1/07/2006

"A Church At War"... required reading


“A CHURCH AT WAR: Anglicans and Homosexuality” by Stephen Bates is a must read for anyone interested in digging deeper into the events and thoughts that lie behind the struggles for control of the future of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Released first in 2004, it was an immediate success. A paperback version was published in 2005 with updates. I have just finished reading the revised version and all I can say is, “buy this book and read it.”

Bates’ book reminds us that the increasingly harsh exchanges between those who see the acceptance of homosexuals in the Church as wrong and those who see it as a matter of justice are heavily influenced by attitudes unresolved in England for many years. From one perspective, the whole of the current controversy is part of the unfinished business left over from the Elizabethan settlement.

One of the fascinating features of this book is that is written by a journalist, not a theologian, and yet in his professional reporter’s attention to detail Stephen Bates never forgets that the facts reflect, for better or worse, a theological state of affairs. As a result a good bit of moral and theological observation arises from the reporting, and the principle threads of the book carry forward theological matters. As a history of the English evangelical struggle to take over the Church of England this book has no parallel in the Episcopal Church. Still, the concerns about the development of a coup raised by Fr. Jake Stops the World, several writers on the House of Bishops / House of Deputies list and my own essays here and in the Witness do constitute a parallel body of observations. The English evangelicals and the American realignment party are both struggling to take control of the future of these churches in what may be a last ditch effort to disavow the impact of modernity and post modernity.

Some years ago Bishop John A.T. Robinson suggested that a New Reformation might well be underway, or at least in order, one that would finally let go the encumbrances of this strange and dangerous thing called Christendom and instead have a more authentic community of the followers of Jesus the anointed one. It was hard to understand just what such a Christianity would look like – Robinson was somewhat acerbic and academic. Still, Robinson was calling us beyond the profoundly irrelevant posturing that is too much a part of the current power struggles that we see in some of the churches of the Anglican Communion.

It is unclear if Robinson’s hope for a Christianity working beyond modernity’s Christendom will emerge. It is glaringly obvious, from reading Bates’ fine book on a Church at War that whatever our hopes for a more authentic Christianity, particularly one that sees God at work in culture as well as over against culture, those hopes do not lie with the realignment movement or with the English hard line evangelicals.

17 comments:

  1. What objective standard would you use to determine the existence of a "more authentic Christianity?" It was not clear in your article how you would determine this.

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  2. What would an "objective" standard mean? One that everyone can agree on? In that case, it doesn't exist. If by it, Mark means more true to Jesus, the anointed one, it has a certain objectivity, in that it is a standard outside ourselves to which we must want in some sense to hold ourselves accountable. The problem is that we can't even agree on what this standard requires. All we can do is take a risk interpreting the person of Jesus and try to be more like him. I'd rather have my children become non-believers than to follow some versions of Christianity.

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  3. Mr Carroll,

    Thank you for your response.

    It is logical nonsense to affirm a "more authentic Christianity" unless you can define what that phrase means. You suggest that we are to be "more true to Jesus." We require certain knowledge to do that. What do we know of Jesus for certain and how do we know it? You suggest we should "try to be more like him." We require certain knowledge to do that. What do we know of Jesus for certain and how do we know it? If we do not possess this knowledge, then we are no more than blind men stumbling in the dark.

    The problem is not that we interpret the person of Jesus incorrectly. The problem is that we reduce Him to a formless void, and then fill the resulting emptyness with ourselves. This I think is the true impact of post-modernism on Christianity.

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  4. I can't say what Mark means by "authentic Christianity", but I can tell you what I think. It would be a Christianity that has some of the humility of Christ, which has been entirely lost. Ecclesial arrogance, from all sides, is just nauseating. It's time the church(es) repented of some of their sins before doing one more damned bit of "evangelizing". The church(es) are no longer preaching or being "good news" to a large portion of the population. And that isn't the fault of the "unconverted", it's the fault of the churches, and largely their behavior toward each other. It's sickening, and why would anyone who has had the good fortune never to have been a part of that, want to join in?

    I've gone back to G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" in the last few days as a result of an essay in a book I'm reviewing (which appropriates it, but wrongly, I think). Chesterton claims, early on, that he was trying to invent his own heresy, but in the process, discovered orthodoxy. I think that can be flipped around--certain "Christians" are hunting heresy in the stated beliefs and practices of those with whom they disagree, and may possibly be staring an unrecognized orthodoxy in the face.

    Nobody has it all right, so we are all at least partially wrong. It's time the Christian churches of all stripes got that through their fat heads.

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  5. This kind of appeal to objective standards is just a power grab. Nothing particularly postmodern about a little epistemic humility, especially before the incomprehensible God. Postmodernity is not necessarily relativistic. It does not accept modern certitudes, including those of that most modern of movements, contemporary evangelicalism. But there are perfectly good premodern reasons for not accepting these certitudes. From where I sit, evangelicalism is the mirror image of the liberalism it tries to combat. I believe that the claims that I make about Jesus are objectively true, in the sense that any contraries or contradictories are false. I can't secure them on the basis of an objective standard in the sense that you seem to want. No one can. There was no objective standard for the first disciples either. Only the person Jesus, who invited them into relationship, and the Holy Spirit who empowered their response. If you look at the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John, you'll find very little objective criteria. Only the call of the one who says "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."

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  6. Bill Carroll said:

    "If you look at the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John, you'll find very little objective criteria. Only the call of the one who says "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." "

    Very nice, BUT....the churches have never been very good at dealing with those who got fished up and tossed back out of the boat. And don't say it hasn't happened, because it has. I'm living proof that Jesus may call a person, but treat them like cr@p from that point on.

    What does the church have to offer to someone in real spiritual crisis? Damned little. The churches do a nice holy gloss on biological life-cycle events like birth, maturity, sexual union, decline and death. But if someone walked up to a priest of the Anglican Communion and said "My experience of God is distinctly different from what the Church says about God, and as a result it is time for me to leave," it is highly unlikely that the priest would have any satisfactory help to offer. Our seminaries don't train people for the possibility that a congregant might question the party line--priests are too much in their Father's business to see outside the usual cant.

    I'd say that there are perhaps 10 priests in the Anglican communion who might be of real help to a person in spiritual crisis. I place the number that high because I haven't met all of them yet.

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  7. To get back on topic, though--yes, Mark, I read this over a year ago, when I was working jointly on a letter to ++Rowan with a British friend/colleague. It's good, it's worthwhile.

    Does it address the real problems of being church? No, not even close. It adds to the noise and clamor which distracts us from the tasks of preaching good news and feeding the sheep. And perhaps attending more closely to what it means to be church.

    As far as fishing for people, I think the people being fished for need to be very cautious about anything any Anglican church says at the moment--don't get sucked in by a shiny lure; make sure it's serious sustenance. Most of it right now is junk food, or has a sharp metal barb attached.

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  8. Mr Carroll

    But the Apostles did have an objective standard. They had the Law and the Prophets. Jesus did not treat the Scriptures as unknowable, but said rather "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." He held people to account by them.

    Moderism and post-moderism reject theopneustos. Unfortunately, we can know nothing about the Christ apart from such Revelation. Yet it is precisely the authority and accuracy of Revelation that has been attacked. So what then is the source of this "more authentic Christianity" which Mark Harris has proferred? It is the critical center of his argument, yet it exists in an ill-defined fog.

    He cannot argue that it rests in some mystical sense on the person of Jesus, because I will immediately ask "Which Jesus?" (there are several from which to choose including the Gnostic Jesus, the Mormon Jesus, the Hippie Jesus ...) and that will return us to the discussion about revelation. So I suspect he must argue that it rests ultimately on the opinions of men. But if so, what authority does this "more authentic Christianity" have that I should listen?

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  9. Wendy,

    I wouldn't dream of denying that. Some days, perhaps most, the Church acts like it wants to produce evidence to discredit the faith.

    Anonymous,

    I suppose I would ask, "which biblical Jesus?" in response. There are many. The correct question to ask Mark or any of us, is "How do you read?" Scripture doesn't give us an automatic decision about whose Jesus is more authentic, but any Christian portrait of Jesus ought to be able to point to Holy Scripture. I don't reject biblical inspiration, just any theory of it that denies the real errors and contradictions in the text. None of which means that my Jesus isn't quite traditional and orthodox. Inspiration preserves the reliability of Scripture as a sacramental means of encounter with God in Christ. It doesn't preserve the Scriptures free of historical, scientific, moral, or doctrinal error.

    I have no problem with the notion of objectivity, if by it you mean something that stands over against us which isn't us. I do have a problem with it, if you think that it puts an end to the conflict of interpretations or the need for subjective appropriation. Ultimately, Scripture needs to be appropriated by persons and communities, and it doesn't read itself.

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  10. David Huff9/1/06 1:36 PM

    Fr. Bill wrote:
    What does the church have to offer to someone in real spiritual crisis? Damned little. The churches do a nice holy gloss on biological life-cycle events ... But if someone walked up to a priest of the Anglican Communion and said "My experience of God is distinctly different from what the Church says about God, and as a result it is time for me to leave," it is highly unlikely that the priest would have any satisfactory help to offer.

    Whoa, you're on a roll here! Amen! This has got to be one of the most glaring "elephants in the room" for the modern, Western church. And happy-clappy, evangelical fundamantalism has no earthly notion of how to address it (I don't suppose certain sorts of "liberal" churches do either, but I've been the unhappy recipient of the former much more than the latter).

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  11. David,

    That was Wendy who said those things. I certainly see some of the same things she sees, but I come to different conclusions and probably wouldn't put it quite so negatively.

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  12. David Huff9/1/06 2:37 PM

    Ahhh, you're right. Sorry, got too caught up in the chain of "N Bill said", "Wendy said" ;)

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  13. Bill, the church doesn't produce evidence to discredit faith--it simply behaves in ways that are discreditable.

    David, thank you. I think we've spent so much time over the almost non-issue of sexuality and how it's been allowed to dominate the way the churches are run, that there has been a desperate forgetting of being decent pastoral caregivers. In the last 5 years, I've seen at least one friend per year leave Anglican Christianity for some other (usually non-Christian) spiritual journey. One splits her time between a Buddist meditation center and a Quaker meeting; one is studying only with a Buddhist master. Another has become a Unitarian. Yet another is now a modern western female convert to Islam. And the clerics of all their parishes were incompetent to deal with the deep questioning of the faith that their own experiences were drawing forth. It wasn't, as Bill says, a matter of the Church making evidence to discredit the faith. It was a matter of being unable to deal creatively and thoughtfully with the serious questioning that might have led to a deeper faith. It wasn't a matter of clever theology on the part of these clerics--it was a matter of their being nosepickingly stupid.

    I've come to think that no priest should be turned loose on the unsuspecting faithful until s/he has had to reflect seriously on what his or her reaction would be if a parishioner approached them with the idea that the most sympathetic (and reasonable)character in Genesis 4 is actually Cain, rather than Abel or even God. What would most priests do if they had to cope with someone who perceived themselves as having offered their best to a God who arbitrarily rejected it, and their response was the entirely understandable one of such anger as to want to destroy that which God loves?

    I've watched too many people--once good, reflective Christians who held positions of leadership in their parishes--leave the church, with no attempt by the clergy to follow up or offer even vestigial friendship. What kind of Christianity is that?

    We yap about "evangelism" and "mission" until our jaws are sprained. I guess we need more members because we're bleeding out the ones we have, and guess what? It's our own blasted fault.

    Until some of this gets addressed, I think the whole issue of sexuality should be treated as a non-starter.

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  14. Mr Carroll,

    Your position is clearly drawn, and (as always) presuppositions require us to talk past each other. But I still don't know what this "more authentic Christianity" is, nor what authority it rests upon.

    Or, perhaps, I do. The concept of parsing "historical, scientific, moral, or doctrinal error" from inspired text is telling. I would ask for an objective standard, but then we would simply return to the beginning. Besides, the standard is obvious.

    Thanks for the civil discussion. I did learn from it.

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  15. Wendy,

    I think a course in spiritual direction wouldn't be a bad idea. It is also helpful to have a good unit of clinical pastoral education. The idea about Cain is hardly the most shocking thing one might meet with. As long as one doesn't identify too much with what he did to Abel, I think its not a bad reading of the story. I imagine James Alison's use of Girard might be helpful in understanding Cain's rage when his gift is not preferred, as well as the different way Jesus shows us.

    Anonymous,

    I submit that, if the standard were obvious, we wouldn't be having this discussion. What if the standard is Jesus, and, though we are all called to represent him in word or deed, no text or person is qualified to speak for him in an unquestionable way? This doesn't mean that we can't have strong convictions about what the Lord requires. It just means that we need to hold them with some self-critical distance. It should be pretty easy to ground this in the cross.

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  16. David Huff10/1/06 9:31 AM

    Wendy,

    Thanks for the add'l explanation, and sorry again for getting confused by the comment threads between you and Fr. Bill.

    I think you've hit the nail right on the head with respect to some critical issues of "evangelism" and the often fretted-over problem of congregational shrinkage in the Western church.

    I'm very lucky to attend a parish where they aren't "nosepickingly stupid" ;-) about dealing with serious questioning of faith. However, I've certainly encountered that in spades around my diocese in the form of shallow, "evangelical," fundamentalist nonsense at several Episcopal churches.

    Truly, these conservative, "evangelical" churches go on and on about church growth and "bringing people to Gee-Zus," yet are shockingly incompetent when it comes to the issues you expound upon so passionately. A much more pressing problem than all this IRD/AAC-manufactured garbage about sexuality and "the authority of Scripture."

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  17. Bill, there is no intention to be shocking in my interpretation of Genesis 4, so I don't take your assessment in a negative way. What would be shocking is if the Church ever admitted that a serious person of faith might come to that conclusion--the Church seems to think that faith is a one time, once-for-all thing, and once you've "got it", you never seriously question it.

    David, yes, I'm passionate about this. I've been spiritually injured by priestly arrogance and incompetence, not enough to leave Christianity--just enough to leave the church, and stand on the periphery waiting and hoping for a time when it will be a place I can once again stomach being. Hope wears thin, however.

    I've not only seen the stupidity, but also the greed--I've actually had conversations with more than one rector in which a person who has left a parish was the topic of discussion. But the concern wasn't the pain or doubt of the lost parishioner. The concern was how to make up the lost pledge revenue. So much for going after the lost sheep. Evangelism has come to mean going after sheep that are not, and never were, of our fold. In some places, I believe that is called rustling, and is punishable by hanging.

    Maybe we do need to look after our own flocks a bit better.

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