Saturday 8 March 2008

Virtual Nonsense

There is a discussion going around in Anglican evangelical circles (this time Fulcrum) about some other Anglicans setting up what is a new religion or (according to the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali, in 2007) a virtually new religion. The charge is being laid at the door of The Episcopal Church (USA) and now the Anglican Church of Canada. The charge against them coincides with boundary-crossers into both provinces.

The core of this is the homosexuality issue, the claim that the Bible is undeviating in its opposition to homosexual relationships, at least according to evangelicals, and salvation depends upon this. Thus they have this issue as a litmus test for all other orthodoxy, and go on to hunt out any deviations from a narrow definition of Christian orthodoxy - not difficult to find given that most Christian leaders have been to theological college and don't exactly want to rubbish all that they have been taught and learnt for themselves.

Of course the argument against the evangelicals is that Paul was addressing issues of uncommitted homosexual relationships, in a particular cultural setting of men meeting men in gathering places, in the context of idolatry. In the gospels Jesus simply does not refer to homosexuality. The other argument is a so what - the Bible is full of material we care to ignore. Jesus does refer to being against divorce and against adultery in the strictest sense, but we hear little about this in regards of starting a new virtual or real religion.

In his opening remarks Simon Butler put it simply that:

To my knowledge, there has yet to be a member church of the Communion that has abandoned the Articles of Religion, the Creeds, the Scriptures, the Articles of Religion or any of the other formularies of the church.

Indeed this is so; that for all the input theological study and biblical criticism has offered, it has not affected adherence to these (except that, it has to be said, the Church of England decades past did modify the requirement for clergy to accept every dot and comma of the Thirty-nine Articles, which now require general assent - some Anglican Churches have never included these in their own assents and consents).

Phil Almond then wondered if there has ever been any clarification since the 1986 booklet (I have my own copy), The Nature of Christian Belief that was produced by the Church of England House of Bishops after the Durham Affair involving David Jenkins. Phil Almond points to paragraphs 50 and 62, both of which conclude chapters C, 'The Resurrection and the Empty Tomb', and D, 'The Incarnation and the Virginal Conception', respectively. First the tomb and resurrection:

This faith in Christ's resurrection is the faith of every member of this House. On the question whether, as a result of this divine act of resurrection, Christ's tomb that first Easter Day was empty we recognise that scholarship can offer no conclusive demonstration; and the divergent views to be found among scholars of standing are reflected in the thinking of individual bishops. But all of us accept, first, that belief that the tomb was empty can be held with full intellectual integrity; secondly, that this is the understanding and witness of Scripture which is generally received in the Universal Church; and thirdly, that this House acknowledges and upholds this belief as expressing the faith of the Church of England and of its historic teaching, affirming that in the resurrection life the material order is redeemed, and the future of human nature is taken into God's eternal destiny for his creation. (1986, 25-26)

We see how this is biased, to put the weight on accepting the emptiness of the tomb and yet to leave scholarship inconclusive. Now the Incarnation and Virginal Conception:

The central miracle, the heart of the Christian understanding of God, is the Incarnation itself. It is the faith of us all that this is truly expressed in the affirmation of the catholic Creeds that in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is incarnate. The divergences between Christian scholars on the relation of the Virginal Conception of Our Lord to this great mystery, and on the question whether or not that Conception is to be regarded as historical fact as well as imagery symbolic of divine truth, have been indicated, and they are reflected in the convictions of members of this House. But all of us accept: first, that the belief that Our Lord was conceived in the womb of Mary by the creative power of God the Holy Spirit without the intervention of a human father can be held with full intellectual integrity; secondly, that only this belief, enshrined in the creeds, can claim to be the teaching of the Universal Church; and thirdly that this house acknowledges and upholds this belief as expressing the faith of the Church of England and of its historic teaching, affirming the truth that in Christ God has taken the initiative for our salvation by unifying our human nature with himself, so bringing into being a new humanity. (1986, 32-33)

So again this is heavily biased in the official direction, whilst there are divergences by Christian scholars.

There is though another paragraph Phil Almond did not refer to, and is important. Once the House of Bishops fixes its own position, the issue arises about everyone else, covered in paragraphs including 74:

It needs to be remembered too that the bishop will not be concerned only with checking erosion in the fundamentals of faith. He will equally need to defend the legitimate variety and breadth of Christian teaching, when zealous but ill-advised ministers suggest that one belief only on a paarticular topic, or one way only of expressing that belief, is authentic. We believe, however, that when a bishop has done all that he can in these positive ways to promote true understanding and presentation of the faith by those who share his authoritative teaching ministry, he will have fulcilled his oblications under Canon Law for the care of both ordained and lay Christians alike. In this conenction it needs to be said that if the Church of England does not proceed against its ministers for heresy this comes not from indifference but from a conviction born of experience that such proceedings do more harm than good... (1986, 37-38)

The rest says that proceedings might happen as a last resort, but cases in modern times are not encouraging.

Phil Almond asks if this all shows what is essential (Resurrection, Incarnation) or not essential (empty tomb, Virginal Conception), or the booklet just happens to make a statement about what that House of Bishops thought at the time.

In my response I said that Anglicans just add documents. I called the booklet a sad little document but since then Anglicanism has been losing its nerve (as indeed it was up to then). We now have the spectacle of an Archbishop who thinks the Mind of the Communion has but one way of reading the Bible on the narrowest of issues, and that this would be the basis of (now) a St. Andrews draft Covenant which, in its tentative Appendix, has a method for proceeding against whole Churches never mind individuals! Presumably on this basis the options regarding the virginal conception and empty tomb are not only held with intellectual integrity but become compulsory. For that we should remember his sleight of hand performances on the Simon Mayo programme when inclusions in theological texts were turned into history.

The discussion here is not really about new, old, or virtual religions. It is about the drawing of lines between what constitutes orthodoxy and what constitutes heterodoxy or heresy. It is, again, these known knowns and unknown unknowns and in between. Anglicanism has become more sectarian and frightened (of itself).

Listening to Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori listening and responding to people in South Carolina recently, it was clear to me just how much she clearly stayed within boundaries (here is an opposite view). She most definitely not is a closet Unitarian, which is one charge being thrown around by evangelicals.

Evangelicals really must not confuse non-evangelicals and non-doctrinaires and others with whom they disagree as people of another religion. As far as I can see, all these in The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada (and all around the Western world for that matter) are well within the boundaries of a clear, identifiable, and all the hallmarks, Christianity.

To have a new or old or virtual religion requires a considerable variation and content that dynamically leads elsewhere. I refer at Fulcrum to how the Bahai Faith emerged by a two stage process out of Shi'ite Islam, producing a faith that calls itself independent, and has its own revelations, holy books and prophetic figures. It happened because originally the Bab took extra status upon himself, and had a movement around him - one that was militant and expectant, and yet ended up with the eventual peaceful Bahai Faith.

The other example that is more ambiguous is that of Liberal Catholicism. Less than a hundred years ago some Old catholic line bishops adopted Theosophy into their Catholicism - they brought in for many an esoteric interpretation of the Eucharist (but not exactly original - just regarded as more magic than supernatural). They have retained everything else, and indeed early on historically criticised the Utrecht Union from which their orders came for leaving essentials of the faith by becoming too Protestant (and closer to the Church of England!). That there are few belief demands on clergy (they stress liturgical performance instead) and that there is this (usually voluntary) Theosophical input, means that it might be charged as being a virtual new religion, maybe, but it cannot be counted as a new religion. Another source was that of Ulric Vernon Herford, who was in effect consecrated a bishop as a Catholic ritualist Unitarian, though subsequent consecrations have gone in all directions in terms of belief. This strand (regarding belief) stresses freedom, and again this might be regarded as a virtual new religion. Well it might be, except that it is just a continuation of scholarship as in the Church of England, but this time more openly expressed. Liberal Catholicism is ambiguous about the Nicene Creed, but generally accepts the Apostles' Creed, and tends to add to these according to variations - but I have myself read out in an Anglican setting cut-down trinitarian formulae that can be regarded as proto-trinitarian as well as trinitarian.

We need to be careful here. Not even John Spong has come near to the way Unitarianism has developed. Yes, he might be like Unitarians of the past, who also used the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and in far more orthodox ways than many would now (and not be noticed - they knew their Trinity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Unitarians knew what wasn't), but he retains several boundaries that retain his dialogue as Christian. There are Unitarian Christians today, and a diverse lot they are: some of whom will be close to Spong, and some who are just Jesus referring broad theists. They are not a new or old religion either: they were right there in both Unitarian and Arian (later type) forms in the early Reformation.

Now Rev. Don Cupitt, in drawing on his view of Buddhism into non-realist Christianity, and promoting a new view of God, could be the origins of a new religion, a syncretism along continental European philosophical lines. It surely could qualify as virtually a new religion. He is mainly, though, a critic of what is, and has never created new liturgies or practices. But then the Sea of Faith movement does not claim to be Christian: it has people in it of different faiths and none. The Sea of Faith movement has never organised itself as a self-sufficient religious grouping either.

As for me? Well...

Apologies for some lack of links. I am fighting a broadband connection which, for the fourth day, is utterly unreliable. I am having to wait until the working week to get a MAC code and get off this awful unresponsive Tiscali supplier (it will then take two weeks). Even typing this gets interrupted by a box telling me there is no dial tone. As soon as it connects, it's off again.

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