The Cost of Expediency

A Southern Baptist professor at the college I attended remarked to his students that The Episcopal Church has always been progressive. This is not true. Two centuries prior to the first female priest being ordained in The Episcopal Church (the Rev. Jacqueline Means in 1977), John Wesley was already using women to advance the Gospel, ordaining women to preach to the masses. (link) Though the Wesley boys were Anglican, they were not American Episcopalian, and thus were far more progressive than The Episcopal Church could ever hope to be in their time. But at what cost?

Imagine the untold number of women who always sensed an inner gifting of the Holy Spirit to the proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God but who were stifled and opposed by men steeped in an errant patriarchal tradition that opposed the very Spirit of God who, insists St Peter, gifts women to that biblical proclamation (Acts 2:17, 18; cf. Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). The cost of expediency by those who passively, indirectly, would not take a stand when their convictions informed them otherwise is too high.

The cost of expediency is indeed too high, not just for equal treatment for women, but also for LGBTQ people today, minorities, and people of color. The Southern Baptist convention has lost one million members. When The Episcopal Church lost one million members, conservative evangelical leaders blamed the loss on "liberalism" in the denomination, but now they must be scratching their theological heads. What has cost the SBC one million members? Certainly the blame cannot be "liberalism." In fact, the blame may just be political conservatism, or perhaps expediency.

Dr. Eugene Peterson is now experiencing the aftermath of expediency. The price for affirming LGBTQ people was too high to pay, as he was threatened -- both financially and credentially -- by the conservative evangelical, right wing media, Republican, Religious Right machine, leaving LGBTQ people, both Christian and non-, including their supporters, bloodied and beaten on the side of the road by his would-be detractors. Do you want me to sympathize with Dr. Peterson?

How about you sympathize with the LGBTQ victims of the Religious Right: teens and young adults contemplating suicide because the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and other Southern Baptists continue to make these victims feel unloved or hated by God. How about you sympathize with the victims of this political season, both social and theological, due to 81% of evangelicals supporting and defending Trump, someone who repeatedly encouraged violence (link), someone who perpetually and unrepentantly lies. (link) No, I will not sympathize with perpetrators and religious hypocrites, socio-politico-theologico bullies who undermine the Kingdom of Christ in order to establish their own.

The toll that expediency has also taken on people of color in this country is inestimable. While highlighting the racism inherent within a Southern Baptist context is easily enough accomplished, what jolts many people is how slow The Episcopal Church was to denounce the sin of racism and slavery, and to take bold stands against the practice. A reason is granted for the church's passive stance; however, a reason is not synonymous with a justification, for slavery, bigotry, and racism cannot be justified.

Robert Bruce Mullin has noted that The Episcopal Church "avoided almost all public discussion of the question"1 of slavery. This, again, is any other notion than progressive. Sadly, the answer to Episcopal silence was due, in part, to expediency, as many Episcopalian vestrymen were dependent upon a given city's commerce as means of income.2 When their livelihood was threatened, for fear of their employers who perpetuated pro-slavery sentiments, voicing one's dissident opinions regarding slavery was more than merely inconvenient. Silence and expediency became necessary.

THE REV. ABSALOM JONES (1746-1818)

For other Episcopalians, abolition "seemed to be but the culmination of the New England attempt to impose its fanaticism upon the whole life of the country,"3 thus undermining freedom of conscience. The bigger question, then, looms large in the social mind: Should anyone be permitted, by conscience, to maintain inhumane and bigoted notions and practice with regard to black persons whom they intend to own and enslave? Fear in answering this question in the negative pervaded.

Also keep in mind that The Episcopal Church was in quite the fragile state during this era. That the American-Anglican church survived for so long is nearly a miracle. Mullin writes: "The high church emphasis upon the sacred nature of the church, its fear of schism, and its concern with unity as a mark of the Spirit of God retarded any radical action on the question of slavery."4 Yet, sooner or later, Episcopalians would be confronted with the issue of slavery: at some point they would have to collectively choose their position and to publicly defend that position and reject expediency.

Yes, Episcopalians chose an abolitionist identity, and has never looked back. But can you sympathize, and even empathize, with women and minorities and LGBTQ people and people of color throughout the centuries who have been marginalized and considered unqualified for ministry because of authoritarians who used the Bible as a weapon to deny them their Spirit-giftedness? The Episcopal Church ordained its first black Priest, the Rev. Absalom Jones, in 1804. The Episcopal Church ordained its first black Bishop in 1874, James Theodore Augustus Holly, in the Diocese of Haiti. But the mainline denomination did not elect its first black Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, until 2015. White Christian America still has some perception issues to rectify.

__________

1 Robert Bruce Mullin, Episcopal Vision/American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 124.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 125.

4 Ibid.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.