Saturday, 28 June 2008

No One is United

One of the constancies in the world of Christian religion - any religion - is that there is no such thing as unity. I hinted before that even liberals are not, and in this GAFCON lull prior to the final statement, I thought I'd swing a discussion to us.

This is important because no one is going to be unaffected if a 'Global Anglican Fellowship' does manage to shake up the Evangelical world. Not only this, but Robert Duncan may make a new province in the United States under a similar collegiate set of international bishops that might bring together some disparately loyal and overseen Anglicans, and also (after Lambeth) the present pope might just make up his mind to pick off some Anglo-Catholics into a Uniate set up. The point is that the more one pack of cards gets sorted out, and starts rearranging, the more the exposures and settlements lead to other packs of cards getting sorted.

After the Anglo-Catholics divided, it was almost as if the Evangelicals were looking for an issue in order to sort themselves out, and they found it in homosexuality - but have used this to begin to reorganise on a much wider front. What is interesting here is that the Anglo-Catholic traditionalists are, as yet, mainly unorganised, and remain hangers on in all sorts of Anglican settings, including now GAFCON. Given that GAFCON is Episcopal Protestantism, they will have to move on, unless they like being on fringes. It is rumoured that after Lambeth an Anglo-Catholic C of E bishop will cross the floor to Rome, but the question is always how many follow and it what form, and what other options are there. Well there are, but as with GAFCON creating your own actual Church can be the equivalent of disappearing - so some would exist with fringe arrangements.

The liberals as broad and inclusive by temperament, who give partial or complete symbolic interpretations to literalist-encouraging statements, put up with difference and inadequacy of Church and written forms. So they give off a sense of unity. However, they can be divided into groups, and this is not just heuristically.

There are those who aren't really liberal at all theologically, it is just that by being socially inclusive they are forced into the liberal camp. They will join liberals to espouse these aims, but should these become realised then they wouldn't be particularly liberal afterwards (they'd retain an ethic of inclusiveness). Jesus as the Christ would be regarded as unique.

Then there are those who are theological liberal revisionists, who are Broad Church mainstream. Some of these can be ecclesiastical bureaucrats, in the sense of holding various others together. Some are not interested in that. They hold to all the essential details of doctrines, like the Incarnation and objective Resurrection, but might question or reject the details like the Virgin Birth or the dissolving of the body into a renewed body. They have a kind of negotiation stance between the biblical narrative and actual history: so at the resurrection people were actually struck by a real objective Christ that gave no option but to turn things around and begin anew that led to the birth of the Church. It is important for the them that the history exists in some reasonable shape or form and serves a realist theology. The relationship with liturgy is a little strained, but there are real, objective connections between an actual formed liturgical tradition and what is the essential and qualitative theological truth of that tradition. Jesus as the Christ would be regarded as best and complete.

Then there are the theological radical (or heterodox liberal) revisionists, who are edge of the Broad Church, and its most creative dissonant types. For them, the Church bureaucracy can go where it will. They are mainly interested in gatherings of people and talking and even worshipping with one another. Every single doctrine is under review, and some or all can be pretty much rejected as possessing objective truth, if there is any objective truth to be had in religion. History is something to do with various forms of disciplined historiography, and it is soon realised that the accounts of the New Testament are out of reach of anything other than inadequate second hand methods of reconstruction: what emerges is the importance of story telling and this narrative is the foundation of some sort of directive faith. Truth, then, is in the drama, and the process of writing, and is contained within. So the gospel narratives become a way of expressing faith, and the Emmaus Road event, for example, is just a glorified way of early Christians saying that when the people could see and they got the point, and thus 'saw' him, then Jesus disappeared, for them to have been thus visited by him and have legitimacy and authority. It is about the story telling, the form of setting up and directing a community, in the context of the fantastic supernatural beliefs of the time. This is how to understand liturgy too: it is a faith pathway, and whilst it connects with tradition and identity, it indicates the creativity of humanity. Jesus as the Christ would be regarded as plural or relating to a universal principle.

Of the latter group, some may say that in all realism they are religious humanists, whereas others won't make that concession because you simply live in one story-world or another. What is bizarre is that some story-world inhabitants can appear to be completely traditional: their bubble is complete. Until, of course, they have to deal with scientific knowledge, the various social science and liberal arts disciplines, and then you find they live in the same world as most others. However, there is a point where these postmodernists are hardly liberal at all: they so reconstruct their world, their non-objective world, that they may as well be a traditionalist, and as such leave the liberal camp altogether - unless they become suspected and then find they need the tolerant liberals to be generous. The Jesus as the Christ as universal principle is wholly contained within the bubble. Others, as equally non-objective, retain an essential liberalism but often hate the label, and already see liberals as compromisers of a world view that is defunct. This is the difference between the Radical Orthodox and the Nihilist Textualists.

In some stress based future, it is perfectly possible for these groups to divide apart (not here including the Radical Orthodox among radicals - their orthodox appearances would probably be acceptable to bureaucratic liberals, as they are like the first group being socially inclusive but otherwise appear to be as theologically detailed).

Imagine if the bureaucratic liberals told those to their theological left that they are letting the side down. It could well happen in a Church of Open Evangelicals, liberals and socially inclusive Anglo-Catholics. The Conservative Evangelicals have either gone or are a busted flush within, and the Anglo-Catholic traditionalists have either gone or are a busted flush (as they are now). The Open Evangelicals have been damaged, and some with nowhere else to go and who maintain Evangelical views (that won't play with the details) they have stayed with the liberals. Some post-Evangelicals have no option but to do so. In this more tolerant if uneasy Church, with the liberals no longer under direct attack and thus no longer holding together in adversity, the need for a consistent identity in this Church might find the radicals coming under pressure. The radicals would see the possibility of at last real reform: of liturgical innovation, of developing in interfaith directions, of theological textualism and postmodernism, and the negotiating liberals and the others would find such unacceptable. Until this point, the chance of innovation has been impossible under fire, and so there has been no internal dispute. Such liberals could always leave, of course, and there has been a traffic in both directions, but in the new situation they might come under a more intense pressure to either shut up or go.

One wonders the fate of the Modern Churchpeople's Union in these circumstances. It has tendencies to moderation and negotiation, with a dollop of Christian agnosticism, and a smaller number of wilder reformers. It would be like today's Fulcrum - in trouble set against the future.

At the moment the liberals as a whole are just watching and analysing, whilst the groups that contain those that find all liberalisms unacceptable split among themselves (the first target of Conservative Evangelicals is not liberals but Open Evangelicals - those that they call liberal Evangelicals, and they are not liberals as such). Assuming a New Reformation goes through, then the liberals will be the centre again of a trimmed down Church, but the radicals will see a space for innovation that could just go and upset everyone again - and may cause another split among the liberals that would seem, now, impossible.

Update Sunday: A good comment which challenges the scheme, or wants to add to it, and in mentioning the particularly non-negotiating heterodox (questioning both big beliefs and details) I go down a storytelling line rather than categories (above). There is another way to do it in that some people have particular emphases of belief on theist, spiritist and exemplarist bases, and in such context the movement to nihilist textualism is the ending up as nonitarian option whereas the three can be seen as unitarian. Please see the comments.


Erika Baker said...

I think there should be a fourth category at least: the mystics who are theological radicals but who are by no means just about story telling or on their way towards rational humanism. I’m not sure the word “supernaturalism” is appropriate here, but they most definitely have a deep sense, even experience, of God as Other. They recognise that Christianity has much to say about this God but that, like all the other faiths, it cannot capture him fully. They believe that Doctrine is a way of trying to explain the inexplicable. It is not absolute truth, and is therefore open to radical and often very individual revision. But it’s based on an absolute truth of God .

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes. What would happen there is to go into more detail about the heterodox liberals, and rather than just focus on the movement from a negotiated orthodoxy - and how one group even as postmodern appears to be more doctrinal - it is possible to describe various branches of these beliefs. Roughly speaking, there are four - three unitarian types (small u) and one nonitarian! That's to say, a theism without Jesus Christ as wholly part of the Godhead, a spiritism which is mystical and other worldly and has New Age and interfaith characteristics, and the exemplarism of the tragic human Jesus as someone to follow. After that comes the textual nihilism and then the postmodern mirror image of doctrine as in Radical Orthodoxy. None of these (other than RO in a bizarre fashion) has that negotiation about detail and headline beliefs that the orthodox liberals do.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Just to make a further point, all the three realist groups still inherit the Christian language, use it and measure by it. This three-way carving up comes from - is revised from - analysis of letters to John Robinson after the Honest to God Debate carried out by Robert Towler.

Paul Bagshaw said...

Thank you for your concern for the MCU. I think we'll survive. Over the last century there have been times of strength and of weakness and I doubt the future will be any different.

I like your categorisation, though it does lose the idea of journey. People travel at different speeds and on different tractories into, through and out of all these boxes. Soemetimes the question is less gradations of difference than where the centre of gravity is at any one moment.

MCU survives because we don't put a lot of weight on which category members are in though we keep a central realist thread. Some people are members for decades, some stay a while and move on. All are welcome.