Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Catastrophic Model of the Church

There has been some blog action bouncing around about Vocation Deferred: The Necessary Challenge of Communion (an essay by Ephraim Radner) and a related address by Stepehn Noll: The Anglican Communion in Crisis. One line of response has centered on this remark by "I'd Rather Not Say":
The contrast between “confessional” and “conciliar” models takes us right back to the original horns of the Anglican dilemma: in what sense is the Anglican Communion “protestant” and in what sense “catholic”? The more “confessional” we are---i.e., a church apart from others with documents written in stone, the betrayal of which means a sacrifice of identity (as with Lutherans and the Lutheran confessions) or with unique institutions and doctrines unknown to the catholic consensus (as with WO)---the more sectarian we are. The more “catholic” we are---i.e., a church which bases its authority to decide doctrine on claims to be part of a wider, visible catholic church in continuity with the church of the apostles (see Articles XIX and XX)---the less it is up to the Anglican Communion to determine anything doctrinal except on a provisional basis, and the more we must defer to the common consent of antiquity and the wider catholic community (i.e., Rome and Orthodoxy).

The tell-tale word in this only pops up in the second section: authority. It shows that, on one level, the contrast between the two models is specious. The conciliar model, as an authoritarian model, is in part about enforcing allegiance to the confession that the authorities have set before the members. On the other hand, the confessional model is about the insistence that the confession's authority is not really derivative of the councils which set it before us. On that level, it is the correct model. At best, the church is only a conduit of truth; for instance, the Creed's authority must in the end trace back to it being the correct explanation of the Godhead, not merely the church's explanation.

Of course, the other side to the conciliarity model's problem is that for half of Christian history, there have been councils. Al Kimel seems prone to eliding over the issue, but the fact remains that Orthodoxy and Catholicism have maintained separate councils for a millenium. Councils themselves have therefore been a locus of sectarianism.

Let's go on further in IRNS's remarks:
WO is only one feature of this problem. I do not intend to send this thread off in the direction of discussing this specific topic, but it does serve to illustrate the problem. People such as Radner continue to evoke a conciliar model, but refuse to accept the implications of that model, i.e., that we (Anglicans) can have all the Communion-wide councils we want, and that may be better than having everything doctrinal decided at a provincial level, but such councils do not amount to a hill of beans unless we recognize that either they are local councils that must be submitted to the wisdom of antiquity and the wider church (bye bye WO), or we don’t give a fig for antiquity and the wider church (hello sectarianism).

Well, I think in fact that women's ordination is a better vehicle for examining this, but I that neither IRNS nor Al is going like my response (nor for that matter will William Tighe). Here the problem is going to be in that phrase, "submitted to the wisdom of antiquity and the wider church". Submitted, yes; but if one by this means real intellectual interaction and not mere obedience, such submissions come with the proviso that the responses to such submissions are subject to criticism. Recourse to infallibility is a bad response, as I find myself repeating over and over.

Now, I am in general loathe to invoke Post-Modernism, that Spirit of the Age. But as far as nature of men and women are concerned, it's bloody obvious that answers phrased as universals are not working right now. Women and men are universally different, all right, but when it comes to an individual man and an individual woman, it all seems to collapse into platitudes on the one hand, and the mechanics of specific human relationships on the other. The conventional, religion-justified statements about the rightful positions of men and women in society have simply crumbled to dust in a world of two-income professionals and working single mothers and women as CEOs. When the feminists rail at the hypocrisy of traditionalist men on this, they have them dead to rights. On the other hand, it is also quite clear that the feminists don't have a good grip on the complementarity of the sexes. But in any case, we live in a world where the kind of traditional arguments made about the subsidiarity of women only work in religion, and only where they can't be criticized. The same arguments simply do not work anymore in the real world-- or rather, they only "work" when those who make them are in no danger of having to realize them in practice.

It is of course dangerous to invoke the World as a critic of the Church. But it is self-serving to utterly deny such criticism. The truth, once the posturing dies down, is extremely simple, and extremely difficult. The truth is that the working out of church teachings happens in the world, and that it is subject to all the pressures of sin, the devil, and human frailty as any other kind of discourse. It's a simple truth; but it means that working out answers is supremely hard. And it means that we have to live with the certainty that some of the answers won't hold up in the long run.

Anglicanism has always been about working out theology in this way. And sometimes, like now for instance, it simply doesn't work. But I for one cannot subscribe to the error of the magical, infallible church. And eventually even the magically infallible churches are going to succumb, I believe, to the dissonance between teaching and reality.

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