This article by Stand Firm’s founder, Greg Griffith was first published in 2005, just two years after the consecration of Gene Robinson. In it, Greg describes how those often branded “extremists” or “fundamentalists” today have simply continued to hold views that were mainstream orthodoxy yesterday. These are also often those who see clearly downstream and understand where the flowing currents of the present will lead in the future. When the “extremists” leave those who once sought comfort in the “middle” find themselves sitting suddenly on the far side of the pew. We are republishing Chrystal Balls in the aftermath of Lambeth 2022. Many orthodox who attended the conference who had once considered themselves been considered moderate were predictably painted, to their chagrin, with the extremist label.
I have found myself over the past year or so in the unfamiliar position of being asked how I think it is we got ourselves into this situation with the Episcopal Church, and where I think it’s headed.
To be sure, more than one person I’ve met in the course of this debate has told me I have more opinions than sense. They may well be right, but in this case, I have an explanation that has resonated with almost everyone to whom I’ve given it. The rough outline is buried somewhere deep in the archives of Stand Firm, so a few people reading this may vaguely recognize it. It has been the touchstone for many hours-long conversations.
Think of the whole of the Episcopal Church as a pew full of people (yes, Episcopalians, it is possible for a pew to be filled with people… work with me here). The people are arranged, from left to right, in roughly the order of where they fall on the theological spectrum.
Twenty-five years ago, someone on the far right of the pew happened to be in possession of a crystal ball. In the swirl of events surrounding women’s ordination and a revised Book of Common Prayer, he looked into the crystal ball and saw the future of the Episcopal Church: Five, perhaps ten years down the road. Perhaps he saw the influx of radical feminists using ordination as just another hill to be taken in their secular war on the church. Perhaps it was a BCP that watered down the confession of sin – indeed, made it optional. Perhaps it was a vision of the proliferation of Spongs and Pikes and Borgs, men who not only deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, but who have risen to its highest offices and levels of celebrity because of their (un)beliefs.
He voiced his objections to what he saw happening to his church, and some in the pew turned and scowled at him. They couldn’t help but notice one thing – that of all the people in the pew, he was the farthest to the right. For more than a few, this became the only thing they noticed about him. For those who didn’t know his name, and even for a few who did, he was labeled “the fundamentalist,” or “the troublemaker.”
Whatever he saw – in the crystal ball, down the pew – it was enough to make him want to get up and leave. The decision was difficult. His family had been Episcopalian for five generations, his great-grandparents had been charter members of the grand old church where he grew up, where both of his children were married. He became Presbyterian, or Methodist, or perhaps Roman Catholic, or joined a fledgling Anglican splinter church. He may have stopped going to church altogether. But before he left, he handed the crystal ball to the lady on his immediate left.
She was sad to see him go. She shared many of his misgivings about the direction in which the church was headed, but she preferred sitting tight to rocking the boat. She hoped that the spasms of radicalism in her beloved church were temporary, and would eventually pass like a fad.
A funny thing about the crystal ball: If you’re the one holding it, there are times when you can’t look away. You are transfixed by what you see in it. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of yourself, or your children, or the grandchildren who haven’t yet been born. Sometimes, long after you’ve looked away, what you saw in it haunts you.
Soon, the lady noticed that the Episcopal Church was playing fast and loose with the rules and traditions of ordination to the priesthood. She noticed more unmarried priests who were also clearly – sometimes proudly – in non-celibate relationships. An increasing number of these were also gay. Here and there, in news reports and stories related at diocesan councils and such, she learned of Episcopal priests who lent the imprimatur of their position to the cause of abortion. They marched in protests with the banner of the Episcopal Church held high.
Another funny thing about the crystal ball: It doesn’t always show you the future. What did it show the lady sitting at the end of the pew? Hard to say. Perhaps it was a troubled pregnancy, or an out-of-wedlock birth, or the countless moments of fear and doubt that were overcome through prayer. Perhaps it made her think that the sacred miracle of life was being mocked by those in whom her church had bestowed the trust of spiritual leadership. Whatever it was, it was enough to make her want to get up and leave, but this time instead of sitting tight, she spoke up. Surely the rest of the folks on the pew – the ones with whom she had been through so much over the years – would understand. Surely they would demand that the line be finally – firmly – drawn.
She wasn’t prepared for the reaction. Were her friends, just two or three seats down, really calling her “old-fashioned,” and a “Bible-thumper”? Did they really say that if she was that far off to the right, maybe she would be happier if she left for another church? Did the look on some of their faces really mean that they might be happier too if she left?
The decision was difficult. After years of searching, she had finally found a church home, one that didn’t stigmatize her for her past, but offered salvation and redemption through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It was a place where one was free to doubt while strengthening one’s faith, but now she feared that the gospel of doubt had begun to replace the Gospel of Christ.
So when she finally stood up to leave, she handed the ball to the man immediately to her left.
I now find myself as the one farthest on the right of the pew – incidentally, not where I was when I first got here – and staring into the crystal ball.
Without even looking into it, I see many dioceses populated mainly by center-left and far-left clerics. Many of these priests strongly support the actions of General Convention 2003, but their refusal to preach this support from their pulpits – while expecting our support from the pews – reveals a lack of courage and a special type of dishonesty I doubt many of us would tolerate in ourselves or our children.
I see a shameful attempt by many leading clerics to ignore this issue, to hope it will go away if only no one talks about it openly. And if they insist on talking about it openly, that they be branded as crackpots, malcontents, and “fundamentalists.” Rarely have I seen a group of people – who insist they’re committed to openness and tolerance – more hostile to simply talking about the issue.
I see pews gradually getting emptier, as orthodox Christians decide the Episcopal Church – as manifested in parish after parish around this diocese and around this country – no longer offers them or their families a sound spiritual home.
God help us all.