Sunday 13 January 2008

Walker Across Another Tightrope

I agree with Paul Bagshaw and the Modern Churchpeople's Union view regarding the Anglican Communion Covenant.

The Church has always been a coalition of different and divergent groups. Sub-traditions have always fractured and recombined in different organizations and ethos over time. So too, in relation to changes in church life and probably much else besides, theology has always reflected the proponents' prior commitment and hopes (it's a circular thing; there is no foundation from which policy may be deduced objectively).

These things aren't causes for concern but the normal ordering of the church. A Covenant will not affect them.

A Covenant may hold some of the Communion together institutionally. It will not change anyone's mind on the divisive issues at stake. And it may turn out, over time, to shift the culture and structures of the Church in directions that very few people will be happy with.

He is responding to an article in the Church Times by David Walker, the Bishop of Dudley (4 January 2008), who makes a comparison between English and United States liberals. The comparison is that American liberals have a low Church, dissenting character, whereas English liberals are higher Church and therefore more communion orientated.

The most visible splits have been among Evangelical Anglicans, but they are not alone. The majority of English liberals tend to a "high" view of the institutional and visible Church as the Body of Christ and, consequently, of the authority of holy orders.

Their opposite numbers in the United States are more rooted in a tradition of dissent, and take a "low" view of the institution, seeing it as a human convenience, and one best regulated by the local democratic mechanisms they are familiar with in secular bodies.

This has left American liberals perplexed about how their English counterparts can believe that holding the Communion intact might outweigh their personal theological positions. English liberals, in their turn, are frustrated that their American colleagues are unwilling to accept that they owe anything to the wider Communion other than to act on what the local majority feels is right.

I think he is making a category mistake here. He is referring to those who are either Affirming Catholics or like them, and many of these do not see themselves as liberals first or, in some cases, liberals at all.

There is my own neck of the woods as an example. On this very blog my own adopted parish priest described himself as outrageously conservative.

I speak as an outrageously conservative Anglo-Catholic - but I share a toolkit with many other Christians who are much less 'conservative' than I am, and therefore can engage in conversation without any sense of division, only of differing weights placed on different bits of the tradition. The same critical tools are being used by us all.

I agree with him on so many matters, and I am outrageously liberal. But long before such public declaration, we had a very interesting conversation in his kitchen when, one to one, he said he is not a liberal, and I already knew this. So here is a Catholic perspective, a Benedictine even, which holds the whole tradition, but is confident to manage the whole and talk about the bits. There is a critical approach to the Bible, as the Bible forms part of this rich whole tradition. It is a position that gives this tradition primacy in a complete manner. However, it is not one that retreats into doctrine, not is it dressing up, nor high camp. Not at all. It is quite modest in performance.

Today it would be called postmodern, in that, compared with everything else, it lives in a kind of bubble of this tradition handed down and at some distance from the general culture. It is not a Radical Orthodox bubble, as with John Milbank of Cambridge, but it is related. It is eaten whole, is regularly chewed, and forms a commentary and tries to be relational outside of itself. Many would see it as liberal in output, but it misunderstands how it is formed.

Now doubt that there is a Protestant and evangelical equivalent, though it is said that it is easier for a Catholic to hold on to the whole when the liberal output comes rushing forth. When the liberal outpourings continue, the faith of the Church, the community, the collective, carries on. The Church has the right to form and move on its tradition.

It is not my perspective; mine is a broad, ecumenical, interfaith stance. It was born in the secular humanist world of the University and academic approaches, and has been through a number of denominations and religions. I would be closer to these American liberals, but I suspect many English liberals are too - and I have met ex-evangelical liberals who are fresh, low, and critical, and often individualist and democratic. They travel light, and they retain some kind of psychological commitment to the faith, like an inbred nugget.

I admit that I don't have that, which makes me a liberal from the off. I don't actually feel very Protestant. Bishop Jack Spong is an ex-evangelical Protestant liberal, and it shows. The Jesus Seminar retains this sort of Protestant desire for a core truth. Some ex-evangelicals go postmodern, but they are into the nihilisms of Cupitt, or atheology. I have done this too, but again with more of a breadth. I sort of think I'm not quite with Spong or Cupitt. I'm sort of in between them and the parish priest, but I have a broader base.

I should say I don't get the same heebee geebees our Mynsterpreost has reported before when in the Methodist Church Covenant Service, with its little glasses of some sort of juice and cubes of bread. The bread doesn't crack like the disc, the drink did not ferment (symbol of resurrection) and, I'd put it, we should muck in with one another's gunge by sharing one cup. I am with him on these three - I very much have a social anthropological view that religious faith is about the body and about the collective, and is about the muck as well as the good stuff. Institutions and networks are important: they extend our biology by providing support systems. The Eucharist is essentially a passing through ritual, a leave behind, a renewal, and a going out, that binds and gives focus. But I reason this - come at it like a social scientist, and come at it in broad terms. Though I am an individualist - this is Unitarian and Western Buddhist heritage - it is also limited: limited by collective language, limited by going on a 'way' with others in faith, limited by the collective inheritance of culture and traditions. I'm either a parasite or in symbiosis.

I went to the Methodist Covenant Service today and I have to say that I am less disposed towards it than I was last year. There was something aggressive in its presentation. Plus all this Jesus Jesus Jesus stuff is off-putting. It's the theology of the football supporters' club, and I hate it. I see no future for it either: it is unappealing to the mass of don't knows and not sures that makes up the British. But I have nothing against Methodism as such, nor any other Church and nor many another faith. Its about faithfulness, and coming together. Without an objection you'd find me in a Sikh Gurdwara, fully participating, and find me with enthusiasm at a Western Buddhist gathering, again fully participating.

We don't need documents to channel faith - we need activity. We need people thinking and talking. Documents do nothing that people are not going to do otherwise. Mynsterpreost gave the sermon: the Covenant is one that is not a contract, but more like intentions as at a marriage, and when the Covenant fails, as we do, God rewrites the Covenant. It is generous. I like all that: it's relational. When Anglicans say they have bonds of affection, they are being relational.

Then there is the issue of hypocrisy, which David Walker addresses at Thinking Anglicans (Sunday 13 January). I'd say hypocrisy is a lesser matter than the different approaches to traditions, authority and theology, but there is a lot of "code speak" about, and on the narrow issue of homosexuality there is a lack of transparency. Documents should not have to mean something else than they do: but, of course, inheriting historical documents as we do, we don't have literalistic intepretations. The Creeds, for example. The problem comes when there is a reversal of meaning. I might say the Creeds as a participation in a tradition: however, I will give a straight answer if I am asked what they mean for me.

The other interesting point made by the Bishop of Dudley (4 January) is about the role of bloggers. He wonders if their energy can be harnassed towards a solution.

The challenge, especially once a revised text is issued and subjected to their intense scrutiny, is how to harness the bloggers’ energies and passions for what needs to be a prayerful, reflective, and non-polemical search for the widest degree of consensus. Can they be part of the solution, not just part of the problem?

It is not their role, unfortunately. However, the blog should reflect, openly and honestly, a person's faith stance and should show some sort of ethic consistent with that faith (properly, attempt an ethical stance - it is a constant failing). A sneering blog that puts others down rflects the faith of the blogger. If there is to be any coming together, it will be via the faith stance being demonstrated. If blogs divide by faith stances, then the faith is divided and perhaps division is the healthier outcome. I don't expect Buddhists to turn up at the 09:30 Eucharist, after all, even though I might turn up at one of their meetings (if they were in this area - gosh, I discriminate between a Western and the local variant of Tibetan Buddhism!).

I suspect that liberals are quite a varied bunch, as would be expected. Some are not primarily liberals at all, and some have become so thanks to the Protestant tradition that releases them. A few take their liberality wider and wider, but this is where I started. When I was confirmed, at University, I was also attending a Bahai group. The reason I stopped attending the Bahai group was because of the particularities of the Bahai faith, not because of Christianity. It has always been like that.


Anonymous said...

Dear P - I'm an American liberal Episcopal priest. I also consider myself deeply orthodox. I, too, hold deeply to tradition, especially liturgically, and adore Scripture. I think the real difference between liberals and conservatives is simply that liberals are able to comfortably deal with paradox. We can hold in tension the past and the present. I can't go with Spong - he wants to remove the mystery, that is simply impossible. But, as I keep telling people, Jesus - God's Word made flesh - is a liberal. I can't read the Gospels and come to any other conclusion.
Blessings -

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I think liberals can handle paradox, and so can those Catholics who can handle the tradition critically and who are uncomfortable being called liberal.

There is a form of liberal who one might call historicist, and Spong can be allied with the Jesus Seminar people, for example. They can lack mystery but I think Spong does allow for the mystery of God. He's basically an old fashioned unitarian, and is even like those denominationalist Unitarians of old who promoted their discoveries with zeal - he is an ex-evangelical after all. Conservatives end up being doctrinal and literalist, and so I agree with you there.