Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Anomic Anglicanism

In another posting, I distinguished between two ideal types of the Church: the Monolithic Church and the Over-Personalized Church. As their defining characteristics suggest, these two Church types are negative mirror images of each other. I noted that both of these Church types are in a conflict to dominate the Episcopal Church and global Anglicanism. And I concluded that neither of these Church types alone constitutes a Via Media Church.

In this piece, I want to explore some of the reasons why it is becoming more difficult for Episcopalians to live into the identity of a Via Media Church. A couple of recent (and, I believe, by no means unique) experiences raise the relevant issues.

First Experience: An Episcopal friend shared with me that her EFM mentor has confidently declared to the group that Jesus’ death was not an atonement for anybody’s sins and that the resurrection of Jesus never happened. Jesus simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the resurrection is just a 'myth.'

Second Experience: I’ve recently been using the Nicene Creed as a resource for teaching a Youth Confirmation class. Because we recite it every Sunday in the liturgy and it has been repeatedly affirmed by successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions as "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877), I think they need to know something about what we’re affirming as the faith of the Church.

So one day I’m working on the second part of the Creed with its affirmations of the uniqueness of Jesus as Lord and Savior, the union of Jesus' two natures (one divine, one human) in one person, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, etc.

Later that evening, I attend a gathering of other Episcopalians and hear much of what I was working on earlier in the day rejected and opposite views affirmed – including Gnostic and Arian Christologies, a Marcionite view of the Bible (an OT God of judgment and wrath vs. a NT God of love and acceptance), and a radically subjectivist understanding of religious truth.

These sorts of experiences trouble me, not because I don’t embrace religious and theological inquiry (I do), and not because I wish to affirm a Monolithic model of the Church against an Over-Personalized model (I don’t). They trouble me because they are not uncommon in the Episcopal Church. And because they provide empirical evidence for ecclesial anomie.

Anomie.

A + nomos: literally, “against rule" or "against law.”

Normlessness.

Anomie is a situation in which the norms that define and make the shared life of community possible are (a) forgotten, (b) known, but rejected, or (c) never known to begin with.

In the Episcopal Church, the norms that give us our identity and make common life possible include Holy Scripture, our Constitution and Canons, and the liturgies and rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer.

We have the norms we need to sustain a common, faithful life. But the evidence for anomie is mounting. It arises especially in the growing chasm between praying and believing. We pray using The Book of Common Prayer, but our common prayer does not necessarily shape what we believe about God, Jesus, the Church, etc. We corporately affirm what the Eucharistic prayers say about Jesus and what the Nicene Creed articulates as the faith of the Church. But as soon as the liturgy concludes, we individually feel free to revise or repudiate everything we’ve corporately affirmed.

We are no longer sufficiently formed by the norms we already have.

Take the first experience I cited above. It troubles me that someone who says they don’t believe in the atonement and in the resurrection is willing to pray belief in the atonement and the resurrection, yet is also apparently unwilling (or unable) to allow that praying to shape his/her believing. This doesn’t simply turn the old patristic maxim that “praying shapes believing” on its head. It implodes it by shifting the locus of authority away from the liturgy (the “work of the people”) to individual conscience. When that happens, the overriding norm for truth is private and subjective rather than corporate and intersubjective.

This issue becomes even more serious when we look at the vows taken by clergy. In the ordination rites, the ordinand makes this vow before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly (including signing a statement to this effect, which is then signed by witnesses):

“ … I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 513, 526, & 538).

The “Oath of Conformity” represents a deeply countercultural commitment. For as fashionable as it is for many bishops, priests, and deacons to take a stand on any given issue because their conscience dictates it, we clergy have promised to be conformists. We have solemnly promised that the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church over-rides individual conscience by setting the boundaries for what is and what is not normative. As a consequence, we clergy have voluntarily given up our “right” to ecclesial disobedience.

When Episcopal clergy ...
  • alter the language of the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer, or even write our own Eucharistic Prayers for use in place of authorized prayers;
  • dismiss the directives of rubrics;
  • substitute a “new and improved” creed for the Nicene Creed, or even drop it from the liturgy altogether;
  • act contrary to canon law and encourage others to do the same (by promoting communion for the un-baptized, for example);
  • support the belief that we can achieve Anglican ends through Congregationalist means by allowing parishes to vote on whether or not they choose to remain members of the Episcopal Church;
  • substitute the “spiritual authority” of the Primates’ Meeting (which has no grounding in legitimate, conciliar authority) for the Constitution, Canons, and General Convention of the Episcopal Church;
  • and/or publicly affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, but only for persons who choose to accept him as such

... then we reject the norms of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church for the private judgment of individual conscience.

This is anomic Anglicanism.

Its consequences are far-reaching. Not only does it make it increasingly difficult to see the background of agreements against which our disagreements are recognizable (and perhaps bridgeable). But the extent to which we treat canons, rubrics, approved liturgies, ordination vows, etc., as arbitrary impositions to be ignored when convenient (or when circumstances trouble our conscience) is precisely the extent to which we repudiate our membership in the Episcopal Church.

Most of us wouldn’t dream of tolerating this kind of anomie in our society (“Sure, Congress passed that law, but we’re going to do things differently in this town!”), or in our marriages (“Yes, honey, I promised to be faithful to you in the marriage vows, but my conscience leads me to have sex with someone else on the weekends.”).

And yet we tolerate it in the Church.

Some even actively celebrate it.

If our praying shapes our believing less and less, and if clergy are unwilling (or unable) to keep their vows and promises, then it makes perfect sense why the only available alternative to the subjectivism of the Over-Personalized Church appears to be the objectivism of the Monolithic Church with its insistence on the individual’s inflexible submission to hierarchical authority.

Embracing conscience over conformity with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, we bring the crisis of anomie upon ourselves. It's a crisis that makes the Over-Personalized and the Monolithic Church types - and their inability to co-exist - appear to be the only viable options. And one which makes normlessness appear to be the only norm.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Monolithic Church vs. Over-Personalized Church

As someone in search of a Via Media Church, I've found the distinction between the two ideal types of the "Monolithic" versus the "Over-Personalized" Church helpful.

The Monolithic Church embodies a model of authority we can term 'hierarchical heteronomy.' Members are told by clergy what to think, what to believe, and what to do, and these things are defined in the same way for everybody. This Church embraces epistemic and ethical objectivism. Absolute Truth is known within the Church with absolute certainty. Private judgment is considered anathema, for the Church hierarchy alone is the guardian of truth and goodness. Individual conscience and preferences must be submitted to the teaching authority of the Church hierarchy. Requirements for membership are maximal, so the Monolithic Church requires a strict consensus on all matters dogmatic and moral for persons to be considered good members.

The Over-Personalized Church embodies a model of authority we can term 'subjective autonomy.' Members are free to think, believe, and act as they individually please. Based largely on their personal preferences (likes versus dislikes), members choose whether or not to abide by Church norms and teachings. This Church embraces epistemic and ethical relativism. There is no such thing as Absolute Truth, only varieties of personal or subjective truths. Private judgment based upon individual reason and/or individual feelings is considered a virtue. Because the requirements for membership are so minimal, the Over-Personalized Church requires only a tangential consensus to maintain some semblance of a common life (e.g., 'we choose to be together because we individually like to do so').

As ideal types, neither the Monolithic Church nor the Over-Personalized Church exists as a verifiable, empirical reality. However, some Churches embody more of the marks of one ideal type than the other.

For example, Roman Catholicism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Church of Christ tend to move rather far in the direction of the Monolithic Church (each one in different and distinctive ways, to be sure).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Unitarianism and Unity Church are good examples of the Over-Personalized Church type.In my judgment, the Episcopal Church and many of the “mainstream” Protestant denominations (Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, etc.) fall somewhere between the Monolithic and Over-Personalized ideal types. Although one may certainly find individual Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Unitarians, Southern Baptists, etc., who also fall somewhere in the middle.

In the current culture wars rocking the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, we have a battle waging between a Right that tends to espouse a Monolithic Church model (claiming that it is true Anglicanism) versus a Left that tends to espouse an Over-Personalized Church model (claiming that it is true Anglicanism).

I disagree with both the Left and the Right. I believe that there is a middle way between these antithetical ideal types. It’s an option described as “generous orthodoxy” by Fr. Greg Jones of “The Anglican Centrist.” Here's what Fr. Jones says about it:

We hold to the classic essentials of the Christian faith:

- The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments “contain all things necessary to salvation,” and are the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

- The Apostle’s Creed is the “Baptismal Symbol” and the Nicene Creed is the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

- The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and Eucharist – are to be ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words and elements (water, bread, wine).

- The Historic Episcopate – the church’s living continuity of apostolic leadership in the institutional church.

We hold on to these massive pillars of faith – and we live out our life using the Prayer Book – again in whatever version currently used. We agree on the essentials, and tolerate disagreement on inessentials. The four points above are the essentials.

Of course, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Which is why our vision of orthodoxy is often called “Generous Orthodoxy,” a term coined by the great Episcopalian bible scholar Hans Frei.

In contrast to the Monolithic and Over-Personalized Church types, Generous Orthodoxy embraces a corporate and conciliar model of authority. We have overlap here with the Eastern Orthodox, for we, too, look to the early Church councils to define the dogmatic core of the faith (particularly as embodied in the Nicene Creed). And as Episcopalians, we gather in diocesan council and in General Convention to corporately address matters of common life and concern in an authoritative way. Corporate discernment and corporate consent is how we go about applying our faith and making decisions. This privileges neither private judgment nor a hierarchical “Father knows best” mode of authority. Over against a strict consensus on the one hand and a tangential consensus on the other, we generously orthodox Episcopalians affirm that an overlapping consensus in dogmatic and moral theology is sufficient for us to be the Body of Christ together, and we maintain that overlapping consensus through adherence to the norms of Constitution, canons, the historic creeds, the liturgies and rubrics in The Book of Common Prayer, etc.

To be sure, an overlapping consensus rather than a strict consensus means that we will have different interpretations of the same scriptures and aspects of tradition, and we will often disagree on particular moral matters (e.g., homosexual practice or abortion). That can be difficult, painful, and even potentially schismatic. But Generous Orthodoxy willingly runs those risks because of the conviction that while there is Absolute Truth, no one of us (and no group among us) knows it in its fullness with absolute certainty.

In his book The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1937), former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey writes:

For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as 'the best type of Christianity,' but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died (p. 220).

Ramsey affirms the place of the Anglican Church within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and simultaneously affirms that ambiguities, tensions, and lack of absolute certainty are intrinsic to Anglican identity. In other words, Anglicanism per se does not entail the fullness of God’s revealed truth.

We live in a time in which the opposing models of a Monolithic Church versus an Over-Personalized Church are struggling for dominance, a struggle that is consuming more and more of the time and energy of Anglican leadership around the world. In such a context, Ramsey's reflections not only make for a fine endorsement of Generous Orthodoxy. They also remind us that both of these ideal types fall short of the Anglican vision for a Via Media Church.