Sure, Walker Percy already said it, but that was as a good-natured joshing, a passing joke. Now it’s hit the pages of the Wall Street Journal; everybody’s in on it. The November 29, 1990 Journal reports a national survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Center of Demography on religious affiliation and attitudes on family issues such as bearing children out of wedlock, extramarital sex for teenagers and adults, infidelity, and divorce. People with no religious affiliation have the most consistently liberal attitudes on these issues; fundamentalists and Mormons have the most contrastingly conservative views. And which religious group is the most like the nonreligious? You guessed it: Being an Episcopalian is like having no religion at all.
In Percy’s novel The Second Coming, the nonbelieving protagonist Will Barrett wonders why Christians who supposedly have the Good News are always such Bad News to be around, so annoying to the sensibilities of their decent and unbelieving neighbors. This is the case, he muses, whether they are Alabama Baptists or Boston Catholics. He knows only one exception to this rule, namely the Episcopalians, since “you would barely know they were Christians at all.” They are genial, well-mannered, good at blending into their surroundings. They are decent and nice people.
Niceness has a bad reputation these days, probably worse than it deserves. It can’t shake the Wimp Factor reputation. But other things being equal, it beats abrasiveness. Yet nice as Nice is, there are problems with making theological judgments justified primarily by Niceness, which is what some very prominent leaders in the Episcopal Church are doing.
The Bishop of Los Angeles, Fred Borsch, is a genuinely Nice Person. He is a scholar, having taught the New Testament at more than one seminary, and one of the recurring themes of his episcopacy is the need for teaching historical-critical methods of Bible study right in the parishes of his diocese. Never mind that even most seminary-educated clergy cannot really perform such critical studies, but rather merely learn to parrot whichever academic is currently spouting the most shocking challenge to orthodoxy. And never mind that some academics are declaring bluntly that “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” The bishop is an academic. But he is primarily a Nice Person, eschewing miters and ceremonial pomp whenever possible, and insisting that his clergy address him as just plain old “Fred.” Jacobin manners are his style.
As a confirmed Nice Person, Just Plain Old Fred thinks the Church should bless “committed, long-term same-sex unions.” So he told the press, and the clergy of his diocese, just a few days before the Diocese of Los Angeles convened in Riverside, California at the end of November 1990. This notice seemed to be in response to the public announcement by the Reverend George Regas, rector of the largest Episcopal parish in the diocese, that he was determined to bless such unions with or without the approval of the Church at large. George Regas, too, is a very Nice Person, who will not allow repressive dogmas, or dusty traditions, or literalist readings of the Bible to stand in the way of his heartfelt Niceness, which is where he discerns the Voice of God calling him to extend a priestly blessing to homosexuals currently suffering the pain of being denied that sanction. They want the blessing. The heart of the Nice Person wants to give it. Deep calls to deep, and the request will apparently not be denied.
There was a great furor among clergy and laity of the diocese before the Convention. A proposal for “upholding and celebrating” (not “blessing,” mind you, although the distinction is very fine) same-sex unions was defeated, being approved by clergy delegates but failing to get the required approval of the laity. The furor has not subsided. Conservative lay people are talking about shopping around for another denomination, and even some clergy wonder if they are still welcome in the Church of the Nice People. After all, the bishop in his convention address made some very pointed remarks about those who still take the Scriptures with an “elementary school literalism.” There was a tone suggesting that Reactionaries whose hearts are not warmed by the Gospel of Inclusiveness for all those Outcasts hitherto alienated by Traditional Patriarchal Literalists better decide to get on the train or be left at the station.
Certainly, there were some of these reactionaries among the Episcopal clergy. During a workshop on human sexuality at the convention , a well-groomed young man wearing one earring put aside his knitting (No, I am not making this up) and stood to explain with trembling lips his desire to break through society’s stereotypes of the homosexual by receiving the Church’s blessing on his commitment to spend the rest of his life with his Special Person. One priest ventured to this young man the question of precisely what such a blessing would really be, since the priest understood a priestly blessing to derive any value it had from the assurance that it was an accurate indicator of God’s blessing. Apart from such assurance, he wondered, what possible value could there be in the nice ritual words of a cleric?
Plainly, this was a coldly intellectual objection in the face of such emotional distress. Plainly, the conservative priest, however gently he dealt with the young man, lacked that New Heart which God seems to have put into Nice Persons, the possession of which dispenses them from the tedious and constraining need to validate their actions against the demands of revelation in Scripture and in the precedents of tradition before submitting them to the fashionable social scientists who represent the priesthood of Reason in our time. In short, however kindly and well-mannered he might be, that conservative priest was not a Nice Person in the sense that the bishop and George Regas and those who agree with them are Nice Persons. Judging by the votes, many of us among the clergy are not Nice Persons, although we are in the minority.
Thank God the laity are not as Nice as we are.
Among those of us who are Not Nice, there is a troublesome concern over how we are to discern God’s will. Not God’s will, mind you, strictly as it regards homosexuals, but across the board. For this has always been a somewhat messy business. Taking the measure of the scriptural witness on any given issue is sometimes tricky. Often we are asking questions the Bible may not have intended to address, so there is the danger of taking a text out of its context. If this means falsifying its intended meaning, there is the danger of taking God’s name vainly to support our own prejudices. A dose of fear and trembling is a minimal safeguard. And sane humility requires we check our own perceptions against those of the faithful departed who have gone before us. After all, did Jesus not promise never to abandon his Church even in the face of Hell itself? Surely our spiritual ancestors have as valid a confidence of the Spirit’s inspiration as we have. But this does not solve all problems; traditions are not monolithic. They are as complex as Scripture. And our ancestors were working in their times, different from our own, and it is as easy to take them out of their context as it is to misuse Scripture. Granting all this, the Not Nice among us must still say on some issues, such as that of blessing homosexual unions, that we can find no convincing precedents for it, no indications that God has ever even hinted at his approval of such relationships, or that He has had a recent change of heart. We are not sure He reads those fashionable social scientists, or even that he listens to George Regas’ sermons urging the blessing of gay unions.
To the Nice Priests, we would have to say (honestly if not Nicely) that any such blessings would be counterfeits. They could be liturgically tasteful (as befits an Episcopalian rite). They could look like, and sound like, and have all the outward signs of the sacramental blessings of the Church. But, for all the outward signs, there will be no reason to trust that they convey any inward and spiritual grace. Like “funny money,” they will lack the one thing needful. Counterfeit money, however skillfully crafted, lacks the authorization of the U.S. Treasury. Counterfeit blessings lack the authorization of the Author.
Now, Nice People, be they laity or priests or bishops, felt that this authorization is present in their Nice hearts, in their sense of compassion. Not-So-Nice conservatives like myself can only wonder when this mode of revelation became the norm, and why we were left out of its benefits. It seems clearly to have been a fairly recent revolution, since the Nice Person’s personal revelation-via-compassion supersedes not only Scripture, from which it can pick and choose the gold of Niceness amidst the dross of Patriarchal Oppression, but also the traditions. We now stand in judgment on our traditions. Overturning them in favor of the alleged victims of tradition seems to be the contemporary mission of the Nice People. Heterosexuals have oppressed homosexuals, runs the argument; therefore bless the homosexuals, and if the straights don’t like it, they can leave. If such pretensions look like hubris to the Not Nice traditionalists, well, what can you expect of the unregenerate? If they go out from us (as over a million Episcopalians have deserted the Church in the last two decades), then we can only say wistfully that it was because they were never truly of us.
It is a mistake to think that in the Church of the Nice People there will be no outcasts; there will be outcasts, but they will be a different set than those for whom the Nice People’s hearts burn with compassion. It will be those who thought God’s goodness had some relation to traditional standards of decency”and that the relationship was not antagonistic. They thought that the proclamation that God was merciful implied that there was some real sin for Him to be merciful about. And they thought that the invitation to join the Kingdom had some requirement to repent. Of course, most of these people, clergy or lay, are not adept at the kind of historical-critical method of reading the Scriptures that Bishop Borsch wants to see taught at the parish level. With such methods, they would be able to discard the troublesome, awesome (and dare we say “judgmental”) Holiness of God while retaining the sentimental coziness of “God is love” minus any hint that this substantially differs in meaning from the statement “God is Nice.”
Nor will Neanderthal theologians be the only ones excluded. I think of a young parishioner I visited in the hospital, where she is recovering from a hysterectomy. She is a devoted Christian. Having never been married, she has remained chaste over the years. She still hopes for marriage, but she has lost the long-cherished hope of bearing children. Loss is a common experience, but she could bear this one more easily were leaders of her church not making statements that imply that chastity is not the norm. “Every human being has a God-given right to sexual love and intimacy,” George Regas revealed in a widely circulated sermon. Regas meant to “affirm” the homosexual’s right to unions blessed by the Church.
But what does this say to the women and men who sought to live chastely in obedience to God’s will? It says they are fools. It says the young woman’s loss cannot be considered part of her cross, borne with some joy for the sake of her Lord. It says that her childlessness is the unfortunate result of her “elementary school literalism.” If only she had learned historical-critical methods of Bible scholarship, it might have turned out differently. She might have sought an anonymous liaison, or numerous encounters, exercising her God-given rights to sexual intimacy. She might have emulated the woman priest who was artificially inseminated with the sperm from several friends, and who perhaps afterwards blessed herself in the name of Christ. When we all learn to selectively set aside Scripture and tradition in favor of listening to the revelation of our own Nice hearts, things will indeed be different.
When this happens, it will he a New Church. Some things will have to go, of course. As Lenin observed, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Being a New Church, there will be no point in repeating weekly the Nicene Creed, affirming that we believe “in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” when we believe in no such thing. (The Church instructed by the Apostles is hardly the same church that presumes to give correction to the Apostles.) Maybe we will have “The Nice Creed” in its place, with affirmations of Inclusiveness and Compassion and opposition to military solutions in the Middle East. Maybe we will simply take the editorial page of the New York Times, reciting it liturgically and ending it with an “Amen.”
But perhaps the most important change will be the loss of our ability, as a church, to offer a significant alternative to the values and the viewpoints available in the world. When the Not Nice hearts and minds, informed by revelation and tradition and history, have departed, who will uphold a vision that transcends the liberalisms and ideologies of the contemporary world? It seems unlikely that the Church of Nice People will have much to offer but bromides phrased in quaintly religious-sounding language. Maybe the only Episcopalians left will be those who like the idea of living as though they had no religion at all. They will be Nice. Or, in Eliot’s phrase, they will be “a decent, godless people.”
Kenneth E. Hunter is a priest at Saint James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, CA.