Friday, May 8, 2009

The Heart of the Problem in the Case of the Bishop-Elect of Northern MI

Kevin Thew Forrester, the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, has recently issued a nine-page defense of his theology and practice entitled "Approaching the Heart of Faith." I've weighed in on Forrester's theology and practice on this blog numerous times already, and in response to Forrester's latest offering, I can't say anything better than what my clergy and blogging colleague Greg Jones has already said over at "The Anglican Centrist."

Greg discusses numerous problems with "Approaching the Heart of Faith," including the document's affirmation that "the cross is not part of God's plan," as well it's rejection of the idea that "the death of Christ has any intrinsic connection to the salvation God has wrought in Christ."

But I think the deeper value of Greg's insightful analysis is that he pinpoints the heart of the problem in this particular case (which, to my mind, represents the heart of the problem of Anomic Anglicanism more generally). Here's what Greg writes:

In his vision of what it means to be a bishop, here I think he again falls off the rails of what might have been a good track. He says he agrees that a bishop is called to be a guardian of the faith. But, he interprets that to mean that the faith received is no more worthy of protection than the faith yet to be received.

In this he reveals his signature move. Since in his view the content of the faith is
always unfolding, as a priest (and as a bishop) he would see his leadership in protecting that unfolding. In light of his previous arguments that there are can be no boundaries at all to what "we may know," Thew Forrester appears believe that all aspects of the Church's doctrine and practice are therefore open to change, and not only change, but deep change, and not only deep change, but dismissal and discarding.

This latter point of view undergirds what appears to be his primary modus operandi. His m.o. appears to be that of one
singularly focused on innovation (as well as the redaction of doctrine and discipline as seems good to him). He seems to be quite proud to lead a parish which as he says is the diocesan leader in liturgical exploration and innovation. And while that can be a perfectly fine congregational vocation - it does depend on some key specifics. If one goes to the heart of the essential proclamation of the faith as bound up with the church's liturgical expression, and significantly discards or dismisses it, (as we have already mentioned above,) then I think one has gone too far. One can imagine, for example, that if a parish used "Rite III" every week -- in addition to be outside of the canons -- they could pretty much do anything they wanted. We all already know of parishes which do not regularly say the confession or Nicene Creed, and which openly invite the unbaptised to receive the elements. What if an entire diocese largely decided to come up with its own normative forms of baptism, eucharist, etc.? How is this anything but going too far?

Read it all.

Forrester's construal of the bishop's role as a guardian who protects "the unfolding" or "changing" or "evolution" or "revision" of the faith of the Church departs from the understanding of this role as one in which there is a substantive truth content - a dogmatic core - of the Church's faith to be protected and proclaimed. To be sure, our understanding of that core content can and does change over time. But that's a different thing entirely from changing or rejecting the core content itself. And ultimately, a new or different understanding of the core content is subject to reception and review by the larger Church. It's not merely a matter of the individual Christian's decisions, even if he/she is a bishop. Again, I think Greg Jones offers a helpful perspective:

... while I agree that God's revelation is unfolding, for that unfolding to be realized in the normal practice and proclamation of a very small group of people -- which is losing membership at a frightful rate -- in very short order - so as to lead to a form and message quite unrecognizable to so many Episcopalians in various places and contexts -- one might rightly ask the question: "Is it God's will that is unfolding here?"

Discerning the answer to that question is a communal endeavor rather than the individual's privilege.

And in a comment responding to Greg's piece, Christopher (who blogs at "Thanksgiving In All Things") makes this crucial point:

The unfolding of God's revelation in our time, let's call it "dependent revelation" in VII [Vatican II] lingo, cannot be dissonant with God's "foundational revelation" in Jesus Christ as sufficiently expressed by the Councils and articulated in our formularies.

By contrast, Forrester's theology and practice underscore an understanding of the bishop's role of guarding "the unfolding" that equates liberty with license, thereby shifting the locus of authority away from scripture, tradition, and reason to the individual's preferences (likes and dislikes) with respect to doctrine and liturgy. Opening that Pandora's box is a sure-fire way to undermine any basis for genuinely common prayer, and thus, by extension, undermines the conception of the Church as a Body in favor of affirming it as an aggregate sum of (more or less) like-minded individuals.

In short, the Forrester case offers a good illustration of what I've earlier characterized as the Over-Personalized Church:

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').

It is a hopeful sign that, in response to this vision of the Church as articulated in Forrester's theology and practice, even many "progressive" Episcopalians appear to be saying "no."


Greg Griffith said...

Excellent post, Bryan. That last point, though - "even many 'progressive' Episcopalians appear to be saying 'no.'" - is the crack between the institutional left and the radical left in TEC, which will only get wider as the days go on. The left likes to point and chuckle at the difficulty the right has over women's ordination and evangelical/anglo-catholic differences, but that's nothing compared to the left's coming rupture over who Jesus Christ is and what He did on the cross.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Greg. I think you're correct that there are divisions not only on the Right but also on the Left end of the spectrum. For too long, the Left has tended to think of themselves as a unified front against a Right that has the kinds of differences you've cited. But as I surf the blogosphere, it appears that the Forrester case is, indeed, exposing division withing the ranks of the Left between (as you distinguish them) the institutionalists and the radicals.

And actually, to fine tune the distinction a bit, there are also Episcopalians that are "progressive" on issues in moral theology but also creedally orthodox. Some are "institutionalists," but some are willing to pitch their tents wherever they can find a home that is friendly to both their "progressive" views and to their creedal orthodoxy. Thus far, the Episcopal Church works for them.

There well may be a coming rupture, and if it happens for the reasons you've cited (the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ), it's a rupture that frankly needs to take place.

Joe Rawls said...

Forrester's statement says many positive things about theosis with which I heartily agree. But then he goes and cites people like Borg and Pagels, which will always activate my crap detector.

He seems to not want to acknowledge that all Eastern Christian spirituality--including that of the so-called Nestorians and Monophysites--presupposes a human-divine Jesus who experienced an extremely non-metaphorical resurrection from the dead and who remains directly accessible to us through the Eucharist. The Eastern tradition also has lots to say about the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross--which was no "accident".

Forrester seems to enjoy wearing Eastern spirituality like a costume, much like a white Boy Scout dressing up in buckskins and a feather headdress and calling himself an Indian.

His talk of "upholding" the Prayer Book while adopting new and eccentric liturgies which completely contradict the theological underpinnings of the BCP is too bogus to require extensive comment.

Christopher said...

The left-right categories are tired for so many reasons, mostly because I think a vast majority don't really fit into these cannards.

I have been counted on the "left" because of my "progressive" views on matters like the ordination of women and same-sex relationships. Yet, the former I came to from ruminating on Chalcedon and St Augustine (as did Sayers, for example), the latter from working through Scripture and its uses/limits (a la Hooker) and moral/ascetical theology from Patristics and monasticism. Both can be characterized as "left" and "progressive". Both could also be characterized as deeply conservative and traditionalist if the gospel is at the heart of what we're conserving and Who we're applying to our lives.

At the seminary where I work, I am considered old-fashioned for insisting upon commitment before sex as ideal, understanding relationships in terms of ascesis similar to taking religious vows, and down right fascist for my liturgical sensibilities. At nearby seminaries, my profession of the Creeds and the core doctrine they maintain is considered terribly conservative and not "with it."

I simply think these categories don't serve well. And I bet they don't capture the complexity of many who supposedly inhabit them as well as many who are part of a large middle that wants not to be beholden to various agendas and simply worship God on Sundays and serve the world the rest of the week. We might call them parish Anglicans, as Christopher Haigh has done in his work on the English Reformation(s). I count myself among them.

I think some on the so-called left claimed people like me because of shared views on certain matters without understanding that our shared views on those matters stem from very different underpinnings in theology. I think some on the so-called right lumped me and all who shared views on those matters as apostate without fully recognize how seriously I and others take creedal orthodoxy--the radicality of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity are central to this Benedictine oblate.

Bryan Owen said...

I really appreciate your perspective and the sharing of your experience, Christopher.

At the risk of labeling those who cannot neatly be labeled, we who inhabit what former PB Frank Griswold once called "the diverse center" can quite easily embody the kinds of commitments you describe - and much to the consternation of those more ideologically minded and molded to the Left or to the Right! To be supportive of women's ordination and same-sex relationships while simultaneously committed to creedal orthodoxy- well, that just completely blows away all the neat labels we use to characterize each other so that we know "for sure" who's "on our side" and who isn't. Maybe it isn't as neat and tidy as that after all?

Speaking from my own experience, I have been surprised to find myself characterized as "extremely liberal" by someone in my family, and also characterized as "extremely conservative" by a member of the parish I serve. I'd love to be a fly on the wall if the two of them had an opportunity to sit down together and talk about me!

Christopher said...

It's always odd, isn't it, to be characterized by others as being on opposite ends of the spectrum? It reveals how subjective the spectrum is and how easily captured by ideology rather than Truth.

"Diverse center". "Muddling middle." Both work. I've started using the latter for a couple of reasons: It's honest about how we actually are together--loving one another in our disagreements and quirks, and it catches the heart of the Anglican theological method, which as I wrote in response to Brian on my blog:

No Brian. I disagree. Our theology of how we understand what the Spirit is saying happens precisely through on-going conversation. That is the Anglican theological method. Archbishop Williams' want to on the one hand promote conversation and on the other impose an Anglo-catholic style centralism modeled on Rome has sent very mixed signals and heighted a sense of crisis. I suspect that the reason the Indaba was so well received [is] because in their hearts, many bishops felt a return to the Anglican method rather than the pull and push of [immediate] Evangelical, Anglo-catholic, and Liberal solutions [and resolution].What I worry about, grew weary and wary of is this on-going politicization and polarization of our Church and Communion. It's soul-draining and joyless. I refuse to be so easily captured by agendas when I would rather worship and live and serve.

Worse, it ignores I would guess a very large middle of people across this Church and across the world in this Communion of Churches who may have views on these matters, which some have decided is make-or-break, when the rest of us would continue to muddle through together--not because we always agree, but because we all have our quirks and we love one another and seek out one another's company after Mass. I think of the the relationships I've built with others who disagree on issues others have decided are make-and-break, insisting we be torn apart from one another. It grieves me that it comes to this. And gives me joy that we refuse to go along.

What of the beauty and majesty of worshipping the Living God Triune and Holy?

What of serving Christ in daily life and work and family and in the most vulnerable?

What of hanging together in our quirks and differences at coffee hour and over lunch because we enjoy one another's company and because we love one another enough to disagree respectfully while recognizing our mutual faithfulness and common humanity?

I would suggest these three are what I have come to know as Anglicanism, and I see it disappearing not because it's gone absent but because louder voices are being given all the face time.

Where is our voice? That's my next post.

Bryan Owen said...

I look forward to reading that next post, Christoper.