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an essay for Anglicans Online

The Centrist Moment
By Pierre W. Whalon

12 March 2000

"Are you a conservative or a liberal?"

Some of us have to reply, "no."

Call us "centrists."

It can be hard to pin down what this label means, as centrists have no parachurch advocacy organization, no newsletter or web site, not even a booth at General Convention. The great Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan gave one cogent definition, however, of this elusive position:

"There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that development . . . But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait."

Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 4, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, 266-267

While he is hopefully wrong about centrists being few in number, Lonergan puts his finger on the essence of centrism. Centrists know that change is often necessary to be more faithful to the mission of the church. They believe that authentic change usually grows from rational affirmation of intelligent inquiries into the tradition of the church.

So, for instance, considering the ordination of women, today's centrists would favor it as a necessary change, but would probably not argue for it from a concern for women’s civil rights. After all, no one has a right to be ordained. Rather, they would argue from the Scriptures containing numerous examples of women leaders in both testaments. Furthermore, they would point out that refusing women ordination because Christ was male violates the Definition of Chalcedon. The church’s statement about Christ as one person who is both truly human and truly divine (BCP 864) prohibits such "mixing" the two natures of Christ. Since God has always called some women into leadership, and to confirm orthodoxy about the person of Christ, women’s ordination is indeed right and good.

Again, centrists looking at the questions concerning homosexuality would want to start with the basics of who we are as church. The Outline of the Faith states that the mission of the church is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (BCP 855). "All people" certainly includes gay people. So we must include them in the church. Since gay people are often discriminated against, even to the point of murder, the church must take leadership in reversing this violence. Furthermore, the centrist looks at the issues of blessing same—sex unions and ordaining gays in committed relationships by asking first, "Do these further the mission of the church?" Or to put it another way, consider that the gay community in America is a sub—culture. How then does the Gospel become incarnate in that sub-culture and transform it? What changes are necessary to achieve this?

On the other hand, thinking about Bishop John Spong’s call for replacing the Nicene Creed with the creed of the United Church of Christ, most centrists would probably not feel there is a need for change. They would consider carefully his arguments, noting that Bishop James Pike made the same suggestion back in the 60s, in order to have a statement of faith more in line with modern ways of thinking. But as this change does not arise from within the tradition, and might well demand the action of an ecumenical council to be truly legitimate, centrists would probably conclude that switching creeds would do more harm than good.

Clearly, centrists are not a monolithic group. But they share some common attitudes that mark their position. To be a centrist means first being willing to listen, because no one has a monopoly on the truth. When the Left says that prophetic action is necessary to right an injustice, centrists do not dismiss them out of hand. Centrists can do radical things too, when necessary. When the Right complains that the Scriptures or the Tradition are being flouted, they receive a respectful hearing as well. After all, we are our pasts. Centrists have a lot of respect for accumulated wisdom, and cultivate a healthy skepticism toward our generation’s tendency to see ourselves as wiser than our ancestors. But centrists also are keenly aware that new wine requires new wineskins.

People often see centrists as wishy-washy, lukewarm like the church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation. Yet they are as passionate as any other group. What distinguishes them is a passion for the whole of the church. In an age that demands that people take sides, they often swim upstream. If centrists have a real weakness, it is perhaps that they are often too cautious, too patient. But in this impatient age, anxious for quick solutions, that flaw is probably a strength. Above all, being in the Center means finding and expanding common ground on which to stand together.

As the Anglican Communion enters a time of confusion and strife, the virtues of centrism become more valuable to the whole. We all need to listen more to one another, and act much more thoughtfully. Bishop Griswold and Archbishop Carey seem to be moving toward the center lately, as are many other leaders who used to be identified with Right or Left. Several new Blue Book reports of various standing commissions to General Convention also are taking a centrist line. This is indeed a time to suspend judgment and think deeply, to avoid precipitous actions, and to consider anew who we are in the light of the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

In this centrist moment, we need to catch a vision of the whole of the church. For now, doctrine and reform are less important than obeying the most important commandment of all: that we love one another as Christ has loved us (John 15:12). If we do not, we will all fail in our mission, betray our doctrine, and be unable to act justly. There will come other moments when the Left or the Right needs to be in the ascendant. Yet if we can learn one thing during this centrist moment, let it be what St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians. There is never a time when one of us can say to another, "I have no need of you." (I Cor. 12: 21)

Right, Left, and Center, we are all in this together.

Fr Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.