Elizabeth I is rightly considered one of England’s greatest monarchs. Having inherited a nation bankrupt from the military adventures of her father, Henry VIII, torn by religious strife and threatened by hostile powers, she managed through cunning, good strategy and lots of luck to put England on surer footing. By no means was Elizabeth perfect, but she was a very effective leader.
Yet Elizabeth caused great consternation when she tried to chart the so-called “middle way” which is so distinctive to our tradition. Elizabeth kept in place many Catholic distinctives – including vestments, an altar with candles and gorgeous music while embracing many core ideas from the protestant reformers, namely a vernacular Bible and a prayer book showcasing a distinctly protestant theology. Left unchanged were commitments to the importance of Baptism and the Eucharist, an Episcopal structure of governance (with Bishops, priests and deacons) and an orthodox liturgy.
Partly as a result of her efforts, England was one of the few European countries not to disintegrate into religious war in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (it also didn’t hurt that Elizabeth didn’t have enough money to fund a standing army). By contrast, some regions in Germany lost almost 40% of their populations when Catholics and Protestants went to war because they hated each other.
In our day, going to war over Eucharistic theologies or over styles of worship would be unthinkable. We’ve by and large learned to live with differences. Our battles tend to be rhetorical and are usually focused on cultural issues rather than doctrinal ones. It’s remarkable that bitter political enemies confess the same Creed every week. Some things are simply more important than politics.
So what is the origin of our conflicts with each other? James, the half-brother of Jesus, has a perspective on this: “What causes wars and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war (James 4.1-2). The English word “passion” is the translation of the Greek word “hedone,” the root of “hedonism,” which is disordered or unchecked desire.
No matter at what end of the political spectrum you find yourself, it is extremely hard to resist the pull of ideologies in our world. People get paid lots of money to lure us into identifying with a particular ideology and to reducing complex issues to simple formulas.
Perhaps as Episcopalians we have something unique to offer a culture that wants to yell loudly and think little. Perhaps we would all be better off if we pursued a middle way, making an active effort to understand sympathetically the positions of others. Perhaps this would also help us love our neighbors like Jesus commanded.
In this time of cultural division, let’s look for a middle way, a better way, between ideological extremes. James says is well: “Do not speak evil against one other…who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4.11-12).