Saturday, 18 April 2009

In the Doctrinal Forrest

I do not know the balance of numbers regarding the likely consents or otherwise of the Bishop Elect of North Michigan, Kevin Genpo Thew Forrester.

What I do see is an interesting (and in a number of ways concerning) debate on the ecclesiastical and theological left about his suitability to be a bishop of The Episcopal Church.

Among those of this perspective there seem to be a number of reflections.

First, unlike with the theological and ecclesiological right, there is little concern with his use of Buddhism as part of his spirituality.

The problem comes with his liturgical innovation that suggests he is not fully and doctrinally on board regarding the Trinity and uniqueness of Christ. Whereas the right wing perspective picks holes at the Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, and her views of leaving the extent of salvation to God, the left wing is showing concern about the real evidence in the liturgical changes that begin to put Bishop-elect Forrester alongside the figure of Bishop John Spong and his writings.

There are further questions about the selection process in North Michigan, a small diocese over a large area, where Kevin Thew Forrester emerged as the only candidate, though he received a large vote of individuals and congregations.

There is another charge too, that he is something of a despot, going back to his days in Eastern Oregon.

Now in the United Kingdom we have the popular Mad Priest Of Course I Could Be Wrong (OCICBW) blog, which has a bit of risqué fun at some likely employment cost to its author. In the past Mad Priest has said warm things even about Unitarians, but he seems to be running a campaign against the candidate on the basis of his apparent dictatorial nature and on the basis that he doesn't uphold core Anglican doctrinal beliefs.

I don't know why this should be of such concern on the OCICBW, other than because of its network of comment makers and virtual contacts. Actually I think that blog is looking a little strange lately, but that aside it has become one foreign place for this issue to cohere on what is called the left.

A long while back I did a parody of The Wicker Man film in which a sort of Kevin Thew Forrester is sacrificed, and there is a possibility of this taking place - in simpler terms that he doesn't become a bishop. Despite the embarrassment of the left perspective seeming to give way to the hard right, such a sacrifice allows the theological left to demonstrate its orthodoxy. He is worth losing for the greater benefit. We see this already in how so many who are pro-gay inclusive will attack Bishop Spong doctrinally, despite his own pro-gay stance. It is good for the appearance of membership to be able to isolate John Spong - even David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, was keen in a television audience to dissociate himself from the views of John Spong on the panel (and I forget the programme, but this was a low moment from the Church of England's Cuckoo).

On the other hand, it might be said: if the Bishop-elect doesn't seem to come up to minimum belief standards, then how can he be accepted? And if he was accepted, would that not give the hard right a field day and more evidence that The Episcopal Church is on the road to religious syncretism?

Here are my few thoughts on the matter, as someone who does not meet such minimum belief requirements, and has seen this frustrate moves towards seeking training for ordained ministry over and again before even going forward.

First of all, there is an academic theology which clearly has moved away from and undermined the minimums of dogma. It questions those very beliefs. Yet such forces a separation between college and Church, lecture room and pulpit. Given that many clergy and bishops actually agree with critical academic insights, it generates a dishonesty in the pulpit that undermines Christianity and its claim to deal in truth.

When people come along who are honest and open in their reformism, they become the victim of the closed door. Because they cannot or will not stand on their heads and do the necessary somersaults, they get excluded, whereas those somersaulters who think academically but preach doctrinally carry on.

Now at some point all this academic work has to have an impact on the Churches. It isn't just a form of academic masturbation. And it does have an effect. It leaks out, it causes media-trivialised controversies, people listening start reading between the lines, congregations get suspicious in part or whole. Those of us on the actual theological left and say so can get frustrated that there is so little change in the Churches.

We are told to go to the Unitarians, or the Society of Friends, or Liberal Catholics (the small groups) or various simple statement Protestant sects or within, and of course some do. There are pressure groups to join, like the Progressive Christianity Network. We also hang around on the fringes of doctrinal Churches, talking with people in congregations and half-participating, and no we will not accept the doctrinal minimum as a cost of membership. Of course, in the end, we go from the back row of the church to outside the door, probably turning up for social occasions (as many do already and without a conscience).

What's left, then, is a regime that includes a strong dose of dishonesty and duplicity.

What we have is priests who have gone through their critical training and are installed in jobs, usually needing freehold (in England) before they put their heads up above the parapet, and sometimes not even then. We have bishops who conform, until something happens in their heads at retirement, and all of a sudden become interesting. There is a whole system of licensing and promises - and promises become not a matter of honesty but a matter of public appearance.

Apparently it's just about all right in TEC if there are one or two publicly open priests that are clearly of Christian colour (Anne Redding was in two minds, the issue regarding Islam is in its own exclusive dogmatic statements) but not quite full on doctrinally, but not so for bishops with the exception of one John Spong so far on in his career and now retired, who runs a virtual one man touring industry of Christian-humanist doctrinal reformism.

In England there are a number of suppressed and not so suppressed priests of liberal and radical views, and Don Cupitt has been of independent income and retirement, which (along with the centrist David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham) drew the admission that the Church of England doesn't usually pursue heresy cases for practical reasons. In other words, the apparently doctrinally inadequate can well defend themselves, expose other views for their negotiations and strategies, and dig up the murk of others' apparent doctrinal shiftiness. A heresy trial would be a gift, as there could be theologians lined up queueing out of the door. So they don't happen: instead a pantomime of promises continues.

It is up to The Episcopal Church to decide whether Kevin Thew Forrester has the character to be a bishop and has the right beliefs. Perhaps TEC is changing, and personally I'd hope it was and in a direction towards honesty. Though he may still be rejected, even thrown to the wolves (or put in a Wicker Man).

I say all this as someone who when asked what I think will attempt to give a straight answer (I am pastorally sensitive: I don't attempt to bring the ceiling crashing down on other heads as an automatic reflex - and pastoral sensitivity is a partial defence for duplicity).

Now postmodernism is important for all sorts of symbolism and art in religion and story-recovering reasons, but it should not be a cover for Radical Orthodox or narrative approaches that appear to be one thing (the package in a bubble) while the person actually thinks something else.

Liberals like me are pains in the backsides, to ourselves as well as to others. I mean 'liberal' in terms of critical thinking as a method and saying what you mean, not just liberal about something (within or without perceived boundaries). I once said to a church group, my stance is a personal curse. Institutions expect and mould conformity; even dedicated liberal Churches have their forms of conformity, as I have discovered.

All this duplicity, then, and no wonder that pews are emptying (because we do know, just about everyone gets what is going on between the lines) and only the fundies put up a straight fight and seem to believe with thoroughgoing consistency the nonsense they hold.

So what should be the limits of a Christian Church? Not even I advocate that The Episcopal Church should be of the breadth and coverage of Unitarian Universalism. I think there is a place for a recognisably Christian liturgical Church (in content) that nevertheless realises it is in a broader world and which demands no belief promises other than a maintenance of broadly Christian practice. For someone who really was Buddhist as well as Christian, that might be too much. Kevin Thew Forrester is not like this. I would still be marginal in such a Church, but I could fully participate (and now I don't any more). The Liberal Catholic Church International would fall into this category of liturgy with freedom: only bishops are required to give assent to trinitarian belief, and even then it is without explanation. But it is tiny!

It would be quite a reform for Anglicanism to be Christian in liturgical shape and openly honest in its theology and ministry. But it is not, and the honest can have their appointment with The Wicker Man while the duplicious (along with the doctrinal and honest, the genuinely puzzled and the pastorally sensitive) make priests and bishops.

Where are the boundaries really? Can they not be better stated?


greg said...

Good questions. Surely the answers depend on what you think a church is for. I mean, what should a church be doing; what does it positively believe and represent? I love beautiful liturgy well done: the layered symbolism, the sense of continuity, mystery and Other. However, I find one need only lift the gorgeous trappings, or scrutinise the credal and doctrinal statements more closely, for the facade to rapidly crumble away. What is revealed, in large part, are I suggest discourses (however subtly devised) about power, control and, often, money. I find it sad to find these discourses wrapped so constrictingly around the beautiful, simple and profound message at the heart of Christianity. That is not to say the simple message reads straightforwardly into our messy lives. It does, however, give us a firm basis to work out, together and with the best knoweledge available at a given time, a human, Christian response to the situations we face. It also means we can recognise and acknowledge when we go wrong communally, something our institutions struggle far too hard to do. As a result, I presently see little value in institutions or liturgy, except of the simplest, most diffused and inclusive sort.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

There is a postmodern reading of some worship that clearly has this critical reading available - and it starts with St. Paul and the use people make of St. Paul. The murk revealed centres around motivations of those who often conduct worship and the crowd attracted, and sometimes it is in opposition to something else.