On Being Weird and "Religious Hipsterism"

Yesterday, the Church of England voted to allow the ordination of female bishops.  This was a significant move in the context of the Anglican world.  While many of the daughter churches of the Church of England (the US Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, for two examples) have had women bishops for some time, many others do not, and have justified their decision on the basis of the fact that the English Church has not made that move.  It also has significant theological importance--like the Catholics and Orthodox, the Anglicans believe that bishops are the direct successors of the Apostles, and so allowing a woman to be ordained as a bishop is a statement that women are (and, on some level, always were) proper successors to that ministry.

It does not come as a great surprise that Catholic conservatives have used this as an opportunity to resume the Old Rivalry and throw stones at the Anglicans.  In particular, folks seem to have gravitated to a comment by one of the people who testified in front of the House of Bishops prior to the vote.  Here is her quote, in full:

During the debate Canon Rosie Harper, chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, said:
“I would like to take a moment to look at this from the outside in. I would like to name the sheer weirdness of a community arguing about discrimination in the 21st century – people out there don’t care enough to be angry but they do dismiss us as weird.  If we are serious about our mission, and I know this is a very basic point, we really do have to stop being weird.”

Not surprisingly, the line about needing to "stop being weird" has given the stone throwers an excellent platform to line up their delivery.  Sell outs!  Too concerned with being popular!  We are not supposed to conform to the world!

Let's begin with the obvious observation--Canon Harper is unquestionably right about everything with the possible exception of the last sentence.  The notion of women being categorically excluded from a career field is weird, in the sense that it is not done in almost any other context any more.  On the same day that the Church of England made its announcement, three women became the first in history to complete the Infantry Basic course for the US Marine Corps.  In the Marine context, the physiological differences between men and women at least provide an argument for excluding women--from a secular perspective, there is no real argument why women can't preach in church, preside over the Eucharist, counsel parishoners, etc.  So, it is weird to most outside observers that women in the Church of England were not allowed to be bishops (and, by extension, why they are still not allowed to be ordained at all in the Catholic and Orthodox churches).

The commentators, though, think that this is a feature and not a bug.  Having the culture reject the position of the Church is a sign the Church is doing the right thing.  After all, didn't Jesus say that the world would reject you for being a disciple of Christ?  Being weird is simply a product of that rejection--a badge of honor.

The problem is that there is a rather lengthy history of people embracing weirdness under the banner of religious principle, only to be proven to be wrong and misguided later on.  The Catholic Church spent 150 years being weird when it rejected democracy and religious freedom in favor of a reliance on the traditional idea of a Catholic monarchy.  No one now argues that this "sticking to principle" was the right way to go.  Sometimes people think you are weird because you are wrong.

Or, take this picture that has been making the rounds on the internet.  It is possible that the sentiment on this poster will prove to be untrue.  Maybe we will still be divided over gay rights and gay marriage in 40 years.  But it is possible that this poster is 100% right.  It is possible that, like with democracy, even those who have strong religious convictions will look back on opposition to gay marriage as an inexplicable relic of the past.  The people in the photo at the bottom were proud of being weird.  Now we just think they are wrong.  But it was not obvious at the time which way things would go.

It is intellectually lazy, not to mention dangerous, to reduce your analysis of the trends in "the world" to a simple formula of "if the culture is for it, then I must be against it."  In fact, it is not any different from an uncritical acceptance of whatever is fashionable in the culture.  Instead, you have to look at the cultural trend and evaluate it on its own terms.  Is this a good thing?  Is it consistent with the core values of Christianity (assuming you are Christian)?  And this is the hard one, did the Church reject this idea in the past because of a commitment to Christian principles, or did it reject it because it was following the previous cultural trends?  In the case of women in the Church, this last question is the key one--how much was the prior rejection of women clergy derived from philosophical, cultural, and anthropological ideas that consistently viewed women as fundamentally inferior? 

Religious traditionalists do not want to ask these questions, likely because that would require a more skeptical and nuanced approach to church history and church texts then they are comfortable with.  But there is another reason that this kind of thinking gets dismissed out of hand.  While there is a strong human impulse to belong to a group, there is also a human impulse to be outside of the group and define yourself against the group.  This is particularly true when there is a small group of fellow travelers who will stand with you against "The Man."  By defining yourself against the group, the group is Wrong and you are Right.  It therefore follows that the group is Dumb and you are Smart, or the group is Unholy and you are Holy, or whatever. 

We see this process in the phenomenon of hipsters, who reject the conventionally popular music or art, because it is popular, so that they can portray themselves as smarter and more sophisticated than the unwashed masses.  For hipsters, the worst possible thing is for their favorite artists to become popular, because then they can't define themselves against the group anymore.  Inevitably, they will turn on those newly popular artists and accuse them of "selling out."  Just as the commentators are accusing the Church of England for doing.

I happen to agree with the Church of England that women should be priests and bishops.  And, as I have discussed, I have great fondness for the Episcopal Church here in the US, so that translates somewhat to the Church of England.  But even if those things were not true, being a Religious Hipster, as I believe many of the people who are reflexively rejecting this decision and laughing at the CofE, is a bad way to live the Gospel.  We have an obligation to discern the signs of the times.  Sometimes God can speak to us through the culture.  We have to be willing to listen.

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