This Washington Post article on the Very Rev. Shannon Johnston, newly-elected bishop of Virginia, gives me an opportunity to ask friends who consider themselves centrists, as Johnston does, what exactly a centrist is.
Take this passage:
“In a candidate questionnaire and in other comments about the role of gays and lesbians in the church, Johnston has been vague, if centrist. In a 2005 article posted on his church’s Web site about the dispute, he wrote: ‘I insist that the answer will not come from one of the two ‘sides’ but rather will be found in the Center.’ ”
Leaving aside the divination of the Center indicated by the use of the upper case c, let’s assume we are arguing about the sum of 2+2. If I say 6, and you say 4, the answer is not 5. One of us is right and one of us is wrong. If I say the answer is 10, and you say the answer is 4, we would split the difference at 7. Which means that the more extreme my error, the further a certain sort of centrist moves in my direction.
I don’t imagine that all centrists are difference splitters, but I don’t really understand how they decide what they believe, or what they do when a divisive question requires a yes or no answer. Celibate or monogamous gay people–as a category, one can argue the merits of individuals–either are acceptable as ordained ministers of the Gospel in God’s eyes, or they are not. You can certainly attempt to nuance your position by saying Yes, but… or No, but… Yes, but not now. No, but gay couples are welcome in all but leadership roles in our parishes. But when it comes to deciding what principle the Church or the Communion will adapt, only the Yes or the No really matter.
There is a second question, of course: Can I live in communion with people who disagree with me on the first question? Perhaps centrists are those who can answer the first question either way, but who are willing to answer the second question: Yes.
But I answer the second question Yes, and am regularly told that my ideas can be dismissed as leftist because I have answered the first question Yes as well. (Indeed, I identify myself as a liberal, in part because I think many who claim to be centrist are hiding their agendas for political advantage. Recent efforts on the House of Bishops and Deputies List to paint Ephraim Radner as a centrist fall into this category. Radner, a member of the Covenant Design Group, is affiliated with the Anglican Communion Institute, which has been associated with the Anglican Communion Network since its inception.)
So who are centrists? What do they believe and why do they believe it?
Many people who claim to be in the center strike me as people who don’t want to travel with the baggage of an opinion, and the attendant allies. I don’t have a problem with that, as long as those people don’t look down in a lordly fashion on us sweating partisans and suggest that we all just get over ourselves.
It is easier for me to understand, and to converse with leading figures on the Anglican right like Kendall Harmon and Matt Kennedy than with those who think that sitting out this struggle is a transcendent moral act. Perhaps because it seems to me more Christian to argue with someone–see the Council of Jerusalem, or any Church council, for that matter–than to look down on them.
So, if anyone who identifies themselves as a centrist can explain their philosophy to me, I would appreciate it.
(And for a good conversation on this issue, check out haligweorc, the blog of Derek the Anglican here.