The Real Bellweather Elections?
Bob Dylan was right. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The best way to learn that is by following major church elections. Before I moved to Birmingham, I would never have noticed the incredibly important votes being held at the annual conventions of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Southern Baptists. If you want to get a sense of the American mainstream, look no further than these meetings.
The Episcopalians, desperately trying to maintain a balance between their American progressive membership and the broader Anglican church, rejected a ban on gay bishops, but then adopted a non-binding resolution urging Episcopal leaders “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any (bishop) candidate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” And here in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places, Presyterians (by which I mean Presbyterian Church USA, the largest group of American Presbyterians) gave local church groups leeway to decide whether to ordain gay clergy, or allow gay members to become deacons and elders. While hardly an endorsement of gay clergy, the vote – by a relatively narrow 57% margin – was a significant step for the recognition of gay people as full members of the church.
Meanwhile, all three groups elected new leaders. The Episcopalians elected their first woman leader, a Nevada bishop named Katharine Jefferts Schori. (Schori voted in support of naming the first openly gay Episcopal bishop back in 2003.) Many Anglicans continue to believe that women should not be priests so, notwithstanding the generally progressive approach of American Episcopalians, this remains a “fashion forward” move. The Presbyterians elected their own new female leader; Rev. Joan Gray was elected moderator for the next two years. And most interestingly of all, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Frank Page their new president. Page is no liberal – for most northeasterners he’d be viewed as extremely conservative – but he is what I’d call a “lifestyle Baptist.” He seems willing to soften SBC on some of the edges in order to compete with the mega-churches (known for cutting parishoners a break when church demands conflict with lifestyle) and the likes of Rick Warren (author of “A Purpose Driven Life.”) As Page put it, “I believe in the word of God. I’m just not mad about it.” Page may be plenty conservative, but for a convention that has often cottoned to the radical right (former SBC prez Jerry Vines once said that Mohammed was a “demon-possessed pedophile” – a comment which inspired my article, Terrorism, Panic and Pedophilia), the election of Page suggests that some vaguely moderate winds might be blowing over at the SBC.