Last spring, I wrote a review essay of two books by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In it, I found reason for praise and reason for critique. In the 1500 or so words, I tried to present a well-rounded understanding of what she had written, as well as make an argument about some of the current thinking about mission in the church.
An author for VirtueOnline, the premier source of conservative Anglican polemic, used my article to make an entirely different case:
The Christianity of liberal Pecusa leaders rings hollow as they not only violate the teachings of Scripture on human sexuality, but they do so on other fronts as well like not suing fellow Christians. Now, this injunction would only be a problem for liberal Pecusa leaders if they are, in fact, Christians. So, I ask you, what does their practice suggest about their standing with the Almighty?
This led to a string of comments about whether or not the presiding bishop was Christian, even though my review contained the sentence—conveniently overlooked by the author and his commenters—that “The reader is left in no doubt of Jefferts Schori’s strong, lucid, and passionate faith in God in Christ.”
I thought of that when I read this week Robert Hendrickson’s critique of the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. He takes her to task for not referring to Jesus often enough:
Whether it is time to consider the Incarnation or the Resurrection, the Presiding Bishop is consistent in her unwillingness to mention the person in whom our whole faith and hope rests. It takes some effort to avoid using the name of Jesus in an Easter or Christmas message – multiple times.
He even offers a word cloud that shows the absence of the J-word.
Then, yesterday, I got my weekly update from the American Anglican Council, a conservative organization that has broken away from the Episcopal Church. The lead story was nothing more than a link to Robert’s post, the word cloud image, and this text:
Notice anything missing in the Presiding Bishops’ sermon? Jesus! How could a Christian leader forget to specifically mention Christ – especially at Christmas?
The author then carries on in a familiar vein for a bit longer. (Incidentally, I don’t particularly enjoy the AAC weekly updates but I started subscribing after they attacked me for my travels in Nigeria some time ago and it was only a kind stranger who brought it to my attention.)
What to make of all this?
First, the obvious: some people will read into your writing whatever they want to see, regardless of what is there.
Does that impose any obligations on those of us (and I think I can include Robert in this category) who are members of the Episcopal Church, not planning to go anywhere, but who, from time to time, feel it necessary to point out how we think things could be different? Does it impose an obligation on us to toe the party line?
I think not. As Robert himself says in a follow-up post, he loves the conversation his initial post generated. He sees it as characteristic of the church he loves. I appreciated the feedback some people sent me on my book review and the way they challenged me to explore further what I was arguing.
Perhaps the real lesson we can take away from this is that the Anglican world is not divided into sharp black and white camps, with the liberals on one side and the conservatives on the other. When the Presiding Bishop speaks, not every member of the church agrees with her, though places like Virtue Online and the AAC would love for you to think otherwise.
Likewise, when the primate of the Church of Nigeria speaks, not every member of his church agrees with him (as I demonstrate, incidentally, in case after case in my new book Backpacking through the Anglican Communion). Yet I know more than a few Episcopalians who have tried to argue precisely this.
There is no shortage of polemical material in the world today. Just turn on the television or visit your favourite web sites. People don’t write to change other people’s minds but to make their point while brooking absolutely no dissent or uncertainty. Frankly, it all gets kind of boringly predictable after a while.
I wrote some months back about the increasing “Congressification of the church”—interestingly, in response to criticisms of another comment by the Presiding Bishop—and I still wonder if the church can help the world deal with complexity. Can we live in a world that doesn’t insist on a black-white, with-us-against-us model of thinking? It would be a powerful witness to the world.