Why the Church is Divided
Richard R. Crocker
November 6, 2011
Despite the prayer of Jesus that all his followers might be one, the church is deeply divided. And it is not divided chiefly by denominations (though those divisions are real), but by fundamental attitudes. As is shown by the careful research of Robert Putnam and his associates, in their book called American Grace, conservative American Catholics seem to have more in common with conservative evangelical Christians than they do with Liberal Catholics, and liberal Protestant Christians in some ways have more in common with liberal Catholics than they do with conservative Protestants. Although the words conservative and liberal do approximate the differences in fundamental attitude, they do not adequately describe it. I would say that the divide is more accurately described as those who see the church as the bastion of order and personal morality on the one hand, and those who see it as the advocate of justice on the other.
This conflict is nowhere more clearly and poignantly revealed than by the story, which you might have missed, in this week’s New York Times about the protest occurring at the entrance to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
(This, of course, is in keeping with our theme, the Bible and the newspaper.) As I expect you know, St. Paul’s is one of London’s most important churches, second only perhaps to Westminster Abbey. Designed by Christopher Wren and miraculously preserved amid all the bombing of London that occurred during World War II, it is the seat of the Episcopal (Anglican) bishop of London as well as the site of many royal and national occasions. We really have no equivalent in the US. It is a very holy, or, if you are secular, a culturally important, site.
The protest at St. Paul’s is part of the growing global “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The Times says that it is one of the many “encampments … in cities of the world, echoing the continuing protest in Wall Street’s heart against the bankers and corporate barons and complicit politicians the protestors hold responsible for global financial distress.” Like the other encampments, this one in London is full of people who are living outside the church, and it includes entertainers, vendors, and many expressive people. The protest has essentially shut down St. Paul’s, for the first time, the paper reports, since World War II. As you would expect, many people are upset about this, including some of the cathedral staff who have argued that “the cathedral could not operate with protestors preparing meals over campsite gas cookers on the approaches, and blocking accessways that would be needed for an emergency situation.” But other members of the church staff disagree, “saying that the church’s mission to seek social justice should make it the protestors’ natural ally.” This is not a minor dispute; it apparently is causing considerable turmoil throughout Britain. Three members of the church staff, including the dean of the cathedral, have resigned in the dispute. It is, in miniature, a picture of the contemporary Christian church, and each party to the dispute honestly, conscientiously believes that it is upholding the gospel.
Let me explain why. Some people who identify with the cathedral authorities want the protestors removed because they see the gospel as foundational for a sense of personal morality and social order. They believe that the moral teachings of Jesus, and the church, support right behavior, restraint, and are the bulwark of a social/political establishment that is the foundation for a good society. For them, Jesus’ teachings about individual morality and individual salvation are of paramount importance. People who take this position have plenty in the Christian tradition, and in scripture, to back them up. Jesus was not a zealot, they say. His teacchings counsel submission to established authority and to the rule of law. For these people, the gospel is best displayed in lives that display decency and order. But Christians who support the protestors see the gospel as foundational for a sense of social justice. And social justice is not always synonymous with the status quo; it is not identified always with the establishment, even when the establishment is blessed by the church or IS the church. These people see Jesus as one who challenged the status quo; they point to his behavior in the temple, when he overthrew the tables of the money changers and cried out “It is written, My house shall b e a house of prayer for all people, but you have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:13) This image of Jesus, and of the gospel, does ally itself with those who protest what they see as injustice.
I heard this same division when I was a boy, during the civil rights struggle in Alabama. Almost all white churches, but some black churches as well, were firmly on the side of “obeying the law” against unlawful demonstrations. They saw order as the foundation for justice. On the other side were clergy and laypeople who, as a matter of Christian conviction, challenged what they saw as unjust racial laws, much to the distress of their fellow Christians. It was a hard place to be.
And we saw it again during the Vietnam War, when clergy who advocated an image of the gospel as social justice protested the war, even to the point of martyrdom, and the many other Christians felt that such protest was destroying the very order that underlies both our democracy and Christian faith.
Now, lest you think that, because of my previous statements in support of Occupy Wall Street, I do not understand threats to order, I must be clear. Those people who value order, for secular reasons or because of their Christian faith, are right – to a point. They are in fact very largely right. Order is essential to a society. In chaos, there is no justice. Justice requires order – but it also true that order requires justice. When there is injustice, order breaks down. Such, I believe, is the case with our present cultural economic crisis. There is a widespread conviction that certain people in positions of financial power have bent the rules, or broken them for their own gain, and at the expense of many many others who have suffered greatly by their actions. How have they suffered? By losing the houses, their savings, their jobs, and their hope.
The bishop of London addressed the crowds of protestors in front of St. Paul’s, according to the newspaper. “He said he was ‘concerned that this (protest) should not lead to violence.’ And (he) repeated an offer … to hold a debate on their cause in the cathedral, but only after the tents have been removed.” Then he showed his own ambivalence. “You have a notice saying, ‘What would Jesus do?’, he said. That is a question for me as well.”
That is a question for us all. And I want to leave it with you tonight – with those of you who are Christians, who call Jesus Lord, as well as those who are merely interested. It is often discounted as a simplistic question, and it sometimes is. It is this same division that we see today, at St, Paul’s church, in op-ed pieces in the D. and around many family dinner tables whenever questions of order and social justice are raised. But it is a very important, complicated, and profound question. It is a question on which, in very many cases, the church is divided. But it is a question which, like those protestors and like the bishop, we really must continually ask ourselves, isn’t it? I am interested in your answers. Amen
 Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace, New York; Simon and Schuster, 2010, see especially pages 21-33.
 New York Times, “Occupy protest at St. Paul’s Cathedral”, October 31, 2011