Friday, July 12, 2013

Little Hope for Bridging the Anglican Divide

Back at the end of 2010, I posted some thoughts on two movements within the Anglican Communion that represent diametrically opposed approaches to the Christian faith.  Piggy-backing on a posting by Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under, I noted that these two approaches can be termed "Jude 3 Anglicanism" and "John 16:13 Anglicanism."  

Jude 3 Anglicanism upholds "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" by appealing to unchanging norms and doctrine. As Peter Carrell put it in his original posting: "In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and ethics were more or less settled with the final writings of the New Testament at the close of the first century A.D.  When proposals come forward which appear novel, such as endorsing faithful same sex partnerships through blessing or ordination, or softening the exclusivity of Jesus from 'the way' to 'a way' to God, this movement is unmoved.  What has been delivered once for all does not permit such endorsement or such softening."

By contrast, John 16:13 Anglicanism embraces an understanding of progressive or continued revelation that opens Christian faith and practice to change and at times even substantive revision.  Here's how Peter Carrell summarizes this approach: "In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and ethics are not yet, perhaps never will be settled.  Novel proposals tend to be welcomed rather than rejected; the Spirit guiding into all truth, after all, is to be expected to catalyse such possibilities."

It is difficult to imagine two approaches to Christian faith that could be more incompatible!

In a recent posting at the Anglican Curmudgeon, A. S. Haley offers thoughts on how this incompatibility breeds division that may be unbridgeable.  And in ways that supplement Peter Carrell's observations about John 16:13 Anglicanism's commitment to ongoing revelation, Haley notes that the progressive majority in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada increasingly justify revising faith and practice on the grounds of "civil rights."  He writes:

There is clearly a division among faiths occurring, which is based on a similar division among cultures. The Anglican Communion, such as it was, was a brave attempt to bridge cultures under the banner of one faith, ultimately stemming from the Church of England. But with that Church now splintering over the issue of women in the episcopate, and the majority's treating the issue as one of straightforward "civil rights," can the admission of openly noncelibate gays and lesbians to the Church's episcopate be far behind? After all, that issue will be debated in the Church on that same ground of "civil rights," which the English Archbishops recently cited in Parliament to support the measure allowing same-sex civil marriages.

And there you have it. For America, Canada, Britain, and many other European countries, it all boils down to "equal civil rights" for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, and their country's churches feel bound to mirror, and thus to honor, in their own structures that which the legislatures (or judges, as in America) have decreed.

But for traditional Anglicans, including those in GAFCON, the Church is the keeper and guardian of the faith, and is not free to jettison Holy Scripture in an effort to accommodate the society in which it finds itself. For them, the concept of "civil rights" has no meaning in the context of the Church, where God's laws, and not man's, are paramount. No one has any "civil rights" before God, and consequently changes in Church doctrine and worship are not a simple matter of majority vote ...

More evidence that there may be little chance of bridging the Anglican divide comes with talk like this:

The Church of England knows it has a crisis on its hands. It thinks the crisis might be solved by gently persuading enough conservatives to overcome their convictions and vote yes for women bishops. I am convinced the problem is far deeper than that. I think we hold dramatically different understandings about the nature of God and they are irreconcilable. I believe in a God of love. They believe in a nasty, rule-bound, vindictive God who despite everything they say, hates gays. Until they overcome their prejudice, they will continue to drive the church towards a precipice. Until people, especially in Synod, have the courage and awareness to proclaim that God looks totally different from the conservative’s version of God, the majority of people in this country will treat us with disdain and many church members will continue to abandon the church.

This citation comes from post-General Synod reflections by the Rev. Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude.  Just as it is hard to imagine two approaches to the Christian faith that could be more diametrically opposed than Jude 3 Anglicanism and John 16:13 Anglicanism, so it is hard to conceive how it would be possible for people to stay in communion when they hold such beliefs about those they disagree with. 

Peter Carrell's thoughts in response (this time from a more recent posting) hit the nail on the head:

If one part of an Anglican church or of the Communion is running round thinking another part is 'nasty' and links that to believing in a 'vindictive God' and not believing in a God of love, then there is little hope of reconciliation, of truly partaking of communion together in which one bread is broken as the body of the one Christ. Even fellowship over a cup of tea is going to be difficult. 

Reconciliation and fellowship may not only be difficult, but also undesirable insofar as the other side is deemed not just morally deficient, but also morally vicious.


El Gringo Viejo said...

We read your words with considerable interest. You said much with industrial-strength concentrated meaning. I am from the ultra-traditional 1662 BCP-type of Episcopalian/Anglican.

I do not hate the homosexuals or the women who want to serve while vested in the raiment of the orders.

It only seems strange to wish to turn the Church and the churches into some other form of homosexual bar and bathhouse, perhaps with a multi-denominational altar placed carefully in a dark corner, so as not to offend another person's beliefs.
Neither I nor mine have ever raised a hand against a homosexual....and in some cases we have defended them against unjustifiable and/or useless or stupid abuse.
The Churches are empty, not because we have run them and the progressives off. They are empty because we conservatives sit at home, reading Mr. Haley, going to Roman mass, attending the old Episcopal Church rarely...perhaps to lament the emptiness of the pews.

It is all sad, roundly sad, for all.
El Gringo Viejo

Peter Carrell said...

I had forgotten about that earlier post!

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for posting comments, El Gringo Viejo.

I'm not aware of anyone who wishes "to turn the Church and the churches into some other form of homosexual bar and bathhouse." But I am aware of LGBT persons who wish to receive the full acceptance of the Church when it comes to their faithful, monogamous relationships.

Is couching the matter of full acceptance in terms of 'civil rights' a sufficient warrant for the Church to change her faith and practice?

How should the Church come to terms with the reality that we have LGBT persons in relationships who are faithfully serving as laypersons, deacons, priests, and bishops?

What should the Church do with Scripture and the way that Tradition has interpreted that biblical witness on this?

In light of Colin Coward's comments, does asking such questions make one a homophobic bigot and a moral Neanderthal? Does answering them in a way that he disagrees with make one a homophobic bigot and a moral Neanderthal?

And what do we do with persons (lay and ordained) who hold to the traditional, orthodox view on these matters as the churches they serve move beyond such understandings?

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you for the comment, Peter. I hope that the reminder of your earlier post was a good one!

Anonymous said...

Father Bryan, thanks for this post. Lots to think about here.

Though I can’t help but wonder… If we continue to construe the debate along these lines, allowing the two extreme poles to frame the terms, well, then of course there’s no hope. But what stands out to me in the schema you develop is the complete absence of any theological analysis or ‘worldview’ between the first century and sometime around the birth of liberalism, roughly around the 18th century.

I realize that you’re being descriptive and indeed, for so many in the church, the debate does fall along these lines. But this is only symptom of a larger issue; namely, that both sides often mirror one another – much in the same way that American “Liberals” and “Conservative” are two sides of the same neo-liberal coin. And as I’m sure you know, there is another ethos out there within Anglicanism, sometimes trading under the banner of post-liberalism, Radical Orthodoxy, or other related monikers. Granted, it’s small, but it is growing.

What I see happening is a complete rejection of something like the middle ages, and this is really telling in terms of where things stand. I think we see this played out along the lines of medieval exegesis based on allegory. It doesn't quite have the precision of Biblical-Historicism (Jude 3), nor does it have the blunt hermeneutic of suspicion (John 16:13). Rather, medieval allegory, as just one example, sort of short circuits both poles. There’s an inherent openness to the future, but in a way that doesn't jettison the past – and not simply as a safe, middle ground approach.

I only bring this up to say that I do think there is hope, but we have to see the debate differently. We have to refuse the hidden alliance between Conservatives and Progressives so called. There’s a more radical approach available and one that I think will get us out of this deadlock.

Bryan Owen said...

Many thanks for a very thoughtful response, robbbeck. You've offered much food for thought. And I hope that you are correct about "a more radical approach" that may help us "get out of this deadlock."

Nevertheless, while that sounds hopeful in a general sense, when it comes to particular cases it's hard to see beyond the polarities. Here's how I put it in response to another commentator when I first wrote about this Anglican divide back in December 2010:

I will concede that there is, indeed, a place for a disciplined middle view on a variety of matters. But it's hard to see how hermeneutics can navigate a middle way between some of the divisive issues we now face. When General Convention approves rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, for instance, an ordained person is either in principle willing to perform such blessings or not. The answer is either "yes" or "no." Regardless of what reasons the individual may offer for his/her answer, for all practical purposes saying "yes" means giving a "John 16:13" response and saying "no" means giving a "Jude 3" response.

Moving beyond this impasse will require one side or the other to compromise for the sake of unity. But is it genuine unity if what is blessed by God at St. X is anathema to God at St. Y?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding, Father Bryan. I really appreciate it.

And I can definitely appreciate the concrete reality you describe, especially when it comes to matters of General Convention (!).

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that the whole debate seems suspect, and I think there are quite a few of us out there, younger Anglicans perhaps, who resist the dichotomy between Conservative and Progressive _because they are two sides of the same neo-liberal coin_. Conor Cunningham wrote a book about how the debate between science and religion has been hijacked by fundamentalists on both sides, and I can’t help but see a parallel happening in TEC. So by the time General Convention rolls around we just now expect this debate to be played out again and again. I realize it sounds Pollyannaish given where things stand in the church today, but instead of being forced to accept a Jude 3 or John 16:13 position, I would hope to find a “Commentary on the Song of Songs by St. Gregory of Nyssa” approach. Not as middle ground position, but as entirely different way of thinking through the issues.

I hear you: “it's hard to see how hermeneutics can navigate” between these two poles, but at the same time, both sides need to see their symbiotic relationship. For instance, Conservatives in defending sex as the decisive schismatic issue only repeat and reinforce our cultural fascination with sexuality, as Stanley Hauerwas argues; likewise, Progressives, in advocating some type of laissez-faire approach to tradition and sexual mores only repeat the abuses of capitalism they deride elsewhere.

As to your point about unity, I hear you. I’m still making my way through Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity, hoping I’ll find an answer there.

Again, many thanks for thoughts.


Bryan Owen said...

More good points, Robb. I appreciate your interest and concerns, and also your efforts to think beyond the current ecclesial impasse. Please do keep us posted on what you discover via your blog Sublunary Sublime.