Sunday 30 December 2007

J. I . Packer: You are Wrong about Liberalism

James I Packer has, it seems, unlike in the past, joined the schismatics, to make a new Communion. He does not call it this, but he certainly knows that it is a voyage into the unknown, if along Anglican principles. It is, he says, realignment.

In the analogy with Militant Tendency running this Global Anglican Future Conference and launch, Packer is like the old socialist. He gives it respectability. He is the Eric Heffer to Chris Sugden's Derek Hatton.

Of course there is agreement between Anglican old socialist and Anglican Militant Tendency about liberalism, and he goes on about sexuality like someone worried about what people get up to in bed. He does not mention long term relationships, love, and stability - he mentions unhealthy sex. If sex is unhealthy, as it can be for any pairing (or more), then practitioners do something about it. Some of us also want to do something about relationships: adding to heterosexual partnerships through ritual blessing, and adding to homosexual partnerships through ritual blessing. Ministry is about inclusivity, without barriers, affirming and promoting through support.

In setting sail into new waters he has to tackle the issue of the unity of the Church, and recognises unity in geography and in denominations where there is a principle not universally accepted - thus gathering on the specific denominational principle, and dividing on it too. Other than that is all about biblical fullness, he states. Schism then is not simply division, but unwarranted division. Realignment is a good thing, however, when it is:
...withdrawal from a unitary set-up that has become unorthodox and distorts the gospel in a major way and will not put its house in order...
Realignment also includes making connections with some other group that has also withdrawn in a similar manner.

He states that Anglicanism is not pyramidal but a loose connection or fellowship of independent provinces (so the Archbishop's centralising solution via the Instruments of Communion and Catholic theology has no agreement with him then). It is shared faith plus heritage: biblical, credal, liturgical, pastoral via its form of ministry, missional and service oriented rather than hierarchical. His argument, then, is purely Reformation based. Of course that is not the whole picture regarding Anglicanism,but it is the heritage he keeps and so his denomination, the speciality.

He now feels the need to realign within this heritage, which means he must accuse the whole of Anglicanism as it stands as being unorthodox. Who is to blame?
In brief, it is the bitter fruit of liberal theology, which has become increasingly dominant in seminaries and among leaders in what we may call the Anglican Old West - that is, North America in the lead, with Britain and Australasia coming along behind.
He dates it from when "Anglo-Catholic leadership began to flag."

So now is the time, then, to run, or realign, because the Anglo-Catholics can no longer keep the liberals at bay, along with, presumably, the weakness of evangelicals.

So how does he characterise liberalism? It knows "nothing" of God who uses written language, or of sin in humanity needing new birth; instead liberalism is optimistic about humanity via a natural religiosity. The Church is to develop such religiosity, which is enhanced through culture and so there is dialogue with culture. It also keeps Christianity relevant. Pursuing the present means leaving the Bible behind at point after point, which is a human creation anyway in time, he states. The big "collision" (one was bound to come) then has happened with gay unions, according to liberalism's engagement with the current concern of minority rights, and a diocese in Canada (where he is based) has pursued this against the faithfulness of the "old paths".

Liberalism in this example is against God's creation- a form of saying it is against nature (but then this would be irrelevant, as much that is biblical is against what is otherwise obviously so), and it does not take account of new birth from sin, and it does not produce true care to homosexuals and their particular "besetting temptation".

Thus the break comes: to reject the culture (unlike liberals), to be committed to the Anglican Communion (?), to realign with the 90% of Anglicans outside the West who keep to the old ways, to have church planting, and show courage into the unknown.

So, presumably, for the last one hundred and fifty years, if not longer, there has not been a necessity to realign from liberals, and now there is. It's the gay thing.

Is he right about liberalism?

First of all, he presents a nineteenth century onwards and upwards forever view of liberalism. This was when language was replaced by the mystical and, at best, the poetic, when optimism went hand in hand with progress, and religion was not simply natural but cultural: Reformation Protestant liberalism, in other words.

Structuralism would emphasise language, and so does poststructuralism - language where meaning is multi-layered and complex. Language is crucial for the liberal. Liberals have highly developed views of the divine and language. Indeed the learning and processing of language involves key aspects of biology, and therefore the body.

Secondly the evolutionist view of religion (Protestant liberalism at its peak) has been replaced by cultural bubbles and a more critical discernment between religion and culture. There is a great deal of ambiguity about culture and progress; that progress at the same time involves some kind of ethical and moral dilemma.

That the world and culture may be raised up is part of a Catholic witness, itself involving an affirmation of the world but requiring transformation. The liberal would agree. The liberal would put a focus on human effort and building, but again by being wary of all human efforts because some involved the devious and the scheming (rather in the manner of setting up alternative Communions, for example).

Liberals do learn from social sciences and the arts. For example, my own view is informed by the binding nature of ritual with a way in, a peak exchange ritual and a way out. This involves preparation, reorientation, some transformative act (especially involving the body) and a going out into the world. This is a powerful intersection between social anthropology and theology: it also relates to structuralism.

It is because liberalism is aware of the fragility and lack of permanence in life - not optimism - that it seeks to introduce ritual forms that emphasise commitment. This means dedication to practice via life marking rituals and reference points. Liberation and letting it all hang out it is not: it is rather conserving in fact.

The liberalism of old said that Christianity was but one insight into something more universal and divine. Some liberals still think this. Others are more particularist. They are always within a culture and within thought forms. There is a difficulty through space. We cannot say whether Islam or Buddhism are better or worse at achieving the religious goal compared with Christianity. Rather, it is better to see each as they are, as they change, from within: and that takes a lot of awkward translation and much living within the other, which cannot easily be done.

It follows from this a difficulty through time too. Would that we could recover some deep biblical meanings, or have clear historical insight into the Jesus movement and the earliest Churches. There's is but another culture. It is simply impossible to be dogmatic about this. But rather than be agnostic about the historical dead end, there is a return to language and story again, to live in the stories of traditions for their insights.

To some extent all liberalism is postliberalism. Not the postliberalism of the icebox as in Yale Postliberalism, where doctrines are frozen and non-objective performance is all there is. It is, rather, open and discerning, along with performance. Liberalism is now complex and based on working through and with traditions, non-exclusively, and always with a sense of a don't know amongst the affirmations.

Maybe this is too variant for the "radical evangelicals" to stomach. However, James I. Packer is wrong in his description of liberalism, and he is extremely limited in his sudden rejection of a Communion (as it has been) because of the presence of liberals, and how they carefully read into their traditions and texts in order to seek out some stability in the uneven and difficult world in which we all reside but for a moment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He is the Eric Heffer to Chris Sugden's Derek Hatton.

This seems to me to be insulting to Derek Hatton!