This is a question that I have been asking myself a lot these past few weeks. I know that I am one because people tell me that I am. Recently, in an email exchange with one of the progressive leaders of the Church, she said to me in passing, “this is important because you are a known conservative. . .” The ironic thing is that I do not think of myself as a conservative and never use the word regarding myself.
I remember the very day that I was first called this. It was at the annual convention for the Diocese of Olympia in 1987. There had been an active debate on the floor that morning on a resolution dealing with some civil war in Central America. I do not remember the details, but I do remember that the floor debate was made difficult because the resolution was very poorly written. Having attended many conventions and heard too many resolutions, I went to the microphone and pointed out that the poor wording made it almost impossible to understand the purpose of the resolution. To my surprise, the Bishop asked me what I would suggest. I suggested that we postpone the resolution and allow the author and one other person to take a moment and rewrite the resolution saying in short declarative sentences what they really wanted us to do. The Bishop thought this a wise recommendation and adjourned for a break while the combatants were sent off to do the re-wording work. I went to find a cup of coffee. That is when it happened.
I was standing in the line when the author approached me with a re-written draft. “What do you think? he asked me. I read it over and responded that I thought it much better worded and that this would allow people to act more decisively. “Good,” he nodded, “So, as a leader of the conservatives, do you think this is a good compromise?” “Leader of the conservatives?” I laughed, and he went off shaking his head. I stood there a long time pondering what I had just heard.
There I stood, the Rector of St. Luke’s Parish in Seattle, a church known for its leadership in Charismatic Renewal. There I was, a person despised by many traditionalists for daring to bring “aerobics worship” into the Episcopal Church, contemporary music, and lay folks doing all kinds of things that used to be reserved for clergy like anointing sick people for healing. I thought of myself as an innovator who had spent over 10 years serving at the margins of the Church.
In addition, I considered myself a moderate to progressive on most church issues especially having been a strong advocate for women’s ordination. Yes, my own personal renewal experience had brought me into a deeper engagement with scripture, a more committed devotional life, and a deeper appreciation for the theology and heritage that my Anglo-catholic upbringing in the Diocese of Dallas had given me, but I never saw this as inconsistent with social action. Further, one of my heroes of the faith, John Wesley, had proven himself a dedicated abolitionist and social reformer, and this all out of his passionate spirituality. How could anyone call me a conservative?
What I did not understand, and still have trouble understanding, is how far the Episcopal Church had moved from the time I was ordained until that moment and even further now. For me, conservatives were folks who loved Elizabethan language and the Rite I liturgy. They were Anglophiles who spoke with slight English accents to congregations that found this assuring. They opposed women’s ordination. They lectured me on how “that” music was pandering to low brow and pop fads of the day.
As I stood in the crowed parish hall of St. Mark’s Cathedral, I looked around the room and began to realize that all those folks were retired or gone. Now, because I at least believed the Creeds and affirmed the biblical authority of the Church, and believed in a basic Christology, I was now numbered among the conservatives.
While I grew to understand my new label, I have never worn it well and never used it in reference to myself. The chief reasons for this are two-fold. First, I am not a conservative regarding social issues and politically. I remain a social moderate and a political independent. Second, I find the very bad behavior of many who call themselves conservative divisive, mean-spirited, often arrogant, and too self-righteous.
Who am I then? I am an Episcopalian who found my heart strangely warmed, do know that I am forgiven and loved by Christ and want to whole world to know of this love. I am a catholic in my love of the Church and her sacraments, an evangelical in my devotion to the God’s Word, and a progressive in my view of the reform of society and the gospel work in our world. In my mind, I am an Episcopalian.