Saturday 31 May 2008

Anglicanism Subverted by the Pluralist World?

Matt Kennedy has completed his four part uploads of Mere Christianity in a Pluralist World: Anglicanism Subverted and What Can Be Done. It comes from two presentations at the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) Atlantic District pastor's conference between May 12th and May 13th. I commented on the first three parts, so here I write about the fourth.

This final part focuses on Christology and its apparent weakening under the impact of pluralism abroad and within The Episcopal Church.

Dr. Bill Witt, professor of Historical Theology at Trinity Episcopal Seminary in Pittsburgh (at which Archbishop Akinola rcently gave a talk) asks whether Christ gives salvation found nowhere else or elsewhere or everywhere. Matt Kennedy says:
That's the struggle pluralism has brought to the church. Is the content of the faith externally and objectively revealed in Jesus Christ or is it experienced subjectively anew by "people of faith" everywhere in different ways and through different means?

Well there is a connection, but not directly. Pluralism and subjective experience are not the same. What changes is the nature of objectivity.

Go back to the high point of the Middle Ages, and one Religion and one Church have achieved such explanatory power for everything, including the sacrilisation of feudal power structures, that they offer a sacred canopy which is very hard to escape. There had been an intellectual shock to the system with the release of classical knowledge translated and held by Muslims, but Anselm nicely merged that with Christianity. In any case, the sacred canopy dominates the everyday, not just the educated but the uneducated. The practicality of life had superstition regulated into the Christian calendar.

It is institutions that have made all the difference, the Renaissance and Reformation, and then the increasing awareness of no religion and many religions. With all this ideological competition, there is increasing space for none of it. The scientific and the technological have also affected magic and superstition, weakening it (and consumerising it) at the same time as a weakened supernatural. As well as Western intellectual thought being this worldly (theology is not consulted) practical thinking is about what works and solving problems. These are what sociologists call "objective" conditions, and any subjectivity comes within such conditions. The Enlightenment led to some overall thinking conditions that allow a sense of shared values, but has an institutional base in plurality.

Pluralism, peculiarly, can go on to have a reverse effect. In conditions where plurality becomes so intense, to a point of objective confusion (let's say), and postmodernity, institutional explanations have no further objective rooting other than their own. Everything becomes sectarian - it's all sect and no Church. There is a loss of the objective and subjective because there are no opposites even purported to exist. This condition has never properly existed, but some explanations including religious use it - particularly Radical Orthodoxy and Yale Postliberalism.

Now this raises the question whether there is pluralist subversion and whether Anglicanism is susceptible, though the argument by some seems to vary between Anglicanism and The Episcopal Church - and Matt Kennedy thinks Anglicanism is susceptible before particular debates in The Episcopal Church.

Yet issues take up his argument at first: that women's ordination had those against saying tradition and scripture said no versus those who said social justice demanded reinterpreting scripture and his giving social and cultural experience a say.

I find all this odd: there has always been a place for natural theology; there has always been a pro-cultural stance for theology: it is just that in the days of the sacred canopy, the overarching one Church, these were all consistent. The difference now is those objective relationships. It is why we had a theology of Karl Barth that gave no role for human-derived thought in order to preserve the purity of revelation (though he was no scripture-literalist either: a revelation of that distant God in the nearest encounter of the person and work of Christ for all humanity).

Yes, those who remain liberal in the sense that they reject the Karl Barth approach continue to draw from culture. I suggest this is a far wider matter than Anglicanism, but of course Anglicanism makes specific use of Reason as from a time when reason seemed to be more secure than today.

Anglicanism (at least in a parish model) also wants to stay in touch with the population at large. Inevitably this means those "objective" relationships affect its expressions if it is not to be purely sectarian. Consider what happened with the Engliah Presbyterians and many American Congregationalists. Both had a parish mentality that led to liberalising, and both adopted Unitarian literalist views of the Bible and later broad liberal Christian views before going on to more religious-humanistic and later pluralistic stances.

So there is some agreement here with Matt Kennedy's view, but from a sociology of religion stance, and that the sociology of religion has affected theology.

He comes to key Anglican aspects of the regulative aspect of Scripture and not pushing the language. The first is not about prescribing but forbidding only what is forbidden in Scripture: otherwise it can be allowed. Not pushing the language has allowed various orthodox interpretations of credal and confessional texts.

This is right, and to this extent the Broad Church was a regulative party in Anglicanism, but of course it acquired its own characteristics, and its own radical wing that was pro-culture, pro-expression and, whilst it pursued the uniting practice of liturgical conservation, carried on earlier traditions of doctrinal enquiry (e.g those of Latitudinarians) and had its own radical edge. Both the Oxford Movement and the Broad Church movement developed at the same time, and so did the Evangelical movement become more socially orientated. In the United States and in Britain movements like Transcendentalism and Romaticism fed both the Catholic and Liberal revivals. The Puritans were long gone and irrelevant. What was important was Biblical criticism, first from those plural institutions in Germany, soon on the radical edges of the Broad Church party as well as welcomed into one wing of Unitarianism, and soon part of the way of interpreting the Bible.

It is not just this looser in the negative Biblical regulative principle:

...makes it more difficult to combat heresy because it shifts the burden of proof to those who object to a given change.

But Anglicanism does have several sources of authority and enquiry that have developed over time. Indeed these are what produces orthodoxy: they define orthodoxy and it is broader than those who would depend on a more literalist view of Scripture, and includes those who apply schools of Biblical criticism.

So much of the language then has become increasingly something about "historic formularies" and therefore an inheritance into various points of a broader understanding.

Matt Kennedy refers to some details of belief: like the Virgin Birth. There are no historical methods that can prove or disprove a virginal conception of Jesus. Indeed, historical methods suggest that this has mythic origins, that the whole of the birth narratives are a backwards reading from New to Old Testaments. This is Scriptural. It may not be literalist, but it is scriptural. It shows that the writers regarded Jesus as a chosen prophet (it is also scriptural by the critical approach to see that the titles for Jesus accelerated, particularly after his death). So I will say I do not believe in the Virgin Birth as historical, and have good grounds for dismissing it as anything other than myth about significance. I note how people today preach against a historical view of the Ascension, only because it is so obvious that we do not exist in a three-decker universe, but are more resistant about bones dissolving into a transformed body and a rising after death. So I do not believe in a bodily resurrection, and indeed have a mythic view of the Resurrection too. I do not expect creeds to be other than of their time, and not subject to our understanding of historical enquiry, or biology, or even philosophy. The creeds are packed with assumptions that are pretty much rejected, and yet in a mythic space define the basis of an inherited faith.

I'd like to ask if Katherine Jefferts Schori believes as I do: I doubt it. Moreso, even if she does believe as she is often accused (and examination often shows assumptions in the accusations), does this change the nature of The Episcopal Church - a Church which has not changed its formal faith.

All mainstream denominations, unless they do not want to become sects, must stay in touch with the wider population and with the complexity of talk that our institutions throw up. Of course postmodernism allows separation, but a bubble is a bubble. Institutions are free to draw their own boundaries.

Matt Kennedy proposes Christian apologetics to cut the head off "the pluralist beast". All this amounts to is adopting narrower boundaries. So it would be Biblical literalism rather than Biblical criticism. It means hitting people coming through the door with a different, narrower, ideological education - however, no one gives up their basic assumptions that easily.

Indeed Matt Kennedy has left The Episcopal Church. He is now in and directs within a narrower institution. He indeed wants to push a Pauline view of sin and salvation in such an institution. He also wants to preach away from experience and more an expository sermon; well there is a cost to that, that it does not meet current or past experiences. Indeed, like a sect it is reformulating a person through ideological boundaries.

Such boundaries have to be maintained: maintained by exclusivity in personnel regarding teaching.

Is Anglicanism about reformulating people through ideological boundaries? Not really. It provides a pathway - a broad Christian spirituality and there is ideology in that. There is what might be called long formation. There is, though, much about space in which to search. We are, here, Westerners, and it will be a capitulation if a Church cannot deal with the complexity of Western institutions, ideas and life. Being Church is risky.

Personally I don't care about orthodoxy any more. It is a word like secularisation or liberal: it means so many things it lacks explanatory power. I make no claim towards it, even if others not so dissimilar from me do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What then is Anglicanism? From the Elizabethan Settlement to the early 19th Century it merely meant membership of the Church of England, and that embraced everything from Cranmer's Zwinglianism to Laud's Protestant Sacramentalism. Since then not only do some atheists claim to be Anglicans but also some Papalists. The term is so diffuse as to be without meaning.