Theological liberalism, is according The Encyclopedia Britannica, “a form of religious thought that establishes religious inquiry on the basis of a norm other than the authority of tradition.” The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as “certain tendencies in the intellectual, religious, political, and economical life, which implied a partial or total emancipation of man from the supernatural, moral, and Divine order.” I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that, by any known standard for evaluating theological thinking, the Bishop Search Committee’s appraisal of its slate of candidates as including “two moderates to liberals,” is simply wrong. It is a slate of five conservatives.
The Reverend W. Andrew Waldo, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior Minnesota, is among them. Fr. Waldo was in a previous episcopal election process, as a petition candidate for Bishop Suffragan in the Diocese of Alabama in 2007. He also serves on the faculty of CREDO, the Episcopal ministry that helps both clergy and laity discern the future direction of their vocation.
Some might find evidence for a latent liberalism in the fact that Fr. Waldo is a signatory to the Clergy Letter on Religion and Science. The Clergy Letter Project “is an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue.” The Clergy Letter states that:
Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts. We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.
Hardly liberal, those thoughts are comfortably within the mainstream of conservative theology. This approach does not reject the authority of the Holy Scriptures but attempts to elevate it by freeing it from the clutches of both liberalism and fundamentalism (which uses rationalism to “prove” Biblical literalism).
Of course, there is also Andrew Waldo’s thoughtful essay on whether or not congregations should engage in the theologically dubious (but increasingly common) practice of “open communion,” by inviting unbaptized persons to the Lord’s Supper. In that, essay, he wrote:
Are we going to trade substantive, attentive, and deep reflection on entering the Christian journey in exchange for a hope that being what some would call radically open will somehow accomplish the main point about what it means to be Christian? Can we be eucharistically accommodating and at the same time offer a meaningful ordeal that forms loyalties and strong faith communities? Is even that new ordering– having fully open communion and fully developed catechesis–the better way? Would it not be worth considering how we are concretely hospitable in every way that we encounter others–in our narthexes, worship services, parish halls, homes, outreach ministries and study groups– and to invite and walk with those who would learn of costly discipleship and seek Christ in the waters of baptism?
If the broader polity is not of concern to the locality in which change is taking place, we encounter the ecclesiological dimension of this issue. At the very least, I would suggest that Episcopal clergy in particular who seek this change have an obligation to make a case for all of us. That way, the conversation is engaged at lay and ordained levels, and, above all, it is engaged beyond the walls of a particular community.
As we seek to answer these questions, the stakes for our church are profound, for we live in a culture that is plagued in the most deadly sense of the word by undifferentiated inclusivity. And yet in baptism we have a rich opportunity to provide differentiated, strong leadership. The final questions then are basic: Who are we, really? To whom do we belong? And how are we going to communicate our faith to others hospitably?
Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds remarkably conservative to me, and even opens a window into Fr. Waldo’s thoughts on what the Search Committee really wants to know: would he, as Bishop, bless the unions of same-sex couples? Before we examine his answer to the only question that matters to some people, let’s look at Andrew Waldo’s faith journey.
The son of an Episcopal priest in Montgomery, Alabama, Waldo rebelled against the faith of his fathers. He says he was “the prosecuting attorney at the dinner table—questioning, probing, and challenging everything my parents believed. But I knew this: I wouldn’t be able to budge them one inch. Their faith was deeply grounded on the rock of Jesus Christ.”
He went off to study music at the New England Conservatory, and following the failure of his first, early marriage, he heard the voice of God calling him to faith. He is a born-again evangelical, with a strong sense of the God Who demands a new life from those who are called. He was listening to a rehearsal of Hernando Franco’s Magnificat, when the Blessed Mother’s words sprang to life: “He has shown strength… scattered the proud… cast down the mighty…and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry…and sent the rich away empty.” (Deacons love the Song of Mary, but then we would.) He found himself in a process of discernment, “grounded in faith in Jesus Christ as my lord and savior.” (Those are not the sentiments of a liberal, in case you’re wondering.) “Grounded in faith in Jesus Christ,” Fr. Waldo is liberal about one thing: he liberally seasons his words with scriptural allusions and references, revealing that faith clearly. In fact, of the candidates we have looked at so far, Waldo is the most unequivocally Biblical.
On the matter of same-sex blessings, Waldo is no less firm than the others: “not permitting blessings until the Church has come to one mind.” But he recognizes that the questions before us are difficult and he trusts “the Holy Spirit to guide us, and that we will find a way forward within the bounds of the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church.” Liberals (and some moderates) will be disappointed here—this candidate is not one of them, and he will not move the Diocese away from our conservative moorings.
He is not, as noted earlier, a fan of “undifferentiated inclusivity.” And, as he wrote in his essay on communion and baptism, he would challenge the people of God in Upper South Carolina to ask: “Who are we, really? To whom do we belong? And how are we going to communicate our faith to others hospitably?” Those are the questions that we really need answers to, rather than worrying about the sexual orientation of the person next to us at the communion rail. Only we can answer them, not our Bishop, our priests, or our deacons.