (e.g. NRSV) and a liturgical psalter which have been translated to remove patriarchy and male headship; being served by female clergy; encouraging children to receive Holy Communion before instruction and confirmation since children also have rights; having membership in a church where a large proportion of the Ministers and membership are divorced and remarried, where procreation as a purpose of marriage is seen as optional, not part of being “one-flesh,” and where “orthodoxy” is now primarily defined in terms of opposition to the blessing of “gay” partnerships and ordaining persons in them.

Thus the liberal of 1960 is the conservative of 2006! And the traditionalist of 1960 is either in the Continuing Anglican Church or in Rome or Orthodoxy. Indeed, perhaps, and if so by grace alone, he is in the Church expectant, looking for the Church triumphant. There is a possibility also that he may be found on the perimeter of the modern ECUSA in a congregation that, against all the odds, continues to worship the Lord using the traditional PECUSA Book of Common Prayer and its 1940 Hymnal.

One reason, I think, why modern charismatic, evangelical Episcopalians innocently and sincerely believe that they are truly “the orthodox” (even though by the norms of 1960 they are liberals and “revisionists”) is that they only entered the ECUSA in the late 1970s or in the 1980s (on “the Canterbury trail) and they accepted the then status quo as orthodoxy and sought to defend this against the advancement of the “gay” cause which had begun in earnest in the 1970s. do visit www.anglicansatprayer,org

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