“In the name of our Loving, Liberating, and Life-giving God,” these are the words Bishop Curry normally uses in beginning a sermon. I suspect most Episcopal clergy hear this as a Black Preacher’s use of alliteration, one of their amazing skills in preaching. I also hear few other clergy ever use this. I like it, but for a specifically theological reason which I will come to later.
We Episcopalians understand rightly that Bishop Curry stands within the Progressive Theological community. What most white clergy do not understand is how he is distinctive from the general school of Progressivism taught in our seminaries. Our Bishop stands in the Black Progressive tradition. The one that Gardner Taylor preached. Taylor is in my opinion one of the best preachers of the last century and I would strongly recommend that all our clergy read some of his sermons. They are short, sharp, and clear articulation of scripture seen through the eyes of the Black experience in American.
Most of our Progressives stand within the emerging tradition that now dominates life and preaching in Episcopal Churches. I want to make clear that I identify with many of the issues that Episcopal Progressives have championed, and I respect their passion and commitment to justice and equality. I will be saying some critical things about their theological viewpoint in this blog, but I count many as friends and as brothers and sisters in Christ. My primary issue with Progressives is their departure from the classical Anglican position that the Church should hold together various theological viewpoints. To paraphrase Rowan Williams, “Anglicanism may be the only consensual alternative to Roman’s arbitrary unity.” Anglicanism is not a place on a map of Christianity, it is the whole map; an attempt to be the whole Church. Progresses in TEC have long abandoned toleration of other Anglicans in the U.S. who have as much claim to Anglican roots if not more so than Progressives.
What is wrong with TEC’s current version of Progressive theology? This view is often expressed with punchline phrases like “Love Wins!” or “Why can’t we just learn to love one another?” The strongly espoused values of this school are the need for the Christian community and especially TEC to become a fully diverse and inclusive Church, “a beloved community.” One would wish they could at least make this “a community of the beloved” which would open a greater possibility for evangelism, but I doubt they would understand the distinction.
I will pass over briefly the painful truth that the longer this view has dominated TEC the less diverse we have become except for gender diversity. Bishop Curry and other Black Episcopal clergy are a small remnant of a once larger and vibrant number of Black Episcopalians. Black clergy have told me on many occasions that young black leaders do not find the Episcopal Church attractive today. There are, thank God, several exceptions to this assessment, but in numbers this is certainly true.
When it comes to our Progressives and the Atonement, they stand in the “Moral Example” school. This contends that Jesus is the incarnation or example of God’s love, and we are to follow his example. This is often articulated around the theme of the Kingdom of God, or as Progressives prefer, “God’s reign.” Another expression Progressives like is that “The Church preaches Jesus, but Jesus himself preached about God’s Kingdom (reign). What is wrong with this? It certainly sounds nice and has a thread of truth in it.
What is wrong in this is primarily threefold. First, it is a serious reimaging, to use a favorite Progressive term, of the Jesus of Scripture and the Church. It simply ignores the many Christological passages of the New Testament. It also ignores that books of the New Testament, especially Acts and Paul’s letters do not proclaim what Progressives assume is so obvious. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles most certainly does not follow the moral theory and none of the Gospels end with the statement that Jesus was the model of God’s love, and we are to follow that model. They end with the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection as the son of God and savior of the world. Progressives have a reductionist view of Jesus not consistent with the Apostolic tradition.
Second, it ignores the obvious answer to their plaintiff “why can’t we just learn to love one another?” If humans could figure this out on our own, we would not need a savior. The answer why from the classical Christian view is that humans are sinful, self-centered, and subject to temptation and even evil. As one famous theologian has said, “The Doctrine of Original Sin is the only provable Doctrine of the Church.” I call this kind of progressive theology the Rodney King school because its proposition is as naïve as a black man beaten senseless by angry police officers who made such a statement in the face of such systemic evil. Progressives are naïve about the human condition which afflicts them as well as everyone else.
Third, the moral example theory without the other complimentary theories of the Atonement becomes merely moralism. Inclusiveness and diversity have become recruiting tools for TEC to attract “people like us” who value inclusiveness and diversity. It is in the end a worldview of college educated, middle class, and dominantly while people. Progressives do not want evangelism; they want TEC to recruit people “like us.”
What Progressivism needs is what Bishop Curry offers to it and to all of us. Remember the “liberating” part of his invocation? Bishop Curry stands in the Black Progressive school which is at its heart Liberation Theology. Why is it not obvious to most Progressives that the human heart to love needs liberation? Or that racism, classism, and all isms are extensions of human fallenness? That is what Christ offers! Remember that Christianity spread most quickly in the Roman world where 80% of the population were slaves, and where Roman women and non-Romans were treated as second class humans.
As a student of Liberation Theology in my younger days, I find much of Progressivism as preached today without power to change people. This realization came to me when an Episcopal Bishop argued on late night TV that “exodus makes no sense because in my theology (sic) God loves the Egyptians as much as God loves the Jews.” The testimony of the Bible is that God loves and acts on behalf of the oppressed. Or as Garner Taylor once expressed this while speaking at Yale, “The Bible teaches that God is out to win back what belongs to God! The oppressed, afflicted, broken, and discarded of this world are God’s.” Most Episcopalians should probably tremble at that biblical truth.
So, the Episcopal Church is declining not just because of changing demographics, but because most of our proclamation lacks the transformative and conversionary power of the Cross! What is preached in many Episcopal Churches today is a combination of therapy and progressive politics. It is not the loving, liberating, and life-giving Gospel.
This brings me back to what I believe about the Atonement. It is the power of the Cross to defeat the powers of sin and evil and to liberate us to lead a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. More of this in my next blog.