Episcopalian and evangelical are not exclusive categories

Episcopalian and evangelical are not exclusive categories March 19, 2015

I dealt with this snarkily yesterday, but here’s a less-jokey follow-up … So Rachel Held Evans has joined the Episcopal Church. Good for her! (And good for the Episcopal Church!) Some of my best friends are Episcopalian, after all.

This is being treated as “news,” because Evans is a newsworthy evangelical figure. Fair enough, I suppose. But, weirdly, some have decided that the news here is that by joining the Episcopal Church, Evans is somehow “departing” evangelicalism.

Nonsense. “Evangelical” and “Episcopalian” are overlapping categories, and always have been. The Episcopal Church has around 2 million baptized members and a good chunk of that total is evangelical. It’s part of the worldwide Anglican Communion — a church of more than 80 million members which, likewise, includes tens of millions of evangelical believers. Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of them.

White evangelicals in America have always had an affinity for Anglicans and Episcopalians. They lionize the Episcopalians among America’s founding generation as champions of Christianity. And they love C.S. Lewis, John Stott and N.T. Wright.

Evangelicals also purport to love the Bible, and for those who really love the Bible, a church service that includes three long scripture readings can seem like a refreshing change from a church service that includes an hour-long sermon parsing the second half of a single verse from Galatians.

TrinityLogoSo it’s just silly to talk about anyone “departing” evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church. Whenever you read something like this, from Charisma, saying “Rachel Held Evans Departs Evangelicalism” because she became Episcopalian, you should realize you’re dealing with silly people who don’t know anything about Episcopalians, or about evangelicals.

Or else you’re dealing with dishonest people who will change what they say based on the political needs of the occasion. This tribalistic duplicity comes up whenever mainline Protestant leaders make public pronouncements or when they adopt church policies that politicized evangelical gatekeepers disagree with.

The Presbyterian Church in the USA, for example, just changed its constitution to include same-sex marriage.* This is prompting the usual duplicitous two-step reaction from horrified evangelicals. Step 1: Dismiss the relevance of this news by characterizing the PCUSA as a dwindling, apostate group of nominal Christians who are therefore inconsequential. Step 2: After Presbyterians respond that their church includes more than 10,000 congregations with millions of followers, argue that most of those members are a silent majority of evangelical Presbyterians who doubtless disagree with this change by their leadership.

This transparent heads-I-win, tails-you-lose cooking of the books happens all the time with all of the so-called “mainline” denominations. When it is convenient for evangelicals to do so, they dismiss the whole thing as a hive of irrelevant liberalism. And then, when it is convenient for evangelicals to do so, they argue that the denomination is actually mostly made up of good evangelicals.

Thus, in the case of the Episcopal Church, evangelical gatekeepers will sometimes point to its evangelical wing — the Trinity seminary wing, etc. — as evidence that all of those people should be counted as our people, with our numbers and influence inflated accordingly to include them. But at other times, when Episcopalian leaders or individuals do something that makes them cross, those same evangelical gatekeepers will dismiss the entire denomination as an irrelevancy whose numbers and influence don’t count at all and whose witness should not be regarded as any sort of meaningful counter to our own greater importance.

You can see this duplicity at work in that Charisma article on Rachel Held Evans, which draws heavily on the comments from the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s designated gatekeeper for evangelicalism. The IRD also has an Anglican program, with a staffer designated to argue that the silent majority of Episcopalians are really evangelicals who represent the truest and most legitimate face of the Episcopal Church.

Here’s IRD’s “Presbyterian Action” page. Scroll down through the articles there and you’ll see them alternating between the claim that the Real, True PCUSA majority is evangelical and the claim that the entire denomination is apostate and irrelevant. IRD is happy to say either. Or both. As long as the checks don’t bounce.

The folks at Charisma ought to be more wary of this disingenuous two-step, because the politicized gatekeepers of “mainstream” white evangelicalism do the same thing all the time to charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. Whenever some Pentecostal or charismatic figure says something kooky or outrageous (i.e., constantly), the evangelical gatekeepers rush to assure everyone that those people with their glossolalia and their faith-healing and such aren’t real, true evangelicals and that no one should ever mistake those people as representing the views or the demeanor of real, true evangelicals.

But then, days or hours later, those very same gatekeepers will reassert their cultural significance by claiming to represent numbers and influence on a scale that requires them to include every Pentecostal, charismatic, holy roller as a loyal member of their tribe in good standing.

So I guess what I’m saying is that these gatekeepers are not honest people acting in good faith. But then you probably knew that already.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* About which, by the way, Yay!

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