Renewal not toleration
A few thoughts on the future of 'inclusive orthodoxy'
It’s like clockwork: every year around Easter, some mainline Protestant divine opines in print or on social media that of course Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead, that the Resurrection is a story that the early community of Jesus-followers used to express their sense of Jesus’ continued presence or a mythological representation of the victory of life over death or what have you. Then a set of Christians, both inside and outside the communion in question, get upset at a betrayal of what they understand to be a core claim of the Christian faith - and some people express that sentiment in vituperative or cruel ways. And then there is yet another group of people who criticize the critique, arguing against attempts to limit the theological latitude which they understand to be the mainline’s theological charism - or at the very least against online cruelty (no arguments there!).
Frankly, this particular discursive circuit is not particularly interesting or edifying. At this point, you could sketch out each argument well in advance of it being made. But I did notice something this year that I thought was worth reflecting upon, especially as it has purchase on broader conversations about the goals of the theological position somewhat loosely called ‘inclusive orthodoxy.’ I saw several clergy in mainline Protestant jurisdictions write something like the following: “I myself affirm the bodily resurrection, but I am glad to share a church with people who don’t.” That is, they themselves held the orthodox position in the Resurrection, but were undisturbed by fellow Christians in their churches - including clergy or others with teaching authority - who denied it. I thought this was interesting in that it relates to a broader question I have seen raised in ‘inclusive orthodoxy’ circles: is the goal the toleration of orthodox teaching as one option among others in the church, or the renewal of the church as a whole?
Given the title of this post, I imagine my own position is rather clear. I do not think that it is coherent to hold that the resurrection is true but it is a question about which the church’s leaders can agree to disagree. And I think that the promise of inclusive orthodoxy is not the toleration of those of us who happen to hold the creeds while affirming the full inclusion of women and lgbtq people in the church - but rather the renewal of our church bodies, a recentering of our ecclesial life on Christ and him crucified as taught by Scripture and expressed in the creeds of the Church, a renewal that joyfully welcomes all people - men and women, straight and lgbtq - fully into that life.
Two quick caveats before I begin: First, I’ll be talking primarily about the Episcopal Church here, although I hope that what I have to say is relevant more broadly within the mainline. Second, in everything I am about to say, I don’t speak for anyone other than myself.
A brief look backwards: the Catholic Revival and the rhetoric of toleration
I think it might be instructive at this point to step back and consider another moment in Anglican history where the question of toleration versus renewal was asked: the Catholic Revival of the nineteenth century. The Anglo-Catholic experience helps us understand why exactly the posture of pleading for toleration contains some serious dangers.
Beginning in the 1830s, a group of Anglicans sought to recall the Church of England to a catholic and apostolic heritage that they worried that the church was drifting from, potentially becoming (in their construal) a mere spiritual department of the English state. The publication of the Tracts for the Times launched a movement that would roil worldwide Anglicanism: pre-Reformation or contemporary Roman Catholic theology and ritual were introduced in some places and sharply opposed in others, priests and even bishops would land in jail, Anglican theology and worship life would be articulated around support of or opposition to the new movement.
To be clear, a full evaluation of the Catholic Revival lies beyond the scope of this piece, but I want to point to a very specific feature of its history: a movement that began as an attempt at the renewal of the entire church ended up pleading for toleration within it. It ultimately became one more-or-less permanent church party among others, and in so doing contributed to a fracturing of Anglican liturgical and theological identity that continues to this day. That is, it eventually became clear that the Anglo-Catholics (as they came to be called) would not be able to take over global Anglicanism. Nor would anti-Anglo-Catholics (principally Anglican evangelicals) be able to stamp out the movement, despite a willingness in some cases to use state repression to do so. And so, whether in arguments about proper formulas for subscription to the Articles or in liturgical reforms like the Proposed Book of 1928, Anglo-Catholics found themselves pleading for tolerance, for inclusion of their distinctives within a broader Anglican tapestry - and in support of this plea, construing Anglican history such that comprehension of a variety of opposed theological positions came to be seen as one of Anglicanism’s chief distinctives. Instead of churchwide renewal, we got toleration, and the development of a church party system which still divides Anglicanism today (if shaped significantly by the Liturgical Movement of the middle of the twentieth century and the neo-evangelical/charismatic revivals of the latter part of the twentieth c. and early part of the twenty-first). And perhaps even more significantly, the ideology of Anglicanism-as-comprehensiveness has been taken up for very different purposes than its Anglo-Catholic progenitors intended, being used to authorize claims like the one I noted above - that a church can, for example, comprehend both leaders who accept and leaders who reject the Resurrection.
Now, it’s important to be clear: I think it is reasonable to hold that mutual toleration or an embrace of comprehensiveness was an appropriate response to the dispute between Anglo-Catholic and Reformed Anglicans, but is not appropriate for disputes between those who affirm the reality of the Resurrection and those who do not. That is, one might well say that these divisions do not inhibit the recognition of a shared Christianity or even the possibility of fellowship within the same ecclesial body in the way that disputes about the Resurrection do. For a moving and quite compelling articulation of this view, see the Revd Dr Kara Slade’s “Reformed and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians Together in Witness.”
But I do think that the Catholic Revival’s attempt at renewal which was forced to settle for toleration shows a danger for those of us committed to inclusive orthodoxy. The danger is this: the rhetoric of toleration, of comprehension within a larger whole, tends to require an admission that one holds just one valid option among others, that the matters under dispute are adiaphoral, and as such has led to the theological fracturing which has made it more difficult for Anglicans to speak with one voice about basic matters of the faith. This happened to the Anglo-Catholics, despite their wish otherwise. I think we should be very careful indeed about setting it as our explicit goal.
Why we can’t agree to disagree about the Resurrection
At this point, I’ve suggested that the experience of the Catholic Revival might help us understand the perils of taking our goal as toleration of inclusive orthodoxy as a posture within a broader Anglican or mainline Protestant identity. I’ve pointed out that the Catholic Revival originally aimed at church-wide renewal, but was forced to settle for toleration within Anglicanism. Its thinkers developed an ideology of Anglican comprehensiveness to provide a theological account of that plea for toleration. The ultimately tolerated status of Anglo-Catholicism within global Anglicanism produced a degree of diversity - indeed, theological fracture - within Anglicanism that had never existed before, and indeed the account of ‘Anglican comprehensiveness’ would later provide grounds for yet more diversity (arguably, incoherence) in Anglican theological identity.
At this point, it’s time to return to the present, and make a theological case for why inclusive orthodoxy - and most specifically the presenting issue of the Resurrection - isn’t the sort of thing we can agree to disagree about, why it cannot not be viewed as just as adiaphoral as, say, the distinctions between the Reformed and Anglo-Catholics are understood by many Anglicans to be today.
The case, at its core, is quite simple: if the Resurrection is true, it changes everything, for everyone. It is not the sort of thing that could conceivably be true or helpful for one person and not for another: it is true for all of us, or for none of us. It is not a private spiritual revelation, but a public proclamation which must be either accepted or rejected. Either Jesus paid the price for our sins and defeated the powers of sin and death by his death and resurrection, or he didn’t. And the existence of the church is staked on the answer that he did.
Indeed, what Jesus said about himself, as recorded in the Gospels, and what Christians have said about him - both in Scripture itself (eg the Letters of Paul) and in later Christian theological reflection - depend on the reality of the resurrection. This stark either-or, moreover, is not (as is sometimes alleged) the product of twentieth century evangelicalism, be it Fundamentalists or C.S. Lewis’ famous trilemma. St Paul himself puts it quite clearly in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.” Christianity has simply always fallen and stood on the truth of the resurrection: Christian teachings about who Jesus is and about what following Jesus means have always been inextricable from the proclamation that Jesus really died for us, really rose for us, and really ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he reigns now. Indeed, we might say ecclesiologically that the Christian church simply is those people gathered by the Spirit around the proclamation of the crucified and risen Savior.
What this means is that we Christians must say that the denial of the truth of the resurrection (and let’s not equivocate about what it means: either the tomb was empty or it wasn’t) is wrong, wrong at a way that strikes at the heart of the Christian proclamation and attacks the integrity of the community gathered around it. A body that holds that the resurrection is adiaphoral is not a Christian church body (although it may contain Christians, indeed Christian congregations, within it). It is the equivalent of a labor union with leaders who agree to disagree about whether or not unionization is good: a disagreement which threatens the very integrity of the church, and puts the church’s mission - reconciling the world with God in the power of the Spirit - at risk.
The inclusive orthodox position just is the teaching of the Episcopal Church
Let’s move now from the question of the resurrection to ‘inclusive orthodoxy’ more broadly, which I am defining here rather loosely as a commitment to Scripture as God’s Word, the practice of Baptism and Holy Communion, adherence to the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds as standards of faith, and the full inclusion of women and lgbtq people in the church. I worry sometimes that in asking for mere toleration instead of seeking renewal, we participate in an unwillingness to admit what our church actually teaches. Our vaunted Anglican comprehensiveness, as expressed in, say, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church does have limits. In fact, the inclusive orthodox view simply is the canonical position of the Episcopal Church. Our canons define our sources of doctrine as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, Scripture, and certain portions of our 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and teach that women and lgbtq people may be ordained and same-gender marriages may be conducted (while providing accommodations for those individuals, congregations, and dioceses which cannot endorse lgbtq inclusion). This is what our church teaches. This is what clergy solemnly swear to uphold at their ordination. When I was ordained deacon and then priest, I said - and signed a declaration - to the following effect: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” We simply hold what the church holds! Why should we content ourselves with carving out a space within our church to teach…the church’s teachings?!
To say this is not to say that those of us committed to inclusive orthodoxy must therefore seek punitive measures against clergy who publicly and flagrantly deny the teaching of our church and violate their ordination vows. Although I hasten to add that I do not think that we ought to take canonical redress off the table in every case, either. But it is to say this: we ought to have the confidence that as far as our church is concerned, the ‘orthodox’ and unorthodox/progressive/Spongian/what have you options are not equally valid. We are the ones who uphold the teaching of our church! Those leaders in our church who act as though those of us committed to inclusive orthodoxy are bringing in a doctrinal rigidity or what have you from our ostensibly poorly-processed evangelical or Roman Catholic backgrounds are simply mistaken. We should be willing to affirm this, publicly.
Inclusion for the sake of what?
However, it is worth saying that the most important reason to struggle for renewal, not mere toleration, for inclusive orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church (or for that matter the Anglican Church of Canada or any other mainline body) isn’t canonical adherence. Given especially widespread non-adherence to the canons, we should not expect that this will be a knock-out argument, as compelling as it might be to church nerds like me. Rather, the most important reason to seek renewal rather than toleration is that we need to ask - and answer - the question of what our church’s hard-fought struggle for the inclusion of women and lgbtq people is for.
Here, I think, is where the inclusive orthodox position provides a satisfying answer in the way that our interlocutors do not. We believe that it is vital to struggle for the full inclusion of women and lgbtq people in the church, not only because working against oppression of women and lgbtq people in every sphere is important (although it is!), but because of what the church is and whom it points to. Inclusion in the church matters not just as insofar as the church is an important institution in society — it is increasingly less so! No, we welcome, and welcome exuberantly, precisely for the sake of sinners reconciled with God, justified and sanctified by the blood of the Lamb, living by the Spirit. We welcome, and welcome exuberantly, because we have discerned that women exercising leadership in the church, same-gender relationships, and gender transitions can be faithful expressions of that living by the Spirit. We do not welcome for the sake of welcome, include for the sake of inclusion alone; we welcome precisely because of the new life we have found in our crucified and risen Lord, and our desire to bring that new life to the whole world.
And this is why renewal, not toleration, must be our aim. I do not wish to welcome people into a religious organization meeting generic spiritual needs. I wish even less to welcome people into a failing social justice and service nonprofit. I wish to welcome people into a holy and life-giving relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by their incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. And I believe - with the canons of my church, with the witness of Christians throughout the ages - that the Creeds, baptism and Eucharist, the Holy Scriptures provide what we need to welcome people into that relationship and to norm that relationship’s boundaries.
The danger of the rhetoric of toleration used in the case of inclusive orthodoxy, as the example of the Catholic revival shows, is making the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen just one option among many in the church, the question of whether Jesus truly rose from the dead merely adiaphoral - of enshrining yet more doctrinal incoherence in a church already known for it. The promise of renewal is an entire church called back to its canonical commitments — and more importantly, a church called back to its faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who died and rose and reigns for us. The promise is a church whose hard-fought welcome to those other churches have rejected is a welcome not just to a greying, shrinking religious organization, but a welcome into life in God. That, for me, is something worth devoting my life to.