Thursday, July 30, 2009

If you meet the Anglican Communion on the road . . .

There is an old Buddhist admonition which has entered the popular culture: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" It actually comes from a koan of the Zen master LinJi. (See an explanation here.)

I'm beginning to wonder if the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury isn't subconsciously channeling the ancient - even if he isn't intending to do so.

I mentioned earlier that I would give a more reasoned critique of Dr. Williams's recent essay. I was intending to be a little less dyspeptic. I'm not sure that's the case.

But I am becoming ever more convinced that Dr. Williams's sincere attempts to save the Anglican Communion will, if allowed to come to fruition, ultimately destroy it.

There are a number of problems with the document. I'll try to hit the main ones point by point.

2. However, a realistic assessment of what Convention has resolved does not suggest that it will repair the broken bridges into the life of other Anglican provinces; very serious anxieties have already been expressed. The repeated request for moratoria on the election of partnered gay clergy as bishops and on liturgical recognition of same-sex partnerships has clearly not found universal favour, although a significant minority of bishops has just as clearly expressed its intention to remain with the consensus of the Communion. The statement that the Resolutions are essentially 'descriptive' is helpful, but unlikely to allay anxieties.

One of the remarkable things in modern Anglicanism is how something becomes authoritative merely by being included in someone's report. Such is the dubious provenance of the Windsor Moratoria.

And, as always, only two of the three moratoria are given any attention. If the North Americans violate the first two (gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions), all hell breaks loose. If the so-called Global South Primates violate the third (illicit interventions across provincial boundaries), Dr. Williams's silence is deafening.

Of course, there is the added hypocrisy that both gay ordination and the blessing of same-sex unions are more common in the Church of England than in either the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada. The difference is that we silly North Americans won't sweep it under the rug with a nod and a wink.

4. The first is to do with the arguments most often used against the moratoria relating to same-sex unions. Appeal is made to the fundamental human rights dimension of attitudes to LGBT people, and to the impossibility of betraying their proper expectations of a Christian body which has courageously supported them.

I actually agree with the Archbishop that a secular human rights argument is not definitive or decisive on a matter of Church doctrine or practice. That's the not the problem here.

The problem is his implication that no one has presented a theological or scriptural or pastoral argument. That is simply false. Tobias Haller's Reasonable and Holy is one recent example.

One may not be persuaded by the theological case that has been made. To imply that it hasn't been made is simply dishonest.

5. In response, it needs to be made absolutely clear that, on the basis of repeated statements at the highest levels of the Communion's life, no Anglican has any business reinforcing prejudice against LGBT people, questioning their human dignity and civil liberties or their place within the Body of Christ. Our overall record as a Communion has not been consistent in this respect and this needs to be acknowledged with penitence.

10. This is not a matter that can be wholly determined by what society at large considers usual or acceptable or determines to be legal. Prejudice and violence against LGBT people are sinful and disgraceful when society at large is intolerant of such people; if the Church has echoed the harshness of the law and of popular bigotry – as it so often has done – and justified itself by pointing to what society took for granted, it has been wrong to do so. But on the same basis, if society changes its attitudes, that change does not of itself count as a reason for the Church to change its discipline.

Nothing wrong with this per se. However, when the Archbishop so frequently briefs against the Americans through the Lambeth bully pulpit, I am moved to wonder why he is never prepared to say boo when various of the so-called Global South Primates deliberately sanction violence and discrimination against homosexuals. The most flagrant example, of course, was when Akinola of Nigeria pushed for neo-fascist legislation which would have established a five year jail term for merely suggesting in public that perhaps gays and lesbians shouldn't be beaten, arrested and jailed. Where were the prophetic pastoral letters from Lambeth then?

7. In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.

8. This is not our situation in the Communion. Thus a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole. And if this is the case, a person living in such a union is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond; whatever the human respect and pastoral sensitivity such persons must be given, their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church's teaching sanctions, and thus it is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires.

9. In other words, the question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity. It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences. So long as the Church Catholic, or even the Communion as a whole does not bless same-sex unions, a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle. (There is also an unavoidable difficulty over whether someone belonging to a local church in which practice has been changed in respect of same-sex unions is able to represent the Communion's voice and perspective in, for example, international ecumenical encounters.)

This is a curious argument. It is also inherently unAnglican.

By this measure, the Church of England had no right to reform herself in the 16th century without the consent and support of a certain Bishop in central Italy. She had no right to permit married bishops when such a thing was not permitted in Rome or Constantinople. She had no right to insist that the liturgy be "in a tongue understanded of the people."

The argument is equally spurious in post-Reformation Anglicanism. The ordination of women to the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopate would not have occured had the consensus of the Anglican Communion been a prerequisite.

One could even argue that William Wilberforce (who the American Church honours today) erred in advocating an end to slavery at a time when there was no ecclesiastical consensus. Who'd like to offer up that argument?

14. Sometimes in Christian history, of course, that wider discernment has been very fallible, as with the history of the Chinese missions in the seventeenth century. But this should not lead us to ignore or minimise the opposite danger of so responding to local pressure or change that a local church simply becomes isolated and imprisoned in its own cultural environment.

I would agree that we must not make an idol of local autonomy and local initiative. On the other hand, neither should we make an idol of the Communion. Both local and wider discernment are fallible. Thus it is absurd to demand that in this case and on this issue only Communion-wide discernment is valid.

15. There have never been universal and straightforward rules about this, and no-one is seeking a risk-free, simple organ of doctrinal decision for our Communion. In an age of vastly improved communication, we must make the best use we can of the means available for consultation and try to build into our decision-making processes ways of checking whether a new local development would have the effect of isolating a local church or making it less recognisable to others. This again has an ecumenical dimension when a global Christian body is involved in partnerships and discussions with other churches who will quite reasonably want to know who now speaks for the body they are relating to when a controversial local change occurs. The results of our ecumenical discussions are themselves important elements in shaping the theological vision within which we seek to resolve our own difficulties.

Of course, Dr. Williams's Covenant reflects the desire of the most extreme elements (heavily backed with money from a small number of American far right extremists) to impose precisely that sort of universal and straightforward rule. His Grace may rest assured that without the hammer of expulsion and a Primatial Inquisition, his Covenant will never gain the support of the GAFCON signatories.

And again, on the ecumenical issue, this same argument applies against the ordination of women, yet here we are. If our ecumenical relationships are based in refusing to do anything that might offend, then our ecumenical relationships are based on a lie.

18. To accept without challenge the priority of local and pastoral factors in the case either of sexuality or of sacramental practice would be to abandon the possibility of a global consensus among the Anglican churches such as would continue to make sense of the shape and content of most of our ecumenical activity. It would be to re-conceive the Anglican Communion as essentially a loose federation of local bodies with a cultural history in common, rather than a theologically coherent 'community of Christian communities'.

And to accept without challenge the supremacy of international factors would be to deny the very legitimacy of Anglicanism as a distinct ecclesiastical community. Fundamental to who we are is the rejection of governance by foreign bishops. "The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England," as Dr. Williams may recall. Neither does the Bishop of Abuja (or, for that matter, the Bishop of Canterbury) have any jurisdiction in this realm of Canada.

His Grace also seems to have a somewhat skewed idea of how "coherent" the idea of the Anglican Communion is. The Communion is, after all, the accidental creation of Archbishop Longley when he invited Bishops from around the world to a bun fight at his house. Anything prior to the first Lambeth would deny any coherent definition at all. The precise relationship, for example, between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the US was utterly undefined.

Rowan, it seems to me, makes a false idol out of a revisionist history.

21. They [Covenant proposals] have been criticised as 'exclusive' in intent. But their aim is not to shut anyone out – rather, in words used last year at the Lambeth Conference, to intensify existing relationships.

With due respect, Dr. Williams's aim is off. His aim may be to strengthen relationships. He seems incapable of realizing that his Covenant musings have added to the divisiveness of the Communion. Whatever his intent, the Covenant (in it's various drafts) has become an Instrument of Division.

23. This has been called a 'two-tier' model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a 'two-track' model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. If those who elect this model do not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the 'covenanted' body participates, this is simply because within these processes there has to be clarity about who has the authority to speak for whom.

I don't think the "who speaks for whom" question is anywhere near as complicated as His Grace makes it out to be. The Primate of Nigeria does not speak for the Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone of America does not speak for the Anglican Church of Canada. How complicated is that? Really?

A two-track model is the end of the Communion in any meaningful way. The one satisfaction we nasty North Americans will have is that we will not be alone in the outer tier. We will be joined by Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Brazil and several other provinces who will not submit to the Primatial Inquisition demanded by the paid agents of the American right.

Ironically, the Church of England will be at the back of the bus with us, since it is illegal for her (in her established state) to sign onto a Covenant which will effectively deny the Royal Perogative and have the Church of England by Law Established governed by foreign bishops.

24. It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are – two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude co-operation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion. It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both 'tracks' should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as Church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage. And if the prospect of greater structural distance is unwelcome, we must look seriously at what might yet make it less likely.

The saddest part of all this silliness is that His Grace here describes the very situation he has created with his ill-conceived Covenant proposal.

Rowan Williams has seen the Anglican Communion on the road . . . and whatever he may intend, it seems inevitable that he is going to kill it.


Take my camel said...

I wish the Archbishop could be induced to respond to your very perceptive comments. Perhaps others will respond in his stead.

In regard to your calling an argument "unanglican", I wonder if there is some text I could refer to to clarify my understanding of how a proposition, opinion, or any other thing can be judged anglican or unanglican. These terms have been used so much on blogs that I feel I need a guidepost. Is there something you could recommend other than the thirty-nine articles? The articles seem to be a bone of contention themselves these days. And perhaps always have been.

Malcolm+ said...

In general, it would be a trifle complicated to define what does or does not constitute "Anglican," insofar as Anglicanism has always comprehended a range of views on a range of issues. This derives from the Elizabethan Settlement, where the intention was for a Church of England where both Puritan and Recusant could find a home. (Of course, the plan failed at the extremes.)

In suggesting that the Archbishop's argument was "unAnglican," I was referencing specifically his apparent argument that the Communion-wide discernment necessarily trumps the local.

Given that the Henrician Reformation began with the assertion that a national Church had the capacity to reform itself without the consent of the wider Church, it would seem that Dr. Williams's position explicitly denies the seminal claim of Anglican polity.

Take my camel said...

Thanks for pointing the unanglican aspect out. I missed that nuance (and probably a lot of other nuances.) The Archbishop's opinion that a national church does not have "the capacity to reform itself without the consent of the wider Church" sheds light on his puzzling attitude that ecumenical negotiations override such priorities as human rights. Remaining separated from the Roman and Orthodox churches would not be an option.

Malcolm+ said...

I think, if pressed, Archbishop Williams would not actually argue in such absolute terms against the right of a national church to reform itself. I think his present conundrum has less to do with a global absolutism than with an unresolved contradiction in his thinking. This unresolved contradiction is then exacerbated by his tactical choice to stand with the squeaky wheels of the far right - not a natural position for a man who once described himself as a "hairy lefty."

Part of this, of course, is driven by a felt need to speak, not as Rowan Williams, theologian and pastor, but rather as Rowan Williams, Instrument of Communion and institutional lynchpin. This results is the previously inclusive hairy lefty tying himself up in rhetorical contradictions in order to defend a position which is significantly at variance - if not the complete reverse - of the opinion he holds as theologian and pastor.

Finally, he has made a tactical choice to stand with the far right based on the pragmatic calculation that the North Americans will not walk out, but that the Akinolists et al just might. This makes sense tactically, but it is strategic suicide. His Grace fails to grasp that the Church of England is likely to be the next target.

Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and even Canada are simply too small potatoes. The ACNA / FOCA / GAFCON schismatics are already planning their alternate English province. I'm too much the cynic to believe that Nazir Ali's early retirement is anything but a calculated gamble that he will be able to sieze by deception what he was not able to accomplish with Tony Blair's imprimatur.

Alan said...

I had not (have not) read the covenant document in it's entirety. I will have to rectify this. In a way though, I am glad to have read your critical analysis before reading the document, not having the breadth of historical knowledge that you have. I would have missed many of the points you raised. I am glad you raised them. As one of your brothers in the ELCIC, I have been and will continue to watch this matter very closely.

Peace to you Malcolm.

John Larson said...

I am wondering if the Queen could come to the Archbishops rescue and request his resignation. What would be the outcome of that? It would clearly refocus the debate about the covenant. Then again since it would be the evangelicals turn, we might get another George Cary. Thank you for your insightful comments.
John Larson, Diocese of Chicago