Aground off Laodicaea
Francis Gardom on Lukewarm Clergy
A friend is a leading figure in one of the Continuing Anglican Churches, and over the years he has asked himself time and again why many fellow priests who are relentlessly critical of the theological and moral heterodoxies of the Episcopal Church are nevertheless unwilling to “take the plunge” and separate themselves from a body they believe to be beyond reform.
Sometimes the reason is obvious: Financial, career, or family considerations may conspire to keep them where they are—at least for the time being. But what of the others, those who would appear to have nothing to lose by taking such a step? My friend, writing of such a person, said in a recent letter:
I gave a lot of thought to his question. Because my friend and I believe that such a decision is a wrong one, I thought it important to begin by examining critically our instinctive disapproval of his attitude.
Some Initial Considerations
Questions of loyalty, especially when changing sides is involved, raise very strong emotions in all of us. So I began my reply to him with some general considerations before looking more closely at the specific question of these men and their psychology.
First, too often the attitude of those of us who have “borne the burden and heat of the day” towards these men has been dismissive: the equivalent of shouting raca! at them. Besides being unhelpful, this is contrary to our Lord’s teaching about how brothers who find themselves at variance with one another should behave.
Almost as unhelpful as the dismissive attitude is the simplistic one that attributes such defections to nothing more original than sloth, indolence, disappointment, or fear. All of these may certainly contribute towards the sort of disengagement we are considering, but they are far from being the whole story. There is, I will suggest, a crucial psychological dimension to such behavior.
Even if we could be sure that there was no chance of bringing them back to the Truth (and such returnings, though rare, still do happen from time to time), it is more important to discover why they went off the rails. And this we shall only succeed in doing if we approach them in a civilized manner. Understanding, not apportioning blame, will be a far more worthwhile attitude to adopt.
Second, we must remember that the appropriate way to behave under stress may differ from one place and even from one individual to another. As Algernon says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
For example, during the Roman Imperial persecutions, the Church was often perplexed as to how to advise the faithful to behave about taking part in “compulsory” emperor worship. At first sight, the answer seems obvious. Faithful Christians simply said no and took the consequences.
But the decision soon proved to be not quite so simple and clear-cut. There were those Christians who argued to themselves that if such martyrdom guaranteed their salvation, it was their duty deliberately to seek martyrdom. However, if that were the case, why stop at oneself? Why not betray the whole Christian community (including one’s family) to the authorities? So deliberate martyrdom had to be discouraged by the church authorities.
But there was another problem: The laxity of the Roman authorities in enforcing the law and the many loopholes that were allowed to exist meant that Christians found that they could easily ignore or circumvent what the law prescribed with complete impunity. So why go to the stake, they asked themselves, for a law that not only was unjust but to which so little attention was habitually paid anyway?
Issues such as these deeply divided the Christian community. Divisions grew in the Church and came to a head during the Donatist controversy between the Rigorists (“no giving way”), the Traducers (“does it really matter?”), and the Compromisers (“let’s try and find a middle way”), and this, with its accompanying “I’m a better martyr than you” claims, generated discord.
Let us now turn to the underlying question about the psychology of these men. Here are some reasons why they choose to behave in the way that they do and some criticisms of those reasons.
First, playing it safe. Most people, when confronted by a challenge, would prefer to play it safe. Offered a course of action that avoids any kind of confrontation with superior powers, many of us will instinctively opt for it.
Unfortunately, playing it safe is often not the safest policy in the end. Inexperienced sailors are likely to sail much too close to the shoreline for their own good. It is easy to see why. Dry land represents safety, and the closer you are to it, the safer you will be (or so their reasoning goes) if a storm blows up or any other misfortune occurs.
The thinking behind this is seriously flawed. If you cling too closely to the land, then not only are you nearer to the rocks, but you also will not have sufficient depth of water to maneuver in. Paradoxically, to avoid ending up on the rocks, the yachtsman needs to sail sufficiently far out to sea to generate enough momentum or way to enable him to steer in the direction he really wants to go.
Many Christians, clergy as well as laymen, fail to understand this. “The voyage of their lives is set in shallows.” They try to live by the motto “Safety First”—a motto that may have influenced some of them to become ordained in the first place. For such as these, the familiar shore of that church in which they have until now exercised their ministry is something to hold onto at all costs.
Second, the company he chooses. Priests and laity who value peace and security before anything else are unlikely to feel at ease in the company of those who believe that living the faith is likely to be one long battle against sin, the world, and the devil. What could be more natural and understandable than the peace-seeker’s instinct for self-preservation that will make him cautious of putting to sea in a boat with those who are prepared to brave the elements?
The two types, fair-weather and foul-weather sailors, are well illustrated in the second stanza of Allan Cunningham’s well-known A Sea-song, where he writes:
“And merry men are we.” Those who have stood together through difficult times discover a whole new dimension of friendship. That camaraderie eludes those who want nothing but a “soft and gentle wind” blowing through their lives. More seriously, however, the “snoring breeze and white waves heaving high” call for self-discipline. In times of persecution and adversity an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior are constantly being measured against those of his partners-in-adversity.
Discipline and teamwork are to the Christian what a map and compass are to the sailor. It is possible to sail without either, but to answer questions like “Where are we?” and “What’s our intended destination?” and “Are we on the right course?” a map and a compass are essential parts of our equipment.
That camaraderie is denied to those who insist on being “lone sailors,” who therefore lack not only the mutual encouragement it brings, but also the discipline whereby an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior are having to be constantly measured against those of his colleagues. What, then, could be more natural than for the loners simultaneously to lack the compass that such fellowship gives and to be unenthusiastic about the discipline that they have so far succeeded in avoiding.
Lacking a compass they may find themselves sailing they know not where. Lacking comradeship they have little appetite for discovering just how far off course they have strayed.
The Universalist Minefield
However, there is another reason why people today tend to stay put in an ecclesial body that they know to be deeply flawed, even when it is not in their ultimate interest to do so. The reason is that they have not squarely faced the question of whether it ultimately matters who is right and who is wrong.
Earlier generations were in no doubt that it did matter. It was by faith alone that we are saved, and that faith has to be the right faith. Anything else will just not suffice. And this belief was accompanied by another conviction, namely, that if we only worked hard enough at mission and evangelism, most, if not all, people would embrace the truth we had to offer them. But what about those millions whose beliefs are in error, to say nothing of those billions who profess no belief at all?
Faced with these misgivings, many Christians have adopted an attitude that one might call Universalism by Default. Let me explain.
Christian belief unequivocally presupposes that a man’s acceptance of God’s free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is ultimately contingent upon that man’s free will in acceptance of that gift. In other words, nobody can or will be saved against his will. Furthermore, the possibility of accepting or rejecting that gift remains open at least till the moment of our death. Protestants would add “and not thereafter.”
These two beliefs conspire to provide a degree of urgency, importance, and finality to such an acceptance (or its refusal). However, when these two beliefs are set alongside the actual facts as to how people respond to them today, those who subscribe to them are inclined to get cold feet for the following two reasons: (1) The number of people who respond to these beliefs varies very significantly from one place and one generation to another; and (2) some people will be considerably more (or less) likely to respond than others.
Various circumstances will conspire to influence the response that they do, or do not, make. These include: their emotional makeup, their social background, their family’s disposition, their employment, and their experience. Each of these will provide different, and perhaps opposing, factors making their acceptance of that faith either more or less likely.
Let’s take just one example. The uncomfortable fact is that in England at the present time, very few young, white males are embracing or practicing the faith. This is not to say that they cannot, or will not, become Christians in due time—they may or may not do so. But any evidence that they are likely to do so is sadly lacking.
Those who are charged with the cure of souls come to terms with this awkward fact in several ways. Many choose to ignore it and carry on regardless, trying here and there to pluck the odd brand from the burning. Others like to believe that the seed that they have sown, apparently unfruitfully, may nevertheless germinate and bring forth a plenteous harvest at some unspecified date in the future. Most of us can recall at least one person who has come back to the faith after many years’ absence, conveniently disregarding that they only form a tiny minority of those who fall away.
Others reassure themselves (and mourners to whom they preach at funerals) that the deceased was an “upright downright honest man” about whose status in the sight of God we really don’t have to concern ourselves too much because he was a person whom others greatly liked, and there’s no reason to suppose that God’s taste in these matters differs much, if at all, from yours and mine. That’s a very reassuring view, but one that is several light-years distant from what both Catholic and Reformed Christians believe.
However, most priests, I believe, come to terms with the awkward fact that so many of their parishioners are deaf to God’s invitation to the Marriage Feast by unconsciously taking the view that “it doesn’t matter all that much anyway” because, with so many unbelievers around in the world, the majority of whom show no penchant whatever for the gospel, the problem is God’s problem, not theirs. To adapt Heinrich Heim’s words on his deathbed, “Dieu les pardonnera—c’est Son métier” (“God will forgive them—it’s his business”).
That’s what I mean by Universalism by Default. It believes that everyone will, in the end, be saved from final separation from God because for us to believe anything else is just too uncomfortable.
A New Ministry
But now look what happens to our ministry. It’s no longer a matter of safeguarding and propagating the “faith once delivered to the saints”—by which faith alone we can be saved. If everyone is going to be saved anyway, then such questions as “Is Jesus Christ the only Savior?” and “Is Jesus God, or merely God-like?” or “Does it matter what I believe?” become secondary issues beside such things as “How can we help people fulfil their potential?” or “How can we stop wars happening?” or “How can we get homosexual behavior tolerated?” Causes like the pursuit of Natural Justice and the Abolition of Racism take the place of the creeds.
For once we lose sight of the binary nature of Christianity, what might be called the either/or principle, and put in its place Universalism of one kind or another, there is no good reason why, as Christians, we should concern ourselves about what anyone believes, providing it is conducive to peace and concord. Why waste time on such questions as “Is it true?”—the answer to which we shall probably never know for certain in this world. The important questions will then be “Is it helpful?”, “Is it relevant?”, “Is it useful?”
Priests rarely express these thoughts openly. After all, if one is drawing a stipend, however meager, and occupying a house, however modest, on the understanding that one is propagating the Christian faith, it is asking for trouble to acknowledge too openly one’s doubts about the ultimate importance of what one is being paid to do. How very much simpler to say how terribly important it all is of course, but at the same time to pursue other, more rewarding causes that are founded on the belief that faith doesn’t matter at all.
But sail too close to the shores of Laodicaea (that “it-doesn’t-really-matter” attitude) and you will find yourself on the rocks. Once people quit defending the faith and become lukewarm to the question of whether it is true or not, a whole raft of other reasons will suggest themselves to justify this attitude: They may have their career to consider; there may be a wife and several children to support; many of their contemporaries will be living by the principle “Peace with Pay”; or, if they are traditional Anglicans, they may simply be disillusioned that what claimed to be a genuine part of the Catholic Church has taken decisions that prove beyond all doubt to their minds that this claim is, and perhaps has always been, a false one.
But there’s one last question that always looms very large whenever a man finds himself in a small, unpopular minority. He asks himself, “But what can one man on his own do about it?”—forgetting that the whole Story is precisely about that—what One Man on his own actually did!
Francis Gardom is a priest in the Church of England and Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience, an international association of traditionalist Anglican priests committed to safeguarding the deposit of faith and opposed to such aberrant innovations as women’s ordination.
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“Aground off Laodicaea” first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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