Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bishop Budde vs. Bishop Wright

There's an interesting piece on The American Spectator's website entitled "Spiritual Decay." It's about Mariann Budde, the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. It talks about Bishop Budde's candid acknowledgement of the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room (good for her!), even as the piece is critical of her ideas for how to address the problem. I was struck by the following statement by Bishop Budde:

"I'm pretty confident that the gospel is clear on this in terms of our accepting people as we are created by God to be and not asking people to change to conform to some uniform standard of human expression."

This statement brings to my mind a passage from Simply Christian in which N. T. Wright addresses the practical implications of Baptism (you can read the passage here). I was struck by the following statement by Bishop Wright:

"We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire."

Perhaps a comparison of these two statements by Anglican bishops gives us a feel for the depth of the chasm that divides us.


Don C said...

You said a mouthful brother!

Kurt said...

I would have to know much, much more from both of these writers rather than snippets to make any kind of a judgment about either one of them. What has been constructed, in effect, is a verbal Rorschach Test, which I think may say more about one’s own theological perceptions than those of the writers.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Kurt. I'm sure you noticed that I did not take sides or pass judgments about either bishop in this posting (okay, I did pass a kind of judgment by praising Bishop Budde for publicly taking the problem of decline in the Episcopal Church seriously). I simply shared an observation which I found interesting. I don't expect everybody else to find it interesting or significant. But I personally think the contrast between those statements is quite striking and relevant to the divisions within Anglicanism. And knowing what I do about both bishops (I've read a lot of Wright's work, and I spent two weeks in Israel back in 2008 with Budde and I listened to her spar with Kendall Harmon on Minnesota Public Radio), I think that the more one knows about each of them, the more striking the contrast becomes on a number of matters.

Christopher said...

If it is our desires and affection of which we speak, me thinks there is a third way, a characteristically Anglican way, between an over-optimistic affirmation of our creation as suggested in Bishop Buddes' remark that does not acknowledge that our desires are fallen and in need of redemptive ordering and the chasm that tends to characterize creation and redemption in the Reformed leanings of Bishop Wright. Cranmer's 1549 introduction to Matrimony is a good start for both sorts. We have tended to call this examination and ordering of desire ascetical or moral theology. I see neither of these bishops doing this sort of theology in their remarks.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Christopher. I'm largely in agreement with you, with a few differences of opinion.

Based upon what I've read and heard from her, I do think that Bishop Budde comes across as overly optimistic. While that is, IMO, a deficiency in some areas, it could be that her optimism will prove helpful in addressing the challenges of evangelism and mission in a declining ecclesial institution. Even if she doesn't have all of the answers (and who among us does?), and even if her answers aren't the right ones, she's at least raising the issues (pessimism, while it may seem at one level to be realistic, also strikes me as ultimately self-defeating). Others at the level of our leadership continue to remain eerily silent about this matter.

While I certainly see the Reformed side of Bishop Wright, I also see him as a contemporary voice in Anglican theology who has, in fact, offered a contribution to ascetical or moral theology in his recent book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Based upon that book (which draws on the tradition of virtue ethics going back to Aristotle, as well as the New Testament), as well as the first part of Simply Christian, I just don't see Bishop Wright as a "total depravity" kind of guy. Indeed, his emphasis on virtues of character seems to me to fit quite nicely with Timothy Sedgwick's emphasis on "practices of piety" in his book The Christian Moral Life (in which Sedgwick offers a chapter outlining how the emphasis on "practice" has deep roots within the classical Anglican tradition).

So in addition to the chasm that exists between Anglicans who do and who do not take the problem of sin seriously (and yes, there are those who really don't think much of the concept of sin at all), there's also a divide between Anglicans and other Christians who think that the Fall "goes all the way down" (the more hard-line Reformed vision) and those who don't buy the "total depravity" view (which would include me, BTW).

Charlie Sutton said...

As someone who is Reformed (and Anglican) I have often found that people have misunderstood the doctrine of "total depravity," which I and others prefer to call "radical corruption." Total depravity does not assert that every human being is as bad as he or she might be, for it is obvious that there are many decent and kind individuals all over the world, some of whom make no profession of any kind of faith, and others who follow one of the many other faiths on this planet.

Rather, "total depravity/radical corruption" asserts that every aspect of human being - intellect, emotions, the body, the will, and so forth, are all touched by sin and warped by it, so that there is now an inability to know or love God or desire to follow and obey him as he is. We have been corrupted by sin and see nothing as it is, love nothing as we ought, and desire God (if at all) for what he can give rather than for who he is. By God's mercy, we can be restored to his original purpose, but only by his mercy, not by anything that lies within us.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks so much for the clarifying comment, Charlie. I note that the version of "total depravity/radical corruption" you describe is rather different (gentler?) from the version I've come across by others who inhabit the Reformed tradition.

In the other version, total depravity means all that you say, but it goes much deeper to include even our ability to recognize anything of God. And so the very idea of natural or general revelation is undermined, for the human capacity to perceive God's self-disclosure in nature, history, etc. has been corrupted (perhaps even destroyed?) by sin. And it goes further to say that even the human capacity to grasp special revelation is compromised because of the way in which human faculties have been so thoroughly corrupted (destroyed?) by sin. And so only those whose faculties have been restored by grace can even begin to perceive anything of God's self-disclosure.

That's the kind of theology I've encountered when people talk about total depravity. So I have to say that I much prefer the version you've offered, Charlie!