Geoff Holsclaw offered a great discussion the loss of memory among the evangelicals. At the close, he offered a bit of an assessment of how modernity has made it’s way into the tradition by dividing the movement into two camps: the conservative and progressive.
This strikes me as a common problem for the church in North America in general. That is to say, the binary of liberalism has framed the way we imagine ourselves as disciples.
Sitting here in my office, as denominational staff for the Church of the Brethren, I can think of example after example of just how common this binary is. We unintentionally (or intentionally, depending on who you talk to) label our congregations and our districts as progressive and conservative. There are even certain places that receive a wink and nod when they are mentioned because of the extent to which they reflect one or the other of the modern camps.
The 1/3 Pushing the 2/3 Around
But the most clear example of this came to the forefront just a few years ago in what we called a Special Response process. Like all the denominations in North America the question of sexuality has been front and center for us. In 2009 two seeming different responses were presented to the church for discussion at our annual meeting. The leaders decided that these documents should go through an extended process of local study and district wide listening sessions. In 2011 the final report was presented to the church, and a decision was made.
The report was a case study in the conservative-progressive divide in the church. Though it was far from statistical survey, the report narrated that there were generally three camps that emerged from the local conversations.
First, they said, there are two camps at the far ends of the spectrum. That really didn’t surprise many people at all. Of course, there were two perspectives- one progressive and one conservative in regards to sexuality. What was a surprise was the percentage of the membership that comprised these two extremes. Together, the two groups comprised 1/3 of the members of the denomination. That means that sixth of the denomination is decidedly progressive and another sixth is conservative.
A whole other 2/3rds lie somewhere in the middle of the question about sexuality. In terms of parliamentary procedure, the deciding majority is in the middle.
That means the two ends of the spectrum- the minority- are driving the conversation.
All it takes is a few minutes of listening to the rhetoric about sexuality to see just how influential the binary is for church work. The ideologues on the ends- those most set in their perspective regardless of what is happening in their congregation and in their community- make no room for those in the middle to narrate their perspectives or experiences. The majority of the church is shut down by the constant debates and politics of 1/3rd of the membership duking it out among themselves.
The Middle is Not Lukewarm
My experience has been that this is a phenomenon that stretches past the question of sexuality. Take any question- war and peace. mission and evangelism, or gender and leadership- and I think this same break down of 1/3rd and 2/3rds. My question, then, is what this means. Though far from certain, I can say at least one thing it does not mean. The middle is not about being luke warm, middle of the roaders who try to avoid taking a position. That to me, falls into the trap of the modern binary. It assumes that there are really on two real options- conservative or liberal- anything else just means that the others haven’t made up their mind.
I also believe that our model of making decisions teaches us that there can be only two options- winner and loser, with us or against us, yes or no. By voting on a decision we circumvent the scriptural reminder that we are to discern the spirits. Modern liberalism, its emphasis on efficiency, its model of decision making, and the binary of progressive and conservative all form us to expect only two answers.
In the end, we have not only lost the memory of our past, but we have lost the ability to envision the possibilities of faithfulness in our context.
Joshua Brockway is both an academic and a minister. Currently he serves as denominational staff in the Church of the Brethren. His work in the church focuses on the practices of discipleship and the spiritual life. In academic circles he studies monastic practice and theology of the 4th and 5th centuries. He is currently a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America. Josh blogs at www.collationes.wordpress.com and serves as the blog editor and book review editor Brethren Life and Thought (www.brethrenlifeandthought.