Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From the Curate's Desk: "On Many and More Controversies"

Robert Hendrickson addresses the "justice" connection between communing the unbaptized and various other issues presented to the church in my lifetime. And I think he is right in saying that this is not really a justice issue; it is not unjust to say that some people are in the church, and some are not. That said, there is a definite progression to the thinking about the issues in question. Let's start with racism. Here the justice issue was as far to the fore as possible: it quickly became impossible to say that a black man was, simply by virtue of race, incapable of acting in every way as a white man could, and particularly so within the church. But they knew that already, Absalom Jones having been ordained over a century earlier. And note that there was never any question of blacks or any other race being outside the church; it was a question of office, not membership. Then we moved on to women. And here we started to hit the first real resistance, because it could not be said that in every way women and men could be substituted for each other. However the position that prevailed (and which I accept) was that in the matter of the ordained ministry, they could so serve for each other. And again, women were always a part of the church; office, and therefore power, were at the center of the dispute.

Next, we turned to homosexuality, and the character of the discussion was transformed again: for now, it was not only the office of presbyter which was at stake, but the church's approval for the sexual relations between homosexuals. The church could not, after all, seriously disapprove of blacks being black, or women being women; and it could not disapprove of women doing what women by nature do (e.g., getting pregnant and producing babies). But with sexuality there was always the tension between what people are (or at least see themselves to be), and how people act it out. If the bishop of Massachusetts, who is a monastic and thus celibate, identified himself as homosexual, well, it was difficult to object to him failing to act it out. And here scripture also began to interfere in a more complex way. If it was possible to turn against Paul's injunction against women speaking in church by invoking his own words, it was also easy to turn against the passage in Leviticus and Paul's words against male homosexuality. The words of Genesis, however, require a lot more exegesis to get past. And increasingly, people were uninterested in exegesis. But beyond that, there was a spirit of theological adventurism dating at least back into the 1950s, but which was greatly amplified in the late 1960s. The theological discussion of homosexuality was swept together with a parallel line of theological deviancy arising out of the academy, so that one gained points automatically by casting an orthodox position in a political light. This is how "inclusion" got to be such a problem word. As various people have noted, it started out as a code word for a parish in which homosexuals were socially accepted. But inclusion inevitably got coupled to access to power, and access to power inevitably led to using power against the uninclusive enemy. Inclusion meant exclusion, because the troglodytes had to be excluded from power in order that inclusion of homosexuals might prevail. At this juncture, inclusion in the larger sense and justice couldn't really live together.

Where it really fell apart, though was in that adventurism. There was a notorious incident, some years back, in which the Office of Women's Ministry was caught hosting a pagan ritual on its website; and furthermore, it was discovered that the authors of the rite were in fact Episcopal priests by day, and pagan ministers by moonlight, as it were. Some time later, the same office promulgated, "for study", a Eucharistic rite which among its various oddities incorporated the catchphrases of neopagan ceremony. Meanwhile, we had Jack Spong, who, far from defending the faith, used his bishopric in the end to attack it. All of this stuff was at the urging of, to be blunt about it, the church's enemies. So while we got (in the Righter trial) the notion that we do have a core theology, in practice, it does not as yet contain anything. Which is to say, there's no significant penalty to contradicting it, if one takes the prayer book as a guide to its contents. Therefore communing the unbaptized is conscionable because it's a discipline problem, and in lots of dioceses, there's no discipline. We were incredibly lucky that the dual Muslim/Episcopal priest was canonically resident in Rhode Island, or the contradiction might never have been resolved. The theology of salvation has dissipated into a universalism under which we might as well commune everyone, because everyone will be brought to Christ in the end; and never mind that everything we have written down, from the BCP to the last chapters of the Revelation, is vehement in its contradiction to this notion. Justice brought us to inclusion, but inclusion brought us to the lack of nerve to turn those we really have no use for Christianity, and therefore cannot truly be included anyway.

Somewhere along the line, we have to grit out teeth and start doing some real theology; and I'm afraid that means not only committing the church (that is, our organization) to particular positions, but also relieving clergy who refuse to sign up for it of their positions. And especially bishops.

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