The Challenge for Progressive Christians:

Dealing with Conservative Parishioners and Congregations

Awareness 2003: Energising Progressive Christians in New England. It’s a wonderful title for a conference. But it does rather terrify me. Trying to tidy myself up in the bathroom just now, I looked in the mirror in nervous disbelief. ‘Is this really an energiser I see before me?’ The toothbrush I use – I don’t know if you have them here as well – comes fitted with batteries that are actually called ‘Energiser’. As far as I can see what distinguishes them is that they go on doing just one thing for an extremely long time, and then simply fizzle out. I hope that’s not how you’ll be viewing this contribution in 45 minutes time.

If I’m myself sceptical about being an energiser, it will be abundantly clear to all of you that I am most certainly not a New Englander. It has been one of the real pluses of my involvement with TCPC over almost ten years now that I have had the opportunity to get to know progressive Christians from many different parts of the US; but in particular people from New England. I am not a total stranger here. But in a sense part of what that has done is to make me very aware of how our territories are each distinct; and of how different church, Christianity, and religion more widely are in North America, when compared with Britain.

Yours is a very religious country, with all the pluses and minuses which go with that. The number of people who not merely profess religious faith in America, but also practice it (even if many do so in ways which may well frighten us) – that number is staggering for the visitor from Britain. My country, like many in Europe, is a very secular society indeed; and though a lot of people may not choose to say that they are not religious (though plenty will), the practice of faith is very much a minority activity today. It would be even more a minority activity – particularly in London where I live – were it not for the presence of large numbers of people from African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian countries who have brought with them to Britain the faith they had there.

Where I start from, that means, is different in quite significant ways from where you are. So as I now pick up the topic which I’ve been asked to speak to – “The challenge for progressive Christians in dealing with conservative parishioners and congregations” – I would like to think I might be able to provide some sort of focus on what is involved in that challenge, and what it is about, and point also to some of the questions which it raises for us all. I am probably not going to be the person to give you a lot of answers, if answers are what you are looking for. But those may come more naturally and properly out of the panel sessions tomorrow.

“Dealing with conservative parishioners and congregations.” There’s something about that phrase, I feel – though I wasn’t privy to the planning of this event – which suggest the mindset of the clergy. And I say that as someone who is myself ordained, and a priest in the Church of England – the great-grandmother of the Episcopal Church here. Clergy are quite often given to think of parishioners and congregations as things to be dealt with; problems to be solved. Back in the summer I encountered briefly at a conference a priest much younger than I am who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. I mentioned some of what had been happening in the congregation I try to work with, and my personal pain about the fact that some quite long-serving members have left on account of changes I’m thought to have introduced. My friend’s response was sharp in the extreme. Essentially what he said was ‘well done. Keep going and get rid of the rest of the traditionalists. Then you can start from scratch and build a new, radical congregation.’

He’s quite a character, and very much a one-off. But still that’s a not untypical way for clergy to behave. You isolate the dissenters, and get them to conform and come into line. Or if they won’t, well perhaps they do need then to go; or if not that, certainly switch to the early morning service, or a sparsely attended evening one. That applies, regardless of which line it is they happen to be dissenting from. Lay people who don’t come from uniformly progressive congregations may well have experienced similar treatment themselves at the hands of clergy of more conservative faith understanding and approach. But those who have, however painful their experience (and I seem to spend quite a lot of my time listening to people in that position who come to talk about their hurt), they may still feel considerable misgivings about progressive Christians who treat conservatives in a similar kind of way.

Lay people I think (you can come back to me later on this) are less likely than the clergy to use the language of ‘dealing with’ people whose understandings and approaches differ from their own, and are more likely to speak instead about coping with them (if it’s getting them down) or at other times living with them or engaging with them. In Britain the Progressive Christianity Network, which is going through a really quite rapid enlargement of membership at the moment – more rapid than our small volunteer team can cope with! – is growing as a Network of individuals (both lay and ordained), rather than congregations. Avowedly progressive congregations are quite thin on the ground in Britain, so that the network’s chief function for a lot of people is as a place, alongside of their belonging to church and a church, where they feel themselves supported. A place which encourages them to know they are not alone in this more open faith understanding, and gives them opportunity – through the local groups they are themselves beginning to set up – to meet with others they can share it with. That in turn may then, we hope, help them handle in their church settings those self-styled traditionalists, who are so quick to assume that all right-believing Christians must inevitably believe in the way they do.

The real challenge for progressive Christians is going to be in the nature of that handling; whether the difficult interface between progressives and conservatives occurs in the local context of a particular congregation, or in the life of a denomination.

This past summer has seen, both here and in Britain, controversy surrounding the appointment of gay men to the episcopate, and in each case this has generated violent and angry disagreement between those who claim the title of traditionalist, and those who would speak of themselves as progressive or liberal. In New Hampshire, with Gene Robinson, it thus far appears to have been possible to have a practising gay man, living with his partner, endorsed for ordination as a bishop. In old England by contrast, with Canon Jeffrey John (a priest in the same diocese I work in), what happened was that a gay man in a relationship which was not sexual in the genital sense was eventually asked, by one who had been thought to be a liberal Archbishop of Canterbury, to withdraw his acceptance of what over here would be called a coadjutor bishop’s post.

But in both countries the conservatives, the traditionalists, have weighed into what they perceive as an abandonment of proper Christian understanding on issues of sexuality. And here – where from a progressive perspective we might want to celebrate right having prevailed – there are threats a plenty of schism to come, of conservative congregations seeking alternative Episcopal oversight, and more besides. Those of you from other denominational traditions may smile at the problems Anglicans suffer as a result of episcopacy. But similar disputes affect us all, at both local and denominational levels. And they go deeper than they appear on the surface. The gay thing provides a convenient target for conservatives at the moment. But this is really, I want to say, about matters both bigger and more fundamental.

When in England it became known that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had pulled the plug on Jeffrey John’s appointment to be bishop of Reading, and the joy for progressives which that appointment had generated turned suddenly to dust – to disillusion and despair – our Network issued a hastily worked-on statement. Having spoken of the people’s experience of sadness, bewilderment and shame, we went on:
we are aware that more is now at stake than simply the loss to the church of an excellent bishop, or the setting back of the cause of lesbian and gay people in the churches. Within the Church of England, some who call themselves ‘traditionalists’ have a wider agenda; they seek to narrow Christian diversity, difference and openness, and to bind the Church’s members to their own particular view of the authority of the bible and past tradition in all matters.

In that sense, there is a struggle here for the soul of Christianity. Is this to remain a faith open to the world, willing to learn from the world, and wanting contemporary thought and understanding to complement scripture and tradition? Or is it to shrink into a narrow sectarianism?

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr John have both spoken of a concern for the unity of the church. But unity is not to be secured at any cost. We long for a church which actually celebrates difference and which cherishes diversity in people and in understandings.

‘We value the place of ‘traditionalists’ within the spectrum of Christianity. But we will resist in every way possible all attempts to unchurch that vast mass of people whose style of faith is gentler and more generous.

‘A struggle for the soul of christianity.’ A first draft of the statement actually said ‘battle’ at that point, but we then very deliberately determined to remove that and soften it. And here, it seems to me, is the real nub of the challenge I’m wanting to address. How are we, as open and progressive Christians, to engage with, deal with, respond to the traditionalists, the conservatives?

If for them it is to be a battle – which is certainly how it sometimes appears, and often a very carefully planned and orchestrated one – then is that how we should regard it also? Do we play the game by the same rules which it feels to us they are using, but do so better? Or is there something essential to a progressive faith which does not actually allow us to choose that option?

‘We long for a church which actually celebrates difference and which cherishes diversity in people and in understandings,’ our statement said. ‘We value the place of ‘traditionalists’ within the spectrum of Christianity.’ The second sentence there is surely a consequence of the first, if the stuff about difference and diversity is meant. And it must be what the fourth of TCPC’s eight points is on about when it speaks of our inviting ‘all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable. Including but not limited to: believers and agnostics; conventional Christians and questioning sceptics, etc.’ But do we mean it, or is it simply window dressing?

I personally think, however regularly I may fail in practice, that progressive christians are committed to a generosity towards christians of different understandings from ourselves, even when – or especially when – they decline to show that to us. This isn’t in the end about being progressive. It is simply about being christian. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ Jesus says in the gospels. Not as they actually behave towards you, but as you would like them to behave. We are called as his followers to a self-forgetting, second mile kind of graciousness which we ought not to depart from, even if others do. And that bit is certainly in our TCPC title deeds. Number 5 of the 8 Points. ‘We are christians who know that the way we behave towards one another and towards other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.’ If we behave ungenerously towards conservative Christians, we proclaim faith in a God not of love, but of vindictiveness.

One of the most worrying things about the world we now inhabit is the inability of many people – and many church people included – not simply to get on, but even to try and get on, with people whose perspective differs from their own. It can I know be said that the gospel is ambiguous on this. ‘The one who is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9:40) sits alongside ‘Whoever is not with me is against me’ (Matthew 12.30). My own preference, as so often, would be for Mark’s more generous approach.

We have to be able to allow people to be different. And maybe progressives can manage better at that than others because, when all is said and done, we are more able to acknowledge our own difference and diversity. If the negative aspect to that is Jack Spong‘s line that getting liberals to agree on anything is rather like herding cats, the plus is that we can live with our own differences. Within this room there will be plenty.

Let’s take an ethical issue other than the gay one. I happen to be pro-abortion. Which doesn’t mean I think its ever an ethically straightforward subject; but at the end of the day I do come down on the line of a woman’s right to choose. Some of you here, I am sure, will take a different view on the matter. But I suspect we can live with that difference, and that you’re unlikely now to be wanting to walk out on me. Or take something close to the heart of historic faith understanding, the Christian language of eternal life. I take that to be metaphorical language, poetic language, speaking of depths to being human in the here and now. I don’t personally expect or believe that I, this human self, will have any continuing existence beyond death – though my life may perhaps have something to feed into the continuing lives of those who have known me. Again, I am sure others in the room will feel differently. But here too a liberality of faith, an openness in believing, means that these difference do not generate in us a requirement to build barriers or to exclude.

So the challenge, managing that amongst ourselves, must be to allow conservatives to be themselves in the same way. But I know that is something easier to say than to put into practice. Because the acceptance will often not be reciprocated. And also because one can only be told a certain number of times that you’re not a proper Christian, before you begin to wonder why you are bothering. In Britain certainly the haemorrhaging of more open believers from churches over the past 20 or 30 years is quite frightening.

So we need strategies for survival. One, plainly, which is possible for some (perhaps for more in this country than in mine) is to get up and go somewhere else. To find a church where openness will be valued rather than scorned, to get yourself in that sense among friends, and leave the conservatives to draw their own conclusions from that.

But that won’t be possible for everyone. And maybe not everyone for whom it might be possible will want to do it in any case. Belonging is a peculiar kind of thing, and we may well feel that we properly belong in settings where we do not ‘fit’ in every sense. (We may even have anxieties about being in a solidly progressive church community – not least because there is always a risk that liberal or progressive fundamentalism will be as narrow as any other fundamentalism.) For me, even if there were a full-blooded progressive church just around the corner from me, if its worship was unstructured and non-eucharistic, if it left no space for stillness and calm, I might still feel I belonged at St Gertrude’s. Though at St Gertrude’s, Fr Ignatius never misses a chance to inveigh against women priests, or to denounce permissive sexual morality, or to complain about lay people who threaten the headship of the clergy. Staying at St Gertrude’s is a challenge. But there might still be worth and opportunity in it.

(I/we are going to stay with St Gertrude’s for a while now. It’s a Church of England parish in a small market town in what we call the Home Counties (in some ways an old English version of parts of New England). A few guides to translation for Episcopalians. When I say vicar, I mean Rector here. PCC (Parochial Church Council) means the vestry. Curate means Assistant Rector. Holiday means vacation. Annual meeting probably means Annual meeting!)

It doesn’t actually take that long at St Gertie’s to discover that you’re not in fact the only person there who doesn’t think that every word that falls from the Vicar’s lips must be God’s own word to the congregation. Quite a lot of people were very pleased when the new curate – with the vicar away on his annual sabbatical – began a bible study group which tried to look at some contemporary issues, and some old theological ones (virgin birth, resurrection) as well. People quickly discovered that on lots of things we worry about the bible is actually silent (and that its silent or undefined on much of the theology as well). So you couldn’t just turn to it and look up the answers. Those of us in the group had to struggle to work things out ourselves.

Many actually enjoyed that. Others didn’t of course, and some of them failed to heed the rules about respecting one another, and were always shouting others down and thumping on the table. There was a terrific row when, with Easter approaching, we talked about resurrection. Daphne, who had seemed a very quiet person before she got into the group, but then was always bursting with things to say, said that she’d never been able to believe in bodies rising from tombs, and thought the stories in the bible must have been people trying to put spiritual experiences into words. She also said she couldn’t believe God wanted Jesus to die to solve the problem of other people’s sins. The curate said there was a lot of sense in that, and that plenty of other people had similar doubts. But others got very worked up and frightened. One of them gave a very negative report on the group to Fr Ignatius when he got back from holiday (sabbatical, I mean), and at the next PCC meeting it was closed down. The curate seemed pleased when the bishop left a message on his voicemail, and she then offered him a parish of his own.

But some of us who had valued the group went on talking and meeting together. When broadband finally came online in the market town, it was Daphne, trawling the internet one day, who discovered the Progressive Christianity Network, and downloaded some information. She joined straight away, and with a friend went off to a big London event at which Jack Spong (or perhaps it was Marcus Borg?) was the speaker. Either way, it was very exciting, with lots and lots of other free-spirited christians there, including a couple from another church the town. It all gave both of them a fillip. They even managed to get a report about the day into the parish newsletter, because the vicar had once again failed to deliver his article to the editor.

But the energy and enthusiasm created by Spong – or was it Borg? – struggled to survive once they were back to Fr Ignatius’ preaching. But then two things happened. Mavis, who always seemed to be one of Fr Ignatius’ loyalist followers and was actually allowed to be on the PCC since she never said anything, left church half way through the sermon one morning in floods of tears, and Daphne, concerned for her, called round to find out what was wrong. Fr Ignatius had been having one of his regular rants against the horrors of divorce. But Mavis’ daughter was in the thick of a divorce just then, and the Vicar’s condemnation of those like her was more than Mavis could bear. Divorce was one of the interestingly less controversial things the curate’s study group had looked at (there were people in the group who’d been divorced themselves, even at St Gertrude’s), so Daphne was able to say to Mavis that there were other ways christians could feel about this. A good friendship began, and Mavis joined the little band of survivors from the study group.

And then PCN Britain send round a newsletter saying that they wanted to encourage people to start local groups, and indicated that there were several people who might be interested in or around the town where St Gertrude’s was. With people’s agreement, names were circulated, and Mavis offered her house for a first meeting. There were the people who’d been at the London meeting, and some others from a church in a village nearby, and even one other member of St Gertie’s who had never been in the curate’s group.

People worried about having a group if there wasn’t a minister to lead it. How would they cope? Even the nice curate had always been the one who took charge and chose the subjects. But PCN said it would be sending out short monthly pieces about some topic or concern which people could work from. It wouldn’t be anything like a Spong or Borg lecture. Much more routine and everyday, and wanting to be practical. But people enjoy it, and now there’s never a lack of someone to volunteer to lead the next session. Sometimes they use the PCN notes; sometimes they just do their own thing. A couple of months ago a minister from another local church did rather sheepishly ask if he could join the group. He’d always been a progressive, he said, but he kept quiet about it, because he didn’t want to upset his congregation. Actually two people from his congregation were already in the group, and they exploded at this point; one had to be held back from hitting him.

Back at St Gertie’s, Daphne is now on the PCC as well as Mavis. No one usually goes to the annual meeting, so when all the PCN members turned up last year it was easy to get her elected. All sorts of things which never got a look in are now coming up on the agenda. Fr Ignatius’ fan club are still very vociferous, and St Gertrude’s is not a hotbed of liberalism. When Daphne suggested that a dance at the dawn eucharist on Easter day might be a better way to celebrate resurrection than a sermon from the vicar, other people went apoplectic again. If Daphne didn’t believe in the empty tomb, one said, she shouldn’t be at the service. But Mavis has a great knack for disarming the old guard. ‘Of course you see it like that,’ she’s wont to say, ‘and you’re entitled to, but not everyone does – and they’re entitled to their understandings too. Besides, I rather like dancing.’

A couple of months back, when Fr Ignatius started sounding off about the shame of a homosexual being even considered as a bishop, Brian – who’s been sacristan for 40 years – chose that moment to come out. Fr Ignatius was furious and, wanting to sack Brian, spent days trying to get someone else on the PCC to take the job on. No one would. ‘Brian’s the best possible sacristan, they all said. And it’s hardly a surprise to anyone that he’s gay.’ New members are coming in – including some wonderful Afro-Caribbean families – and are making their mark in all sorts of practical ways. When the bishop came for the confirmation she commented on how it was so good to see women now ministering as servers in the sanctuary. This both shocked and surprised Fr Ignatius. But then his sight isn’t all that good nowadays. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have noticed the bumps on the chest of either the bishop, or his new curate!

Is the toothbrush battery just fizzling out into fantasy? Or are there, in my parable, pointers to how progressive Christians might deal with conservative parishioners and congregations? By supporting one another. By reclaiming religious reflection and thinking as an activity of the whole people of God, and not simply the ordained. By claiming a space for our voices, alongside those of the conservatives, and by equipping ourselves to do so with conviction and confidence. By getting liberal clergy to share their faith understandings with lay people rather than hide them (a point the need for which is well made by Jack Good in his The Dishonest Church, recently published by TCPC). By looking for the points – divorce, sexuality, lack of self-love, fear, and a whole load more – where what is claimed as orthodoxy pinches even for the professed orthodox, and by offering them something of the love of Christ, rather than turning aside.

Of course my imagined St Gertie’s is a long way from your actual New England. I said at the outset there wouldn’t be answers. But I hope you may have found in my snapshot into its life, some ideas which resonate with your own experience here; and about which we can dialogue and learn from one another.

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