Friday, April 11, 2014

Archbishop Welby Struggles with a Greater Truth

As the Anglican Curmudgeon, it behooves me now and then to comment upon matters Anglican. And just now, there is a tempest in the Anglican teapot which I have refrained from noticing, because after all, it is still a small storm in a very small teapot.

And indeed, it is a “storm” only if you take its measure by the winds from the West – or (which comes to the same thing, direction-wise) from the left. By all other measures, including one which takes note of the fact that the winds are blowing only from the West, something must be going well in Anglican Land.

For the Archbishop of Canterbury has seen fit to share with Anglicans in the West his insights gained from a visit with Anglicans to the South. And from the reactions in the West, it would appear that neither group can even begin to comprehend why the other proceeds as it does. Even worse, it would appear that each group would prefer that the other did not call itself “Anglican.”

Now, the adjective “Anglican” makes sense from a religious point of view only if one allows it to modify a noun, such as “Communion.” As many from both sides will explain to you at the drop of a name, it makes no sense to call yourself “Anglican” if you are not part of the “Anglican Communion.” (There are other nouns it can modify, but for those who are in it they do not reach the same level as “Communion”.)

So what does it mean for two different groups in the Anglican Communion to treat each other as though they were not really Anglican?

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the quintessential Anglican, so he cannot side with the one group against the other. All he can do in the circumstances is urge upon each group mutual respect for the other’s views.

But the Archbishop thereby gives away both the game, and his role as a neutral arbiter – because the opposing views can by no objective means be called equally worthy of respect, at least within the context of the Christian religion, and the particular branch of it of which he is the nominal head.

Here is the problem in a nutshell: the West claims the authority to recognize same-sex relationships based upon its recent experiences with them as coming within the traditional understanding of what is “Anglican.” The South, based upon its  traditional reading of Scripture,  rejects that authority outright.

What is worse, the South’s “experience” of same-sex unions is exactly the opposite of the West’s: in the South, even a perceived support of them leads to violence and death. Most often recently, such murder comes from the hands of Islamic terrorists bent on exterminating a Christianity that could conceivably espouse (even if in the South, it doesn’t) what has always been regarded as an abomination among the people of the Book. The West, on the other hand, regards the Islamic terrorists as a local problem of the South – a problem that is traceable largely to tribalism, fear and ignorance.

So the South cries “Help! Stop adding fuel to the fires of our foes!” – while the West largely says “They are your problem, not ours.” (Though that stance does not stop the West from actively intervening to ostracize Southern attempts to legislate on homosexuality, which intervention only exacerbates the tensions between Muslims and Christians in the South.)

This divide, which the Archbishop of Canterbury thought he could bridge by being sensitive to the concerns of both sides, unfortunately has nothing to do with the Anglican Communion in particular. Instead, it has to do with all humankind – and goes to the very essence of being human.

The West argues that Scripture must be interpreted first and foremost in the light of ongoing experience, then by reason, and last by tradition – except when the latter two conflict with experience.

The South argues that Scripture is capable of interpretation only by reason, as guided by tradition (by which it means reason as our forebears expressed it), and that man’s experience is an especially fallible, and at best only local and limited, guide to what Scripture means.

These positions are rooted in a far deeper and older dispute. They relate to who is in charge: man, or someone beyond or outside of man.

The view that man is in charge is reflected in the Bible passages that deal with Adam’s fall, with the Tower of Babel, with the Golden Calf, and numerous later apostasies by the nation of Israel. (Notice that none of those stories turned out well for man.)

The view that someone outside of man is in charge is older than the Bible, and permeates it: before Scripture was ever written, God was in charge. And God remains in charge, no matter what man may think, because God is infinitely greater than man, and indeed, created man in His image – so that man might appreciate, worship, and glorify Him.

The Archbishop’s mistake, or naiveté, was to treat these opposing views as standing upon equal ground.

They do not. The West’s view is (to quote one especially obnoxious proponent of it): “We [i.e., man] wrote the Bible, and we can change it.” The South’s view is: God breathed His Word into Scripture, and God’s message does not change – with time, with experience, with man, or with  whatever is currently the fashion.

Experience is grounded in emotion and feelings, i.e., how one interprets experience. And by definition, therefore, one’s experience changes with, and is defined by, the time in which one lives.

In the traditional view, God gave us reason to temper our emotions and feelings – throughout all time. Otherwise, there would be little to distinguish man from the animals.

Thus reason is grounded in God’s image in man; emotions and feelings, however, are grounded in fallen man alone, i.e., in the heritage that he shares with all animals. To quote Blaise Pascal:
Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals we call wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.
The difference between the West and the South, therefore, is not just particular to the Anglican Communion, but is as old as man himself. The West is currently in the thrall of man (which can for the nonce be exhilarating, but which in the end is always disastrous). The South remains, as best as it is able, obedient to God and His will as expressed through Scripture.

The terrorists who slaughter Southern Christians for (supposedly) tolerating what is an abomination to their religion of Islam are equally in the thrall of Islam – which is to say, a different man’s version of God.

Thus for Western Christians in the thrall of man to call African Islamists “backward, fearful and ignorant” is for the pot to call the kettle black. They may differ in appearance, but they share the same color – i.e., they both despise those who would follow God as he has always spoken  through Scripture, rather than God as he “speaks” currently through man.

What does this mean for the Anglican Communion? It means that part of it follows man (or God as seen with man’s experience as paramount), while the other part is trying to follow God (as heard and understood through His timeless Word).

There is no compromise between these views, because man is not God.

There is no bridging the gap when man willfully sets himself apart from God.

The gap can be eliminated only when men agree to let God’s Word be unchanging, and to follow it as best as they can, given their fallenness. He made it unchanging, so that they could never lose their way through anything He said or did, but would always have a straight path to which they could return. Think about that for a moment.

Disputes arise through man’s own fallenness, and not because God wills them to exist. Disputes about God’s word are from Man, not God. Man may not always get it right, but he should never be certain that he is right just because he is man. (See this earlier post on how man can best tell when he is being true to God’s Word.)

Thus the Archbishop should not be surprised that his observations of the reality that divides the  West from the South bestirred such a reaction from the West. Far from shrinking from such observations in the face of Western criticism, he should redouble them, and keep on pressing home the message: the South asks only that we return to the path God made for us, while the West insists on charting its own course. It is for the West to change its tack, and not for the South.

I do not envy whoever occupies the see of Canterbury. He can succeed, perhaps, but only with God’s help. Please pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Clarity from the State Church of Norway


Norway, which legalized same-sex partnerships in 1993 and adopted a "gender-neutral" marriage law in 2008, has an established State Church. Yesterday its general synod had a series of votes, as follows:
The legislative assembly (Kirkemøtet) of the Church of Norway today again rejected proposals to introduce same-sex weddings and to introduce church ‘blessings’ of same-sex civil partnerships. The weddings proposal failed by a vote of 51 to 64, and the ‘blessings’ proposal failed by 54 to 62. However, a motion to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman was also voted down by the same margin: 54 to 62. A fourth motion that would have recognized “two equal viewpoints” in the Church was also rejected.
Well, that makes it all as plain as day, right? The Holy Ghost is showing a clear path forward in Norway.

Details here. (H/T: Wm. Tighe)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Easter in the Episcopal Church (sigh) ... again

Yes, it's that time of year again -- when Episcopalians who simply want to celebrate their faith have to come to terms with the Presiding Bishop's Easter message, and not let it impede their own joyful participation in marking the meaning of Christ's resurrection.

In past years, the Presiding Bishop has had difficulty relating her Easter message to Jesus Christ the risen Son of God. (Some may still remember the egregious low she reached in March 2008, thankfully not equaled since.) Others may carry a memory of her struggling to relate her Easter messages to Jesus Christ at all, as though the mention of His name might detract from what she wanted to say.

Well, no such problem this time: the 2014 message is all about what our Presiding Bishop calls "the Body of Christ" -- meaning the Church of Christ, which is the traditional reading of those words (not always, according to her; only "often").

But somewhere along the way, the metaphor becomes confused, and confusing. The "Body of Christ" is both risen and rising? (Here the Presiding Bishop recycles, using capital "B" in place of a small "b", the same confusing metaphor she used in her 2010 message -- as though we could have forgotten.) The Church -- capital "B" this time -- has not "risen", and it is debatable whether (in the West, as she herself later notes) it is even "rising."

Jesus Christ has certainly risen, but we do not speak of him as still "rising", as though he were bread not yet out of the oven. This time, the Presiding Bishop's message tries to use the capitalized word "Body" to refer to the Church, and the uncapitalized form to refer to Jesus' resurrection body, but then she still is not consistent:
What does that resurrection reality mean for the Body of Christ of which we are part? How does the risen Body of Christ – what we often [sic] call the church – differ from the crucified one? That Body seems to be most lively when it lives closer to the reality of Good Friday and the Easter mystery. In the West, that Body has suffered a lot of dying in recent decades. It is diminished, some would say battered, increasingly punctured by apathy and taunted by cultured despisers. That body bears little resemblance to royal images of recent memory – though, like Jesus, it is being mocked. The body remembers and grieves, like the body of Israel crying in the desert, “why did you bring us out here to die?” or the crucified body who cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me,” or “why have you abandoned us?” In other contexts the Body of Christ is quite literally dying and spilling its lifeblood – in Pakistan and Sudan, in Iraq and Egypt – and in those ancient words of Tertullian, the blood of martyrs is becoming the seed of the church.
So in the same paragraph, we have the Church that has suffered in the West "a lot of dying in recent decades." (Oh, and just who or what might be responsible for such "a lot of dying"? -- Mum's the word.) And then we have the battered, punctured and taunted "body" of Jesus before he died and rose again, which shares "little resemblance to royal images of recent memory" -- what in the world could those images be? Could she be referring to pictures of HRH Prince George??

Which is immediately followed by the "body of Israel" in the desert (no capital "B"), equated with the mortal body of Christ on the cross -- both of whom complained of God's abandonment, followed immediately again by the Church (capital "B") that is persecuted in Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq and Egypt. Is this a confused and confusing metaphor, or what?

The Presiding Bishop seems comfortable in dealing only with abstractions, which are impossible to pin down. The Church is "rising"? Only "where it is growing less self-centered and inwardly focused, and living with its heart turned toward the cosmic and eternal, its attention focused intently on loving God and neighbor." (As in the Church of Perpetual Litigation, Depositions and Purges? Do you see the disconnect between the messenger and her Easter message?)

If I were her spiritual advisor, I would diagnose the Presiding Bishop as having a more or less severe case of "the Easter willies," which is a malady suffered at this time of the liturgical year by clergy who, not firmly anchored in the faith that comes from certainty in the Resurrection (viz. St. Paul), have no idea what they will say for their Easter sermon, while knowing that they have to deliver it. They have learned in seminary all of the verbal formulas associated with Easter, but they have no idea how they relate to one another, or how to tie them together in a life-giving, coherent message of Easter gladness and joy.  

And though it might not be entirely successful in curing the malady (we might have to go to St. John Chrysostom for a final and permanent cure), I would start with some shock treatment, and prescribe for the Presiding Bishop a good dose of no less than that erstwhile Episcopalian, John Updike:

Seven Stanzas at Easter
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.