Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Norms are Necessary

A recent posting over at “The Anglican Centrist” addresses the issue of violations of the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons. In particular, “The Anglican Centrist” is concerned about the discrepancy between the disciplinary action which may be taken by the Presiding Bishop against bishops like Robert Duncan on the one hand, and the many violations of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of this Church which go on all the time yet hardly ever merit notice (much less response) from governing authorities. This includes things like openly practicing Communion without baptism.

I think “The Anglican Centrist” hits a nail on the head with this observation:

Probably, and frankly, if we were more consistently faithful to our polity, canons and rubrics – we wouldn't be quite in this mess today. The way of ‘everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes’ is not the way of those living in relationships of mutuality and commitment – and that’s what it means when we live under the discipline of the Church.

This tendency towards “everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes” constitutes the problem of Anomic Anglicanism, which serves as a corrosive acid for maintaining any kind of community worthy of the name.

In the comments to this blog posting, I was particularly struck by this anonymous response:

As regards discipline, it seems to me that the first thing to bear in mind about it is that it is not intended to be ‘punitive’ or ‘exclusive’ or other negative sounding words. It’s about being ‘discipled’. Discipline is a gift, and it goes to the gift of integrity and identity.

As such, one mightn’t look at the canons as 'rulers' to beat folks with, but rather ‘rules’ to keep folks together.

It’s about bonds and boundaries for the health of the One Body – not barriers to entry or walls of exclusion.

In light of these ideas, checking i.d.’s (in the case of baptism) is not at all the point. It’s a question of how we invite people and to what steps do we invite them – believing as we do that it is God’s will that all come into the saving embrace of the Christ of the Universe.

I think this response goes a long way toward correcting critics who charge that Anglican Centrists and Creedal Christians are a “law and order party” – a bunch of Pharisees – who uphold the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit. That’s nothing but a caricature. The reality is that upholding norms, rules, etc. is not an end in itself, but rather serves as a means to the larger end of upholding the unity of the Body of Christ. For it is not possible to form and sustain the common purpose and vision of genuine community without shared norms to which all members are accountable.

And so the concern for norms, rules, and discipline derives from a concern for the conditions that make it possible for us to be the Church in the first place. Indeed, until the issue of shared norms and accountability to them is settled, it is not possible to get on with the work God calls us to do in the world. Lacking clear norms, we spend all of our time negotiating or arguing about how we’re supposed to be doing what we’re called to do. We get sidetracked from the focus on mission. It’s rather like standing up in the pulpit and spending the whole time clearing one’s throat instead of getting on with the sermon.

Contrary to what some critics charge, the concern for norms, rules, and discipline doesn’t necessarily translate into inflexibility. Boundaries are not barriers. But without norms that establish boundaries, the self-differentiation necessary for creating community can’t happen. And the term “Church” collapses into a projection of individual preferences and interests that set the stage for competing wills to power rather than the cooperation among diverse members of a common Body envisioned by the apostle Paul.

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