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The Evaporation of the Middle — A Sign of the Times

“What’s really going on in the pews of Episcopal churches is they don’t necessarily want to align with either side,” he said. “They want to get on with life. They want this thing resolved.”

So spoke Rev. William Sachs, recently named director of the new Center for Reconciliation and Mission at St. Stephen’s [Episcopal] Church in Richmond, VA, as reported in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times.

I draw attention to this statement for one main reason — to point to its contradictory nature, which seems to be completely missed by Rev. Sachs.

It is one thing to suggest that (many?) Episcopalians “don’t necessarily want to align with either side” in the controversy over Scripture, church authority, and sexuality that stands at the center of the looming schism in the Episcopal Church [see coverage below].

It is a very different thing to suggest that “they want this thing resolved.” Resolving the issue will inevitably split the Episcopal Church, USA. The issues can no longer be “fudged” as so many denominations attempt to do, with compromise positions and muddled proposals.

Another person interviewed for the newspaper’s coverage suggested a similar frustration:

Frances Hart, a worshiper at St. Edwards Episcopal Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., said she had been e-mailing people and reading everything she could from each side.

“The middle, where I am, seems to be losing members,” Ms. Hart said. “Quite frankly, I can’t figure out why they can’t get back to the middle.”

Again, the problem for those looking for middle ground on these issues is that no legitimate middle ground exists. In his rather amazing address to the Anglican Communion last week, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made this point clear.

On the issue of openly homosexual clergy and bishops, he said, one side paints the issue as a matter of justice and cannot imagine being in a church that does not welcome homosexuals into all ranks of clergy and leadership. The other side sees the issue as inescapably theological and cannot imagine remaining in a church that would defy Scripture, tradition, and communion in order to justify ordaining, electing, and consecrating openly homosexual persons in ministerial leadership.

The middle “is losing members” because the middle has disappeared. When these two positions meet, there is not room for a principled middle ground. This is a titanic clash of worldviews and theological understandings.

There is a simple and irredicible question here. The church will allow openly homosexual bishops or it will not.

Now, when I pointed to this fact several months ago, I was besieged by readers from the land of Postmodernia, complaining that, here again, I was trapped in old-style modernist thinking. I am, they suggested, trapped in “binary modes of thinking” that those given to more contemporary thinking have presumably escaped.

The problem for my postmodernist friends is this — in the real world we still face “binary” questions. Not all issues reduce themselves to clear binary categories, but many do — and they reach this status precisely at the point when desperate efforts to find “middle ground” fail. That is what happened at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church last month.

In one way or another, every church and denomination faces issues like this. The decision to go one way is a decision not to go the other. As Yogi Berra once advised, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.” That’s pretty much where the mainline Protestant churches are — at the fork in the road.

On the issue of ordaining homosexual persons to the ministry, the Presbyterian Church, USA tried to take both roads at the fork last month –determining to maintain the requirement that all ordained ministers maintain fidelity and chastity in heterosexual relations, and then allowing “flexibility” so that local presbyteries can defy that standard. It is a clumsy attempt at refusing to choose, and it will not last.

As for the Episcopal Church, it stands at an historic binary moment — and the middle ground is gone.