Thursday, 26 June 2008

Extremes: Premodern, Modern and Postmodern

While GAFCON continues to deny the place of liberalism in Christianity - it replaces Catholic, Evangelical and Liberal with Catholic, Liberal and Charismatic - the reality of a liberal witness continues. The Modern Churchpeople's Union Conference approaches early next month. This is from its press release:

Saving the Soul of Anglicanism

A conservative African bishop and a gay bishop will show how they can worship together as members of the same church at a conference next month.

The Bishop of Botswana, Rt Revd Trevor Mwamba, and the controversial Bishop of New Hampshire, Rt Revd Gene Robinson, are among the speakers taking part in the Modern Churchpeople’s Union Conference, July 8-11.

The aim of the event is to show how the Anglican Church can be open, inclusive and allow differences of opinion. It takes place a week before the start of the Lambeth Conference, preparations for which have been overshadowed by divisions in the church over the issue of homosexuality.

Homosexuality is associated with Catholic forms of Christianity and it is tolerated (passively or actively) by most liberals.

In those fringe Liberal Catholic Churches, it has always been present. Arnold Harris Mathew was forever discovering and running away from it, and his priests who became bishops of the Liberal Catholic Church were either gay themselves or sympathetic. Personnel now, for example in the Liberal Catholic Church International or the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church, are often gay, or gay-sympathetic, or both, and what marks these Old Catholic and Liberal Catholic offshoots are the gender and sexuality inclusiveness of ministries at the altar table and in ministry. Blessing services for gay couples are standard. This must be a far better and fresher situation than the situation of cover-up and duplicity or behaviours as in theological colleges of the Anglo-Catholic party.

GAFCON's attempt to exclude the legitimacy of homosexuality is as false as its attempt to exclude liberalism. The reason Peter Jensen stated that GAFCON might not work together was not some doubt about its decision making (as journalists have assumed) but because at present it contains extreme traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, who are masters of the gay cover-up, and plain extreme evangelicals like him, who would simply exclude (and more).

Also, coming in with this gay Catholic territory, whether duplicitous or open, is this tendency towards dressing up and high symbolism. Again GAFCON services have both tendencies, and an extreme evangelical toleration of even lay presided Eucharists can hardly mix with the high Catholic approach. For the Catholic side there is the continued action through ritual of the one breaking of Christ's body and loss of blood, while for the Evangelical side the Eucharist is but a memory meal.

We hear a lot about tensions in the extreme dogmatists' structures: that this GAFCON must split within, that its actions can split the Global South and may well split Anglicanism as a whole. In contrast Liberals have seemed united. Throughout the division and weakening of Anglo-Catholics after the ordination of women, and the coming split of the Evangelicals via GAFCON (Open Evangelicals can face both ways) and their weakening, liberals - tolerant of diversity and inclusive as they are - have stayed relatively united, and benefit.

However, as I have myself discovered, there is division or two in the liberal camp too. First of all, there always was. This has been between those who are moderate inclusivists acting as quiet, easy-going broad Churchpeople, and the radicals who are distinctive in the search for truths - and tend to be noisier. I'm one of the noisy ones. There have been splits aplenty in Liberal Catholicism, given the nature of small-group Episcopi Vagantes (also see below). There is another division too, and this is seen in the Liberal Catholic world.

It is between those who are postmodern, but after the modern in everything, and those who may be postmodern, but only partly after the modern, and have a strong anchoring in some sort of traditionalist premodern fantasy. It may be in the esoteric, or in apostolic succession. It could be any 'invented tradition'. From these we also get the idea of ancient Orders where people can practice spirituality. Hierarchy remains important - structures are invariably premodern.

For someone like me, these premodern aspects above can only ever be identifiers and means to practical boundaries. Apostolic succession does not go back to the apostles, as there is a whole grey area in the early Christian centuries, never mind the history of the early Churches. Even if an unbroken chain could be demonstrated, there is no magic or supernatural objective linking in the laying on of hands. Like many liberals, I just don't think like this: and whilst there is an identifier in such practice towards a 'history', that's about it. I also maintain a postmodern view of a symbolic virtual presence/ absence regarding the eucharistic ritual. Far more important is its working as a doorway of going-through, as a token-using dynamic point of reflection and a means of reorientation. I do not believe in real presence in any objective sense, but nor (should it be said) do I believe in faith as some sort of Protestant supernatural transmission substitute. That the Eucharist involves the body and primal acts of eating and drinking is important, but I cannot get into so much of the bowing and scraping that takes place. My one concession is to kneel at the rail regarding the central act, but elsewhere I remain fairly motionless on a practical and participatory basis (so I stand when others do and so on).

A friend of mine has a similar modernist and postmodernist reference point; she attended a Sea of Faith Conference that I attended in the early 1990s and we were quite friendly with plenty of discussion of views. She well knows the difference between non-realism, the apophatic and real absence (and we had this online discussion only some months ago).

She once had attended a convent, and so I knew something about this. She too retained a moderate, Catholic, eucharistic outlook, and one that eventually was to break under the liberality of her views, and I noticed a few years back that she had come into the Unitarian fold but had, like me, already found its spirituality quite bare and difficult to draw from (though it represents other values and outlooks). I suggested she might consider Liberal Catholicism and even the same group indeed that I was corresponding with from time to time - she lives in Glasgow and it had a representative in Edinburgh.

One of these Liberal Catholics had a message from Spirit that she should be a nun, as she had once considered in her past, this time in a revamped Order from a defunct Church merged into this Church's structures and mentality. So there was a correspondence between my friend and me about Liberal Catholicism in general and about this group, after this approach, and she was throwing up concerns about which there could be workarounds and the like. My questions were open ones - no directive advice from me - as well as my own reflections, and I gave web links for the various organisations that showed the full range of Liberal Catholicism and Independent Sacramental Ministry (from the anarchistic who priest everyone that joins to the most dogmatic).

It all came to an unexpected head, in which I was accused of being involved in untrained counselling and making judgments (even to the point of insulting) about an organisation, which simply was not so. Nevertheless this hamfisted intervention, that showed another feature of Liberal Catholicism (tiny institutions are possessive and highly schismatic; events magnify and personalities clash), added to my friend's growing realisation that this organisation was not for her. In reflection the hole for her as a peg was too set and too far out of shape. There just was this level of fantasy about a past existence that she would have to fill: a fantasy about Orders and dress and a high Catholicism when she said that she is a graduate who can think for herself and who believes in democracy and liberty. The message from Spirit was just crass, that nobody seemed to be actually listening to her. As a vegan, images about roasted lamb were used that were offensive, and there was no place for her to develop what would have been in effect a lowly position in an episcopal hierarchy. Indeed Liberal Catholicism has this tendency to spiritual and actual hierarchy.

Being accused of ignorance and even being to the point of insulting, and without me knowing about this accusation about me until she told me, was of course one of those like-schismatic points. I was an outsider when the insiders wanted control over the situation: but no, the outsider always provides another perspective and a breath of fresh air. In cultic situations, when authority is thrown about, the outsider often provides a lifeline. They were trained and I was not, was another accusation. I was only actually corresponding and future-imagining. I was quite the opposite from insulting (as she pointed out) and indeed I have defended Liberal Catholicism to an Anglicanism here (and locally) that has a history of hostility towards Liberal and British-born Old Catholicism. But this turn of events did mean that, should the Church of England take any further flight from sense as a result of GAFCON-Lambeth, then I have lost a potential place in which I might have become involved. Corresponding to my friend, I was discussing the issues in terms of my own questions and potential answers, and where she might agree or disagree, and those sort of compromises one makes.

I make them all the time as a communicant Anglican, living at or beyond the edge. Had it not been for this edge-existence, I may well decades back have made a strong effort to put myself forward to become an Anglican priest. As it happens, I went the Unitarian route and found chapel-land to be too constraining, depressing, and with people in little traditions and committees and operating backdoor creeds that were more restrictive than many broad-brush Anglican liberals quoting the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. And as for the accusation of being untrained, I did have a year of training at Unitarian College for ministry, and it included a counselling course - and the issue is not whether you have been trained but whether it is any good (I'll admit - it wasn't much cop). I'm not too bad academically either.

At the heart of it, though, is the awkwardness of dressing up, the fantasising, and the premodern - when you are a postmodern-modern. The liberal often does overlap into Catholicism (it gives the liberalism form and reference - at Unitarian College I had made my own ceremonial gown against common practice), though Anglican boundaries are not over fuzzy due to strong High and Broad parties. Outside Anglicanism the fuzzy overlaps are extensive, so that beliefs that include Druidism, Celtic Reiki, Buddhism, Spiritualism, Tantrism, Deeksha (Oneness consciousness blessing), semi-Unitarianism and Theosophy (to name but a few) overlap with this emphasis on apostolic succession and even real presence in the Eucharist. I have no problem with the diversity, but I do with the supernaturalism and esotericism and magic that seems to be wholly other to modernity - practical, ordinary thinking by which we understand the world to work.

And here is an odd point about these straining lines. Whilst I seem to have nothing in common regarding beliefs as held by Archbishop Peter Jensen, culturally he speaks my language and there is a direct communication. That's why he covered for Peter Akinola, who sounds very other (because he really does believe in signs and wonders and all the supernatural and magical premodern stuff). Jensen represents an extremity of the Reformation - a cold rationalised supernaturalism - and in the Reformation I relate to its extreme left wing that was rapidly and instantly liberal (Faustus Socinus, Francis David); it's just that in this postmodern period, and with diversity, I also relate to the need for colour and artistic imagination, and I bring in what social anthropology can tell us about ritual, religion and community, and about the individual in the group.

No comments: