Last week, I participated in a Washington Post real-time online chat about divisions in the Episcopal Church around issues of church politics, sexual identity, and biblical interpretation - a combustible combination that I typically try to avoid. But the Post offered me a chance to explain contemporary change in religious communities and I saw it as an opportunity to help people see some important shifts that are happening around us.
Many people - including most of last week's questioners - assume that the Episcopal Church is engaged in an argument between two religious parties: liberals and conservatives. I have long doubted the wisdom of two-party paradigms, believing that two-party analyses primarily serve the interest of partisanship. In the chat, I responded to one participant with the following:
I do not believe that there are only two sides in this dispute - I can identify five distinct groups.
Yes, there are two parties in tension: Old-line liberals and radicalized conservatives. This is the fight we most often read about in the media. However, you point out a third possibility, a centrist party that is trying to navigate between the two extremes. The extremes aren't the whole story.
However, there are two additional groups, and these two are far less noticed. I refer to these groups (they don't have a clear "party" identity) as "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives." These two groups tend to see "issues" like this one as secondary concerns to the practice of Christian faith and are more concerned with things like hospitality, living forgiveness, practicing reconciliation, learning to pray, feeding the hungry, caring for the environment, and maintaining the Anglican practice of comprehensiveness (being a church of the "middle way"). They may lean slightly left or slightly right on "issues," but reject partisan solutions to theological problems. Both progressive pilgrims and emergent conservatives are far more interested in unity than uniformity, and they appreciate diversity in their congregations as a sign of God's dream for humanity to live in peace.
These comments are about much more than the Episcopal Church or any single issue. They are observations about the emergence of new tendencies and groupings in American religion. These groups are not some mushy middle of conflict-avoidant people. Rather, they are new positive expressions of religious identity going beyond the old definitions of liberal and conservative.
Centrists exist as a moderating group between the old partisan divides, seeking to find healthy, creative space for the common good. The two relatively new groups, the "progressive pilgrims" and "emergent conservatives" represent post-liberal and post-conservative alternatives to the older parties. These groups are not identical, but they share some common tendencies. All three attempt to resist the radical politicization that has marked American denominations since World War II while trying to reground the church on spiritual practice, serious engagement with scripture, and generous Christian tradition. They reject old arguments, old policies, old stereotypes, and old ways of doing business.
As I said in the Post chat:
If the centrists, the progressive pilgrims, and emergent conservatives can come together and offer their distinctive spiritual gifts in the midst of this conflict, I think the Episcopal Church may be able to move forward.
If these groups forge friendships, finding fellow walkers on other paths, it would do more than change the Episcopal Church - it could change both our national religious and political conversations.
In the last year, it has become increasingly clear that Sojourners is serving as one of the places where these three groups come together around practicing justice - and learning to appreciate and hear one another's perspectives. Opening space for new conversation changes conversation. And offering new paradigms for seeing what is happening in the world around us opens our imaginations to creative solutions and new possibilities as we seek to enact God's dream for humankind.