There is little doubt that a conflation of cultural norms and cultural certitudes with orthodoxy and conservatism in general has resulted in the unjust application of doctrine to issues such as the role of women in the Church, the way LGBT persons have found full welcome in baptized life, and the way lay voices have been equal partners in governance of the Church. I’m sure that with just a few more minutes we could cite example after example of the ways people of color, those with disabilities, and so many more have found themselves not just excluded but degraded and oppressed by “tradition” in the Church.
The challenge I now see is not for the Church to ask only what it is that the world is getting right that we’ve gotten wrong but how have we failed to be utterly, wholly traditional and conservative in our preservation of the essentially radical character of Jesus’s witness to the Father’s capacious love. It is easy for sound doctrine to be conflated with oppressive cultural norms. For example, we now see too often the practice of “open table” when it comes to welcoming the unbaptized to Communion. The impulse, of course, is commendable — all should be welcome to meet Christ in transformed Bread and Wine. Yet that transformed food is meant to feed a transformed soul — it is meant to keep alive in a new way that which has been made newly alive in baptism.
This is just one example where the doctrine of two millennia is contorted in a way that does not promote justice or human dignity but erodes the most essential Christian claim — Christ welcomes all to new life in Christ. Thus the maintenance of the Communion meal as holy food for the people of God is no stricture or barrier but is an invitation to the fullest life, the most radical thing, imaginable. It is an invitation to be heirs of God and siblings of God’s Son as one body with one hope and one baptism — one call to find our true self in the self-giving of Christ.
One could move beyond this to the language of the Trinity. I understand the need for an expansive imagination and the full gifts of human creativity being applied to describe God. At the same time we are called, in inherited gifts such as the Lord’s Prayer, not to be subjects to a doctrine but heirs to the gift of being welcomed by Christ to know ourselves as sharing the same divine parentage.
So the attempts to redefine the Trinity or to change the language that we’ve been given by Christ does not so much expand our awareness of God’s mercy and love as diminish our ability to relate to a Father who does not demand fealty but offers nothing less than the inheritance of eternity and not as subjects beaten down by fear but as those lifted by our seeing of our true potential, our true hope, as those given a way to pray by Christ in which we know, as deeply as it can be known, the we come to the Table not just as friends or as neighbors but as ones loved to holy new possibility by a Father we share with the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, in whose wisdom even the foolish, the sinful, and the short-sighted are given a place of honor.
One might look to the flash in the pan example of using glitter instead of ashes on Ash Wednesday. For some this was a way to be welcoming or celebratory of diversity but I would offer that there is no more just message than all shall die, all are subject to divine will and judgment, and all shall be made alive by only God’s judgment and mercy. No person, no matter who they are or who they think they are, is outside of the immensity both of the truth of the mortal coil and the truth of God’s love. That is what hundreds of years of marking every person who comes through our doors with ashes means. That’s not about superficial affirmation or welcome — it’s about the fundamental truth of the human condition and God’s unwavering response of love to those realities.
If justice rests anywhere it rests not in our capacity to show mercy but in the infinite worth of those whom Christ calls our neighbor — in those whom Christ calls to be his followers, his disciples, his siblings, and his Body. The human capacity for justice is more than matched by the human capacity for base cruelty. This is the essentially radical message of Jesus. We are not called to a certain kind of doctrinal obedience but to a certain kind of relationship which is essentially doctrinal. We are heirs and heralds of a kingdom that is so utterly conservative, traditional, and orthodox that it holds that nothing less than the fullness of Christ’s radical vision of human unity must guide our hope for justice.
The human capacity for cruelty is blotted out by Christ’s willingness to go to the Cross and break open the tomb not just for those who we see as worthy but for those to whom he has extended an utterly radical promise — that we are heirs of the Kingdom, we share a divine parentage, we are one with him in baptism, we are fed by his flesh and blood, and we will come home to him not by our merits but by divine love. I would say that the abuse within the Chirch of so many is not because of tradition but because we’ve too often lost sight of the radical nature of Christ’s own orthodox fealty as a Son who passed that natureto his Church — his siblings in love.
We’re now grappling with questions of Prayer Book revision and language around the Trinity and doctrinal adherence when it comes to the Sacraments. Yet all of what we have inherited has been an act of divine mercy. I’m happy to see an expansive vocabulary employed to describe that mercy. I’m happy to see an expansive view of God’s nature explored. But let’s also be cautious not to pursue such an expansive view of divinity that we lose sight and focus on the radically narrow message that we are children of God and heirs of an eternal promise that has been handed to us as the ultimate form of justice of which we are stewards and called to pass on to those who find themselves wandering in darkness. We are heirs and heirs too may squander their inheritance if they are not cautious in guarding the source of their wealth even as they are profligate in sharing its bounty with those who long to be fed.