Monday, February 15, 2010

κατὰ αἱρέσεων (Adversus Haereses / Against Heresies)

One of the favourite rhetorical flourishes of the hardline Anglican right is to claim that the leadership of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church is a heretic-ridden bastion of heterodoxy. They have their favourite whipping boys, of course: John Spong (formerly Bishop of Newark, now retired) in the United States and Michael Ingham (Bishop of New Westminster) in Canada.

Now, personally, I've never been that impressed with John Spong's theological writings. And while I found Ingham's Rites for a New Age quite useful (it's where I first discovered the concept of post-Christendom) , most of the rest of his stuff I've read has left me cold as well. As a result, I have no particular dog in the fight about the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of either John Spong or Michael Ingham. In fact, if anything, I lean towards the possibility that the right may have a case to make.

Thing is, serious accusations like "heresy" deserve a serious forum for discussion and resolution. This is particularly so in the Anglican tradition which has always allowed for a range of understanding on most (and possibly all) theological questions. Elizabeth I famously remarked that she had "no desire to make windows into men's souls." Thus, in our tradition, the focus has been on conformity to authorized liturgies rather than to confessional definitions. (And even on liturgics, we've allowed a broad range of practice.)

So, IF John Spong and Michael Ingham are heretics, what should be done about it?

If you are on the Anglican Hard Right, it seems, then Spong and Ingham should be slandered in books, articles and blogs and generally used as a whipping boy to discredit North American Anglicanism in the eyes of credulous conservatives in England, Africa and elsewhere.

Certainly the last thing the Anglican Hard Right would ever want would be for either of their convenient bogeymen have to answer the wildest accusations laid against them.

Over the past 30 years or more (Spong became a bishop in 1976, Ingham in 1994), the irreconcilable right wing have had it in their capacity to initiate charges of heresy against Spong and Ingham (and anyone else they didn't like) in the respective canonical processes of the American and Canadian Churches. Yet they did not.

The reason isn't hard to fathom.

A heresy trial was a lose-lose proposition for those seeking to destroy the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

A heresy trial would have meant that Spong and Ingham would have been able to describe for themselves what the oft-quoted and oft-maligned passages of their books and articles actually were intended to mean - and in many cases this would not have matched the shrieking hysteria the irreconcilables read into them at every opportunity. In essence, A heresy trial would have forced Spong's and Ingham's detractors to be accountable no less than Spong and Ingham.

A heresy trial would inevitably have one of two outcomes. Neither of these outcomes was particularly helpful to the agenda of destruction.

If Spong / Ingham were cleared by the court, the mass of moderate Anglicans would probably have accepted the finding without much more than a shrug. Sure, the bundists would have been able to accuse the entire heirarchy of heresy then - but that wouldn't have seemed very credible beyond their already-angry base. It would have been useful with that small audience, but it would have severely circumscribed their already limited growth potential.

Even worse for the schismatics would have been a finding that Spong or Ingham were guilty, for it would undeniably demonstrate that (after due process) the American and Canadian Churches were more than prepared to deal with heterodox teaching if it were proven (note the word proven) to exist. That would have cut yet another prop out from under the extremists' discredited narrative.

So instead, the schismatics have opted for the easy way out. Slander is more effective than an open process of investigation and judgement. Instead of formally charging Spong, Ingham (or any of the other hundreds of heretics they claim exist), they simply scream "heretic" as often and as loudly as possible.

Quotations - often out of context - are spun with the worst possible interpretation. Isolated incidents are treated as though they reflect the norm. The truth is crucified on the altar of right wing spin.

One of my favourites was the bizarre accusation that the Millennium Development Goals had replaced Jesus at the centre of Episcopal worship. The "evidence" was a picture which showed a celebration of the Eucharist in a hotel meeting room, clearly at the end of a synod or other Church meeting. An MDG poster happened to be on the wall behind the celebrant - and had probably been hanging on that same wall for a couple of days.

This is a technique the religious right has learned from the secular right. This is the false gospel of Karl Rove. The Good News of Jesus Christ is set aside for tea-bagging and swiftboating. And the sensible policy of Elizabeth I is replaced with ecclesiastical McCarthyism.

Here's Eddie Izzard on religious extremism - and how Inquisitions are alien to Anglicanism. (Language Warning)


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Malcolm+ -- wise words!

Anonymous said...

Heresy trials were attempted and failed - see this article from 1967,9171,841043,00.html

Bishops are free to preach any wild notion they can dream up or any other religion that takes their fancy, or even declare themselves the new messiah and they would never be deposed for heresy.

After this 1967 trial TEC became the anything goes church which is why it is in the mess it is in today, and has lost most of its members and continues to decline at an ever accelerating rate.

The Christian church that no longer believes in individual salvation. Why did Christ have to die then? They will tell you he didn't and the resurrection was a just a fable.

Get hold of some of the lovely teaching like the dvd series "Saving Jesus" to get an idea of what is being taught in thousands of parishes. In many parishes TEC has become some sort of wierd cult, not a Christian church in any biblical or historical sense.

The Religious Pícaro said...

They tried +Righter for heresy - not for actually believing anything heretical, but for ordaining a gay man to the diaconate. They had priorities, after all.

Malcolm+ said...

Thank you, O Nameless One, for proving the point so nicely.

Five conservative bishops. That's all it would have taken in the US to charge Spong. But the now rightly deposed bishops of San Joaqin, Pittsburg, Fort Worth et al were too cowardly even to try.

Malcolm+ said...

Another thing occurs to me about the Nameless One's angry rant.

So, if the Episcopal Church has been an irredeemable pit of heresy with nary a doctrinal standard in sight:

* Why did ACNA Archbishop Robert Duncan (ordained deacon in 1972, priest in 1973 and bishop in 1997) seek and accept ordination in the Episcopal Church?

* Why did ACNA Bishop John-David Schofield (ordained bishop 1988) seek and accept ordination in the Episcopal Church?

* Why did ACNA Bishop David Anderson (ordained "to the ministry" in 1970) seek and accept ordination in the Episcopal Church?

* Why did ACNA Bishop Jack Iker (ordained deacon and priest in 1974 and bishop in 1993) seek and accept ordination in the Episcopal Church?

I could go on.

Thing is that none of these men had any objection t being ordained to various orders in the Episcopal Church - and no objection to swearing their loyalty to the Episcopal Church - for more than 40 years following the investigation and report on the alleged heresies of Bishop Pike. (Pike, who called for himself, was never actually tried.)

Anonymous, at best you are either incoherent or disingenuous.

Warren said...

Pushing aside the editorial commentary, is this the essence of your thesis?

Certain Bishops, now part of the ACNA, conspired, intentionally abrogated their responsibility, and deliberately avoided initiating disciplinary action against certain other ACoC and TEC Bishops because they believed that such action would compromise their long-term plan to instigate a split from the ACoC and TEC. Now that they have succeeded with the split, these same unethical, conspiratorial, lazy, and cowardly Bishops (along with their mindless followers) are, for no valid reason (perhaps except for spite), slinging mud at the other Bishops, and at ACoC and TEC as a whole.

I just want to be clear.

I've tried to capture the intent of the adjectives you used, but admit that I may not have fully succeeded.

Malcolm+ said...

You're on the right track. However:

* Not everyone involved in the execution of the plan has been involved in conspiracies to date. We do, however, have the evidence of the Chapman Memo that there was a conspiracy in which several of the major players were involved.

* The abrogation of responsibility is a difficult point. I'm not entirely convinced that several of these people really believe that there is heresy about. But it is a useful accusation to make. In much the same way that Senator Joe McCarthy was well aware than many of the people he was slandering were not and had never been communists.

* Certainly these bishops (and others) found both John Spong and Michael Ingham more useful as bogeymen than they would have been even as convicted heretics.

* I don't think all of those bishops are lazy - though I've heard others say it about John-David Schofield.

* I don't think all or even most of their followers are mindless. Many are decent and reasonable people who have been dealt a load of self-serving tripe by a passle of fraud artists.

* I think they have a reason which is valid in terms of their continuing conspiracy. Slinging slander at Spong, Ingham and at TEC and ACoC generally continues to be useful as they try to peddle their lies further afield - as we saw last week at the CofE General Synod.

* Other possible explanations exist which are not quite so harsh on those involved. Perhaps they really were merely lazy - or merely cowardly - or merely lazy and cowardly. But the thesis that they refrained from acting because Spong and Ingham were more useful uncharged and untried makes more intuitive sense to me.

Malcolm+ said...

Missed one other point, Warren.

Not everyone on the Anglican Right has been shrieking "heretic" at every opportunity. Not everyone on the Anglican Right has conducted themselves in a manner devoid of all prnciple and decency. Just some. Some of the loudest.

My remarks here are directed at those who have invested great energy in slandering two bishops and two Churches because they believe the continuing slander will work to their advantage.

keith nethery said...


A one word addition to all this "POWER" There are some in ACNA that want to lead the whole show or as big a chunk as they can get. When their POWER was being lessened by upstarts on the other side standing up to them, they POWERED off on their own journey. Those who held genuine and passionate conservative views followed because they talk a good game. The solution starts when the games are put aside, the POWER is stripped away, and we all sit down and talk in a meaningful way. That means listen as well as speak.

Anonymous said...

My favorite thing about the so-called "orthodox" is the wonderful irony of a schismatic assembly of Gnostics, Montanists, and Donatists running around accusing everyone else of heresy.

It just doesn't get any better than that.

Malcolm+ said...

Keith, the other missing word is EGO. I understand that several of the newly minted ACNA bishops had been repeatedly unsuccessful in getting elected in TEC diocesan electoral conventions.

Warren said...

Anonymous, we're at the point in my church history course where we are discussing the early heresies such as you've mentioned. I would be interested if you could provide an example of what you are talking about.

Anonymous said...

Yes, for the longest it seemed that Martyn Minns offered himself up every time some diocese somewhere was looking for a bishop, but he never got picked. (Apparently most Episcopalians do not want a Pentecostal bishop. Who ever would have imagined such a thing?)

Minns was always the bridesmaid, never the bride, until the Nigerians came along and gave him the pointy hat he had coveted for so long.

Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about rearranging deck chairs on the "Titanic". The Anglican Church of Canada will have disappeared by 2060 and you're asking me to take what you say seriously-why?

Malcolm+ said...

@Warren - I haven't heard anyone make the accusation of Gnosticism or Montanism against the Anglican Right before. I suspect that Anonymous's reference to Montanism has to do with the Pentacostalist tendency of some of the Pittsburgh schismatics, as well as Minns and some of the other CANA folk. In some quarters, Pentacostalism is referreed to as neo-Montanism.

The Donatist heresy held that the validity of the sacrament depended on the worthiness of the minister of the sacrament. It arose following a period of persecution, and the Donatists maintained that sacraments conducted by those who had succumbed during the persecution but had confessed and returned to the Church could not be valid.

While I'd probably stop short of saying that te bulk of the Anglican Right are Donatists, there does seem to be no end of incipient Donatism in a lot of their rhetoric.

@ Anonymous 2042 - while extrapolating a short term trend can be useful in prodding people (as per last week's report in the Diocese of British Columbia which references that statistic), it is beyond foolish to pretend that a short term trend can be a reliable predictor of the future 50 years down the road.

Someone extrapolating Church adherence data from 1960 would have expected the Anglican Church - and most other mainline denominations - to be among the dominant forces in society, with the vast majority of people still attending services weekly.

Fifty years ago, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was a mostly rural protest party with strength in rural Saskatchewan and in rural BC and the odd seat elsewhere, with limited appeal in Manitoba and virtually no presence in Nova Scotia. Yet here we are today, where the CCF's successor is government is in power in BC and Nova Scotia, and its areas of strength across the country are largely urban.

So, Anonymous, I boldly predict that the Anglican Church will still be here in 2060 - and you'll almost certainly be gone.

(I will ask anonymous posters to sign some sort of pseudonym so we can tell you apart. Otherwise I will have to make it impossible for people to post anonymously.)

Warren said...

Malcolm, given your words in your original post - Thing is, serious accusations like "heresy" deserve a serious forum for discussion and resolution. and Slander is more effective than an open process of investigation and judgement. - do you have any appropriate words of exhortation for the "anonymous" commenter?

Warren said...

Malcolm, I spent my first 25 years in the pentacostalism (PAOC). Although I could vaguely see how someone on the outside looking in could - with an enormous stretch and concentrating only on gross abuses - compare pentacostalism to Montanism, as someone who grew up in the tradition the comparison is not valid. I left pentacostalism for quite different reasons.

Malcolm+ said...

WRT Pentacostalism / Montanism - I don't think I'd draw quite that equivalence either. The comparison (or for some, the equating) of Pentacostalism with Montanism has to do with the emphasis on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit claimed by both - and, in fairness, claimed by many advocates of full inclusion as well.

I don't own the link some make between Pentacostalism and Montanism. I merely felt it was useful for context to know that some made that link.

WRT accusations of heresy - Certainly a serious accusation of heresy needs to be dealt with in a transparent and serious way. That said, while I have seen the occasional reference to Donatism (or at least incipient Donatism) leveled by reappraisers vs reasserters, it certainly isn't part of the standard talking points. Reasserter rhetoric vs reappraisers, by contrast, seems to make the accusation of heresy a central and foundational talking point for many (most?). (OTOH, some reappraisers use accusations of bigotry in much the same way.

Probably the safest and most productive thing is to acknowledge that, on both sides of these issues are people of good will atttempting to be faithful to where they perceive God to be calling them and the Church. And on both sides there are people who are mired in their own human failings.

And most importantly, it would be helpful to acknowledge that it is always easier to recognize (and then condemn) the sins and failings of the other side in such things.

Warren said...

Probably the safest and most productive thing is to acknowledge that, on both sides of these issues are people of good will atttempting to be faithful to where they perceive God to be calling them and the Church. And on both sides there are people who are mired in their own human failings.

And most importantly, it would be helpful to acknowledge that it is always easier to recognize (and then condemn) the sins and failings of the other side in such things.

True words.