Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How Did I Ever Get to Be a Conservative?

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.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I was once excoriated on a blog which identifies itself and its readership alternately as 'orthodox' and 'conservative', for making this statement on my blog: "I am a joyful Christian who claims the fullness of the Anglican tradition of being evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, charismatic, orthodox and radical."

Bottom line: I love being a "Big Tent Anglican" where there's room for everyone - or, at least, there used to be until people starting drawing lines in the sand and daring others not to cross it.

I have never found political or theological labels very helpful. In my experience these labels are used not so much to define as to exclude. Your experience mirrors mine in many ways. I'm pretty darned "conservative" in my theology and, compared to some to some of my colleagues, in my social politics as well.

Now, if the conversation is about what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus, I'm in.

Robert said...

I wouldn't worry about it, Dean. I don't think you are a conservative, although I might not be the best judge, lol.

A true Christian, I would think, would find it hard to be a conservative in the Bush/Cheney sense of the word: pro-war, pro-rich-people, anti-poor-people, pro-corporate-graft, ect. If by conservative they mean "believing in the apostolic teaching", then I guess you can take that as a compliment. :)

Take care Padre,


Dean Kevin said...

Indeed I would.

Gary James said...

Wonderful reflection: Too bad we try to categorize people with labels. Slave of the living Lord is a good label.

I am mystified by Robert’s labeling of “conservatives. No one is pro-war except psychopaths; compassionate conservativism is certainly not anti-poor people. James Robison who was Bush's Christian advisor is certainly emblematic of a Slave of Christ.

Robert said...

Hello Gary:

Re: compassionate conservatives, people can use all kinds of words. Indeed a main point that George Orwell was making in the book 1984 is that words can be twisted to represent the actual opposite of what in practical action they really mean. "Compassionate Conservative" is one such phrase.

Neocons are not anti-war when they launch undeclared unprovoked wars on other nations. Compassionate conservatives are not helping the poor when they slash education and bulldoze the tent cities of the homeless, and do nothing for the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society who very obviously can NOT help themselves. Compassionate conservatives are not very compassionate when they slash spending for mental health care for people like schizophrenics who very often wind up cold, hungry and unmedicated on our sidewalks and under our bridges.

These things are what, in a simpler world, would be called lies. Biblically, you would be hard pressed to find anyone less liberal than myself. That is indeed an issue I have with many "conservative Christians" is that they are not literal enough with the Bible - when Jesus says to love your enemies and not to return violence with violence, they choose to ignore these phrases in favor of ones that fit their own desire. Jesus himself had a few choice words for supposedly religious people like that in His own time: pharisees.

Take care