If We Want the Episcopal Church to Engage in Effective Political Advocacy, then We Must Evangelize

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Awakening the Spirit in Missouri (Source: ENS)

A substantial number of Episcopal Bishops recently wrapped up a conference in Chicago. Titled “Unholy Trinity: the Intersection of Racism, Poverty, and Gun Violence,” it was organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence and it dealt with how to broach these three social sins in scriptural and theological frameworks. It was probably a very powerful event, especially given the panel it put together. I can also easily imagine that the work done will inspire new forms of advocacy and activism within various Episcopal Dioceses.

Most people, however, will never know this conference happened. If you Google ‘Bishops Against Gun Violence’ and go to the news tab, you will find one report from Anglican News (linked to above) and one report in Church Times (‘the world’s leading Anglican Newspaper’). I’m sure there are more reports in Diocesan publications, and it may be that a couple of local papers picked it up which don’t register on Google’s algorithms, but for the most part you wouldn’t know this conference had happened if you weren’t already an Episcopalian—which more or less limits awareness to 0.9% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.

The point here is not that this conference was not a brilliant thing (which it almost certainly was). Nor is the point that Episcopal Bishops shouldn’t be trying to take theologically articulated stands on pressing social and political issues (which they should). The point is that, at present, the vast majority of people just don’t care. Actually, it’s worse than that. The vast majority of people don’t know enough about it not to care. It’s like that ultimate put-down from Scrubs: it’s not that most people dislike Episcopalians; they nothing us.

I’ve heard a fair bit recently about the need of the Church to begin serious work in the American political sphere. I’ve heard about the need for prophetic witness, for advocacy, for breaking down structures of injustice (which is the Anglican Communion’s 4th Mark of Mission, after all). I believe these things are important, and I believe that there are Episcopal Churches which are well placed to do just this right now (looking at you, Washington National Cathedral). But if we want to be effective advocates for justice in the political sphere, then we have to face up to the fact that the vast majority of people don’t care what we say or do. And we’re not going to get their attention through this kind of advocacy—precisely because our advocacy doesn’t carry enough public weight to merit attention in the first place.

Now, I’m sure there isn’t an immediate or easy solution to this. But there are positive things we can do. My claim in this post is the fairly banal one that we should do precisely what Michael Curry has been doing in Missouri—namely, working for numerical and spiritual growth by evangelizing, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ so as to call people into the Church. Before making this claim, however, however, there are a few things which have to be denied at the outset, so that this response can appear in the right light.

First, there hasn’t been some golden age when the Episcopal Church had this kind of influence, then lost it—we cannot, therefore, think of the Episcopal Church as reclaiming a kind of moral authority. True, Episcopalians have disproportionately occupied places of wealth and power relative to other denominations, such that the moral teachings of the Episcopal Church have sometimes had more of an effect than they perhaps would have otherwise. But this doesn’t mean it once had a kind of authority it now lacks; it means that it has more often than not been invested with particular kinds of secular power (and the question of how that power has been used is a different question entirely…).

Secondly, the Episcopal Church cannot and should not attempt to garner greater numbers through evangelization for the sake of a particular political agenda. This was, as far as I can tell, the M.O. of the once nascent religious right—whether one charts their origins to post-Roe vs. Wade, the temperance movement, or perhaps further back. The current iteration of the religious right sought influence for its political views, so it sold the Gospel as if it came pre-packaged in the values of a particular kind of corporate conservatism. Such a practice is demonic, idolatrous, and heretical. And it remains these things, no matter the particular agenda pursued. If we want to be effective advocates in the political sphere, then, and if we seek numbers in order to be effective, it must be because we are seeking to proclaim a Gospel politics, not a politicized gospel.

It should, of course, go without saying that the Gospel is political in itself—it doesn’t need to be politicized in order to speak in the political sphere. As such, being a Christian should entail particular types of political engagement. Abolitionism was political, the Civil Rights Movement was political, and activism against both climate change and mass incarceration are political—but precisely as political movements, they are also manifestations of the Gospel at work. The point remains, however, that when we are within the sphere of the Church, we cannot set our political commitments up as absolutes over and above the Gospel. We cannot be ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘whatever’ first, Christian second (not least in light of the fact that members of the Episcopal Church are far from politically uniform). We must be Christians first, then act in the political sphere according to the cores of that Christian faith. Our politics must be shaped by Christ, instead of Christ being shaped by our politics. And though it is worth noting that this order can actually provide a firmer foundation for political action than vice versa, it is still that case that this order must be a matter of Christian principle, not a matter of political consequence. (Incidentally, one of the great conjuring tricks of the religious right was the way it convinced so many people that they were Christian first, then ‘conservative’ because of that. The reality, of course, is that this initial Christianity was ‘conservatism’ dressed up in a supposedly holy garb, so that a political agenda could present itself as intrinsic to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ).

Thirdly, numerical growth shouldn’t be the overarching aim of any Church. If we set our goals in terms of Average Sunday Attendance rather than the grace of Jesus Christ, we’ve gone astray. In saying that we should seek numerical growth by evangelizing the Gospel, then, it must be clear that the latter is the purpose of the former, not vice versa. The same goes for the motive of political engagement—when, as I’m about to, we write that we should evangelize in order to give our political advocacy more clout, it cannot be forgotten that this means of substantiating our advocacy is itself the purpose of that advocacy. In both cases, then, the apparent means is in fact the end, and the postulated ends of growth and political action can only make sense if they are themselves subordinated to the end of proclaiming the Gospel.

Fourth and finally, this should not be a case of either/or. Even if our political witness at present doesn’t reach as far as we wish it might, we should keep trying to bear this witness. We should continue to try and advocate, and we should continue to build the kinds of community which empower us to advocate with integrity—in such a way that we are raising up the voices of victims of injustice, rather than speaking over them in an attempt to speak for them; in such a way that we can act as members of a community, not outsiders claiming the right to speak for people whose names we do not know. We should still attempt to be a community of justice and peace, then—and we should see this attempt as a political act. All the same, we must also recognize that this work will require a great deal of evangelistic support if it is to be as effective as we want it to be.

With these pitfalls broached, however, it is possible to make this positive claim: we should attempt to rectify the political irrelevance of the Episcopal Church by proclaiming the Gospel in such a way as to promote numerical and spiritual growth. If we’re ever to be anything more than a choir preaching to itself, we need more people. And if we wish to be more than a politically engaged social club that happens to meet in church buildings, we need to be marking, reading, inwardly digesting, then proclaiming the Word of Scripture. We need to follow Bishop Curry’s lead, then, and we need to do it in places we don’t normally go. This means inviting people to join us as part of the Church, and it means doing so on the basis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—as if this Gospel and the joy it proclaims are things worth sharing. It means building the kinds of relationship which can ground the integrity of such an invitation. It means countering the presumptions of those who claim sole possession of the Bible, by proclaiming that the Word of Scripture is very different to the distorting words that dominates public discourse about Christianity in America. It means attempting to evangelize both the Bible-Belt and secular America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not a revolutionary or original claim, and the work has already begun. But it is still a claim worth making.

To say all this to also leave a lot unsaid, of course. This doesn’t broach the question of how to evangelize, for example, especially in light of the incredible diversity to be found within America (to say nothing of division). Aside from practicalities, moreover, it must be said that evangelism won’t change things overnight (if changes things at all). All the same, one thing is for certain: if we don’t evangelize, then we can bear all the prophetic witness we want—but we’ll remain the only people who hear that witness. If we do start to do all this, however, then at best we might begin to overcome the conditions of our own irrelevance. And at worst we will have proclaimed the Gospel—which is ultimately the point of it all anyway.

All in all, then, the political witness of the Episcopal Church is practically and literally irrelevant to the vast majority of people. If we want to change this, one of the things we can do is to evangelize the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many ways of doing this for the incorrect reasons and in incorrect ways, such that we just end up distorting that Gospel to the service of other ends. It may also be the case that it doesn’t end up changing anything. But this evangelism is both the commission of the Church and the means by which we can fulfill that commission in the political sphere. And the work of the Bishops in Chicago deserves to be heard beyond the sphere of the Episcopal Church. It is incumbent on the Church, then, to evangelize the Gospel that calls them to this work.

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