Matthew J. Peterson writes that if he’s learned anything in life, “it’s this: the reason we can’t have nice things is never the enemy ‘out there.'” He explains this dynamic and concludes: “The enemy ‘out there’ doesn’t stone you. Your own people do. And you might be doing do the same to them.”
He’s right, sadly, alas, sigh. Probably the main reason for this is that you can fight a lot more safely with your friends than with your enemies, mixed with the belief that your cause is too important to let your allies mispromote or misdefend it. The rise to leadership of ambitious and calculating people increases the frequency of stoning.
There’s one twist to the dynamic he describes that I learned in my long years in what I called the “Episcopal resistance.” Your own people aren’t always exactly your own people. You share a big tent or sit under the same big umbrella and the nature of political action makes everyone think they share much more of an identity than they do. The biggest group tries to make its own identity the group’s identity.
The ER tent included several groups. The main division was between what I called the “conservatives” and the “orthodox.” The first liked some of the liberal innovations and were driven mostly by opposition to legitimizing homosexuality. The second held to the Anglican tradition without the innovations, but that group was further divided between the “moderate orthodox” who accepted the new prayer book and the “strict orthodox” who didn’t.
The internal politics turned out to be a cynical business, as you might expect. The conservatives dominated for various reasons, not least the galvanizing effect of the homosexual issue for rallying middle-American Episcopalians and getting them to send checks. And because the most liberal group in such a coalition sets the least common denominator, it also sets the defining issue for all the members.
The conservative leadership did actually care about their orthodox brethren, but they would also sell them down the river if the politics of the moment required it. This happened, for example, because some of the ambitious people I mentioned wanted to rise higher in the church and could do that as conservatives but not as conservatives tied to orthodox.
The conservative leadership were nevertheless quick to appeal to the supposedly shared identity when the orthodox became too insistent on their distinctives. I wrote a monthly “Letter From America” for an English Anglican magazine and once mildly criticized a conservative bishop for trying to compromise with the establishment and getting burned doing it. Conservatives reacted. One declared “We don’t shoot our own wounded!” and basically accused me of being a traitor. I thought, “But he’s not *my* wounded. He’s *your* wounded.” I knew the critic and he was not a friend of the orthodox.
That’s life in a big tent. Your own people aren’t always exactly your own people. Some will claim to be when it helps them and forget the claim when it doesn’t.
Of course this is by no means limited to Episcopalians. It is human nature.
UPDATE: The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll e-mails to say:
I am a friend and former colleague of David Mills in the Episcopal Resistance. David moved to Rome, I assume, out of conviction. As you say, every human institution has to deal with fallen human beings in its structure. Roman Catholics will say Amen to that, I am sure.
I would like, however, to suggest another dynamic that is not so fratricidal. Human institutions have centrifugal and centripetal forces at work. In the case of the Episcopal Church, many of us for years sought reform and renewal from within. When we concluded that the only way to preserve our integrity was to separate, many predicted that dissident Anglicans would fly apart in multiple directions. But we did not. Anglicans formed a new church of tens of thousands and an international coalition of millions of believers. Is this a perfect union? No. Are there tensions within? Yes. Will it survive? God only knows. But for now, in my opinion, the centripetal commitment to traditional Christian essentials has more than over-balanced the force of disunity. It is life in a big tent, but at least there are tent pegs holding it up.