Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Archbishop's new Address

Rowan Williams is at it again.

But this time, at least, he's not addressing the glories of indaba or the dangers of rising sea levels or whatever. He's actually addressing the crisis in the Anglican Communion. Well... it's a start.

Once again, he insists that the only way the crisis can be addressed is by a Covenant:
I spoke about council and covenant as the shape of the way forward as I see it. And by this I meant, first, that we needed a bit more of a structure in our international affairs to be able to give clear guidance on what would and would not be a grave and lasting divisive course of action by a local church.
and insists that this is the only reasonable way forward;
We need to speak life to each other; and that means change. I’ve made no secret of what I think that change should be — a Covenant that recognizes the need to grow towards each other (and also recognizes that not all may choose that way). I find it hard at present to see another way forward that would avoid further disintegration.

But also, once again, the ABC hastens to assure us that this Covenant is not to be "legalistic", but rather something freely chosen by all parties:
good law is about guaranteeing consistence and fairness in a community; and also that in a community like the Anglican family, it can only work when there is free acceptance. Properly understood, a covenant is an expression of mutual generosity.
And this means:
Mutual generosity : part of what this means is finding out what the other person or group really means and really needs. The process of this last ten days has been designed to help us to find out something of this — so that when we do address divisive issues, we have created enough of a community for an intelligent generosity to be born.

In other words, the Covenant requires -- and this Lambeth was supposed to help create -- a kind of "generous listening" which enable each side to hear the other and then -- by some magical alchemy -- move to that "deeper place" where they discover they really are really all the same: to
speak from the heart of our identity as Anglicans; and ultimately from that deepest centre which is our awareness of living in and as the Body of Christ.

Apparently all the "listening" that has been going on for the last decade isn't enough. Apparently each side doesn't understand what the other side actually says, thinks and believes. Apparently we need more listening before we can actually hear each other.

It would seem that the ABC himself is a bit frustrated by how long this is taking, since he uses the majority of his address to speak for each side -- to say what he thinks they ought to be saying and hearing... since obviously they aren't getting the right answers themselves.

And it's a typically eloquent bit of rhetoric, and I'm sure it sounds great in an English accent. But does it make any sense?

The "traditional believer" in Williams' dialog says:
What we seek to do in our context is faithfully to pass on what you passed on to us — Holy Scripture, apostolic ministry, sacramental discipline. But what are we to think when all these things seem to be questioned and even overturned? We want to be pastorally caring to all, to be “inclusive” as you like to say. We want to welcome everyone. Yet the gospel and the faith you passed on to us tell us that some kinds of behaviour and relationship are not blessed by God.
The "not so traditional believer" replies:
What we seek to do in our context is to bring Jesus alive in the minds and hearts of the people of our culture. Trying to speak the language of the culture and relate honestly to where people really are doesn’t have to be a betrayal of Scripture and tradition. We know we’re pushing the boundaries — but don’t some Christians always have to do that? Doesn’t the Bible itself suggest that?

All very pretty. But look at how Williams casts this. The traditional believer says "we seek to do in our context" -- as if the Gospel the preach is true in some contexts but not in others. And this Gospel is not characterized, in William's depiction, as that which they received from the Lord and pass on... it is the characterized as the Gospel they received from the First World which now advocates the homosexualist heresy. As if that First World is "upstream" and so more authoritative. And this implicit relativism is even clearer in what Williams has these "traditionalists" say next:
Our love and our welcome are unreal if we don’t truthfully let others know what has shaped and directed our lives
... what they are preaching is fundamentally centered in their experience -- "what has shaped and directed our lives" -- rather than in the revelation of Scripture.

The "not so traditional believer" likewise speaks in terms of cultural relativity and "experience", rather than of Scriptural authority. They also appeal to "context" -- "we seek to do in our context" -- to "speak the language of the culture and relate honestly to where people really are". And this is how the revisionist innovations are justified; for such boundary-pushing speak-where-you are behavior is what the Bible itself supposedly suggests and encourages... and not all such boundary-pushing doesn't necessarily "have to be a betrayal of Scripture and tradition". (The "not so traditional believer" doesn't actually prove that it is not such a betrayal, merely throws out the possibility that it might potentially not be.)

But doesn't this completely miss the essential point of the disagreement. The "traditional believers" understand what the "not so traditional believers" think. They understand that the liberals claim that homosexualism is compatible with Scripture. AND THEY DISAGREE. And not just with homosexualism, but with the whole relativistic, culturally-conditioned anti-Scriptural-authority mindset which goes along with that heresy. It's not enough to preach or practice any old thing, saying "oh, maybe this isn't heretical" or "oh, maybe this doesn't violate Scripture and Tradition." You have to prove it doesn't violate them before beginning to move forward (or, perhaps, backward) on the possibility can even be contemplated. And you especially shouldn't be implementing a teaching or policy which has been expressly condemned as contrary to Scripture and Tradition by the Communion as a whole. (Lambeth '98 resolution 1.10 anyone?)

And here is where Williams' "explain each side to the other" presentation is so disingenuous. Because he depicts the "traditional believers" as if they spoke this same culturally-conditioned language. They preach not the Gospel they receive in the Bible - the authoritative teaching of Scripture and Tradition... no, they preach the Gospel they got some years ago from the First World. (Presumably, if a different gospel were preached back then, they'd now be preaching that different gospel instead.) They don't speak an objective truth, given to the saints once for all and for all mankind, but they preach a message which is only for their "context".

To see this in action, look at how Williams characterizes their concern over the effects of First World homosexualism. Is it a concern over the abandonment of the Faith, the spreading of a false gospel and the damnation of souls? No -- it's concern over interfaith relations with Muslims and the ramifications it has in their particular "context":
Your decisions make a vast difference to us. In this world of instant communication, our neighbours know what you do, and they see us as sharing the responsibility... Imagine what it means when those neighbours are non-Christians, delighted to find a stick to beat us with. Imagine what it is to be known as the ‘gay church’ in a context where that spells real contempt and danger.
And the "not so traditional believers" respond in kind -- to cease their aggressive revisionism on the homosexualist issue would be "a betrayal" of their gay and lesbian members, for it would mean rejecting their "gifts" and instead, by not supporting their sexual and civil rights through full inclusion in the sacramental life of the church (marriage & ordination) would be to put them at risk because "they’re still at risk in our society, still vulnerable to murderous violence."

The differences over the homosexualist heresy are presented not in terms of Scripture, not in terms of theology, not in terms of belief -- but in terms of "social justice" and "cultural context": the "traditional believers" have to reject homosexualism or they will be attacked by their neighbors (though how this is supposed to apply to traditionalist believers in all parts of the world -- including the U.S. -- where advocating homosexualism does not invite physical violence is not explained)... the "not so traditional believers" have to embrace homosexualism because otherwise the gays and lesbians in their culture will be "vulnerable to murderous violence" (though how the attitudes of a tiny and increasingly irrelevant minority religious denomination is going to make such a huge murder-preventing difference in a post-Christian Hollywood-acculturated secular culture as America is, also, not explained.)

Once again, the whole discussion is made "relative" and "cultural" and "experiential" -- nothing is said about how these reflect fundamentally different (and irreconcilable) attitudes toward God, Scripture, faith and the Church.

In other words, underlying this "instructional dialog" Williams gives us -- his instruction in how each side is supposed to speak to and hear each other -- is inherently flawed -- if not downright dishonest -- in how it presents the "traditional" voice.

Because this isn't the traditional voice, approach or perspective which Williams presents; this is the revisionist approach and perspective, simply speaking with a different set of assumptions and perspectives. It's a cultural and theological relativism depicted as defending a "traditional" point of view on certain issues, yes... but still a revisionist view toward the central questions of theology and Scriptural authority. For it is still a relativism which bases itself not on revelation, not on the Gospel, not on the clear teaching and mandate of Scripture and Tradition... but merely on on context, culture and experience.

This is why Williams' whole appeal to "consent" and "mutual generosity" and "listening" and "covenant" ultimately fails utterly. Because that whole process is based on the idea that there is a "deeper place" -- a "centre" -- where people can meet, listen, and speak "from the heart of our identity as Anglicans."

There is no such shared heart.

The ABC's whole approach only works if you agree on the fundamentals, the principles and the approach. Then you can "meet" at that common ground and discuss how to work forward together onto less essential matters, firmly grounded on the fundamentals you share.

But the two "sides" in the current Anglican crisis do not share the fundamentals. They do not share the same understanding of God, Scripture, or the Church. For one group, the revelation of Scripture has priority and authority; God does not change His will or His word; and the Church is to speak these eternal truths in whatever culture or context she finds herself in. For the other, culture and experience have authority; Scripture must be constantly reinterpreted and reedited to measure up to each generation's new "revelation"; God is constant changing His mind, His Spirit constantly doing some "new thing" or another which can completely contradict past revelation and teaching on even the most fundamental issues.

What we have in the Anglican Communion is NOT two sides which share the basics and disagree on secondary matters or application -- what we have is two sides which disagree on the fundamentals, and are joined together only by the secondary matters of a shared (or, at least, overlapping) liturgical and historical tradition.

In short, the ABC is asking the different sides to come together on a fundamental ground that they do not share in order work from a common identity out toward the points of disagreement. Which simply doesn't work if the requisite starting point of that process is one of the points of fundamental disagreement.

And this is why, in his little "thought experiment" of the two sides speaking to each other, Williams per force misrepresents one of the sides... he has to, if he's going to present a picture in which they're basing a conversation on a shared common ground which, in actual fact, they do not share. This is why his "conversation" is not actually between a "traditional" and a "not so traditional" Anglicanism, but merely between two factions of "not so traditional" Anglicanism, each speaking to a different context or culture... but neither basing its position on revelation, the authority of Scripture, or the unchanging will of God.

And where does Williams' heart lie? Well, it should be clear from his pre-ABC days of advocating for homosexual marriage and knowingly ordaining practicing homosexuals. And it should be clear from his choice of which "side"'s approach and assumptions from which to have both groups in his imaginary conversation.

And you can see this in how the liberals in his dialog "spin" the issues. For their complaint to their fellow disputants is:
We want to be generous, and we are hurt that some throw back in our faces both the experience and the resources we long to share. Can you try and see us as fellow-believers struggling to proclaim the same Christ, and to be patient with us?’
But for traditional believers this isn't about "hurt feelings"... this isn't even about the violent cultural or religious consequences of certain beliefs. This is about the fact that the "Christ" being proclaimed by the revisionists is not the Christ of Scripture, but some modern relativist invention and fable. And so, no, they cannot "see [you] as fellow-believers struggling to proclaim the same Christ"... because you have made it abundantly clear, by your own statements, beliefs, and actions, that, whatever it is you are "struggling to proclaims", it is NOT the "same Christ."

Where Williams' heart lies is even clearer, here, in what he suggest each side risks:
For the first speaker, the cost of generosity may be accusation of compromise : you’ve been bought, you’ve been deceived by airy talk into tolerating unscriptural and unfaithful policies. For the second speaker, the cost of generosity may be accusations of sacrificing the needs of an oppressed group for the sake of a false or delusional unity, giving up a precious Anglican principle for the sake of a dangerous centralisation.
We know from what the ABC has said and done before that he does not fear that differences over Scriptural interpretation or Church practices are fundamentally divisive or un-Anglican. But he does feel that to sacrifice the needs of an oppressed group is to make the whole thing hollow, self-serving and pointless; and that for Anglicanism to adopt any sort of "centralization" would be to abandon what is essentially Anglican and become something else. Meaning that such a compromise by the "not so traditional believers" is far more troubling and un-Anglican, from Williams' point of view anyway, than what is being asked of "traditional believers." So that, even in this already-distorted presentation of the "traditional" voice, his clear sympathies remain with the revisionists.

Because, you see, the kind of "centralization" for lack of which the Anglican Communion (or, rather, the 5 million at its liberal fringes) are disintegrating is not a "papal" centralization of international law or archepiscopal authority. It is, rather, a common "center" around obedience to Scripture and Tradition -- to the clear teaching of 2000 years of Christian (including Anglican) thought and practice. It is precisely because the Anglican Communion doesn't have this kind of "centralization" (a centralization to which, it seems, Williams also objects) that it doesn't have that very "deeper centre" or "shared heart" from which Williams wants it to speak... and, without which, all Williams' theories and procedures collapse into nothing but impotent, meaningless verbiage.

After the past 10 years of conversations, listening, meetings, and committee after committee, you'd think Williams would have grasped that basic difference. Would have managed to realize that the essential issues under dispute mean that the very "common ground" to which he calls everyone to return for yet more "listening" and "conversation" and "generosity" is not, in fact, common ground... but the subject of the fundamental dispute.

Everyone else has figured this out by now. (Some, like those in the Continuing Church movement, figured it out decades ago!) You'd think Williams would have figured it out too.

But, judging from the archbishop's latest address... well, I guess not.


Anonymous said...

TEC has made it clear, there is no going back. And to put it traditionalist terms, there is no going back from calling blessed that which God calls sin.

I agree LP, this is not a matter of secondary issues, and there is diametric opposition on the primary ones.


KathleenLundquist said...

Spot on as usual, LP - crystal clear analysis!

Thanks !

Anonymous said...

New to your blog-- great analysis!


Terry Hamblin said...

I am sure you are right. What amazes me is that so many Anglicans have put up with this for so long. Back in the 1960s Martyn Lloyd Jones issued a call for evangelicals to come out from this mixed denomination. Back in the nineteenth century it was clear to people like Charles Haddon Spurgeon which way the wind was blowing. The dispute is not about homosexuality, but about the authority of Scripture. The AMericans and their allies are 'preaching another gospel' and ought to be anathematized.